New York City’s East Village native, James Michael Kelly (b. 1990), equates music to magic. The influences of his childhood home and city manifest themselves in the songs he writes, performs, and releases as the musical artist, James Baby.
What do you do?
I’ve been performing James’ Jukebox – a cover song/live music show – for about three years now. I started doing it very briefly before the pandemic started. The first time I sang at Ferns, in the East Village, must have been around 2017 or 2018. I was given the opportunity to sing after a band. The audience encouraged me to keep it up. Sometime after that, I organized a showcasing for the folksy types of songs I wrote at the time. I travelled to Tokyo after that to have my confidence completely shattered. When I returned to New York, I gigged at Ferns clearing out the place late on wednesday nights with some washy blues guitar. Dark times. I was inspired in early spring of 2019 to sing cover songs.
On a foggy and damp evening, I was walking up the East River, guitar case in-hand. I had been feeling generally hopeless when I came across a group of people sitting under the FDR Drive. Three men were playing their guitars with a lady. I sat nearby to listen. They invited me to join them. The lady told me it was their custom to come out and sing under a full moon, regardless of the weather. They asked me to play a song. I played Wagon Wheel, written by Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor. My voice came from somewhere new that night and I walked away feeling like I had sung for the first time. I’ve been singing ever since.
The pandemic escalated shortly after I started a steady Sunday gig. I surprised the bartender by showing up to sing on the last night before everything shut down and the world changed forever. I finished with a cover of Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah to an engaged and generous audience. Their support kept me singing all through lockdown – and continues to, today. After that, I sang out on the streets. I put the names of the artists I covered on my guitar case and busked around the city. I had some unforgettable experiences and learned how to project my voice over the sounds of New York. When things opened back up, I went back to performing in bars.
The Guitar Case
The other side of my guitar case has “Black Lives Matter” written across it. I remember sitting on a bench in the summer of 2020, watching the skateboarders in Washington Square Park. Suddenly the very first march for George Floyd in New York tore through the scene. Young people who had just moments before been smoking and skateboarding almost instinctually climbed up on benches and started chanting and expressing their support for all the young black people who had been killed unjustly by police in the United States. That summer I participated in every march that I crossed paths with. I made my guitar case my BLM sign.
In January of 2021, I felt motivated to record some songs. By spring, I had the unbelievable luck to meet a music producer. He and I got into a studio in Astoria, Queens. We decided to record two covers – Heart in a Cage by The Strokes, and The End of the World by Skeeter Davis – and two songs that I had written – Younger and Fallen. Recording those four songs opened up a world of creative freedoms to me. I had to pick a name to release the songs under. I went with James Baby.
You can find music by James Baby on all streaming services.
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