A tuxedo and a bloody nose make up the wardrobe for Luke James’ latest music video for “Oh God,” ft. Hit-Boy. The American R&B singer-songwriter and actor has been putting his acting chops on display with the cinematic, narrative music video and a feature film to come. He’s risen a long way from the days when he used to post up outside Brian McKnight shows trying to get noticed.
James got his big break when became a background singer for R&B artist Tyrese. He then went on to become a songwriter for recording artists like Chris Brown, Britney Spears, Keri Hilson, and Justin Bieber. In 2011, he released his debut EP #Luke. The first single “I Want You,” brought him mainstream success including a nomination for Best New Artist at the 2012 Soul Train Music Awards and Best R&B Performance at the 2013 Grammy Awards. He released his second mixtape Whispers in the Dark in 2012 and dropped his debut studio album Made To Love last month.
We sat down with the soulful R&B singer to discuss his upcoming movie Black Nativity, how his career started, and staying motivated after gaining great success.
Scroll down to read the full interview and keep up with Luke’s latest on Twitter.
You recently finished filming your first full-length feature. Tell us about it?
The film is called Black Nativity and I play a kid named JoJo, AKA Joseph. I’m homeless and have a pregnant girlfriend, Maria. I guess it’s a film about the family coming together through compassion and redemption. There’s a parallel story about a young boy figuring out who his father is, and why his mother is struggling to keep a house when she has relatives who can help. I guess you can look at JoJo and Maria the same way he looks at his parents–not knowing where his father is. There’s always the possibility that my character will leave after the child is born. It’s kind of like a parallel, our story is very similar to what his parents went through. It’s a lot of those little hidden windows–parallel characters. It’s really fun, musical.
Have you done a lot of acting before?
No, I haven’t. This is my first feature. I did do an independent film, but I’ll leave it up to you to find it.
What was it like working with people like Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett?
Forest was very cool, very quiet. Angela Bassett was super cool. She actually put me on a diet. I was inquiring about how she eats, and she eats fresh and doesn’t eat sweets or anything like that–at least she tries not to. She’s really on it and it shows you know. She had the caterer make me salad. When everyone else was eating fried something-or-whatever I got a salad, and I’m sitting there like ‘I don’t want no damn salad.’
Did you go along with it to keep it tight on screen or was it just a lifestyle choice?
I didn’t have to show anything in the movie. I just think it helps with energy. You eat a donut, you’re going to feel like a donut later. The movie helped me try a lot of things I never thought I’d be able to try to do. I even had to learn a little bit of contemporary dance.
Did you grow up in a musical household?
I’m an only child with a single parent. My mother really fed my need for creativity, she didn’t stop me from dreaming, she actually endorsed it. I wanted to learn how to do magic, she had me going to magic classes.
How did magic turn into music?
As a kid I’d always be making noise, so when I found out about the kids’ choir at church, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ My mother said alright, but didn’t tell me I had to give up my Saturday mornings–so that’s what happened. From there, I noticed the older gentleman who played sax at church, he’s a relatively famous jazz musician in New Orleans and around the world. I said to my mom, ‘I want to play sax,’ and she bought be a saxophone for Christmas. I started taking lessons with him, and that’s how that started. In high school I started coming into my young-man-ness, pretty boy, all that kind of stuff. Girls don’t really like the saxophone that much, which is crazy, so I thought more about singing.
What was your first vocal performance?
One of my friends in high school challenged me to a singing contest with his cousin. They teamed up on me and did a harmony! We wound up being the best of friends, brothers even. We started a group together and did talent shows and everything we could think of. Junior or sophomore year there was a Brian McKnight concert featuring Tyrese. We posted up outside backstage entrance and just started singing hoping someone would notice us. My manager now was Tyrese’s manager then, he also worked as Beyoncé’s creative director, Frank Gatson. He was in a limo and heard us and ended up housing us in LA after high school, drove him crazy. We were singing background for Tyrese and met a lot of people. That was my start!
How did you get into writing music?
That’s how I stayed afloat in the music business–writing songs. I collaborated with Keri Hilson on a record for her first album. That’s how I met the team I’m with now. People think, “Oh man, it happens overnight,” but it does not. It does not happen overnight. Put in a lot of work, 10,000 hours.
If Malcolm Gladwell says it, it must be true. Tell me about opening for Beyoncé?
I am excited. I am super excited about the whole experience. I don’t show it but I am but jumping up and down on the inside. Its awesome opportunity, it’s a lot of people, 20,000 a night. It’s bananas.
Do you get nervous?
Of course. I embrace the nervousness, I want the nervousness only because I don’t ever want to get used to the feeling, like, ‘Ahh this is nothing just 20,00 people.’ I do want to be familiar with the feeling though. I think if I didn’t get nervous I wouldn’t really put in as much effort into my performance as I do right now. Sweating and really giving the crowd something that they’re going to walk away feeling inspired by.
Your Twitter handle @whoisLukeJames could be turned into an icebreaker game. Let’s play a round or two. Favorite cereal?
I’ve got two, I’m sorry. Its two different days. On a fat day, I want Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but on a normal day, I’ll go for Honey Bunches of Oats.
I don’t like insects: spiders, roaches, centipedes, stay the hell away from me. In Harlem we get little centipedes.
Favorite article of clothing?
Drawers. I have to wear comfortable drawers.
Calvin Klein. I always say that if I get hit by a car and they have to strip me down on the field, I want to have some good drawers on. Especially because, when the doctors see you wearing great underwear they understand they have to give you the best treatment. If you have fresh drawers on they know you’re going to be on it about your health care.