- Tim Harris
- James Elkington
Chicago guitarist James Elkington has played in so many bands and collaborated with so many musicians that it can be difficult to keep track of everything. He remains best known for leading a sophisticated pop band called the Zincs, which split up not long after releasing its third album, Black Pompadour, in 2007. In 2004 he and singer Janet Bean (Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day) launched a duo called the Horse's Ha, which put out its second and final record, Waterdrawn, in 2013. But the huge majority of Elkington's output has come in support roles: whether as a session player or as a bandmate, for most of the past decade he's been a ubiquitous albeit largely unheralded presence in some of the richest and most exciting music to come from Chicago (and from many points beyond).
Today Elkington, 46, is a full-time member of Brokeback and Eleventh Dream Day, and he tours with Tweedy and a band led by folk-rock singer-songwriter Steve Gunn. He's also become a regular studio partner of Louisville folksinger Joan Shelley, appearing on her two most recent albums. You might not imagine he'd have any time at all to come up with his own material, but this week he releases his first record under his own name: Wintres Woma, on North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors. (The title is Old English for "the sound of winter.") This is an even more unlikely development when you consider that the breakup of the Zincs and later the Horse's Ha were part of a conscious withdrawal from songwriting and bandleading on Elkington's part.
"Towards the end of the Zincs, I think I'd gotten a little tangled up, expectations-wise," he says. "When you have your own band and you write the material for it and it becomes a full-time preoccupation—I had some sort of nebulous idea of a career in music, and I think when there wasn't really a huge audience for that band, I started to resent the amount of work that I was putting into it. It felt like a job, and I was my own not-very-good boss."
Elkington began to shift his focus in the late 2000s, and eventually he was pouring almost all his energy into supporting other people's musical projects. The watershed event, he says, happened in 2009, when Mekons front man Jon Langford invited Elkington to join his side project Skull Orchard onstage. In the Zincs, Elkington had foregrounded his refined singing and songwriting, but Langford brought out the lead guitarist in him—he ended up joining the band for the 2010 album Old Devils.
"He had some sort of late-afternoon gig at the Hideout, and he asked if I would come play two or three songs," Elkington says. "So we ran these two or three songs, and it was great—but then he proceeded to play about 15 more songs, and I had to watch his hands and play along with him. It turns out that Jon was in the middle of writing the album, and I ended up becoming the lead guitar player—I had never been a lead guitar player in anyone's band, but it was working. We would be playing, and he would point at me and shout 'Go!'—and I would go. I credit him hugely with that approach: not to be too worried about the result, just going for it in the moment. It's something that is not inherent in my character. I'm a thinker and a planner, and playing with Jon cured me of that because there wasn't a lot of it."
The Skull Orchard gig also gave other musicians a better chance to notice what a superb player Elkington was. The floodgates opened, and soon he was up to his neck in collaborations—he began playing with Brokeback, Gunn, Shelley, country-pop singer Kelly Hogan, British folk-rock legend Michael Chapman, former Stereolab vocalist Laetitia Sadier, psych-folk eccentric Wooden Wand, and singer-songwriters Daughn Gibson and Tara Jane O'Neil, among others. He's been part of the touring lineup of Tweedy for four years now, and when Jeff Tweedy produced Richard Thompson's 2015 album, Still, he brought Elkington into the studio to play all over it.
"Part of me has always wanted to be a collaborator as opposed to the main force in a group, and I'd lost sight of this," Elkington says. "I was kind of unhappy but I didn't really know why."
In 2001, when the Zincs released their first album, I interviewed Elkington, and he told me that when he'd first settled in Chicago he'd wanted "to get together with a really good songwriter." He started his own band almost as a last resort: "I ended up doing the Zincs because I just wanted to get on with my life and I couldn't hang around anymore, but it meant having to do certain things that I was not really planning on doing, like singing."
Elkington plays mostly electric guitar, but over the years he's grown more versatile, adding banjo, Dobro, keyboards, and pedal and lap steel to his professional arsenal; he started in Brokeback as a drummer before switching to guitar. He can mesh with hybrids of pop, folk, and rock across a wide spectrum, including the sophisticated, futuristic art-pop of Sadier's 2012 album, Silencio, and the raucous, post-Crazy Horse rock of Eleventh Dream Day.
With so many paths open to him, Elkington arrived at the primarily acoustic sound of Wintres Woma through a long series of encounters and influences. Throughout the history of the Zincs as a live band, he'd played occasional acoustic duo shows with bassist Nick Macri—and a friend of Macri's inspired Elkington to revisit the music of singular British folk guitarist Bert Jansch. He'd heard it many years earlier, before moving to Chicago from the UK in 2000 (he'd started visiting in 1998 for a girlfriend who already lived here), but it hadn't made an impression back then.
Elkington deepened his interest in acoustic folk while playing in the Horse's Ha, which drew on traditions from both sides of the Atlantic. And around 2003 his wife, Jessica Linker (who owns the PR firm Pitch Perfect), introduced him to guitarist Nathan Salsburg, an old friend of hers from Louisville, Kentucky, who now plays with Joan Shelley and curates the Alan Lomax Archive. He and Elkington eventually made two albums of acoustic duets, released in 2011 and 2015.
Elkington says that working with Salsburg forced him to level up his guitar skills. His friend demurs: "Jim's a virtuoso—a word that gets thrown around so much, but that applies more to him than anyone else I know, and more than anyone I've ever played with," Salsburg says. "It's not just that he's so good, but that his goodness is applied with so much versatility, creativity, modesty, and levity."
