Occupying a unique niche in NYC nightlife, James Wilson can be found tickling the ivory in two of Gayland’s top piano bars: Uncle Charlie’s and Monster. He also fronts the queer country band The Paisley Fields, who have an upcoming album and a video release party this month. Thotyssey hits the right note with James!
Thotyssey: James hello, thanks for talking to us! We’re in January now, and that’s usually a slow season for nightlife. But you’ve got a lot going on, including some piano bar gigs and a big video premiere for your band The Paisley Fields. Tell me a little about your musicianship: what instruments can you play?
James Wilson: Hey Jim! My main instrument is piano. I went to school and trained classically for that. I recently picked up guitar and will be performing on that for the first time at our video premier. I also sing and play the Taiko drum.
Very impressive! So, where’s your hometown?
I’m originally from a small town in Iowa called Hudson. Plenty of cornfields, not much nightlife.
That must’ve been pretty, though!
Yeah, it’s a really beautiful place.
And I bet you had a lot of time to explore music.
Plenty of time for music. I got my first job playing music there.
What was that?
I starting playing piano at my church when I was in middle school. I wasn’t a big church person, but my family went every week so I figured, why not get paid if I’m going to be here anyway?
Churches have the best acoustics though, don’t they?
They do! I ended up doing some recordings in a church awhile back. Lately though we’ve done all our recording in the studio at Atomic Sound.
What were some of your earliest musical inspirations?
I’m a child of the 90′s, and listened to a lot of angsty and alternative bands growing up. If we wanna go way back, it was probably the Beach Boys and Elvis. My mom said I would sing along to all the Beach Boys records when I was little. My Grandma was a big Elvis fan, so I was exposed to that music very early on. We went to Graceland when I was 2!
Do you remember it?
I don’t remember the Graceland visit, but I have the pictures! I went back with my band on tour a couple years ago. I remember that music always being on and singing along when I was a kid, though.
What ultimately brought you to NYC?
I visited the city on a class trip in high school and fell in love. I was drawn to New York for a couple reasons. It felt like a place where I could be myself. I also wanted to pursue a career in music, and it seemed like the opportunities for musicians in New York were endless.
What were some of your early playing gigs here?
My first gig in New York was at CB’s Gallery, the place connected to CBGB’s. I got in there just before they closed. I played around the LES quite a bit.
I remember the 313 Gallery! Saw some weird/great shows there in the end.
It was a fun little spot.
Were you hanging out in the queer bars?
I did hang out in some queer bars. I had a job at Pyramid for awhile. My friends and I would go to Metropolitan in Williamsburg quite a bit to hang out. I wanted to be a hipster, but I was too much of a country bumpkin.
But that’s what all true hipsters aspire to be!
Hahaha, I guess I achieved my goal then.
As a bar pianist, you must have to know an incredible array of songs to play.
My sight reading skills have vastly improved since I started playing in piano bars. I have hundreds of songs in my repertoire. I can sight read most anything. As long as I don’t hate it, I’ll play it.
Most folks probably want showtunes and standards.
I tend to do a lot more top 40 stuff from the 80s and 90s. I play a lot of current songs, too. I’ve been known to play a Beyonce song or two. But yeah, also standards and showtunes. It might sound crazy, but I not a big fan of most showtunes.
I’m not either! Most of them just seem very shrill and repetitive to me. Well, now one place we can find you is Uncle Charlie’s. You’re the Piano Man there on Tuesday and Saturday nights. The place has such a long history, and it’s now in a neighborhood that has no other gay spaces. They started 2017 with what seemed like a sudden and abrupt closing, but thankfully they’ve since reopened! Were you following all the drama with that closely?
I’m so happy they’re opening again, too! I wasn’t playing full-time there towards the end, so I wasn’t really in the loop of what was happening. It was a shock to me when they closed.
And you’re at Monster for Thursday happy hour, and Friday and Sunday late nights. I think Monster’s such an interesting spot because their downstairs dancefloor always has these epic events and weekly parties going on, but upstairs is an old school, rowdy piano bar… and it seems like rarely do people move regularly between upstairs and downstairs. There are upstairs piano bar people who almost never see the downstairs disco, and vice versa. Do you get that feeling when you play there?
Monster is definitely a one of a kind spot that attracts a diverse crowd. I have so much fun playing there. I think it just depends on the night. I’ll see a lot of the crowd from downstairs around my piano. It’s not unusual for some of the queens and other performers to sing a number or two with me.
Let’s talk about the Paisley Fields, your queer country band! When and where did you guys form?
I started the group in 2013, and it’s really evolved since then. I think we are in a very good place right now, with some exciting things on the horizon!
I like to draw a lot of inspiration from the classic country sounds of the 60s and 70s. So many of the records made then still hold up today. It’s always been important to me to reflect the modern world in my lyrics. I’ve never been, and never will be, shy about writing about my experiences as a gay man.
A lot of people try to gloss over being queer, or write ambiguously about it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I’ll do it from time to time if the song calls for it. But I like to lay it all out there
Does your whole band come from the queer end of things?
Not everyone, but I’m certainly not the only queer one!
I see Mikhail Torich has directed a brand video for your new single. What was it like working with him?
I love Mikhail. He was so amazing to work with. Very professional, and he understood my vision. He’s very easy to work with, everything went so smoothly!
That video’s gonna have a release party at the Jalopy Theatre on January 25th. You all will be performing that night… with some other folks, right?
We will be performing! There are a few other bands playing that night as well. The show is called Roots and Ruckus and it happens every Wednesday. [The song in the video is] from our EP Oh, These Urban Fences... After we put this video out, we will begin work on a new album.
Who are all those people in the promo graphic with words on their mouths? I think I’m seeing drag queen Flippe Kikee there.
They are some of the cast members from the music video. Flippe Kikee has a starring role! She was awesome.
What else is on the horizon?
Okay last question… What is one song that if you get one more request to play, you’re gong to throw the piano at someone?
Hahahah! Don’t ask me to play “Seasons of Love!”
We’ll remember that the next we saunter over to ya! Thanks James!
James Wilson plays piano at Uncle Charlie’s on Tuesday and Saturday nights (8pm), and at the Monster on Thursdays for happy hour and late nights Friday and Sunday. His band The Paisley Fields will perform for their video release party at the Jalope Theater on January 25th (5pm), and a set at the Bowery Electric on February 28th (8pm). Click here for a full list of upcoming appearances. Follow James on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and check out The Paisley Fields’ website.