James Asher is an established recording artist with more than 50 albums bearing his name. Comprising of solo albums, library albums and collaborations spanning his 50 years in the music business, James Asher’s music is well known and widely shared, with many of his videos exceeding 100,000 views on YouTube, and Spotify followers in excess of 30,000. In addition, his music has been extensively sampled and used as the basis for other tracks, including the massive seller Corso, by Tyler the Creator. However, James has a significant spiritual aspect to his music that may be little known to his fans. We caught up with him at his studio ‘Starfield’ in Eastbourne to chat about this, and about his musical history in general.
From James Asher’s earliest memories he was made to feel at home and comfortable with music. His father was a teacher of languages and music at a local preparatory school, and he ensured that James began violin lessons at the age of seven. When James was twelve, his father taught him some rudimentary blues styles on the piano, which empowered James to begin improvising on the keyboard. James also enjoyed singing alto parts in the choir, led by his father on organ, and this expanded his grasp of musical structure.
Although James found learning a traditional instrument such as the violin to be an interesting discipline (although his violin teacher always seemed to arrive from having crashed his car, or being distracted by other earthbound mishaps!), his teacher would also enthuse about the teachings of Krishnamurti, the philosopher, speaker and writer. This was to be James’ first introduction into the world of the spiritual. His teacher would encourage James to breathe, and to listen to the wind, and this dual interplay between the grounded-ness of the real world with the realms of the mystic and of the spiritually engaging, would set the stage on which the dynamics of these parameters would play out in James’ music during the years to come. James would spend many years navigating his best path through these mysteries, often struggling to unpack and access the core authentic elements within.
In addition to violin, somehow James happened upon drums, and what an exciting prospect they were! James immediately felt at home with them, and for some reason began playing in a left-handed way, even though he was right-handed. Why were they so familiar? James would often muse on the idea of previous lives.
Always intrigued by the magic of recording, James had diligently been capturing improvisations on cassette for many years, and his fascination with the engineering side of the recording process eventually led him to work for a London based studio as a trainee engineer, where he learned how to mike up instruments, discover what was achievable with effects, and all the other studio disciplines. It also meant that when James finally began building his first (and subsequent) recording studios, his understanding of the technical aspects would stand him in good stead, and help improve the quality of what he would produce.
One of life’s seminal turning points occurred when James attended an interview to study psychology at London Bedford University, at which point it became suddenly clear to him that he was acting more by what was expected of him, than from where his heart was. Jettisoning his prospects at University for the wide-open-world, James went to work on a holiday camp as a bluecoat, leading children on a Noddy train singing ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands’ in howling Norfolk winds. James embraced the reality of ‘paying his dues’!
This latter experience easily qualified James for his next job – working as a drummer on cruise ships in the Caribbean, and in the hours between working sets for duos, trios and quintet line-ups, James would find time to record improvisations on a reel to reel tape recorder that he bought from a fellow musician. In due course these would become some of his first works accepted for publishing by music libraries.
Many of these tracks would involve combining piano recordings at original and double speed; the sort of experimentations that the medium facilitated naturally (given that Revox tape recorders of the day had two speed settings) and a technique associated with the tape’s delay repeat ability was the starting point for James’ first commercially released track Peppermint Lump which appealed to Pete Townshend, who arranged it, played guitar and created lyrics for it. This was released as a single on Stiff Records. Later James went on to play session drums on Pete’s album Empty Glass. Interestingly, Townshend was heavily enmeshed in dedication to the Indian mystic Meher Baba, and his studio Oceanic in Twickenham was often involved with incorporating both the projects (and the devotees) of Meher Baba.
During these times of collaborative performance and recording, James would ask himself deeper questions relating to the nature of improvisation and inspiration. What in fact happens when one improvises? How does the creative process work when one is ‘in the flow’ and generating a stream of ‘in the moment’ music? Is the player the only person present in the process? Or are they (at points) channelling content from elsewhere? And if they are, do they know it, and can they deliberately encourage that element to increase or be enhanced? Is this process somehow connected to the intent? If there is a spiritual aspect to the creative process, how can that be quantified or defined? James began to reflect on these questions (and still does to this day).
