Kalu & the Electric Joint’s Creative Journey through the Austin Music Scene
Frontman Kalu James talks musical inspiration and hints at a new album as the band releases a slew of singles
By Emmy Bost
Portraits by Greg Giannukos
Blending the beat-driving powers of psychedelic soul, rock and ancient rhythms of Africa, Austin’s own Kalu & the Electric Joint has thrilled dance floors across the city and beyond, thanks to frontman and songwriter Kalu James’ stellar ensemble of musicians, the group’s soul-stirring arrangements and timeless messages of positivity.
Raised between Nigeria and Republic Du Benin, James grew up singing in local choirs and acapella groups until the age of 18 when he moved to New York. It wasn’t until his move to the U.S. in 2001 that he picked up a guitar, began writing songs and singing solo. James continued to create and refine his natural talent on the East Coast until he moved down south to Austin in 2007. He filled his calendar with open mic nights across the city, gaining experience and exposure to the well-established music scene, later forming a group under his name and releasing two albums and a live record.
KEJ was born from this preliminary group with James as lead singer, lyricist and songwriter; Jonathan “JT” Holt as guitarist, songwriter, producer and engineer; Pearl Z as guitarist, keyboard player and background vocalist; Johann Valles as bass guitarist and background vocalist; and Greg Clifford on the drums. The band’s musical chemistry stems from James’ and guitarist, JT’s, brilliant fusion of West African heritage and American soul, resulting in distinctive, funk-infused arrangements and lasting impressions on everyone who pays them a listen. Their deep lyrics, compelling performances and worldwide confluence of sounds have drummed up buzz around the band for well over a decade, making “The Live Music Capital of the World” richer upon their arrival to the scene in the early 2000s.
In their early days, the band played at Austin staples, including now long-gone venues like Mom’s and One-2-One Bar, plus The Continental Club, a nationally-recognized, award-winning venue that celebrates more than 60 years as one of the oldest continuously-running clubs in Austin.
“The Continental Club plays a huge part in [the band’s] story as we began a monthly residency at the Gallery in 2014, which lasted three years,” says James. “This helped us build a fan base and propelled us into now headlining the main club.”
Other milestones in the group’s grassroots growth over the years can be attributed to the December 2017 release of their first album, Time Undone, which garnered national coverage in top-tier outlets like NPR, Billboard and American Songwriter, and earned them spots on stages at big-name festivals like Bonnaroo, Sweetwater Music Fest and Panic En La Playa. With the help of producer Brett Orrison, who has worked with Jack White, The Black Angels and more, KEJ’s first album featured guest appearances by members of Widespread Panic, The War On Drugs and other standout groups.
In March 2019, KEJ was invited to Dallas to work with big-time producer Jason Burt, who has worked with Leon Bridges, John Mayer and David Ramirez, among others.
“We cut the single Downfall, an offering channeling the late Martin Luther King Jr., and an uncanny foreshadowing of what was to come less than a year later with the Black Lives Matter movement,” says James. This recording session paved the way for the sound and direction of our second record.”
When the world shut down in early 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, KEJ stayed busy creating behind the scenes.
“We kept releasing singles, writing new material and after defining our COVID pod, we started to rehearse for when the world would reopen,” explains James.
The band’s slew of recently-released singles indicates a full-length album is on its way, date TBA, scooped KEJ’s front man. Fans and music lovers can expect more of their ethno-funk sounds, thoughtful observations on humanity, deep lyricism and feel-good performances known to get crowds on their feet.
“With all the madness surrounding us, the incessant questions and finger pointing, we are turning them inwards to find out what we can do to help. For [the band], it is to keep making the music we want to hear, incorporating themes that hopefully connect and inspire others to embrace themselves and remind that there’s room for us all here on Earth,” says James, in his usual spirit of uplifting others and spreading positivity in times of uncertainty.
Check kaluandtheelectricjoint.com/events for more information on where to catch KEJ’s next live show.