James Cavern, who lands on The Voice this week, succeeds in music by really, really trying
For the Sacramento talent, music is a full-time gig. And one not without risk.
It’s a drizzly Thursday night in February as James Cavern works the room at Pour House. As host of the Midtown bar’s weekly open jam, he’s trying to coordinate musicians who’ve shown up to play, assorted instruments in hand.
“It’s like herding wild cats,” Cavern says.
He makes it look easy, deftly navigating the crowd, stopping to shake a hand here and hug an old friend there. Always on the hustle.
Cavern doesn’t carry a clipboard to keep track of performers. “It’s all in my head,” he says, adding that before the start of each jam, he interviews hopefuls, mentally ordering them by talent and appeal.
“I have to keep the momentum going; this is a business, this is my job. I can’t have three shitty bands [play] in a row,” he explains. “It’s the only job I have, but this one night a week is stressful.”
That’s not quite true, that thing about the job.
James Cavern is in the business of being James Cavern, a full-time gig that includes an upcoming solo tour and taking a shot at fame on The Voice, the smash NBC singing competition.
It’s not a shot without risk. His mother wishes he’d go back to school. And money is tight—he recently gave up his apartment and now crashes on a mat in a friend’s living room. Cavern’s also a relative newcomer on the scene, and that, coupled with the juggle to walk the line between art and fame, means any success is sure to breed at least a little resentment.
“A lot of people will see [The Voice] and think, ’Oh, you’re selling out—you don’t need to go on a show like that,’” Cavern says. “I used to think the same way, but it wasn’t until I was on the show that I realized everyone on it had been grinding for years. I respect that.”
Later, Cavern kicks off the jam with a mini-set tailored to the evening’s Beatles theme, including a soulful rendition of the Fab Four’s “I’m Only Sleeping.” The band performs from a tiny corner stage, but Cavern easily commands the room, his rich, throaty voice flexing naturally around the song’s melody.
Many of the bands that follow don’t nearly hold quite the same sway, aren’t quite as polished. Cavern’s unarguably the star here, but whether that will translate to a national stage remains a question.
Will Cavern be taken under the wing of Adam Levine, Shakira, Blake Shelton or Usher? Will The Voice make him rich and famous? Will success spoil him yet?
“There’s the business side of me that wants to do well, and there’s the musician side of me that wants to make sure I’m staying as artistic as possible,” Cavern says. “The compromise is forward movement.”A Hollywood contender
A few weeks earlier on a late, unseasonably warm January afternoon, Cavern tries to choose his words carefully on the topic of The Voice. Everyone wanted to know, he acknowledges, what it’s like to sing for your supper in front of Adam, Blake, Shakira and Usher.
Some things, however, are already clear. The show, which launches its sixth season this week on Monday, February 24, will give Cavern his largest audience to date. The show’s season-five premiere garnered 14.9 million viewers, after all, and its finale netted 14.01 million, according to the Nielsen Company.
Unlike many hopefuls, Cavern didn’t attend an open call. Rather, he was recruited for a private audition in San Francisco last summer. He’s not sure how the show’s producers heard about him, but the resulting experience—months traveling back and forth between Los Angeles, time spent with celebrity coaches, the lawyers and the professional mentoring—has been nothing short of “invaluable.”
“I soaked it up,” he says, his voice a hybrid of British precision and California chill. “I could have moved to L.A. and got the same experience in three years. Instead I was lucky enough to get a crash course.”
Cavern, dressed today in a black sweatshirt, hood pulled up over his head and wearing his trademark thick-black-frame eyeglasses, isn’t one to wait around. In fact, it’s a bit startling how fast this trajectory from bedroom guitar strummer to Hollywood contender has been.
Born James Nguyen in 1987, Cavern is the son of Vietnamese parents who fled by boat with his older sisters. The family was picked up by a British ship, which transported them to Singapore. From there, they moved to Manchester, England, where Cavern was born, before eventually settling in London.
But his parents dreamed of emigrating to the United States. Sponsorship, however, took years, and Cavern would be 14 by the time his family relocated to Roseville.
He found the transition easy. He made friends, played soccer and was even crowned king at a class dance.
Along the way, he also discovered a deep love for music. In the U.K., Cavern had listened to a lot of drum ’n’ bass and U.K. garage, the latter a genre heavily influenced by hip-hop and electronica.
When his family moved to the States, Cavern shared a bedroom wall with his sister, and through it he heard Britpop bands such as Radiohead, Oasis and Blur. Nirvana was also a favorite. At school, everyone liked hip-hop, and Cavern listened to the likes of Nelly and Ludacris and other artists who heavily utilized classic R&B hooks. From there, Cavern says, he went further down the rabbit hole of discovery.
This would be key to shaping his own music when, the summer after high school, Cavern walked into into a music store and walked out with a Fender acoustic and an instructional DVD.
“I watched to learn basic chords, and from there, I went to figure out tablature,” he says. “I would teach myself very basic stuff like Oasis songs, and then through discovering different music, I got to listening to Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. I really started enjoying it.”
