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The story of one musician finding his voice
As most musicians would, James Ian (born James Ian Thomas) speaks about his music with an infectious smile, hoping that listeners can relate in some way to his lyrics, his instrumentation and the emotion in his voice–all a manifestation of who he is as a person and what he hopes listeners see reflected in their own personalities.
For as long as he can remember, from singing his first song around 2 years old to producing an album–one in which he recorded and played all the instruments for–music has been Ian’s escape.
“It’s a chance for me to open up and be raw. It’s a tangible way to tap into emotions and a source of hope–at least for me. Music saved me from my reclusiveness and depression,” Ian said.
To Ian, music is a powerful healing tool that helped him navigate growing up with a disability.
Ian was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) in 1997 at 15 years old. SMA is a neuromuscular disease that attacks the neurons that control all the voluntary muscles in the body.
“I was falling a lot more, and I couldn’t get up on my own. Around 14, my dad asked me to get up out of a chair without using my hands, and I couldn’t do it,” he said.
Ian was diagnosed initially with another disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
“My parents were very scared by that diagnosis, but they kind of shielded all of that from me and took me to get a second opinion,” he said. “Right before I turned 15, we got the SMA Type 3 diagnosis.”
As Ian continued through high school, he started having trouble using stairs and felt like people were always watching. That’s when he began trying to hide his disability.
By the time Ian got to Georgetown University, he became even more secluded. “I got really reclusive. I had friends, but I wasn’t going out. I wasn’t going to parties. I wanted to hide SMA. I didn’t want to talk about it.
“So, I got really into songwriting. I was writing songs for my own satisfaction.”
And using songwriting in a remedial way.
The songwriting, and even just writing, that’s something his mom, Gail Thomas, looks back on fondly, even when he wasn’t taking formal lessons.
“He started making things up and writing,” she said, a smile evident in her voice. “He’s always been a very gifted writer.”
When he was 20, Ian bought himself a drum kit, ironically one of the toughest and most physically-demanding instruments (the symbolism isn’t lost on him either).
He started drumming in a local band and singing again in small doses at campus events.
But he was still thinking of himself as an “undesirable person.”
“I had a good friend sit me down and tell me ‘dude, tons of people want to connect with you. They call you a ghost because you’re never around,’” Ian recalled. “And I remember thinking I need to put being scared aside, and just go out there and be me and use [SMA] as a vehicle to get out there.”
Although Ian started playing a lot more on campus and meeting more people during his undergraduate years, he stayed in his shell.
Ian was having a hard time finding his rightful place in the world.
After undergrad, Ian joined a band in D.C. as a singer and keyboardist, playing shows all over the East Coast, before starting in pursuit of a law degree from Georgetown.
“I had a couple of times that I fell down on stage. And people were like, ‘what the hell. Is this kid drunk?’ I used it as an opportunity to talk about SMA. It was a turning point. I was like, I can do so much good. I can advocate for this disease, raise awareness and raise money by just being who I am and playing music.”
Everything music-related was starting to take off for Ian, and that’s when he decided that law wasn’t something he wanted to focus on, instead turning to further explore his first love, music.
After all, when the first time your parents remember you singing was at 2 years old, it may have been fate at play.
“His dad played wind instruments … So, he always listened, and then later that kind of evolved into picking up instruments and taking piano lessons around 5 years old,” Thomas said.
Ian started writing songs again and using practice time as a part of his exercise regimen, starting with the physical demands of playing the drums and working that into a daily routine of using a treadmill and eating healthy.
With SMA, motor neurons that control basic muscle functions used for repetitive motion like playing an instrument, degenerate over time.
Which makes his 2017 album, “Labor of Love,” feel much more influential than most other R&B/Soul records.
“This album became therapeutic. I needed to exercise, so recording the album and rehearsing became like training.”
‘Let’s just do it’ is a phrase that he remembers vividly.
“I remember thinking maybe someone out there with SMA could be ‘yo, this dude did this whole album and it was hard, but maybe I could do my something, whatever it is, too.’”
So he tried it out. Spending time writing, rehearsing and in the studio recording.
“When I heard all of the pieces [of music] of the puzzle. I’ve never heard drums, bass, guitar, vocals and more all at once–I was so proud. I must have done something cool. So I was really pumped,” Ian said.
And really excited for his friends and family to hear it; although, he still felt nervous putting it out there.
“You want people to like your baby,” he laughed. “No one wants to put your baby up and hear somebody said your baby is ugly.”
But the reaction from his family and his ex-band members was quite the opposite.
“My dad was one of the first ones to hear it … He was like, ‘this is incredible, you should be so proud.’ And if my dad likes it, I must have done something really cool. Damn, people like the baby.”
“Our oldest [Ian] and our youngest [his sister Ariel] are in the entertainment business, but he’s just so impressive and gifted. His ability to write and connect is so impressive,” Thomas said.
The album is rife with quiet emotion in his voice and lyrics. In the nine songs, Ian’s music evokes the likes of Lenny Kravitz’s tone, Al Green’s emotionally-charged lyrics, and John Mayer’s instrumentation.
Like a lot of R&B musicians, Ian’s Instagram is filled with posts featuring him with a sultry expression that oozes quiet confidence, guitar-in-hand, sitting on a stool in front of a microphone.
“Music is a source of hope. It’s gotten me through some really tough times. Music saved me.”
It wasn’t always like this for Ian, but now it’s a place he feels most at home.
Read more by Kasey Kaler.