Luke James remains the rare artist who can fade from the public eye for a minute and still avoid falling into Hollywood obscurity. The R&B singer-songwriter and acclaimed actor’s voice notably etched its way into our hearts when he opened for Beyoncé’s 2013 Mrs. Carter World Tour and during stints working alongside the late Prince as well. Still, the Grammy nominations, screaming fans, and limelight didn’t pull James away from his real dream — fervent artistry.

With some downtime to focus on himself and renewed creative aspirations, he emerged on our screens starring as singer Johnny Gill in the 2017 BET mini-series, The New Edition Story — proving his vocals had only ripened in his time away. “I want to create music that moves me, not just music that is going to get me famous or make someone at a label happy,” James tells Billboard when talking about today’s (June 1) exclusive listen to his new song,”These Arms.”

“I found myself running from somebody else’s fears. And, stepping away from it all together has been a breath of fresh air, truly. It has been another experience. And, now I have a new life,” he says. After cultivating sexy soundscapes and returning for season three of Lee Daniels’ Atlanta-based television drama series Star, James is relishing what’s to come. Billboard chatted with the triple-threat about the nostalgic soul of his new single, why love is an addiction, how he personally relates to his character on the Fox series and the importance of not compromising your songwriting authenticity.

Your forthcoming single “These Arms” feels soulfully nostalgic. What inspired this retro-sounding lullaby?

Over the past couple of years, when I put music out, I have really been able to live. I’d listen to other music and get back to the basics. It would be music that I really fuck with. [The music] that I would wake up and hear, and that moved me. I guess I am inspired in a way. When I did the New Edition [film], I had to dive into the era of music. I kept going deeper and deeper into the black hole. So, I found myself really getting into more soulful, and raw feeling [soundscapes]. It happened to be funk and R&B. It’s been over a year since I’ve been going in this direction.

Beyond sex, the lyrics of “These Arms” prove you’re protective of your significant other. You made love sound like an addiction. Do you believe romance can be that?

Absolutely! I love to be loved. Whether it is by a significant other or an acquaintance, I get it. I think love is important. Yeah, it is an addiction in a sense. It’s dope and makes you feel good. I’d rather that feeling than any other. It’s about protecting the idea and stay true to that. In life, as I am learning and loving people, I find that trust in vulnerability. I find that [vulnerability] to be something questionable and hard to do. You just never know what someone is thinking. I guess “These Arms” is a song of reassurance. You know?

It is deeper than what society has made to be the weakness when we think of sex. When I think of sex, I think of sex as a spiritual connection you should have with somebody. I don’t think anyone should just do it with anybody. Energies get passed on. It is a very important way to think of love and intimacy. So, yeah, it is protecting an idea.

Last year’s viral hit, “Drip,” set a similar vibe on the lyric video. When can fans anticipate more Luke James audiovisuals?

Yeah, well, “Drip” is kind of a taste of where I am going and what I am feeling. To be fair, that wasn’t even going to be the video. We had a different idea, and we needed to shoot that. When we started looking at it. We thought “this is perfect.” It says everything, and it is just right. I want to shoot more content and visuals to give a better idea. We try to paint the picture a little bit better with the songs.

You’re now working with Grammy award-winning producers Eric Hudson and Rob Knox. What is a studio session like with them, ordinarily?

Oh, it was cool, and just a matter of everybody diving into the headspace of what I was feeling. [They learned what] I am trying to convey. Which really was not hard for those guys. They are pretty soulful themselves. It was a [huge] sense of relief. The producers are brilliant musicians. Eric plays almost every instrument. Rob and he just connect. And, Rob and I [previously] worked together. We practically grew up together working with The Underdogs and stuff. It is a family-oriented exchange together with this record. Honestly, it was fun. We did not water down shit. We can be raw. So, it was exciting.

Many listeners are unaware of your impressive pen — you co-wrote hits, such as Chris Brown’s “Crawl” and Britney Spears’ “Kill the Lights.” What can we anticipate with your songwriting on this forthcoming album?

Well, I like to think of myself as a true artist. It is tough to say. I want to be unedited as possible. I [hope to] speak on how I feel with songwriting. I like traditional songwriting, but I do not conform too much. I am very experimental when it comes to creating. Still, from what you’ve heard on “Drip” to “These Arms,” [it is the introduction]. We just finished another record that we are going to release that is entitled, “All Night,”… which is pretty jammin’.

I am not really in the studio creating 100 songs at a time. I’m just going as I feel. I am not certain what I am going to do. Next, I know it is going to be pure black love, all the way through. [Laughs] I am feeling very psychedelic.

You starred in 2017’s critically acclaimed New Edition movie as Johnny Gill on BET. How did that experience transform your artistry?

Tremendously! The experience recording with Babyface, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis outside of [filming was terrific]. You have to indulge in the time and the era. Also, we learned their pronunciations and habits, and we just wanted to dive in and be as dynamic as possible portraying [these] character. To do that, I had to dig in my bag of R&B, and just listen to so much music. [The songs] that I heard as a child. I do not think [until then] I ever really lived with it. So, yeah the experience opened me up to listening to the music again, in a whole different type of way.

It has influenced me. The conversations, alone, not just the recording. Sitting there with Babyface or Terry Lewis talking about the past, the present, and the future, I’ve taken notes. It has helped me. I have to say, it is really [special]. I owe a lot to those guys for that experience.

You’re gearing up for the third season of FOX’s Star, as Noah Brooks.  How does this musical drama character relate to your career path?

For me, the character wants people to hear his music, [and] feel it. I do not know. He has had a struggling situation. I think there have been things Noah has not dealt with, and they hinder him from pursuing his career and making right decisions. I do not have much of that issue, as it relates to my personal life. [Laughs] He just wants to sing. And, so, for me, I know I want to sing. I just want to sing what feels right. I want to do what do what moves me. So, at the end of the day, I think that is what most artists want. That is what my character wants. On one side, he wants love, but that is deeper into the story.  Yeah, the only thing I can relate to is he is well-dressed. [Laughs]

With all, what do you need your fanbase to look out for next?

All things Luke James. Well, Season 3 on Star is coming. That is awesome. I’d like to dive into more film, and acting. It is a different skill set that I am sharpening day-by-day. But, I find it pure joy in it. It is quite different than music. But, still, at the same time, there will be more music. I am trying my best to make more music. It is hard to do both, but it is a matter of time. Taking that break, I do not know how long it has been, then diving into a different art form… it brought me back to being in love again with creating music.

As far as that break, do you feel it that in itself was therapeutic for you?

Absolutely, absolutely!  It just allowed me to take a vacation. Just getting away from chasing something [was helpful]. I found myself in a place where I was chasing an idea, maybe it was somebody else’s idea. I found myself running from somebody else’s fears. And, stepping away from it all together has been a breath of fresh air, truly. It has been another experience. And, now I have new life. I have a different feeling. I feel like I am back to me.

As a kid, what I loved about music, is what I did not want to get outside of as a creator. I want to create music that moves me, not just music that is going to get me famous or make someone at a label happy. You know what I mean? I need to [record] what is going to make me happy, and what is going to be fulfilling for me really. I think I am in that place right now, for sure. Not even think, I know I am in that place right now.

It sounds like you are finding your art to be more purposeful.

Yes! Yes!

By Bianca Alysse Mercado for Billboard.com

About The Author

Bianca Alysse is an incurable music junkie, who lives for dance, art, and urban culture. She has worked alongside some of the most ingenious entertainment moguls. Her ink covered hands grabbed her BA in Journalism and ran to New York City.

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