Interview with Boardwalk Isabella

Boardwalk Isabella is Eclectic Pop’s latest Spotlight Artist (click to read). In this interview, their frontman James C Hughes gives insight into the sounds and era that influenced the band’s debut album “Headed for the Promised Land”, what to expect on said album, and the fun story of how the band’s memorable name, came into being.

Eclectic Pop: Will you give readers the backstory of how Boardwalk Isabella came together? 

James (Boardwalk Isabella): The back-story to Boardwalk Isabella is that I was living in France and had begun writing songs that I knew had something about them. I had made attempts to write before without finding my genuine ‘voice’ and style, when having been inspired by new surroundings, the sense of being a stranger in a strange land, love, loss, freedom, and a whole bunch of emotions, I started to write songs that reflected the sense of passion, power, longing, heightened awareness, joy, and vibe that was swirling around within me.

In 2011, circumstances brought me back to the UK where I established a home studio and began to record. It quickly became apparent as the instruments were being laid down that something really good was happening. Locally, I found our lead guitarist, Nathan Porter, and backing vocalists, Sarah Devonshire and Marie Thorpe to help me during the 18 months it took to complete it.

Since finishing the album, we have been joined by ex-Tinie Tempah drummer, Steve Tanton, rhythm guitarist, George Thomas, pianist, Jill Humphries and a brass section of Jade Alicia Gall and former Boo Radley, Adrian Gibson.

Boardwalk Isabella’s sound is incredibly eclectic and sonically adventurous. How do you go about jump-starting the boisterous energy that comes through in your music when you get ready to record songs?

Simply put, I let go! I knew what I had inside me and I allowed that tidal surge of energy, determination and pent up frustration to come through by playing every instrument I laid down as if it was a performance, allowing feel and groove free reign. It’s genuine and passionate and it seems to have worked, because it has been remarked upon many times, about the energy and power in the record shining through.

Upon researching you guys, it was clear you are inspired by a wide variety of musicians. In your opinion as musicians, is there a period of time, you would consider “the golden age of music” or are we still headed for one?

Well, for sure as a songwriter in the modern age, I feel it is our duty to realize that we are standing on the shoulders of the many giants who have gone before us. My greatest inspiration comes from music made from the mid to late 1960s going through to the mid 1970s when you had one of the greatest flowerings of musical experimentation, vibrant songwriting, real playing, talented powerful emotional singers, fantastic competition in abundance, all forcing the standard higher and higher.

Without doubt it was a golden age from Motown to Hendrix, to Free, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder to Bowie, T Rex, Sly and The Family Stone, The Beatles, Jimmy Miller period Rolling Stones, The Temptations, the list goes on and on and on. Every one a winner in my eyes and ears. I might also point out that none of them ever needed an auto tune to sing or required a machine to play their parts, either. 

Yes, we could be headed for another golden age of music, there is certainly a feeling that more talent is trying to come through than what mainstream radio would have us believe by dint of their incredibly samey, one-dimensional play lists. But before people start to hurl superlatives around at some of the frankly mediocre bands and artists being hyped in the Indie world as the next big thing, we must put their music alongside what has stood the test of time, not what is just popping up in the present day.

This is the only way I can see forward to raising the bar of competition, setting the scene, creating the right environment to nurture the kind of thrilling songwriting that could kick start another golden age.

Your debut album “Headed for the Promised Land,” is set to be released later this year. What can listeners expect to hear, in terms of lyrical content and is there a song you’re particularly excited for listeners to hear?
In terms of lyrical content listeners can expect to hear about love, experience, the lost and found, dreams, real life events, redemption, religion, supernatural mysticism, new frontier yearnings, sex, rock and roll imagery, and mythic America – these, broadly speaking, are the themes that I wanted to explore during the making of this album.
As a band we are excited for listeners to hear the whole album, because it takes you on a journey from start to finish. That journey is a ride right across the highways of heart, soul and groove set against a rocking back beat with lyrics that talk to you all the way through.

Your debut single is out, the roaring “Resurrection Man”. Can you offer some insight into the inspiration behind it?

Resurrection Man was the very first song I wrote during my time in France. At that stage, after many years as a musician, I found myself on the outside of the music business looking in. Although my drive and ambition was intact, I felt as if I was picking myself up off the floor in life, and that fuelled my spirit and energy in order to give it another go. 

I realized that my personal scenario had applications in the lives of others that they might relate to. So, lyrically, I used the most powerful image I could, in this case the rolling away of the stone, to convey that sense of being down, overcoming adversity, and reaching out to come back to the world.

If you could select one song from your catalog to welcome folks to your music, which one would it be and why?

I think we have already done that with the release of Resurrection Man as our first single, because it contains all the elements of energy, groove, passion, vibe and thrilling, funky rock and roll that we are all about.

How did you come up with the name Boardwalk Isabella for the band?

This is a question that everybody who talks to us wants to know and the answer involves a story about a total mishearing of a name, and a happy accident all rolled into one. I was doing a session for the legendary John Peel at the BBC in London back in the day. 

As we pulled up outside the Maida Vale studios one of the road crew pointed to a really sexy, low-slung, vintage European sports car across the street and said, “wow, there’s my favorite car, a, Boardwalk Isabella” – well, that’s what I thought he said. And I labored under that delusion for years thinking that this sports car had the coolest name in the world.

When the band formed in 2011, I was looking for a name and it was proving very hard to hit the right note, to marry the name with the music -Then one day whilst in a café, I picked up a magazine lying on one of the vacant tables. It was a Classic Car magazine.

Flipping through it I spotted the car whose name had fascinated me, and realized immediately that I had got it wrong for all these years. Not a Boardwalk, but a Borgward!  A quick check on the internet confirmed that the name was free and I was delighted to snap it up and Boardwalk Isabella was born!

“Headed for the Promised Land” was mastered by Peter Maher, who has done the sound engineering for acts ranging from The Rolling Stones to Linkin Park and Katy Perry. Did you get a chance to have a hands-on collaboration with him and if so what was that like?

After finishing the Production, the meeting of Peter Maher was very important for us because I wanted the final polishing process to be done by a real music person - someone with a similar level of passion for music and attention to detail, not just a mastering engineer who is motivated by money and/or getting as many jobs as possible done in a day. 

Songwriters will tell you that the moment they hand their recordings over to a mastering engineer is one of the most nerve-wracking moments in the whole process, and it is often the make or break of a record. That is why it is essential to get someone you can trust. Thankfully with Pete and myself the musical references and wavelength were in simpatico, and after many discussions, false starts and finally success, together we put the final ‘sound’ of Boardwalk Isabella on record.

In 2 years, where would you like to see Boardwalk Isabella?

Three words: Madison Square Garden

Eclectic Pop would like to thank James for taking the time to do this interview and wish him and Boardwalk Isabella, all of the best in their breakout year.