You have to dig to make good art. You have to dig to appreciate it, too.
I’ll be honest, the first time I listened to Brother James – the monastically inspired (yeah, really) solo project from LA-based songwriter Justin Sinclair – I didn’t do much digging. I’m naturally lazy. So I pressed play and I sat back, and what hit me first was Justin’s voice.
I know. This might be the shallowest approach to evaluating music. But it’s an effective filter: whenever I listen to new artists, I hit play hoping the person can sing.
No worries with Brother James.
Justin’s got a golden voice, bright and clear and capable of carrying high emotion, and I spent about two minutes trying to find a reference point for it (maybe Sleeping at Last) before I realized I’d missed half of the song. So I went back and played it again, and I leaned forward, and I was pulled in.
“I Had to Dig” is sparse. Bare, really – just a one-take recording in an obviously empty room with an acoustic guitar. The rawness of it brings the vocals forward if you’re lazy and the story forward if you listen. It’s about religion, which is always hard, and it’s about rightness and wrongness and seeking truth and living well.
I’ll let Brother James set the scene:
Through squinted eyes and gritted teeth
A monk and priest once said to me
Some words now seared in my conscience
He said “kid, it ain’t so clear to me
Who is on the winning team
And if there is a winner,
We may never know for sure.
Yeah, this song grew from a conversation with a monk. The questions, though, grew from Justin’s own spiritual journey, which has definitely been ridden with twists and turns – he’s gone from an accordion-playing worship leader to a maybe-atheist to a questioning truth-seeker. Like that path, the song weaves back and forth. It’s a piece of quickly delivered, Dylan-esque storytelling that hits the heart of most things you’ve wondered about God in the span of four and a half minutes.
Get ready to travel.
For all of the traveling, though, Brother James is remarkably consistent in at least one way: he’s always been digging. And I don’t think that’ll be changing anytime soon.
And when he’d said his final word
He gave a peaceful smile and turned
And disappeared into his little cabin
And all the truth he shared with me
He packed into that little seed
Laid it in my palm
And I knew I had to dig
I’m not on the same journey that Justin is. But I’m grateful to Brother James for reminding me that I’m still on a journey – that everyone is – and that to reach what’s good, you can’t settle for what’s shallow. You’ve got to keep digging.
Watch the performance here and check the links below to follow Brother James’ journey. Then, come back and get the story behind “I Had to Dig”. Unsurprisingly, there’s depth worth discovering here.
Hey Justin – thanks so much for taking the time to talk Brother James. To start, I always like to ask: Where’d you come from? Like, how did you get into music in general, and then how did you start writing songs?
So, I learned drums when I was 10. I was in a musical family, so instruments were just kind of around. Picked up piano, guitar, as a kid, too. Actually, when I picked up guitar it was because there was a girl that wanted to learn guitar, too, and so I was like, “Oh, I’ll learn.” So then I learned a couple of songs – Brown Eyed Girl was the first one – classic, you know – to kind of win her. We ended up dating for a couple years.
She had brown eyes, right?
Yeah, she did ha. But yeah, so I wrote my first songs about her, of course. Probably at like 13 or 14 I was writing love songs, and then I started leading worship at a church when I was about 15 years old. I had a buddy I would lead with; he would lead on guitar, and I would be on accordion.
Woah. You don’t hear that every day – leading worship on accordion.
Yeah, yeah. He did the kick drum and guitar. And I did accordion and tambourine, so we had a full sound. And after doing that for a little bit, we both ended up writing a couple songs each, so we decided to play a show. And people ended up really digging that.
We did a lot of shows around town and then people in the church asked us to record the songs we were playing, because some of them we were leading with in church and youth group. So we ended up tracking a 10 song album. We did a Kickstarter to track it, and any money that we were going to pay to a recording studio, we just handed to my brother, who was learning a lot at the time. Like, “Here’s four grand, build a studio and make us an album.” You know, just like a small, in-home studio. It was a win-win for all of us, because my brother was great, man. And now he’s making his living as a mixer in LA… I think he’s got a platinum record as a mixer now.
So yeah, to make a long story short, music is just kind of in our family. We all do music.
That’s awesome. So, I’m interested to hear about how you went from that – leading worship at church and writing that kind of music – to writing as Brother James. It very much seems like a spiritual journey. How’d it happen?
Yeah, definitely. I guess, to start at the beginning… I just started writing songs a lot more around my freshman year at college. I realized that the best way to get good at writing songs is just to write a lot of them.
