Independent Industry Figures is a weekly column at IMP where we do a feature on a different music industry figure every week and try to better understand what they’re all about. With each installment we try and get a better sense of what it means to make a living in the music industry and how people can get involved. After all – what can we do but work hard and try to help each other live the dream?
James Dempsey was not my first guitar teacher but he was my best. The man to whom I owe much of my work as a musician, Dempsey taught me guitar for two and a half years when I lived in Paris. Thus it seemed appropriate to me to choose him as the next subject of our “Independent Industry Figures” series. Always friendly and hugely inspirational, we get to dig in to what defines his work and what concepts he uses to guide his life.
The fact of the matter is that Dempsey stands out, not just because of his passion for the music but also his depth as a human being. As a high schooler in France I remember consistently being impressed in his choice of books and talking to him about all manner of subjects from philosophy and literature to why Yngwie Malmsteen sucks. It led to perhaps the greatest teaching experience of my life and opened my eyes to an enlightening way of living.
Beyond that, Dempsey is a great performer, having played gigs around the world and with all sorts of musicians. A truly talented artist I happen to know that he is in the last phases of wrapping up a rather exciting new jazz-pop project. Endlessly charming and always friendly I will never forget the hours spent with him bent over our guitars talking about music theory and realizing that Dempsey is the kind of person who lives for this. As I always have said, I taught myself how to play guitar, but James taught me how to play music.
Could you first clarify what exactly you do in general?
I consider myself a guitarist. I teach in certain schools around the city. I do gigs, jazz, pop, rock whatever I need to do. I sing for some of those gigs as well. I do studio work when it comes up as well.
What organizations are you teaching with? How does that manifest itself in your day to day?
It takes up a lot of my time. I’m essentially self employed. I work in a school called Ecole Koenig as well as the American School of Paris and the International School of Paris. Asides from that I just do private tuition around the city. It’s fantastic. Teaching is a wonderful thing because you’re always learning through your own faults and defects even through lessons through students. It’s rewarding people growing their own individual journeys and seeing what different people get out of different tactics. It’s a really fulfilling thing to do with your time.
What did you have to do to make this your full time thing?
When I left university I knew I wanted to see somewhere else. I was born in London and I studied in London. I came to Paris because I knew one guy here and he wasn’t even living here at the time. I thought I would try it for a year or two. My job is very centered around word of mouth and people skills and building up a reputation which obviously takes time. With the first year I basically broke even in terms of money. But the longer I was in Paris the more connections I got and now I am able to live very comfortably and have been since the end of my second year.
Is there a goal you’re trying to build towards with all of this?
I would like to perform more high profile gigs. The goal really is to be creative and have things that I am proud of that I wouldn’t be ashamed to show people. That’s difficult because if you’re any good you are your own biggest critic. I suppose the goal is to find satisfaction in your creation.
How do you do that? That’s something I struggle with.
It’s difficult. Somebody gave me some advice once “Try everything!” Everyone has different methods of being creative and you just have to try it all. Sometimes one method will work for one song and another method will work for another song. Sometimes collaborations work sometimes they don’t. It can be difficult to finish a project and say “Okay this is as good as it will get” You can very easily fall into the trap of never finishing a thing and instead reworking it and then ten years later you have one song that’s changed a thousand times. Projects should be looked at as era’s in your life.
Life works in cycles and we work in creative cycles. There’s the type of songs you write when you’re 16 but they are nothing like the songs you write when you’re 21. That continues throughout your life. You just need to be happy at the end and say “This describes a period of my life” and then move on and describe a different period of your life in a different project.
So art reflects life essentially?
I think art is an outlet for me. I think it represents eras in my life but I think that essentially it’s an outlet or a form of meditation. It’s a little bit like sport. Over the years I’ve become more obsessed with sport and how I treat my body. Those two things are my outlets. I have to create and I have to work out.
Do you have plans to build on your music teaching?
I’m happy with the amount of teaching I do, my students and the variety of stuff I do. I enjoy giving group classes and I hope to do that more but in terms of my teaching I’m happy where I am with it. Going into the studio and building your own studio is obviously expensive but the amount of teaching I do allows me to pursue that lifestyle and have the time to do recordings. It also gives me time off in the mornings to go to the gym, read and evolve as a human being and not just be stuck as who I am.