Elkington didn't set out to make a solo record, but while he was on the road with Tweedy in 2014, he found himself with more spare time then he'd expected. Inspired by Salsburg, who experiments frequently with different guitar tunings, he began "as a sort of fun little noodle" to play around with DADGAD, a tuning associated with Celtic music and popularized by British guitar polymath Davey Graham in the 60s. ("DADGAD" spells out the notes to which each string is tuned, from bottom to top. Standard tuning is EADGBE.)
"I'd never had any luck with alternative tunings," Elkington says. "I always felt like it was a big shifting of the goal posts that I didn't want to get into. But in previous years I'd been playing more Dobro, lap steel, and a little bit of pedal steel—string instruments that weren't in standard tuning—and they weren't messing me up. I was beginning to understand that playing in a new tuning is sort of like learning a new language: it doesn't mean you forget the old language or the one you use most often. So I started messing around with it. It had nothing to do with playing in other people's bands—it was almost a vacation from my regular musical life. It was just for me, and it wasn't going to be usable for anything because it was in this tuning."
As Elkington continued to play in DADGAD, he began developing compositional fragments, which eventually became actual songs. At that point it'd been three or four years since he'd finished working on the material for the final Horse's Ha record. "I think I was deluding myself that I wasn't going to do anything with them, but I didn't feel like I was," he says. "And then I wrote some words, just to see if I could still do it. The idea that there wouldn't be an audience for it allowed me to write these songs that were more purely just interesting to me, and I didn't second-guess myself. I know that people say that a lot—'I just do this for myself, and if other people like it . . . '—but I think this is the first time since the Zincs that I wrote stuff for my own entertainment."
In 2015 Elkington began sharing his home recordings with close friends and associates, and late in the year Salsburg pushed him to send the music to Paradise of Bachelors, which had already released their second duo album, Ambsace, and a Steve Gunn record on which Elkington appeared. "I sent it to them and they seemed interested, but not so interested that they wanted to put it out," Elkington says. "I was on the fence anyway, so I was fine with that, which led to another few months of nothing happening with it. I had written about 12 songs, and I sort of put it aside."
Paradise of Bachelors co-owner Christopher Smith thinks a miscommunication led to the delay. He and his label partner, Brendan Greaves, weren't sure if Elkington intended the tapes as demos or as a finished product. They loved the songs and the playing, but they felt the production was a little rough and the singing a bit tentative—"meandering and just kind of poking around," as Smith puts it. (Elkington had recorded everything in his Andersonville attic without any outside help.) The label also wasn't able to take on new projects at the time.
Smith and Greaves kept listening, though, and the songs stayed with them. Eventually Gunn, who's old friends with the Paradise of Bachelors guys and knows Elkington too, asked the label why nothing had happened with the recordings. Once they explained themselves, Gunn prodded Elkington to restart the process. Paradise of Bachelors was willing to release an album—the label just wanted him to rerecord the songs in a better studio.
"I was in Australia at the time, and Steve e-mailed me with that info," Elkington says. "I was having a coffee with [Tweedy bassist] Darin Gray, and I read it out to him. And he said, 'So you're telling me you have an option to make your own record of your own songs, and all you have to do is go home and start working on it? Only an idiot would not do that.'"
In August 2016, Elkington entered Wilco's studio, the Loft, with studio manager Mark Greenberg, who's also one of his bandmates in Eleventh Dream Day. They have a long history together: Greenberg helped record two Zincs albums as well as the first Horse's Ha album, and Elkington says he owes his gig in Tweedy to Greenberg too. They tracked the dozen songs in five days. Elkington sang and played guitar, banjo, and Dobro, and a handful of musicians added overdubs: bassist Macri, percussionist Tim Daisy, cellist Tomeka Reid, and violinist Macie Stewart.
"Jim showed up ready to go on this record," Greenberg says. "There was no learning on the job with these songs. They found their form before he entered the studio. Jim wasn't as interested in seeing what came together, but instead being very thoughtful about how he wanted to arrange and capture each song. It was also seemingly his first record that wasn't a musical collaboration with anyone else. He was able to concentrate fully on his own vision of what these would become. As an engineer, my job was to get good sounds quickly, then stay out of his way."
The music on Wintres Woma reflects Elkington's interest in folk traditions from his native Britain as well as his adopted country, assembled with poplike concision and graced with the same sophisticated melodic sensibility that made the Zincs stand out from their indie-rock kin. The lyrics tend toward the metaphoric, but Elkington says they're the first he's written that take his own life and experiences into account.
His life outside music is also why he's decided to cut back on touring. His son, Owen, is three years old, and he's no longer comfortable being away from him for long stretches. "It's getting to the point where he's noticing when I'm not around," Elkington says. "When I am here, I'm around 100 percent, and he sees me all the time. But during a tour of the west coast last year with Steve, I couldn't bear the idea of not seeing him for a whole month." Apart from a a week and a half with Gunn this summer—playing in his band and opening with a set from Wintres Woma—he hasn't booked any out-of-town shows for the rest of the year. He performs Thursday night at Constellation with Macri and Stewart (the latter on just a few songs), sharing the bill with Stewart's group Ohmme.
Elkington remains reluctant to get drawn back into the rat race of repetitive album cycles, but he hasn't been able to keep a lid on his desire to write songs. "It did prompt an itch, and I have scratched it to the point where I've had to step back a little," he says. "I think the reason I try to play in a lot of bands is because I don't think it's good for me to be just doing one thing. I feel a little cloistered if I do that. It's become more of a conscious decision to spend my free time writing songs, which is something I wasn't doing before, so I'm in a period where I'm trying to stop myself—because I've always programmed myself to think, 'What's the next record going to be?' That shouldn't be part of it for me. I got to this point where I had written some new songs, and now I think I'm going to put them aside and let them stew for a while." v