When James Elkington explains the long, winding road of a story that led him to this moment—on the verge of releasing his debut solo LP, Wintres Woma—he armors himself with self-deprecating wit and a Santa Claus-sized belly laugh. "The funny thing is, people think of me as—well, first of all, people don't think of me." There's the self-deprecation. "It looks like I've pursued this sideman career, but it really hasn't been that way," he tells us over the phone from his home in Chicago, a pervasive but understated British accent lingering in his wake. Cue the belly laugh.
Elkington has had a fascinating career as a session musician and a touring guitar player, two things that, according to him, have happened entirely by accident. "I'm quite—at least before I got too busy to be—approachable. Maybe not a fantastic guitar player, but I try my best," he assures us. As it turns out, his best is much better than everyone else's. Having supported Daughn Gibson, Steve Gunn, Jeff Tweedy, and many more both in the studio and on the road, Elkington has established himself as the go-to guitar player for the ever expanding folk-centric rock community. His gig with Gunn—he played on both Way out Weather and last year's excellent Eyes on the Line—led him to a relationship with the lovely Carolina boys that run Paradise of Bachelors, and a record followed shortly after. Not that it matters much to Elkington.
That's not to say he doesn't care about Wintres Woma. No one makes an album this starkly gorgeous without actually giving a shit about it. But, the record came out of a long gestation period for Elkington, one which followed a five year absence from writing and in its place a total dedication to being a sideman. This shift caused immense relief. "The band wasn't my problem and organizing rehearsals wasn't my problem. It just put me back in the mindset that I had started out in and I was really ready for that. I found that I loved it and I was sort of like a born-again teenager or something," he tells us. Eventually, Elkington began writing again, piecing together songs during a tour with Jeff Tweedy. The hours between arriving in a new city and soundchecking proved perfect for Elkington, and during these times he was able to write a bulk of Wintres Woma.
The album's central conceit allows for this sort of simplified, bare bones, on the road writing style. "I really needed to play the entire song on my own on the guitar without having to worry about anything missing," he recollects. The musical structures are basic but far from simple. His fingerpicking is other-worldly, and vocally, he oscillates between a dry, British observationalism and a storytelling style that falls in tradition with many folksters of yore.
After working his way through what would become the album's core musical ideas, Elkington took it back to Chicago to sort through his notes and see what would stick. The album came together rather cohesively, but he remained skeptical. When Paradise of Bachelors came along, the record found a perfect home. "I was kind of like, 'If they want to do this then I'll do it,'" he says. "But if they didn't want to do it, then I was gonna be quite happy just to keep it to myself." Now, he's quite happy—with an album out in the world on June 30th—and so are we. Wintres Woma is less a debut than a timestamp of a road warrior's present state of being. It sings with his collaborations, his influences, and his ingenuity.
Noisey is premiering the video for "Sister of Mine," a lovely ballad that centers around cathartic harmonica, chunky guitar chords, and a beautifully picked upright bass line. The track is about the Roman emperor Caligula, and the way demonic leaders never see themselves as such. Told to Caligula's sister in a letter, Elkington imagines the ways in which spiritual monsters are unable to access a mirror, to see themselves as others do. Their horror is separate, distant from who they imagine they are. History repeats itself.
Shot by Elkington's friend Tim Harris, the video showcases the singer in sepia tones amongst a gorgeous landscape. "I thought about wearing a toga to tie it in with the song," he tells us, "but it was just too windy." I like to imagine he followed that note with a laugh stronger than the wind could ever be.
Wintres Woma is currently available for a first listen via NPR. Watch "Sister of Mine" at the top of the page.
Will Schube is a writer based in Texas. Follow him on Twitter.