Cavern dedicated himself to learning, almost obsessively.
“My whole mind frame was: ’Oh shit, I’m starting to learn at 18 … so I need to catch up with other players,” he recalls. “I need to play every day. … For a minute there, the guitar was the first thing I touched every day and the last thing I touched every day.”Birth of a salesman
As parents often do, Cavern’s pushed him to pursue medicine or law. A high-school summer spent interning at a doctor’s office, however, put him down a different path, as he observed visits from pharmaceutical sales reps, who used freebies to close a deal.
Watching them work, he says, sparked inspiration. Eventually, Cavern took a job selling memberships at a local gym. He loved the work and the money.
“I was making 100 percent commission,” he says. “I feel like if you work hard and put in your time, you should be paid what you’re worth.”
College, as it turned out, couldn’t really compete with that philosophy. He enrolled in business classes at Sierra College, but felt bored, unchallenged. One day, Cavern found himself sitting in an accounting class, laboring over a final, wondering if school would ever pay off.
The answer, he concluded, was no.
“I was making $80,000 a year [doing sales], and the average college graduate makes $60,000-$70,000,” he reasons.
And so, Cavern put down his pencil and walked out of the classroom.
“It was just a very logical decision.”
It’s a logic he also applies to his music.
“I realized I have a knack for business, I love every part of it, from starting up a thought or an idea,” Cavern says.
“I believe that’s why my music has been doing very well, because I pride myself on being a businessman before an artist,” he adds. “As musicians, we’re very emotional. But sometimes that can hinder us from doing bigger and better things.”
Cavern knows that viewpoint may not exactly win him fans in certain circles. If big success or fame isn’t your goal, fine, he says. But he’s dreaming big, and that means thinking business first.
“A lot of foundation for my music business comes from … understanding that a sale is a sale,” he says. “At the end of a show, the close [is someone] either buying a CD or signing up the email list. It’s about spreading my name and sharing my brand.”
Of course, brand identity and business aren’t typical topics for most amateur musicians.
It’s this, says Zack Kampf, that sets his former bandmate and current roommate apart.
“James is really levelheaded and, in a lot of ways, not your typical artist,” Kampf says. “He’s smart with business. A lot of artists take whatever shows they can get because they’re so eager to do what they love. Not James.”
Cavern, in fact, has set strict ground rules for playing live. In 2013, for example, he purposefully only scheduled a handful of local shows.
He promises his regional 2014 gigs will be equally scant.
“As an artist, you want to play in front of not just people, but new people, and as a business person, you want to make money,” he says.
And you can’t do that by playing what is essentially the same gig night after night.
“You are, in a sense, asking your friends and family—and friends and family aren’t fans—to pay an average of $20 a month to come see you play the same thing,” he says. “That’s not cool. That’s not showing respect for your scene.”
Cavern’s approach is thoughtful and considered. But, the self-described “mama’s boy” acknowledges, many of his choices have been hard on his family.
His parents divorced shortly after he graduated high school. Divorce is a cultural taboo in his parents’ native Vietnam and, coupled with his decision to drop out of college, made for a difficult time.
“My mum took it kind of hard when I told her I’m going to quit my job and play music full-time. It was intense,” Cavern says.
Huong Nguyen admits her son’s decisions worried her. They still do.
But now she says she recognizes her son’s ambition and strategic nature. He’s always been that way, actually.
“His entire life he’s thrown himself into things 100 percent,” Nguyen says. “He’s very talented, and I’m very proud of him.”
Still, she wishes he’d reconsider college. You know, in case this music thing doesn’t work out.
“I tell him he should still go to college and get a music degree,” she says.
Cavern is used to the motherly advice. Mostly, he takes it in stride.
“It’s been a frustrating, tough three years of pursuing what I do and at the same time keeping the faith within the family,” he says. “In the last year, [my mother’s] come around because of The Voice. Is it unfortunate that it took something like that? Yeah, but it … does validate that what I’m doing is serious.”Numbers, plans, patterns and trends
It’s just past 10 on a Sunday night when Cavern takes the stage at Dive Bar with his new band, the Council, to play one of 2014’s allotted shows.
On this night, the bar’s famous mermaid tank is vacant but lit up, casting a watery glow across the room. Back by the bathrooms, a couple shares a stool, lips locked in a sloppy, wet kiss. Elsewhere, several people stare intently at their iPhone screens, while close to the stage a lone girl, hair bouncing in corkscrew curls, catches a groove as the band plays an R&B song.
Cavern’s voice floats, buttery smooth as it expertly climbs notes and cuts through with a smoky rasp that gives it edge, saving it from being too pedestrian, too John Mayer, if you will.
Nearby, a guy starts dancing and then stops to pull out his phone and record the band. The chatter never fully quiets, but it’s clear the audience has become more invested in what Cavern’s selling tonight.
“This song goes out to the guys from Pour House,” he says before launching into a pitch-perfect rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Tonight, he’s playing mostly adult-contemporary covers, but Cavern’s own songs better exemplify his complex range. In 2013, he released The Pilot EP, a sophisticated collection of gritty and spare R&B shot through with noisy guitar riffs.
