On August 6, internationally-touring, folk-rock legends the Felice Brothers and singer/songwriter Skullcrusher, take the stage at the Paramount Theater in Peekskill for a night of indie music. River Journal caught up with James Felice while the brothers are on tour in Europe. The Q&A below was edited for brevity and clarity.
River Journal: How long has the band been together?
James Felice: The band has been together over 16 years. I think we played our first show in the spring of 2006, though it may have been even earlier than that. Throughout our childhood we played songs and messed around but never actually put our backs into anything until around that time.
RJ: Were you really buskers in New York City subways? Tell us a little about that experience.
JF: Yes, we were! For about a year so. This started in the summer of 2006. We made a record together and realized to our horror that we were completely broke, and we sucked at playing music live. Busking sort of helped solve both these problems. We could make a couple hundred dollars a day if we worked really hard at it, and it was incredible practice.
RJ: Why aren’t you more famous? Your music’s awesome. The songwriting’s witty and wonderful. And you guys are good people.
JF: I wish I knew the answer to that question. A self-serving version might be that we are obstinate in our desire to only play and write the music we want to make, and that what we make, for whatever reason, only appeals to a small minority of humans on Earth. Or maybe we just haven’t had our big break yet! We’re only 16 years in, after all. I’m extremely proud of what we do. Perhaps the rewards are incommensurate with the quality, but we still get to do this for a living and that is just incredible.
RJ: Have you ever thought about leaving music? If so, what brought you back?
JF: I used to all the time. Being a struggling artist gets less and less fun the older you get…but I never graduated high school, never went to college, have no other marketable skills or talents, and was brought up in a family that has no money. Music is the only thing in the world that makes me a living and brings me joy all at the same time.
During the pandemic, I bought a chainsaw and started doing tree work, which I Ioved, but Jesus is it hard work and dangerous. I think spending a couple years doing that has reaffirmed my dedication to music, and that’s what I would very much like to do until the day I die.
RJ: Why’d you decide to stay in the Catskills?
JF: I’ve never lived anywhere else. My brother Ian and I grew up here and it honestly never occurred to either of us to leave. I’m sure it’s the best place in the world. Nothing is more precious to me than breadth and depth of the community I have developed here for the last 37 years.
RJ: If you could go back in time, would you say yes to Dow Chemical using your song in a commercial?
JF: Right after they offered us that money, there was a massive flood outside New Paltz brought on by Hurricane Irene. It destroyed our studio, my home, and almost everything we had. We were utterly broke, and I begged Ian to take the money from Dow. He still said no, which is something that I admire about him to this day.
I eventually did do a commercial a few years later (for Dell, which is computers I think). It took me about 2 hours to record the track and it made us more money than the previous two or three years of touring combined. It allowed us to pay off most of our debts. It completely changed our financial lives.
RJ: What do indie musicians need more of to keep doing what they’re doing?
JF: Musicians need money. Going to a show and buying a T-shirt is an incredible act of love. That’s all we ask!
RJ: You played the Clearwater Festival a time or two. Is there something special about playing in Westchester?
JF: That was a particularly special and fun festival. It felt so wholesome, so genuine. So true to the spirit of [Pete] Seeger. The first time we played he was there, and he led a beautiful sing-along to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It’s a very special memory to me.
RJ: What do you like most about New York’s River Towns?
JF: I have lived in Kingston for the last 15 years more or less, so I have a particular love for that Hudson River town. Each one is beautiful in its own way, and they all share a fascinating history. And I’m sure they are all being rapidly transformed in some interesting and in some disturbing ways by the rapid influx of city people.
Some of these people are disturbingly careless with our towns and our communities. Some are astonishingly wonderful additions. Hopefully you who are reading this are the latter.
For tickets to the show, visit the Paramount website at paramounthudsonvalley.com.