Nurturing a new relationship amid a decimating pandemic and a devastating wave of police brutality was no small feat.
It was his blossoming affection for his now wife that inspired him to lead with love amid so much hardship on his first solo release, A Universal Love Language.
With the deeply personal gospel, hip-hop, and pop-inflected LP, featuring many musicians from his local music family, Small’s aim was to remind listeners that no matter where they come from or what brunt they bear, they, too, can love in the face of adversity. Additionally, they can come together, dance, and find community in isolating times.
I spoke to Small about his vision for the album that he’ll perform in its entirety at his first San Francisco show for the release, Fri/29 at 111 Minna Gallery, the lessons he learned from working with local artists Fantastic Negrito, Train, and Lyrics Born, and the community-building power of music.
48 HILLS What can you tell me about your upcoming show in SF?
JAMES SMALL This will be my third show. I had my album release show in Berkeley at The Starry Plough in May and I performed at the Asher Rooftop Summer Concert Series in Fremont in July, but this is the first time I’m performing my album in San Francisco. I will have a few featured artists from the album joining me, including Courtney Knott, ADAR, Ian Kelly, and Jonah Levine. We will perform the entire album and some new originals by the featured artists.
48 HILLS What is it like to come to the forefront after years of supporting other artists?
JAMES SMALL It’s a little strange. I can’t help but feel a bit of imposter syndrome. I have supported other artists my entire career, so to be the head—and not the tail—is both exciting and terrifying. I am so grateful to have built a platform that allows me to not only showcase my voice and abilities but also support these incredible artists who brought this album to life!
48 HILLS How did growing up in Berkeley influence the artist you became?
JAMES SMALL Growing up in Berkeley was about family, community, and the arts. From playing drums with my family in church to acting in school and gigging with my friends, I was immersed in the Bay Area arts culture; it shaped me into the artist I am today. I am grateful for the knowledge, experience, and lifetime friendships that blossomed from that era.
48 HILLS What did you learn by working with Bay Area legends Fantastic Negrito, Train, and Lyrics Born?
JAMES SMALL The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is that it truly takes a village—and by that, I mean the right team—to help turn your dreams into reality in the music industry. All of these artists needed us (band and fans) as much as we needed them. There is no self-made artist. Someone had to give them a chance, have their back, and believe in them. It took a village to lift them to where they are now.
While performing with these artists, I have had the privilege of seeing how music can touch everyone around the world. It is such a sacred art form. I have seen people break down in tears at our shows. People have shared how the music changed their lives for the better, and that is a testament to how powerful music can be.
Throughout my career, I have also learned how to be a better professional musician. I have seen the ins and outs of the music business. Essentially, I’ve had opportunities to learn what it takes to stay consistent and grounded in this industry.
48 HILLS You produced A Universal Love Language during a difficult time, between the pandemic and the increasing awareness among Americans about police brutality/murder. What was your life like during COVID that impacted this record?
JAMES SMALL My life during COVID was a roller coaster of emotions. My relationship with my now wife was very fresh, and we were madly in love; we still are. I was feeling extremely helpless, livid, and devastated by the state of our country—and I was unsure about the future of our livelihood due to COVID. My album reflects all of these emotions within the roots of the production.
48 HILLS How did you create such an optimistic and joyful album in such hard times? Did marriage and sobriety play a role in this optimism?
JAMES SMALL My relationship, my sobriety, my family, my supportive community, and my love for music all played a major role in helping me keep my sanity and stay optimistic.
But, honestly, I could not have created such a beautiful body of work without the voices and messages from every featured artist that touched this album. Ian Kelly, Jonah Levine, ADAR, Courtney Knott, Lilan Kane, Muziek, Annetta Johnson, Uriah Duffy, Ben Misterka, Gabriela Welch, and Chika Di made this album what it is. I may have created the beats and the topic for the songs, but they brought it to life with their words, talent, and lived experiences.
48 HILLS Tell me more about your vision of inspiring listeners and opening their hearts and minds to the immense love, compassion, and opportunity the world has to offer in the face of hardship.
JAMES SMALL For me, life is all about perspective—how we view everyday hardships. Life is short, and we decide to move through it with our heads up or down. I hope that this album brightens people’s days and lifts their spirits. I want this album to remind listeners that they are loved, they are not alone, and the grass is as green as they allow it to be.
48 HILLS What makes music the universal love language?
JAMES SMALL I wouldn’t say music is the universal love language, but it is one of them. With music, it’s all about how it makes you feel. It can be very subjective. You don’t have to understand the words to feel the love oozing from a song. A song does not need words to get its message across.
People set their differences, prejudices, and judgments aside when sharing a common love of music. I have seen this at every concert that I have ever played. Music has the power to bring people together and it can help people express love for one another in an unmatched way. Therefore, music becomes universal. Music is one of the many love-language art forms.
48 HILLS What are your plans for the future?
JAMES SMALL I want to continue growing as an artist and musician, collaborate with artists from all over the world, and keep supporting artists in any way I can. I want a deep sense of love and community to be rooted in everything I do.
JAMES “STICKNASTY” SMALL WITH HUNEY KNUCKLES Fri/29, 111 Minna Gallery, SF. $35. Tickets and more info here.