Justin James on the Shark Attack That Started His Career

Songwriter Justin James started his musical career with a particularly violent incident -- not that his breezy, ultra-casual pop-rock would ever betray it.

A former windsurfer, James was attacked by a shark. While put up in bed, he spent time strumming the guitar, which led to an unexpected musical career. "During that time I was given a guitar," he says, his casual "surfer brah" inflections apparent over the phone. "What better time to learn an instrument than when you can't walk for a year? I was just cranking out these four-chord wonders, not having any inclination this would become my livelihood."

James' latest album, A Beautiful Life, is full of the soft-focus pop that earns him his paychecks. It's pretty Jason Mraz, John Mayer, Jack Johnson-ish, which means stay away if you're not into that casual, lite-rock windswept thing. But if that's your cup of tea, you could do a lot worse than James, who is scheduled to perform Friday, September 30 at the Hotel Valley Ho, and Wednesday, October 5, at The Compound Grill with The Brazen Heads.

Though his music is pretty smooth, the incident that brought him to the guitar was a harrowing affair.

"It was just a perfect day, he says of windsurfing in Venezuela. "It happened so fast. I had fallen in...I felt something hit my hip. I was like, 'What was that?' I felt a presence. Your instinct is just to get up and get to the beach. I got to my board, and right when I was trying to get up, I saw a torpedo come at me. It got my ankle, all the water is shaking, and I just held on to my board, and everything stopped. All this turquoise crystal water started changing color. All around my head, I was like, 'Whoa, I'm bleeding? Where am I bleeding from?' [I was in] shock -- there was no pain. I sat on my board, and leaned back, and pulled my foot out, and my toes were point straight down. 180 degrees down...just mangled."

James turned to music while in recovery. He eventually signed with Universal Music, but the experience wasn't what he expected.

"I was signed to a label, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to me...I'm not the first or last guy to get ripped off by a label. I learned my lesson."

After negotiating himself out of his contract, James focused on issuing his music himself. "It's not a bling bling," he says. "I keep my overhead low. I have a couple employees. It's like running a small business. I work at it. It's two words: music and business."

It's a Beautiful Life was financed by James fan, using a Kickstarer-like page on his website. "I took control of my career when I got released from my [contract]...I created a page on my website. I knew the people that were going to invest in my career were my diehard fans."

For a free MP3, visit Justin James online.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.