As a singer, an actor, and model with with more than one ab, some may consider Luke James to be a true triple-threat. In a conversation with NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter reflected on how his New Orleans high school music group Upskale got the attention of model and singer Tyrese Gibson, and how that pushed his music career to the next level.
James earned a 2013 Grammy Award nomination for Best R&B Performance with his demo "I Want You," from his 2011 mixtape #Luke. Later, in 2015, his song "Options" — from his self-titled 2014 album — was nominated for Best R&B Song. James also wrote songs for Justin Bieber and Brittany Spears, and opened for musical icons Beyoncé and Prince.
James is set to appear in the third season of Showtime's drama series, The Chi. Created by screenwriter, producer and actor Lena Waithe, the show depicts the intersecting lives of residents from Chicago's South Side. James plays Trig Taylor, who he described as a character that, "Fits in the suit, but doesn't want to wear it." His new album, To Feel Love, is set to be released in January 2020.
For Luke James' Ask Me Another challenge, he serenades the audience with some classic and steamy love songs in a game called "Tunnel Of Love."
On how Tyrese Gibson gave his early music career a push:
While in high school, James was in a trio called Upskale. When model and singer Tyrese Gibson came to New Orleans to do a show, the group waited near the venue's backstage entrance in hopes to be noticed.
"We were dressed alike. 'This is an opportunity. Let's just go crazy.' So we just started singing hoping somebody would notice us. And then a big ol' bald head poked his head out of the window screaming, 'Yo, come up here!' And it was Tyrese. It was lit. Shoutout to Tyrese. Thank you man."
On doing whatever it takes when opening for Beyoncé:
"You get an opportunity to open for Beyoncé and you ain't ready, you better get ready. I don't care, you better figure it out. 'I'll drive. Where are you going? We flying? I'll get in a boat. We'll do it. We gon' make it happen. I'll canoe!'"
On going to his first concert:
"D'Angelo was my first concert I ever went to. It was lit. It was my first concert, my first backstage experience, it was my first everything smells like marijuana, before I really knew what marijuana smells like. I was like, 'Wow, the incense are potent in here!' I was in eighth grade... My mom used to babysit his road manager, and so I got to go backstage. And he was so cool... And I started doing pushups after that."
Heard on Luke James: Not 'Chi' About Singing.
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter. And his new album, "To Feel Love/d," drops January 31. You can also see him in the upcoming season of Showtime's "The Chi." Please welcome Luke James.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
LUKE JAMES: Thank you for having me. Hey.
EISENBERG: Yeah. It's a pleasure. So I love what I will call your origin story.
EISENBERG: OK. So you started singing in high school in New Orleans...
EISENBERG: ...With two friends. And you formed a group called...
JAMES: Upskale with a K. You have to say that.
EISENBERG: Upskale with a K.
EISENBERG: Where did you guys perform?
JAMES: Birthdays, baby showers, bar mitzvahs...
JAMES: ...You know? Yeah.
EISENBERG: So then model-singer Tyrese comes to New Orleans. And you and Upskale decide that you are just going to hang out by the stage door...
EISENBERG: ...And sing.
JAMES: Yes. We're just, like, this is an opportunity. Let's just go crazy.
JAMES: And so we just started singing, hoping somebody would notice us. And then some big old ball-head poked his head out of the window screaming, yo, come up here. And it was Tyrese. It was lit.
EISENBERG: It worked.
JAMES: Shouts out to Tyrese. Thank you, man.
EISENBERG: So then after high school, you moved to LA.
JAMES: Yes. After high school, I thought about college. And then I stopped thinking about college.
JAMES: And I moved to LA. And that was hard. Real life hit me real good.
EISENBERG: In the beginning - well, you were working as a backup singer for Tyrese.
JAMES: Yes. I was writing songs always. And then background was, like, a way to just, you know, get in the door and just meet people and whatnot. And then I met some producers that were working with Tyrese, and they signed me and my brother, who were doing background for Tyrese at the time.
EISENBERG: But your songs - I mean, you got some good...
EISENBERG: ...Gigs. You were writing for Britney Spears...
EISENBERG: ...Justin Bieber. I mean, you were writing...
EISENBERG: ...For some big acts.
JAMES: Oh, yeah. They were paying the bills.
JAMES: I was so grateful.
EISENBERG: Were they paying the bills?
