Milwaukee Singer-Songwriter Peggy James: Inspiring Hope During Hard Times

Nov 17, 2020

In normal times, Lake Effect features a variety of in-studio performances from local musicians and artists. But of course, these are not normal times. Most live events have been cancelled and recording music in isolation presents a lot of challenges — which is why we’ve been featuring these artists in a series we call Pandemic Performers.

Singer-songwriter Peggy James was born in Milwaukee, but spent her formative years in the Southwest. This certainly influenced her music, which dances on the border of pop, rock, country, bluegrass, and even jazz. But through it all, James' lyrics have always remained timeless and heartfelt.

Her fifth album Paint Still Wet reflects that even a veteran artist is still in progress. 

"I think it's kind of like taking a tour from beginning to end, and it skips all the genres here and there and keeps it fresh and interesting," says James.

When James was first trying to start her career in Nashville, she noted that most recording studio reps "didn't know what to do with [her]" because she didn't fit into one genre. Now, she sees that as a strength.

"I like 'Americana' because then I don't have to define it," jokes James. "It puts a lot of things into the recipe ... When I write a song, whatever comes out I want to follow that song and not be held by any boundaries."

"Paint Still Wet" is singer-songwriter Peggy James' fifth album.
Credit Image courtesy of Peggy James

While Paint Still Wet was released during lockdown, James notes that all the songs on the album were written in 2019, "a good songwriting year" for her. "I'm always writing songs, thinking of songs in my head — so that never changes no matter what's going on," she says.

Fortunately most of the album components were recorded before the initial coronavirus shutdown, which allowed more time to fine-tune every aspect of the music.

"I hate to say this, but it's actually worked in our favor," says James. "Because instead of focusing on other things in our life at the time, we were able to focus on this. And it gave us the time because you're stuck inside and we got to finish the album."

In addition to Paint Still Wet, James also released her single "Hard Times." Her inspiration for the track came from the feeling that she and all Americans were going through a hard time with pain, anxiety, fear of the pandemic, and the election cycle.

In a period where it's difficult for people to fully take in what is happening around us, James felt compelled as a songwriter to step up as other songwriters have in the past during times of uncertainty.

"That’s about the only thing I could do is I could write a song and just pour my heart out about the condition of the country and how divided we are as a nation," says James. "I didn’t want to take a side though, I just wanted to present the feeling in the country right now. And give a little bit of hope added to it, that if we just stick together we'll make it through this time."