Yeah, I hear that so often.
Right. It’s not about writing the greatest song, it’s about becoming a great songwriter. Who then can just shit out good songs.
So more and more, I just ramped up. My freshman year I wrote maybe 10 songs, and then the next year it was like 25. Now I’m at a point where I’m shooting for like 100 to 150 songs each year. Like, just write as much as I can, you know?
At least that’s the goal. In my mind, the more I can just pop them out, the sooner I’ll get to the better songs. You know what I mean?
But yeah, so Brother James started taking shape in my mind two or three years ago. I was trying to figure out how to release some of my own material, some of the songs that don’t feel like they fit anywhere else – with any other artists – but are just expressing my heart. And Brother James just felt like it fit with who I am – my spiritual journey, my family, my life. So it’s become the outlet for my most personal, meaningful songs.. But I’m also co-writing a lot in LA as well, and writing songs on commission for things like weddings and prayer services.
Yeah, so just writing a lot now. That’s the journey, I think – at least a little bit.
I know Brother James has a lot of spiritual depth to it. How did your spiritual journey impact the shape of the project?
I guess that’d have to start with the first album I put out with my friend – before Brother James. When we released that album, some of it was kind of more church music and we would do some of it in church. But some of it was storytelling, singer-songwriter stuff, too. Some of it we could and would sing on a Sunday, but a lot of it was a little different. I mean, if I had an accordion it was obviously Mumford inspired, but it was also very Beatles, I’d say. So it wasn’t like normal worship or anything.
But even then, a lot of the music I wrote was wrestling with my spiritual journey. At that time it was stuff like, “Oh God, how do I stop watching porn?” And I’m onboard with that – like not watching porn, ha. But at the time I was writing, I was just so angry at myself for it, you know?
And then I went to a Christian university for school and ended up leading worship there a lot, which really shaped some of the stuff I started writing.
Where did you go?
It’s called Biola University. It’s this Christian school, but yeah, it’s a good spot. I ended up leading worship there a lot. They have six to nine chapel bands at any given semester, and at first I led worship, and I played accordion in a folk band. And then I told the head of chapel programs, “I want to do a chapel with an orchestra.” He was like, “Well, good luck man.” So the next semester, I did do a service where I had a string quartet, and then I added some small horn sections and a percussion player. I love that kind of stuff – I was a music composition major. So I love the overlap of classical and pop.
And I wrote a song for that first chapel that I led as a sophomore with a string quartet, about how I’d lost my faith as a freshman.
What was that like?
I was just really frustrated and angry with the fakeness of the culture, and I was actually very lonely and depressed and had suicidal thoughts. And like, no one was there for me. It was all of these people raising their hands in worship and talking about what they’re going to do for Jesus, but then here I am, lonely and depressed, and I know I can’t be the only one. You know what I mean? Like, what are we doing?
And so I got really angry and frustrated with that, and it came out kind of sideways, like, “God, I don’t believe in you anymore.” I had a really angry, kind of a meltdown. But then sophomore year, I made some friends who were in a similar boat. One claimed to be atheist, the other was just kind of questioning. And at our Christian university, we would climb buildings – which you’re not supposed to do – and hangout and talk about our doubts and our questions. And it turned out that that was actually the thing that I really needed. It was through that time that I ended up being like, yeah, actually, I want to follow Jesus. I’m about this. But I needed to just name all my frustrations. And I needed to talk it out with some people and to build these relationships.
All three of us are now Christians. I mean it depends on who you ask, I guess, if I’m a Christian at this point. I don’t know. But I’d claim it.
Man. Yeah, that’s an intense journey. How’d it lead into the themes of your songwriting?
I think was an important way for me to kind of re-engage Jesus in a new way. Re-reading the Gospels, just being like, this guy’s crazy. And I think I’m going to follow him. So I ended up writing some songs around that, and one is called “Made”. That was the song that I wrote and led worship with with the string quartet.
It was my way of coming back around to leading worship there. I wrote it in a time where I was asking how could I lead worship when I was uncertain of my faith, and do it in a way that would create space for people like me, so that they could honestly sing something. And so the song pretty much says, “Hey, I’m tired, I’m hurt, and God, why is this difficult? Who are you?” But it’s also like, “At least I’m made for love. I’m going to look up and see that I’m made for love – to be loved and to love others.”
I was particularly thinking of one of those friends who was an atheist, like, “What’s something that he can sing here, honestly?” And I think, at least for him, that was an honest thing – a lot of the words were inspired by things he had said. So that first chapel that I led sophomore year was very much for people who were questioning. And I led it in a very intentional way for those people.
