James Houlahan is a singer, songwriter, and guitar player based in Los Angeles, California. A founding member of Boston-area bands such as Dogs on Television and The Jody Grind, Houlahan has come to be known as a songsmith who channels both tradition and poetic innovation, rooted in dark folk sounds and eclectic Americana. His songs have been used in commercials, television, and film. He performs regularly in the L.A. area and tours throughout the U.S. and Europe.
A staple of Los Angeles' roots-music scene, Houlahan has sharpened his blend of dark, moody Americana and autobiographical folk over the course of five albums. It's a sound as expansive and eclectic as the wide open country that stretches between his birth state of Massachusetts and his adopted West Coast home, influenced by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and other masterful chroniclers of the human condition. Houlahan follows in their footsteps, writing contemporary songs whose melodies take their cues from the genre’s old-school heavyweights.
During the months following the release of his fourth album, 2018's The Wheel Still in Spin, Houlahan found himself on the road, playing shows to a deeply divided America. Social and environmental issues had created rifts that stretched nationwide, and the ripple effects could be felt in every corner of American society. In between nightly gigs featuring setlists culled from the album he'd just released, Houlahan began writing new material—not just to console himself, but to document this unprecedented era in the history of the country and the planet.
"It's such a crazy time," Houlahan says. "The world is on fire. I wanted to write music that bore witness to what was happening—not only in the world around me, but in my head, too. It's an album about looking around, seeing what’s happening, witnessing the present."
Ordinary Eye doesn't offer any quick fixes to America's challenges, whether encroaching authoritarianism or the climate crisis. Instead, it unfolds as a soundtrack to the current moment, filled with songs about perseverance, hard work and maintaining perspective during difficult times.
Produced by longtime collaborator Fernando Perdomo, the album was recorded at L.A.'s Reseda Ranch Studios during the weeks leading up to America's Covid-19 quarantine. This context adds new gravity to Houlahan's music, while the A-list studio band—including drummer Danny Frankel (Lou Reed, Fiona Apple, Nels Cline), violinist Scarlet Rivera (Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue) and vocalist Esther Clark—punctuated songs like the Neil Young-inspired "As It Is" with stacked harmonies, brushed percussion and other cinematic flourishes. Rivera's violin adds a folky authenticity to "What Is Our Love" and "Walking Through the Fire," while Houlahan's electric guitar—an instrument he first picked up during his teenage years, and later put to good use during the mid aughts, as lead guitarist for several Boston-based rock bands—functions like a musical paintbrush, adding hazy streaks of Americana ambiance one minute and bursts of countrified color the next. Houlahan even dusts off “The Jailer”—a song from his New England garage-rock days—for a rootsy reimagining.
Houlahan’s new album doesn't point fingers, it simply presents a vision of a world in upheaval, and a mind doing its best to maintain some semblance of order amidst the chaos. While Ordinary Eye isn't a concept album, its lead track, “As It Is,” still delivers the record's central message. It’s a song about looking past life's ugliness in order to treasure the good that remains. "I wanted to write about not letting fear or distractions get in the way of how you process the world," says Houlahan, whose previous songs have found their way not only onto his own albums, but also into commercials, TV shows, and the Little Pink House film soundtrack (which also features music by David Crosby).
Ordinary Eye is a record about witnessing without judgement. About grappling with life's challenges without being paralyzed by their weight. It’s Houlahan’s most accomplished work to date, the fully realized statement of a roots-music road warrior.