I think it’s important to become a well rounded cultured individual. Some people don’t understand that and that’s a shame because you’re missing out on life. The teaching that I do gives me a lot of time off and allows me to improve myself as a person. I never want to stop learning. I’ve started taking German lessons too. My French is great now but I need the next project. It’s the same as what I said before about era’s in your life. Learning French was one era in my life and now learning German is me moving on to the next project.
So you’re emphasizing the importance of remaining hungry?
Absolutely! It’s the most important thing in the world. If I had all the money in the world and all the time in the world I would spend all my time at university learning things. I try to surround myself with people who have skills that I don’t have so I can keep learning things. I feel like the thirst for knowledge is the most important thing in a human being. If I meet someone who is just stale and doesn’t want to improve themselves I have no interest in hanging around with them because there is no evolution there.
So you’re saying you have to curate your friends?
Absolutely! It goes for everything. People think that their significant other is a choice they can make and their other friends they just happen upon. I think that’s rubbish. The older you get, in my experience, the less time you have for the friends that you’ve got and the less friends you end up having. The friends that I’ve kept are the most interesting people they love broadening their horizons and learning things. You have to have passion otherwise you’re dead! You need to choose who you hang around with otherwise you end up hanging around whoever and they can just be stale people and I have no interest in spending my time with people like that.
What other attitudes would you recommend to people who want to be professional musicians?
Like I said before, anyone who is any good is their own biggest critic. I think you need to admit when things are good but you also need to admit when things are bad and look at things objectively. You can’t have an ego about your art. You will never please everyone and who cares if you do? You need to be proud of it and need to have a huge work ethic because everyone else in the industry does too and if you want to be anywhere near them you just have to work, work, work. I also think social skills are key. I would much rather work with people that I get on with than someone who is just a guitar wizard. In those people you find the real soul to their music. If you have a connection you find a real soul in what they are playing. If it’s just some wizard then who cares? It’s just notes.
One thing I’ve been trying to communicate with the articles I write is that you need to be hungrier than anyone else you know. How did you foster the desire to be the best at what you do?
I think it’s a myriad of things. When I was a kid… about 15 there was another kid in my class who was better than me at guitar and that drove me crazy and I had to work harder to get better. I also lost my dad when I was 16 and I just threw myself into music because it was the only thing I had… It was like meditation to me. If you sit down and practice for two hours you come out and feel like a different person. I think emotional pain can lead to great artistic strides. So many great albums are written when people are coming off drugs or feeling terrible or really suffering because they’ve lost people. It’s sort of a good thing because every cloud has a silver lining. If I hadn’t lost my dad I never would have had this drive. I know people who are just lazy and they will happily stay in bed all day. I’ve never been like that. I don’t know what it is… I’ve never had that problem. If I don’t get up and do all my creative stuff I get to the end of the day and it feels like I’ve wasted time. I’m ever aware of the fact that we have such a limited time on this planet. We’re going to die and that’s it. To waste that time in bed is a cardinal sin! You need to use that time, this is it!
Does that mean you’ve gotten to the point where you curate your students?
If I’ve got a kid that doesn’t want to learn then absolutely. But it’s not like school where kids are forced to take music class because you’d have kids who didn’t care. 99% of the kids who come to me want to get better. The pleasure in teaching is finding the way into that person and finding out about how great it can be and watching them blossom. It’s not for everyone and that’s fine. Some people just want to learn a bit of guitar and that’s cool too, they’ve got other passions. They are just trying to be a more well rounded individual. That’s the great thing about teaching though, trying to take the best out of the student and trying to find what works.
I want you to finish this sentence for me “I’ve never told this story before and probably shouldn’t but…”
I don’t really have any secrets for you! But I will say this, when I was growing up I was a very closed off person and I think that’s part of why I threw myself into music because I found solace in it. I realized growing older that it’s so much better to share stuff with your family and friends. I used to never tell my family anything but now I tell them everything because if they don’t like it, oh well! I think it’s important to be open and to share your experiences and life with your friends! There’s nothing I haven’t told someone.
We skirted around this earlier but what do you love so much about music?
It’s an outlet. Beyond that it’s the satisfaction of listening to something you created and being proud of it. If I don’t create I become this frustrated pent up person. The outlet for me is sport and creation. If I do that I feel like a worthwhile individual but if I don’t do either of those things I feel like a terrible human being, so I just have to do it!