So I ended up writing several songs in a similar vein. Another was about struggling with being part of the church. It’s a song called “One,” and it’s what I named the EP that I put out featuring the music from that time. The song pretty much says, “It’s kind of hard to be a part of the church. Jesus, you said that we would be one. But I don’t know if I want to be one with these people.” But then we’re also into the unity of the Trinity. What does that mean, and what does that have to do with the church?
So the EP is meant to invite listeners into union with the Trinity, through the way of death with Jesus. And it ended up being my senior thesis in school; I was able to record that as my music composition piece with a string quartet and some percussion and other sections.
That’s awesome, man. So then, what was the transition like from that stuff to Brother James?
Right. So I mean, all the while as I was writing songs – even as I was writing stuff in the church – I was just letting go of more and more things. I’m like, “I just don’t know if I believe in this or that. Or, I can’t get on board with the way I feel like the church dehumanizes so many kinds of people.” Or at least many people in the church did. It’s difficult. So I kept letting go of more and more things, even as I led worship.
So, a year ago I actually stepped down from leading worship at a church. I was like, “Hey, I just don’t know if I believe the things I’m leading you all in singing. I can’t do this anymore.” I actually was really affirmed in that – I said that on a Sunday morning, and they gave me a standing ovation, like they were grateful for my honesty. But all throughout the process of leading worship, probably like the past four years or so, I’ve been writing songs that are very much about the journey – about relationships and pain and breakups and love songs. And so all of that just kind of made sense in a world of Brother James.
How did Brother James officially start?
Well, I just started bringing things together, and tracking with my buddy who’s a mixer, producer, songwriter – he’s just mixed Vulfpeck’s latest, Live from Madison Square Garden. We have a situation where we track some of my songs and some of his songs with the same players at a studio we’re able to use for free. It’s a really great space. But that’s how it became a thing – we just kind of built it together for the past year or so, and have a trajectory of releasing it as we go.
That’s interesting. I had more of a perception that you were doing this on a solo basis. But I think the relationships – with your buddy and the other players you guys work with – I think they show how important community is in artistry, even for singer-songwriter stuff.
Like, even though it’s a solo project about a spiritual journey that reflects where you’re coming from individually, you have community built up around you to make the music happen. That’s cool.
Absolutely. Yeah. Spot on. And that’s an ethos I hope to intentionally build around the project of Brother James.
All right – let’s dig into “I Had to Dig,” which is the track you’re just releasing with a live performance video. What are some of the themes of this song, specifically?
Yeah. I would say that the main theme is really the last line of the chorus:
I’ll give all I have in search of freedom
and live to set other prisoners free
That comes from a place where I’m uncertain of so much in my faith – Like, “I don’t know, but I also really value a lot of these things.” Jesus’ invitation to sacrificial, proactive love. Dying with him. Surrendering. Possessions and fame and all the things that feel like are what we crave and desire as humans, Jesus said to give those things up. Follow me. Die. Serve others. And that actually is where you will find true life. And so I really value that, even if I don’t know what I think about the doctrines or have certainty about the Bible.
So I wanted to articulate this freedom from myself, freedom from the prison that is seeking more. And then also invite others into that freedom alongside me and with Jesus.
Where were you when you wrote it?
Yeah. It was largely inspired by a particular monk in Big Sur named Cyprian – who I’m actually going to visit tonight. I’m excited about that.
Yeah, but we hung out and some of the things he said really stuck with me. I asked him, “What is salvation to you? And do you think we need to evangelize and bring other people to be saved? Like, in the way Christians think of it?”
And he said, “There often is importance in that. But I also think that, whatever salvation is, they’ll be saved through their own traditions.” And I don’t know, that really resonated with me. All over the world there are people who have never interfaced with the words of Jesus, but they have their own traditions which are flawed like Christianity is. In all traditions, there are some who become enslaved by them and others who find freedom through them. Who find true life. And this monk also said that salvation is like a seed – that no one can give you the tree fully formed. They can only hand you the seed, and it’s your life’s work to open it. To water it. To grow it.
At around that time I was like, “I think I just need to let go of the term Christian, because I just don’t think it’s the right word for me at this point.” And it’s an important death for me in some ways. There came a point a few months after that I was able to feel freedom and peace and life in finally letting go of the wrestling. But then, a few months later, I just ran into more and more Christian people and a few monks in particular. And I kept feeling like I wanted to be like these people. Because they’re just good. And full of life.