Although the tracks feature Andrew Barnhart on bass and Kampf on drums, it’s clearly billed as a solo project. These days, however, Cavern is backed by the Council, a full band that includes bassist Quentin Garcia, guitarist Richie Smith and drummer Dave Jensen.
Cavern says he liked the change.
“We sound good together,” he says happily. “I [want] to share that with whole country and the world.”
Lofty ambitions? Perhaps. After all, it’s only been a few years since Cavern took his guitar out of the bedroom. But he doesn’t think small. He decided to start playing publicly after seeing that a friend was making money at it and performed his first gig in 2010. Some guys from the band Walking Spanish were there, so was Jackie Greene. Cavern remembers feeling awed but also gratified.
“They’re all good friends now, but to have that respect from the music community—a lot of people saw me [evolve] from being a googly eyed musician to whatever I am now,” he says.
For the next couple of years, Cavern hit up every open-mic in town, joined a band, quit the band, and just kept playing.
Then, in 2012, he launched The Porch Sessions, videos filmed on his Midtown front stoop with acoustic performances from local artists including the rapper Century Got Bars, the bluesy Carly DuHain Band and Lindsey Pavao, a season-two contestant on The Voice. He posted the clips, all shot on his smartphone, to YouTube where they’ve logged, depending on the artist, anywhere from 200 to more than a 1,000 views.
His motives for the series weren’t entirely altruistic.
“It came off as ’Here’s this guy being really charitable to the community,’” he says. “Instead of me putting videos of myself up on YouTube, I’m putting up videos of other people—but my name is still attached to it.”
Or, think of it this way:
“So far, I’ve shot 30 different episodes, so if you look at it schematically, that’s 30 different fan bases that are now exposed to me. And, on top of that, the artist those fans support is now pushing my name, because I did something for them. I didn’t start out [with that intent], but then I sat down and thought about it.”
Talking to Cavern is a bit like talking to your stocks-obsessed brother-in-law. He’s always thinking numbers and plans and patterns and trends.
“I owe that to my fans, to be able to look at the music scene and survey it like a spreadsheet—whose stocks are going up and whose stocks are going down,” he explains. “Who’s doing well and why and studying it.”
He applies that ethos to every part of his career.
“I analyze everything,” he says. “That’s how you stay ahead of the game.”
Cavern applies a similar philosophy to the pair of Sammies he won in 2013, one for R&B/Soul and another for Artist of the Year.
Cavern says he’s grateful for the recognition, but also realistic.
“If I took that award to L.A., nobody would give a shit—they wouldn’t care, they’d be like, ’What the hell is a Sammie?’”
Rather, Cavern says he remains focused on tangible progress.
“The key is not to stay stagnant,” he says. “That’s the problem with this town—a lot of musicians get really content being popular within Sacramento.”Almost famous
If it isn’t already obvious, Cavern isn’t particularly interested what others think of him or his viewpoint.
“I’ve already lost friends,” he says. “I think people feel like I’m such big shot now, which makes me laugh, because I feel like a drop in the ocean.”
Cavern’s friend and fellow singer-songwriter Autumn Sky disagrees.
“James is one of the more important people when it comes to scene,” says Sky, who filmed a Porch video in 2012. “He’s a very active member of the community, and he’s very supportive of projects and goes above and beyond.”
Cavern’s appearance on The Voice, she added, will benefit everyone.
“Any success for a musician from Sacramento is a success for everyone,” she says. “We’re a city that doesn’t have a lot of [record] labels or all-ages venues, so when you do get a success, it shines a light on everyone.”
As for those who might say, as Cavern has predicted, that appearing on such a show makes him a sellout?
“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “There’s no such thing as overnight success, and no one’s worked harder than James.”
Now, whatever the outcome—regardless of what happens in front of Adam, Blake, Shakira and Usher—Cavern remains pragmatic.
“In the end, the [show’s] lawyers tell you, ’Just know that even when you are the shit, it don’t mean shit,’” he says. “They asked me to name three [Voice] winners, and I couldn’t. It just goes to show you that for the people who compete on the show, it’s just a platform, it’s what you do with it.”
More than anything, he added, the experience not only gave him a deeper appreciation for those who submit to the Hollywood fray, it also gave him clarity about what needs to do to succeed—with or without the aid of a TV singing competition.
“People who think small will always just think within their community,” Cavern explains. “But people who aspire beyond that [community] and want to be a bigger presence will always think beyond that box and, in a sense, not care what anyone else thinks.”
For Cavern, such progress means a new album, and more immediately, that national solo tour supporting Arden Park Roots. Eventually, he’d like to be able to afford to travel with a full band—that would be progress.
Here, Cavern allows for a moment of reflection.
“I’ve had to make some crazy changes to pursue what I’m doing. Sometimes I wake up and think, ’This is kind of surreal. Just a year ago, I was sleeping in my own bed in my own apartment.’ But it’s not crazy, because through these changes I’ve gained a currency of time.”
And so, for now, it’s business as usual.