Twelve-year-old Cheyenne James laughs when I ask her what she knows about sorrow and misery. "How do you sing 'At Last' with all the heartbreak that you do, and you haven't even had a boyfriend yet?"
"Every time I hear a song, I see it like a music video going through my head, I see the story," she says. "I see the emotions that go with the lyrics. That's how I do it. Like with 'At Last,' if you're thinking about the part before the at last part, for me that would be getting rained out at the Catfish Festival. (laughs) So, see, I do know something about being disappointed."
James has been singing since she was three years old. Not unusual. But then two years ago, she got what she calls her "big girl" voice, and that was unusual. Very unusual. With a deep and bluesy voice, the ten-year-old was closer to Aretha Franklin than Annie. Given that she looks like an angelic, innocent child, even younger than her age, hearing her sing "Misery" in a throaty rumble is a jaw-dropping experience. James stopped by the Houston Press offices and talked about her career so far and her upcoming performance at La La Wilson's Holiday Blues Bash at the Red Cat Jazz Caf.
Houston Press: How did you start singing?
Cheyenne James: I've been singing in the car with my [grandmother] since I was little. We listened to R&B, classic rock and oldies, so that's what I learned to sing. The first song I ever sang on stage was "Moonlight in Vermont" at the High Five [Bar] on the San Bernard River.
HP: How do you fit the singing and performing in with your middle-school classes?
James: I sing every day. I'm in the top choir at school. Right now we're doing a couple of plays at school, and I'm also doing the choreography and being the vocal coach for one of those. After I get home from school, I do my homework and get all that done. Then I sing, sometimes for an hour. And I learn new songs. And a couple of times a month, I go out to my vocal coach Jeannie Bryant's house in Missouri City and spend the weekend there so that we can get a lot of training done all at once.
HP: Christina Aguilera sounded a lot older than she looked when she was your age, too. She talks about how hard it was for her in school because other kids were jealous and were mean to her. Do you see any of that?
James: It's never been a problem. Well, there's always those few girls who are jealous and want to go ra-a-a-ah! (claws the air) But all of my friends support me fully. All of my teachers come out to see me all the time. Everybody supports me. A girl saw me in the hall at school the other day, and she pointed to me and said, "That girl can sing!" I hear that every day, if not in the halls at school, then in the grocery store or somewhere. But it's always in a good way, everybody really supports me.
HP: Young women in show business also talk about the pressures to look perfect but at 12 and 13, your face is going to break out or you're going to have bad hair days. How do you deal with that?
James: In the world of Hollywood or whatever, today, you have to be stick skinny and you have to wear designer clothes that are cut down to here (points to belly button), and blah, blah, blah. I don't want to do that. I'm not a stick figure. I like the way I look. I like being the middle girl. You see the skinny, skinny girls and you see the big girls, but you never see the middle girl. I'm the middle girl.
HP: You recorded a CD, Lil' Miss Blue Eyed Soul, but it's not for sale. You did it as a fund-raiser for a school trip you want to take.
James: Right, the CD is just for my family and friends, people who are donating to my fund so that I can go to the People to People Leadership Summit. It's a nine-day thing [next summer] at Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., and you get college credit. So to get to the Summit, I'm raising funds and the CD is my thank-you gift to anyone who donates ten or 15 dollars. But it's not actually for sale.
HP: Some of the songs on the CD are pretty heavy, like "At Last." Why did you choose these songs?
James: They're pretty much my favorites. I've been doing "At Last" for a really long time, and "Some Kind of Wonderful" I know like the back of my hand. It's easy to do and it's fun. "Misery" is a song that I get to let go with, to just have a lot of fun and feel the music. "Chain of Fools" was actually one of the first songs that I sang when I got my big girl voice. We've got "Black Horse & a Cherry Tree" on there just because we had to have something from this century. (laughs) It's a fun CD.
HP: What's it like to see yourself on a CD cover?
James: It's exciting and...it's really cool. To be able to say, "That's me! I did that." It's cool.
HP: What's it like for you on stage? What does that feel like?
James: It feels like I'm at home. It's natural, it's warm, there's kind of electricity. It feels like I'm supposed to be there. I can't explain it; it just feels very safe for me on stage.
HP: Do you ever get nervous when you perform?
James: I get these savage butterflies every now and then. Butterflies that grow teeth and fangs and things. But mostly I'm just excited. I am extremely excited about getting to play the Red Cat.
HP: What are you going to be performing?
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James: I'm going to be singing "Night Time Is the Right Time," "Midnight Train to Georgia." And I am learning "Down Home Blues."
HP: What do you think that's going to be like?
James: It's going to be fun. Me being young and getting to play with all these serious musicians, I don't see it as me playing with adults. They're all just really kids at heart, all musicians are. I just see it as having fun. This is what I do. This is what I enjoy doing.
Cheyenne James will perform at La La Wilson's Holiday Blues Bash on Sunday, December 10, at the Red Cat Jazz Caf, 924 Congress,