And so that night as I was processing all of that, the thoughts were keeping me up. I went to bed, but I woke up at like 1 a.m., and the phrase that was ringing in my mind was, “They will be saved through their own traditions.”
And I thought, “Maybe it’s okay that I’m also saved through my tradition. Maybe I can appreciate and learn from other traditions, but I don’t need to look elsewhere for a new home.” That’s what led to the song. I ended up writing the entire song in about an hour at 1 a.m, and it was just like I couldn’t go back to sleep until it was out.
And I think it really well articulates what I value without having to claim any particular beliefs.
Yeah, but those thoughts are a lot of what led to the ending of a really deep, important, almost two-year relationship, and to me leaving my church right about the same time. So it was really a painful time. I was like, “I don’t know what I believe. But I value these things.”
So the song came. And I started articulating what I value – like, really clearly. Like, my values are ordered around my room and they’re how I organize my Dropbox. My whole life is, really – oriented around who I am and what I care about. And that’s been incredibly life-giving.
Yeah, that’s interesting. What are those things?
So it’s 25 values in the form of five identities. With five sub values.
Hey man, that’s a system.
It’s a system. I love systems. I articulated these in a two week long retreat at this monastery with Cyprian. I just started writing down everything I value. What do I care about? And what do I believe is the most fulfilling kind of life? Like, what is good?
So that led me to write down my five core identities.
What are they?
So, I am a lover. I am seeker. I’m an artist – or creator. I’m a servant. And I am, the word I use is kind of strange, it’s taken from Aristotle’s work, Nicomachean Ethics, and we usually translate it as happiness or happy. But the word is eudaimonia, and it means something more like whole.
It’s like a deep seated happiness where people would say you have eudaimonia even after you’ve died. So yeah, just this deep goodness. So that’s like my fifth, I’m a eudaimoniad. Or the thing I usually say is just “whole”.
So those are my five identities. And then there are five values for each identity. So, for example, in the artist category, I’m a creator or artist who values mindful presence. Contemplative wonder. Serial ingestion. Ha, meaning S-E-R-I-A-L ingestion.
Or like, ingesting Fruit Loops, I guess. Either one.
Yeah, either one haha. But yeah, I just mean that I’m continually seeking to deeply engage with art and experiences. And then the other two are prolific creation and masterful craftsmanship.
I try to make each identity and value a sort of mantra in my life. They’re embedded in daily or weekly practices, in kind of the monastic vein, you know, to help me move toward who I am and who I want to be.
This is good stuff, Justin. I love the intentionality behind it. So how does this play out in your creative direction – and especially on “I Had to Dig”? Like, why did you choose to record it the way you did?Just the sparse, one-take video?
Well, that week when I wrote it, I was like, “Man, I think this is going to be a really important song for my music.” So I memorized everything within a few days and then just started playing it a lot. Now, it’s either the first or the last song I play at every show. It’s just a really simple, friendly, “Here, this is who I am. And I’m inviting you into my journey and more deeply into your own.” I think it’s just a great way to kind of do that.
And as I played it more and more, I just felt like it didn’t need any arrangement to make it better. It’s about the bare storytelling, not the background music. I was going to track it with my friend, and I ran that thought by him, and he totally agreed. He was like, “Yeah man, this is the perfect way to do it. Actually, there’s no other way to do it.”
And so, for the video… well, I’d just moved into this really beautiful place. It’s a room that has a very monastic feeling, and I felt like it’d be a great place to track and film the song. So I called up my engineer mixer friend and some film friends and we got together and filmed it and tracked it at the same time.
It just made a lot of sense. A lot of my other songs will be a lot more produced and more interesting arrangements.
Yeah, I was listening to the first two that you have out, and those have so much more instrumentation in there. I think I can hear your composition background in those pieces. But the sparse approach on this one makes the storytelling stand out.
It’s not a perfect performance, either. But it gets the heart. And that’s the point.
All right – one last question for you. I ask this for everybody: what’s the best advice that you’d give to other songwriters?
I think of songwriting as a process with a few steps. The first step is to experience deeply. Ingest great art, or at least a lot of it. And what you like. Then become a master at your craft. So like, learn when you’re ingesting – learn the licks, learn the lyrics. Try to get in-depth about what the artists are doing. It’s a conscious taking-in of the art.
Then just write a lot. If you do all of that, in time I think you’ll become a great songwriter, who usually writes good songs and sometimes writes great songs.