JAMES: I mean, well, residuals are weird. It's, like, oh...
EISENBERG: The work.
JAMES: You're on everybody's couch waiting, and then you get, like, $20,000 with your name on it. And you're 22, and that looks like you're rich...
JAMES: ...For two weeks.
EISENBERG: Right, exactly. You think it's going to be great.
JAMES: It's great for two weeks. Oh, my God. Everybody's your friend.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah, for sure, right? Yes. So you release a mixtape, "#Luke."
EISENBERG: You know, you're working with these producers, obviously, and you know a lot of people in music business. But did you release this because you just don't want to wait for a gatekeeper? You just want to get your stuff out there?
JAMES: Yes. I was just working on music...
JAMES: ...Not yet ready for a great, big splash of a release. So I just wanted to get my feet wet and get - you know, start trying to gather some fans. And so yeah, we put a project together, #Luke. That had my first single on it, "I Want You," which got me Grammy nominated, so...
JAMES: ...That was lit.
JAMES: Yeah, thank you. Thank you to the Grammys.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) So that was 2012, the Grammy nomination.
JAMES: That's 2012, yeah.
EISENBERG: 2013, you open for Beyonce's The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour.
JAMES: Lord have mercy.
EISENBERG: What was it like working with Beyonce?
JAMES: She is, like, the hardest worker. That was just awesome to see her just go crazy every night for fans.
EISENBERG: Did you have to drop everything?
JAMES: I dropped everything. I was going to drop a label. I was going to drop everybody.
JAMES: I was going - they were, like, we can't get enough Beyonce. (Unintelligible) You're crazy.
EISENBERG: That's right.
JAMES: You get an opportunity to open up for Beyonce, and you ain't ready, you better get ready. I don't care. You'd better figure it out. I'll drive. Where you going? We flying overseas? I'll get in a boat. We'll do it.
JAMES: I can make it happen. I'll canoe.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's right.
JAMES: I'm canoeing. You can't see me. I'm canoeing.
EISENBERG: Yeah. You look like a strong canoeist. You look like a very good paddler. So I read on Billboard that you had stints working alongside the late Prince.
EISENBERG: I know you opened for Prince at a New York show.
JAMES: Yes - this New York City winery. I mean, after that, I got phone calls. And everything everyone has ever said - like the jokes - it's funny, but it's true.
JAMES: Like, how he makes you feel is very questionable.
EISENBERG: How did...
JAMES: I felt all kinds of cotton candy on the inside.
JAMES: Yeah. It was - hey, Mr. P (ph), what are you doing?
JAMES: I'm cool, and hi. How are you doing?
JAMES: Where are you?
JAMES: I'm at the event you were at. I know you were there 'cause I saw you. And I'll tell you, cotton candy. He gets you. I get all - I got butterflies right now.
EISENBERG: So you are playing a - you're in the new season of Showtime's "The Chi."
EISENBERG: It's a drama set on the South Side of Chicago, and you're playing a character named Trig.
JAMES: Yes, Trig.
EISENBERG: So tell me about Trig.
JAMES: Well, it's Victor Trig Taylor. I feel like it's only right to say that because he's the type of guy who fits the suit but doesn't want to wear it. So his intention is not to harm people. He doesn't want to hurt anyone. He doesn't want to be in the situation that he finds himself in. So it'll be interesting to see how he finds his way and not try to get in trouble and save his brother. So yeah. He's an interesting, complicated character. Thank you to Lena Waithe because...
JAMES: ...Yeah, like, she texted me after I sent in my audition tape and said, oh, my God, that was crazy. This is going to be so much hard work for you. This is going to be so good.
EISENBERG: And you were like, great.
JAMES: I was like, yeah. All right. Great, great. I'm with it. Yeah.
EISENBERG: All right. Well, this is going to be easy work for you. Are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
JAMES: Oh, wow, OK.
EISENBERG: So you've a new song out called "Go Girl" that features BJ The Chicago Kid and Ro James. And you've said that this song feels like a classic love song from the '90s.
JAMES: It's more of a bop from the '90s, I would say. It's - when I heard the music, it just gave me a feeling of, you know, that Jodeci, that - just that vibration that the '90s had a lot of, you know.
EISENBERG: What is your, like, go-to favorite love song when you want to feel good about yourself?
JAMES: I listened to Marvin Gaye, "Let's Get It On." You know, those - I mean, you want to feel sexy, there it is.
