A Conversation with Guitarist James Bryan

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*Longtime Canadian Musician contributor Jeff Gunn sits down with guitarist James Bryan, who since beginning his career with The Philosopher Kings has gone on to perform alongside a who’s who of international talent.

Sitting across from one of Canada’s most talented guitarists and songwriters, it’s hard not to feel inspired. That was the case while talking solo guitar and songwriting with James Bryan. His professional career stretches back to the 1990s, when he found success in Juno Award-winning group The Philosopher Kings. Since then, he has garnered a Latin Grammy for writing and production on Nelly Furtado’s Mi Plan, performed at the Princess Diana Memorial Concert at Wembley Stadium, shared the stage with Sir Elton John, Kanye West, and Pharrell, and worked with the likes of Jason Mraz and James Blunt. And the list goes on…

After spending five years working in London, Bryan has returned to Canada and is just about to launch his first acoustic fingerstyle guitar album, By Your Side, a collection of intimate guitar pieces that each tell their own melodic story. I had the opportunity to ask Bryan some questions about the songwriting and recording process, the unique character of solo guitar performance, and, of course, his new album.

JG: Does the location where an album is recorded matter?

JB: Yes. Over the past few years, before returning to Canada, I had been writing and recording at Kensaltown Studios in London. During that time, I was working with an incredible team including Martin Terefe. We formed a community where we played and created music every day. It was a live-off-the-floor vibe. It took me back to my days of recording the first Philosopher Kings album in Toronto when everything was done in-house with Sony for our first record. We generated melodies and crafted songs through jamming out the songs’ concepts. They were both special times in my life. Kensaltown had a unique vibe because so many great artists had recorded there, such as Adele, when she recorded “Rolling in the Deep.” In fact, she came by one day while we were recording. The atmosphere that is created by the people and physical space in the studio affects the songwriting and recording process. So yes, the location where you decide to write and record songs matters.

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JG: What are the main differences between playing in a band versus solo guitar?

JB: Solo guitar is very intimate. I am baring my soul on my album and when playing live. At showtime, it’s between you and the audience. That’s it. When you are by yourself on stage, you are exposed, as opposed to playing with a band where you are feeding off of each other’s energy. You have to hold down all the parts – the bass and percussion with the melody out front and make it into a journey for the audience – so it’s also more physically demanding.

JG: Who are some of your influences on solo guitar?

JB: I like those guitarists who play a whole band on a single guitar. Tommy Emmanuel for his energy and attitude. He has such a positive musical vibe. Tuck Andress from Tuck & Patti. Also, Brazilian guitar has influenced my music. Some of my favourite solo guitarists include Luis Bonfá and Baden Powell. Their rhythmic and melodic sensibility has inspired my solo guitar style.

JG: Now, let’s move on to your solo guitar album. In a few words, what are the main themes informing By Your Side?

**JB:**By Your Side comes from an uplifting, comfortable, and soulful place. These songs are dedicated to the ones I love: my family, so love is a huge theme, too. And these songs are also for the musicians I love, for the music that has inspired me over the years.

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JG: What do you want people to know about By Your Side?

JB: I wanted to honour the music and the people I love the most. The title track “By Your Side” is my arrangement of the original by Sade. It’s one of my favourite songs and also happens to have been my wedding song. It holds very special meaning in my life. Another highlight is my arrangement of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved?” Breaking down his joyful melody while keeping a reggae vibe was uplifting to play and I hope that comes through. One more key arrangement is Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Stevie Wonder is all about positivity, and as I said before, I want to create a positive vibe for the listener. By Your Side is an acoustic fingerstyle album with the exception of one track played on electric guitar featuring Divine Brown called “Back in Your Loving Arms.” Near the end of my time living in London, I started yearning for family and old friends and “Home” captures the feeling of comfort – the things that make a home. “Song for Sammy” was crafted from guitar melodies I would play for my son as he went to sleep. All of the songs are spiritual and intimate.

JG: Now that you are back in Toronto, what so you think of the Toronto music scene?

JB: Toronto has totally come into its own as a music capital on a global level. Drake, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Alessia Cara, Daniel Caesar, and others are international stars. It’s inspiring to see the world finally take notice of Toronto and for the artists to have the confidence to be proud of the city.

JG: What advice do you have for up and coming song writers and producers?

JB: Find great people to work with. Collaborate to make sure you are making the track the best it can be. Share your lyric ideas with friends and family to see if they resonate with people close to you. Chances are that if they do, then your song with appeal to a wider audience. Melody is central, so have strong melodic hooks. You are setting a mood. Everyone feels it. Also, be consistent. Work ethic is very important. Show up and put in your full effort every day. Be receptive of the right moment. Songs are a gift.

Visit James Bryan’s website at: Follow him on Instagram @jamesbryanmusic and Twitter @jamesbryanuk. The album release party for By Your Side happens Thursday, March 22nd at The Burdock in Toronto.

Jeff Gunn is a contributor with Canadian Musician, a Juno-nominated songwriter/producer, author of the Hidden Sounds Guitar Series, and musical director/guitarist for Emmanuel Jal. Visit him on Instagram @jeffgunn1 and Twitter @jeffgunn1 or at

Photos by Stella Fakiyesi

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Michael Raine is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician and Canadian Music Trade magazines. He also hosts the Canadian Musician Podcast.
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