Los Altos native James Lanman is not what one might expect from a millennial-aged musician. The singer-songwriter is a fan of R&B, jazz and Motown – not the most popular genres of music among today’s young adults.
Inspired by his parents’ favorite music and his love of poetry, Lanman’s journey from appreciating songwriters was more than a decade in the making.
“The whole story has been really long and winding,” he said, “but it basically started with me buying a guitar and falling in love with writing songs.”
That happened in Italy while Lanman was studying abroad during his junior year of college. Since buying that guitar from a friend, Lanman said he’s written several songs that define a particular time in his life, whether it be past regrets or heartbreak.
“For me, as somebody who’s trying to discover truths about the human condition as a songwriter, it’s a lot more challenging,” he said, “and therefore, more rewarding to go into the complexities of human nature and the nuances of it.”
Lanman wasn’t always a solo artist. After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2007, he moved to London, then Los Angeles, before settling at an artist housing project in Pioneer Square in Seattle, where he founded a band. His younger brother Max directed the four-member band for which Lanman wrote his first official song, “Only in Your Mind.” But performing as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist among a group of musicians did not feel right to him.
“I’m kind of a lone wolf,” he said. “I like to make sure I’m not taking too much from people, and I like to be self-contained.”
So Lanman moved to New York City to reinvent his career. He also picked up classes with the improvisation group Upright Citizens Brigade, which he said influenced his music.
In addition, Lanman experimented with a new solo retro acoustic sound with help from producers at Brooklyn’s Brewery Recording Studio, which produced music by Kid Cudi, Jhené Aiko and Awkwafina.
“When all musicians start out, they’re emulating people they really admire,” Lanman said. “I think that’s just a natural part of how humans learn – we watch and we imitate. And then, I think over time, you start to find your own voice.”
Lanman designed phone apps for a graphics design company to make ends meet. After three years and dealing with the high cost of living, he left New York City. He sold all of his belongings – except his guitar – and hit the road in his van. He made random stops to perform at people’s homes, ranches and outdoor venues as part of his 100 Days tour. Lanman also played at a TEDx event in Fargo, N.D., for more than 20,000 people.
“I’m inspired by the stories of people I’ve met all over the country on the road,” he said. “It’s taught me a lot about myself. … I share with them songs, and then they share their stories with me. It’s kind of cool to just get a window into humanity in that way.”
After getting a taste of several cities on his 45-state tour, he settled down last year in his parents’ living room to record his first solo album of originals. Titled “MOSAICS,” it’s a collection of 13 “acoustic, bare-bone” tracks, Lanman said. The album was released online last year, available on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube.
“I Lost Myself” and “From the Start” are two songs on the album that portray a piece of his life, he said, and when combined like a mosaic, the music assembles into parts of his identity.
“I felt it was necessary to get that out to move forward,” he said. “So I think that ‘MOSAICS’ is very autobiographical in a lot of ways. … I’m really drawn to the human condition and all the dark – the ugly – the things that we don’t like to talk about.”
Lanman’s latest album, last year’s “Merry Christmas Darling,” features 15 classic holiday songs. Recorded at Red Gate Recorders in Los Angeles, the album includes selections such as “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Sleigh Ride.”
One of his biggest and longtime fans is his mom, Alanna Lanman.
“What makes him authentic is he’s really writing from the heart,” she said in a phone interview. “(James) also listens to the lyrics he sings, which not every singer does. So, the two together – the music and the lyrics – really describe his experiences. And when you see him perform, he also tells stories with his songs that give an interesting perspective on what he’s seeing.”
Alanna added that many people have approached her asking why she allowed James to choose music over a more lucrative profession.
“(My sons are) grown-ups, and they decide for themselves what they’re interested in and what they want to pursue,” said the mother of five boys. “My husband (Richard) and I are very supportive of the kids pursuing what they’re interested in and what they love. In fact, we have so much respect for it.”
Lanman said having the support and respect of his parents and friends has inspired him to continue his musical journey. In December, he performed at Woodside’s Filoli estate and is now settling in the Los Angeles area with hopes of making a concept album about the division and unity of America.
Before he does that, Lanman said he’s planning to complete a major national house concert-based road tour in March. But this time, he is heading east.
“I have almost no expectations, because I have learned not to expect anything,” he said. “I think the importance of going after a life that has no blueprint and defining your own way forward is gold.”
For more information, visit jameslanman.com.