“James Gardin is a teacher, a student, and a creative who is trying to use his art to grow as a person and to help other people grow.”
Last month, Lansing, Michigan artist James Gardin released an EP, Sweet Jesus. He describes this project as a snapshot of his walk with Christ, with all of its ups and downs.
“I want them to learn a little bit more about me, and hopefully they see glimpses of their own perspective and personhood in that as well.”
Social injustice is an issue he is talking about in his music for the first time on Sweet Jesus. “I wanted to allow people to see more of those parts of me as well.”
It has been a while since Gardin started saying “Sweet Jesus.” “It sort of gave this funk feel to the music. I was thinking, ‘Jesus is pretty sweet. He’s pretty awesome… Jesus is someone to be revered and honored, but he’s also someone that we can look at and admire.'”
“God’s word should taste good to us when we feed off of it.” This thought inspired his album cover, showing a chocolate bar Jesus. “At first, my vision was a candy bar Jesus in the wrapper that’s half bitten off. We decided not to bite half of Jesus’ head, because that might’ve been a little much.” He describes it as a visual play-on-words. The artwork was designed by Jordan Hill.
Sweet Jesus’ recording process was different from anything Gardin had done before. “I would pick three beats, put mumble tracks on each three, and then I would set it at that.” The following day he would come back to the tracks and form a melody on each of them. On day three, he wrote to the melodies. Gardin did not record the final version of his songs until the fourth day of work.
“It felt like a long process, but I was doing everything by threes. It was actually done pretty quickly.” The album was produced by TheyCallMeHeat; Gardin described the production as a very collaborative process. “Working with him was dope because he got what I was trying to do, and we had a joint vision on what we wanted the record to sound like.”
“I really want to make everyone that loves me proud, but I have this weird fear that I’m going to blow it.”
In “Chitown Boogie,” and in life, Gardin goes back and forth on these thoughts. “I felt like maybe I’m not the big star player and how that may be why I think I’m not going to be able to do it because in the past I haven’t been the one to do it.”
James Gardin hates complaining so much that he made a song about it, called “Complaining.” “A lot of times, while you’re complaining, you could’ve used that energy and time to try to find solutions.” He knows that he is not immune to complaining, and notes that “we usually complain about things that we either don’t have the power to fix or we have no intention on fixing.” When he catches himself complaining, he tries to remind himself to count his blessings.
“Funky Funky Fresh” features his Illect Recordings labelmate Ozay Moore. They both work in their community in an organization called All of the Above Hip-Hop Academy; a group co-founded by Moore to teach youth how to make music and do so responsibly. “O is one of my heroes when it comes to rap. O is one of the best rappers I know.”
Gardin believes strongly that living out his faith doesn’t change how cool he is.
“We keep it funky-funky fresh with whatever we do, but it’s funny because no one uses that term.”
Sweet Jesus continues with “Joy.” Gardin believes that joy is found in Christ and that it is far more than feeling happy when things are going well. “Things may not be perfect, and you may not love everything that’s going on, but you’re able to have this spirit of joy, this peace.”
A specific technique that he has used to deal with attacks on his joy is to “sit down and write down that lie you’re believing, and then you cross that lie out and write down a truth that is in God’s Word about who you really are.” He thinks that while it’s important to pray, when a person is facing depression, they should also seek out professional help.
In “Shaky Ground,” Gardin responds to criticism that his music is not preachy enough. Once he was accused of being “lukewarm” by someone who did not know him. “When God inspires [my music], it doesn’t come out as a song where every other line is Scripture.” The song not only seeks to respond to critics, but also to encourage people that when they are facing up and downs in life, they can make it through with God.
Next comes “Stained Glass.” Noting that the Bible describes the body as a temple, “sometimes there are things that we do to our temple that will desecrate or dirty it.” The verses speak about how people harm their temples through sexual immorality, alcohol abuse, and poor eating. Gardin believes that the last of the topics is greatly neglected in the church.
“We consume so much food that’s bad for us and its so unhealthy. How can we be effective with the call God has put on our lives if we don’t even take care of the bodies He has given us?”
Though stained glass can make beautiful art, for the song, Gardin focuses on the “stained” aspect of it for his metaphor. “If a window is dirty, you can’t see well out of it.”
“Word” is a more personal song where Gardin vents about how he has seen people love hip-hop music and culture, “but when it comes to wanting black and brown bodies to be safe and stay alive, it feels like that’s none of their business.” He has heard numerous songs addressing the subject and says that most of them feel like the artists are “mourning” the problems.
“I wanted to give a song to those people who feel marginalized and be like, ‘I love you, and you mean the world to me, so if the world won’t love you or accept you, I’ll go against the world for you.”
When reading the Bible, Gardin sees the way Jesus treated those whom society neglected and wants to do the same.
Sweet Jesus ends with “Cruise Control.” “At this point now I want people to go on this ride with me, but we’re not driving.” Gardin wants people to allow the Lord to drive them on their path in life, and he also wants listeners to continue to keep up with his journey as an artist and a person. “I felt like it was a good way to end this record.”
Outside of music, Gardin enjoys listening to podcasts, reading books, and teaching Sunday school at his church.
“I’m really proud of this record. I really hope people get something out of it, not only what they can enjoy, but what they can apply to their life.”