"I'm not trying to depress people," James Wallace says, laughing. "The only way I know to make good music is to make it a little dark."
A Powhatan County native, Wallace is walking along Nashville, Tenn., train tracks while speaking to Style Weekly by phone, discussing his slot at the inaugural Fall Line Festival in Richmond this weekend and his new album, "More Strange News from Another Star" (Dialog Records), produced with friend and Richmond musician Matthew E. White.
It's a fitting scene given the noir lyrics on the record and Wallace's constant state of motion between the Music City and River City.
"I feel way more comfortable saying I'm from Richmond than I'm from Nashville," Wallace says. He's a laid-back, pleasant guy — though discussing his words reveals there's odd blood running through his veins, in the best of ways.
Watery graves, fiery rain and whizzing bullets all are at home on seemingly ordinary but often otherworldly songs. It can come off as a little apocalyptic, but Wallace can explain: "I have this sense that everything's going to be ending soon, collapsing, or something huge is going to change. Maybe not in my lifetime, but it's going to happen."
Set against an array of wondrous psych-folk sounds and boozy sax drawls reminiscent of a found-objects orchestra fronted by Paul Simon, it's deceptively good times until you hone in on the words. "My writing is a combination of life experiences and trying to make them not literal," he says. "I tell stories on a hyperrealistic platform, because that's what I find more exciting."
In his case, those experiences include playing keys for a Mennonite church in Appalachia, far-flung Asian travels, and living in Richmond. Wallace says that his exposure to players here had a huge impact on his work.
"I went to see the Great White Jenkins one summer and they left a permanent impression on me," Wallace says. He eventually played a show with the band and talked about recording with White over drinks. The timing was right given that he'd just been approached by a Beijing record label to record a few songs for a cassette series.
White and Wallace tracked an entire album in nine days at Spacebomb Studios, something he regards as "one of the more fulfilling musical experiences of my whole life." The Chinese label dissolved before releasing the record so Wallace distributed cassette copies at shows throughout 2011. One landed with the right person.
Because of Daniel White, head of Richmond's Dialog Records, Wallace's album got a proper, vinyl release this year. It has garnered praise from Paste and Pitchfork, and Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard told Rolling Stone that James Wallace and the Naked Light is one of her favorite live bands.
Things are definitely getting a little brighter in Wallace's dark, little world, but he isn't taking it for granted. "I keep things very step-by-step," he says. "I can't say a lot because I need to have a few more conversations, but I plan to record more in Richmond beginning next year." S
James Wallace and the Naked Light play the Camel, 1621 W. Broad St., with Kopecky Family Band, Southern Belles and San Fermin on Friday, Sept. 6, at 6 p.m., as part of Fall Line Fest. Single day tickets and passes range from $15-$20. falllinefest.com.