James Asher is an English multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, and pioneer of New Age music. Growing up in a musical family gave Asher a strong love and early appreciation for music. His father taught him how to read music, and Asher began playing the violin at age seven. By age twelve, he was learning how to play drums and piano. This organically led to a deep yearning to learn how to further learn, record, and experiment with music. He first opened his own studio and released his first single in 1979, primarily focusing on creating music for the commercial soundtrack industry. Just nine years later, Asher released his first full-length album, The Great Wheel. After signing with New Earth Records in 1996, Asher released Feet in the Soil, which combined the African percussion, Australian aboriginal music, and electronic programming. According to Bhikkhu Schober, the president of New Earth Records, Feet in the Soil has sold nearly 200,000 copies overall.
Music by James Asher
James Asher made the transition from library music to successful commercial releases by tapping into an underlying demand for world-flavored, rhythmic new age music.
James has had a long and varied career in the music business – his first single was produced by Pete Townsend in 1979, and he went on to return the favor by playing drums on Pete’s Empty Glass album. After writing and recording 23 albums of library music, as well as gaining a clutch of production credits, he has gone on to explore the wider horizons of world music, releasing a series of very well received albums. In 1990, his first commercial album release, The Great Wheel, reached number 13 in the Billboard New Age chart, staying there on and off for about two years. His second album, Globalarium, featured world artists such as Hossam Ramzy on Egyptian percussion and Joji Hirota on shakuhachi. Feet in the Soil, is “an uplifting celebration of danceable energies centered in the earth,” drawing inspiration from Aboriginal and African lifestyles, and has sold over 250,000 copies since its release.
Although James started his professional career as a drummer, he now considers keyboards his main instrument, albeit from a highly rhythmic standpoint. “I started learning violin when I was seven, and experimented with keyboards when I was 12. I always had a sense of self-expression on keyboard that I never had on violin, because nobody really taught me anything on keyboards, so it was wide open to interpretation. Playing drums has made me very rhythmically oriented. I always build things up from rhythm – that’s my starting point.”
“I write now in two distinct commercial styles. One is World Beat, and Feet in the Soil is a good example of this. It’s a mixture of didgeridoos, hand percussion, djembe, flute, cello – that kind of thing. I still write music – as I have done for some time – in a more spacey, more conventionally New Age style, although from a commercial point of view there’s much more demand in the percussive area because the spacey side of things has been around much longer, and therefore there’s a much greater glut of product in that genre. I would never abandon doing the more spacey stuff, but in the past I’ve made the mistake of trying to put each of those genres into one product, and seen how it confuses people. I do tend to keep them separate now.”
James has been involved in New Age music for a long time now, and admits that it is still a confusing term for some. “It rings all sorts of different bells for people. Where some people associate New Age with travelers and protesters, others see it as the flowering of positive new philosophies. It has very different connotations. The way it’s been in the past has left a lot of negative tracks for it to make its way through now. There have been unfortunate associations with New Age, particularly in this country. There’s a judgmental attitude from some people, putting it down as an old ‘hippie’ kind of thing.” James is far more impressed with the attitude of other countries. “America has to be relevant to the New Age thing because of the size and the volume it can cater for. I admire the more open-minded approach that the Americans have in this area.”
James has found out personally that being focused is very important. “From my experience, consistency is a highly desirable thing. Distributors and labels need to be able to quickly and easily identify what sort of product they’re looking at. Something that’s a bit of flamenco, a bit of ragga – a bit diffuse – confuses everybody. But the problem is often more to do with artists not having a coherent idea of what they’re trying to communicate. Apart from the music itself, having a good title is another key thing, as is having a strong cover image. It’s also important that the music delivers what the image promises on the outside. There are an awful lot of musicians who really don’t know these things, and refuse to take responsibility for what they’re doing. They offer it up as if it is someone else’s job to deal with – “Oh, the label can handle that.” If you’re not clear yourself about what you’re putting together, how on earth do you expect a member of the public, who is stressed out with information from all sides, to identify what’s being offered?” Once the music itself has a strong identity, James feels that the far more basic factor for wider acceptance of New Age music is that it needs more public exposure.
Reaction to Feet in the Soil shows that it communicates to a wide audience, with positive feedback from India, Australia, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy, as well as America and the UK. “People really enjoy drumming, because in an age when you’ve got far too much information coming at you, there is nothing more genuine to get back to than the beat – expressing something on a drum. In America there are drumming circles, and spontaneously at open-air events people will have a jam. It has a lovely quality – there are no rules, and it’s characteristically more American, in being less formal. We could do with more of that in the UK.”
James is currently working on an Indian-inspired percussive project, and is very much looking forward to working with two people who will be pivotal to it. One is Sumeet Chopra, a talented table and keyboard player (whose sample CD, Karma Chopra, is available from AMG). “He has a very interesting vision of how the Indian culture can blend with more modern groove-led music – that’s what his sample CD is all about, and how I first knew of him. The other person is Johnny Kalsi, a dhol player who heads the Dhol Foundation, which is a very interesting and innovative concept. It has about 200 members in this country, and through this I also met Peter Lockett, an English percussionist who has a fantastic command of table and taiko drums. If you have inspirational drumming and percussion playing it provides a very exciting and inspirational backdrop to melodic parts. But when people are getting on with their lives, doing other things, the important thing is ‘Does this music touch me, or move me, and would I be motivated to put it on again?” In the case of James Asher, it looks as if plenty of people have already been motivated.