Mystical musings aside, back in the ‘real world’ James was faced with the question of what he could do with all of the atmospheric tracks he found he had written, and in time realised that they might be useful to the media world as ‘library tracks’, to be lifted ‘off the shelf’ for a large range of purposes, from slideshows and TV adverts to drama scores and soundtracks. James was lucky to have two imaginative and creative Gemini publishers mentoring him, who both enjoyed his work: Robin Philips, who had migrated from EMI to form Bruton Music, and John Gale of Studio G with whom James started a New Age label called Lumina. James went on to write, produce and record approximately twenty-five library albums, which were used for a wide variety of purposes, establishing James as an innovative writer and producer.
James’ first commercial album release The Great Wheel on his own Lumina label was signed by California’s popular Music West label, the same label responsible for the Billboard charting Deep Breakfast album by Ray Lynch, which proved to be an ideal launch point for James’ career in the USA.
Whilst enjoying the creative output of Peter Gabriel, James’ follow-up album Globalarium heralded his debut into the World Music genre, within which he was able to blend and combine world music elements in a playful and exploratory way. This included the Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy who also played on Peter Gabriel’s ‘Passion’.
Upon visiting Prediction, a trade show in Battersea, James Asher met Vicky Wall, the founder of Aura-Soma, a system of colour, plant and crystal energies that enhance happiness and vitality, and provides a ‘non-intrusive soul therapy’ for self-discovery and fulfilment. Vicky greeted James as a long-lost soul declaring ‘Ah, here is one of our scribes!’ and this meeting resulted in what was perhaps James’ first spiritual music collaboration, in which Vicky would create a guided meditation using the Great Wheel track from James’ first solo album in the newly created Great Rainbow Wheel, released by Aura-Soma to their network.
Thus began a 30 year collaboration with Aura-Soma, during which James created all of the musical accompaniments to the meditations of Aura-Soma founder and partner Mike Booth. James found great inspiration from spending time amongst people from varying and extensively different cultures, and attuning to the collective quest for their spiritual unfolding provided a powerful carrier for his musical compositions. During this time, James released his Dance of the Light album, which is suffused with a lightness and vibrancy of spirit that reflects the new directions his music was taking. Furthermore, James’ meeting with Aura-Soma’s Australian graphic designer Rory Baxter led to the creation of one of James’ most popular albums Feet in the Soil, which went on to become a bestseller on New Earth Records. On this seminal album Rory played didgeridoo and djembe (a birthday present) and the album has a joyously upbeat, tribal feel that seemed to capture the Zeitgeist of the time.
Then James met an elf. And this was no ordinary elf. The elf was famed grandfather of the American drum circle movement Arthur Hull, who was playfully demonstrating Remo drums at the time (dressed as an elf, obviously!). This amusing meeting began a 15 year co-writing partnership during which both Arthur and James fully explored their mutual love of rhythmically musical adventures within what Arthur described as James’ sandpit, and enjoying all the expansion and enhancements offered by the studio. Although busy with his worldwide schedule of teaching and workshops, Arthur still managed to schedule regular recording sessions with James over the years, and this has been extremely productive. Most interestingly, the spiritual aspect re-emerges here in a different way, in that the sense of community that runs as a thread through the international world of drum circles provides a fantastic way for people from all walks of life to bond speedily, and without needless preamble.
In recent years, James has enjoyed a degree of industry attention that is perhaps best known to producers of his stature as ‘sampling’. One of the first albums James wrote originally for library purposes ‘Abstracts’ has been sampled by the Chemical Brothers in their track The Sunshine Underground, and ‘Fairground Ghost’ by U.N.K.L.E. for their track Eye for an Eye. To cap it all, James’ track ‘Oriental Workload’ provided the sampled basis for rap artist Tyler the Creator’s massive hit Corso, which has (so far) enjoyed 60 million streams, and 11 million views on YouTube!
With all of this success behind him, James Asher still continues to produce music with as much passion, commitment and enthusiasm as always, and he continues to enjoy playing drum kit for blues and ceilidh bands, percussion for jazz quartets, and busking on violin with his brother playing guitar, amongst many other hybrid mutations!