Andrew St. James

Photo by Peter Ellenby

San Francisco’s Andrew St. James released his debut LP Doldrums last year, and the singer-songwriter’s powerful brand of alt-folk was present on the record from start-to-finish. With track after track of stirring folk music, the album highlights not only St. James’s musical talents, but also his clear gift for songwriting – as evidenced by the first few singles, “Cassidy”, “The Lost, The Vain”, and “Visions” – which is all the more impressive when you learn he’s only 18 years old.

Today, we are proud to premiere the video for the next single off Doldrums, a track that truly pulls all of St. James’ most endearing elements into one six-minute package against the backdrop of a distressing social commentary. “A Prayer for East Oakland” is his lament on the situation in that blighted East Bay locale, and the video features some powerful images of the violence that has plagued it for longer than most of us have been around. It’s a poignant picture of the most struggling of areas amid the most flourishing of regions, framed by St. James’ often delicate, but frequently powerful vocals and piano work.

Watch Andrew St. James’ video for “A Prayer for East Oakland” for the first time here on The Bay Bridged, and then read my Q&A with the young musician, where we discuss his inspiration behind the track and video, his (impressively deceptive) vocal range, and plans for the future.

The Bay Bridged: So many of the early reviews of your work have focused on your age – or more specifically, your youth. What effect do you see your age having on your development as a songwriter and musician, as well as your choice of subject matter and perceptions of that subject matter?

Andrew St. James: I cannot say, really. I have been writing songs for almost a decade, at this point. I was a child when I started formulating songs and all that, Id say I’ve had a big head start on that side of things compared to many other musicians my age. My subject matter has directly to do with my experiences. I grew up with a keen awareness to issues political and social, so naturally my writing is influenced by that awareness. I grew up in San Francisco, and I feel the city itself fostered a social understanding in all the people I grew up with. I feel privileged to have grown up in a place where issues are talked about, not shied away from.

TBB: “A Prayer For East Oakland” tackles some tremendously heavy subject matter. What drew you to write about the plight of one of the region’s most troubled neighborhoods?

ASJ: It always troubled me that no one in my circles spoke about the violence across The Bay. Every night the news came on reporting murders of men and women, and even when it was reported that toddlers or young children had been shot and killed, there was no word of it anywhere else. It was made real for me, when an old friend was shot and killed in 2011 outside of his home in east Oakland, and no one was ever convicted of the crime. I wrote “Prayer”, as a poem, the night he died.

TBB: The track references not only the difficulties facing East Oakland and its residents, but it also talks about the disconnect between that neighborhood and the outside world, whether it be you and your personal fear of the night when you were there or white reporters rehashing the same violent news stories again and again with seemingly no understanding or cares about how to fix the area’s problems. Why did you choose to reflect some of these troubles back on the outside world when you were writing this song?

ASJ: On my side of the Bay, not too many people like to talk about Oakland, much less East Oakland. As San Francisco and the Bay Area alike rapidly gentrify, East Oakland is being pushed farther and farther out of the spot light. With its departure, also goes outside awareness that hundreds of people have been murdered there the last several years. Although I cannot say what other communities in the Bay can do to help, maybe if people were more aware of the struggle, perhaps someone else would. For now, and sadly so, the people of East Oakland have been forgotten by the outside world.

TBB: Your style is rather unique in this day-and-age. How, in this era of EDM, “indie” rock, and rap, did a young artist like you end up as the singer-songwriter, often accompanied by just an acoustic guitar or piano?

ASJ: Well, thank you. I am influenced by Alternative music and Rap, and I do dabble in making beats and such. As a kid I was always drawn to bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and songwriters like Dylan and Springsteen. So the acoustic instrumentation has a lot to do with that. I read a lot of poetry, and I think perhaps my lyrics were most influenced by people like Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac, to an extent. I have never been one to conform. I’m stubborn, y’know? It has gotten me into a lot of trouble. But there are upsides to it.

TBB: It sounds like you have some female help singing the track’s chorus. Who joined you in the recording studio?

ASJ: (Laughing) In fact all of those voices are mine, I’m happy I fooled you though!!

TBB: What’s next for you, both in terms of recording and your more general musical pursuits?

ASJ: I am in the middle of recording another record, which is exciting. Moving forward it’s all about spreading the word, not only about the Andrew St. James name, but also, and most importantly, the things I write.

[An earlier version of this article improperly referred to East Oakland as a neighborhood. East Oakland is, of course, a portion of Oakland that encompasses several neighborhoods, including Fruitvale, Elmhurst, and Brookfield Village, among others. -Editor]