EISENBERG: There you go.
EISENBERG: OK. So we know you're a fan of sexy songs. So your challenge is called Tunnel of Love.
JAMES: Oh, lord.
EISENBERG: It's based on a classic radio game that simulates what happens when you're listening to a song on the radio in your car and then you enter a tunnel. OK. So we're going to play a song. And as soon as you can, start singing along because at some point, without warning, we're going to mute the audio. And you have to keep singing through the silence.
Your goal is to be synced up with the song when we unmute it. And if you can't remember the exact words, you can make up the lyrics or do whatever you want.
JAMES: I'm so nervous.
EISENBERG: It's going to be real easy. And after each song, you can get an extra point by naming either the title of the song or the artist.
EISENBERG: OK. And if you do well enough, listener Laura Kent (ph), who lives in the far-off land of Brooklyn, N.Y., will win and ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: All right.
JAMES: All right.
EISENBERG: Are you ready?
EISENBERG: OK. Here's your first track. Join in as soon as you know it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUISIN'")
D'ANGELO: We're going to fly away, plan to go my way.
JAMES: (Singing) I love it when we're cruising together.
JAMES: Y'all can't play with D'Angelo, come on.
EISENBERG: Are you kidding? You - I mean, I know you, like, weren't backstage doing a big warm up. That was amazing.
JAMES: Yeah. I mean, when you play D'Angelo now, all right.
EISENBERG: All right. You got the artist as well.
JAMES: D'Angelo was my first concert I ever went to.
EISENBERG: Yes. And...
JAMES: It was lit. Oh, it was my first concert, my first backstage experience, my first - everything smelled like marijuana.
JAMES: Before I knew what marijuana really smelled like. I was like, wow, incense are potent in here. It's crazy.
EISENBERG: How old were you?
JAMES: Oh, man. I was - eighth grade or something.
EISENBERG: And how did you get free tickets and backstage access and all that?
JAMES: Wow. Well, my mom is an awesome woman. She used to babysit his road manager. And so yeah, I got to go backstage. And he was so cool. He was so cool. And I started doing push-ups after that.
JAMES: It was everything - abs, everything. I was going for it.
EISENBERG: Good inspiration.
JAMES: Oh, yeah.
EISENBERG: OK. Here's your next song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T LEAVE YOU ALONE")
JODECI: (Singing) It's worse than drugs 'cause I'm an addict of you. And you know...
JAMES: (Singing) And you know that I can't leave you alone. You got me fiending (ph) - fiending.
JAMES: I see everybody over there. OK. Can we get the boost up?
JAMES: OK. OK.
EISENBERG: I guess you can name the song or artist.
JAMES: Jodeci, yes, Jodeci. You cannot deny a badboy band. They are the originators. Get into it. Jodeci.
EISENBERG: And you sang a cover of that song.
JAMES: Who are you talking about right now?
EISENBERG: On - before you really hit it big on YouTube.
JAMES: Yes, on YouTube.
JAMES: That's still up?
EISENBERG: All right. This next one is a true classic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOCKS ME OFF MY FEET")
STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) That makes me weak and knocks me off my feet.
JAMES: (Singing) Knocks me off my feet. It knocks me off my feet. And I don't want to bore you with it. Oh, girl, I love you. I love you. I love you.
JAMES: Oh, yeah. We love Stevie Wonder, don't we? I mean, classic artist - I mean, music endless, mind bender, sound bender. He is genius. Stevie Wonder is a wonder.
EISENBERG: Absolutely. And what you did just there is going to be my ringtone from now on.
JAMES: Oh, wow. You got that.
EISENBERG: All right. This is your last clue.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")
PRINCE: (Singing) I think you better close it and let me guide you...
JAMES: (Singing) Let me guide you to the purple rain. Purple rain, purple rain. Oh, purple rain, purple rain.
JAMES: You can - oh, my God. Do you all feel it? Or is it close?
JAMES: Oh, my...
EISENBERG: Look at this.
JAMES: Is it happening? Purple all over. Oh, "Purple Rain." Oh, Prince.
EISENBERG: Well, yep. You just got that two points by saying that. Two points as well.
EISENBERG: So guess what? Perfect. Congratulations, Luke.
EISENBERG: You and listener Laura Kent both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
JAMES: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Luke will be back to play another game later in the show. Give it up for Luke James.
JAMES: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.