Label Free

One vocal musician takes production into his own hands, creating a synthetic Midwest pop sound

Words by Sarah Beth Coleman

Musician Ivory James identifies as a “Midwest-raised popfunksoulectro singer-songwriter” created from “Prince-worship and bad luck in romance.” But to many people, he’s Avery Mossman, a student vocal music major and K-12 education minor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

His solo project as Ivory James is fueled by his conservatory-style higher education and more than six years of classical vocal and saxophone training. Mossman was born in the Twin Cities, Minnesota and raised in Iowa City, Iowa by a folk musician father and a soul and R&B obsessed mother a combination that he says has a direct influence in how he perceives and creates music.

“My dad taught me that a great song would be able to stand on its own,” Mossman said. “You know, just you and an instrument of your choosing.”

Mossman also attributes his love of performing to his father, who would invite him on stage to sing. “He did that well before I was good,” Mossman said. “Really before I knew what singing could be.”

Mossman says that his mom’s influence is an “easily audible impact,” highlighting his use of synthesizer and the dance-pop style. Artists like Stevie Wonder and Prince inspire Mossman because they “perfectly occupy the middle space an incredible marriage of really good songwriting and really good production.”

Mossman as Ivory James during a live performance. Photo provided by Adam Nantz.

For Mossman, the recording process starts personally. “What you hear is 100 percent one guy working alone, but tweaking is really collaborative,” Mossman said. While using drum kits or recordings of his own instruments and performances get him quite far, he also recruits friends to improve and build on his ideas. Mossman attempts to use these methods to create a “very intent” sound.

Much of Mossman’s writing touches on topics of failed relationships, drug addiction and more, but he admits that the energetic rhythms and sound makes the topics less uncomfortable to process and easier to bring to light.

“I think the power to give something that can be stuck in your head or makes you want to dance is something that should be respected and experienced.” – Avory Mossman

Final production of the Ivory James solo project happens with Treedome Productions, a collection of artists who wish to see their art flourish. Based out of Winona, Minnesota, they’ve partnered with the Midwest Music Festival and Winona State University to grow and promote their art. They have a staff of videographers and photographers and even handle much of the business side for the performers.

“They’re young, they’re about our age, 21, and they’ve been instrumental in everything from shows and bookings to all of the parts of the music world that I don’t have a passion or understanding for and need someone better than me for,” Mossman said. “Many of their artists are some of my very best friends in the world. I’m lucky that I get to make music with these people, what I make is viable because of the people around me.”  

Touring musician Seamus St. Clair echoed these sentiments. “Treedome is a great group of artists who are really on top of their game,” St. Clair said. “They pushed us to complete the EP in less time than if we would’ve just done it all ourselves. It’s good to have a community pushing each other to reach each individual’s potential, as well as the potential of the group.”

Nathaniel Nelson, a creative director with Treedome Productions, met Mossman in December at a performance and has been working with him on production facets and during show projections and aesthetics.

Nelson believes Ivory James’ future is focused on live performance. “We’re really working to get him performing locally, continue headlining locally, and to move from there,” Nelson said.

But he also said that watching Mossman’s performance is only one of the perks of working on the Ivory James’ music. “One of the reasons I love Avery is, as a person, it’s really easy to talk to him and figure out his ideas,” Nelson said. “It’s a lovely process of back and forth, just building off of each other.”

“Ivory James is kind of an interactive performance. He gets down in the audience dancing with them and singing in their faces and just brings great music to them.” – Nathaniel Nelson

Avery and I had a blast making this music,” St. Clair said. “If even a fraction of that fun gets through, we reached our goal.”

Mossman recommends enjoying the music with friends hanging out late at night the same atmosphere they were written and produced in. “I hope that anybody who listens to it would be able to find some hook or line that resonates with them or with something they’ve been through and that they can know they’re not the only ones with those thoughts or feelings.”

The Ivory James EP “Scream If You’re Neon” can best be described as an electronic Midwest funk sound with the combination of synth pop with R&B. Vocals that echo of soul style with full sound and genuine presentation layer and fold with saxophone solos, contrasting with the quirks from the timbre of synthesizer and the upbeat percussion.

“The Way That I Do” features creative layering and modification of the vocals in a way that takes the listener to Ivory James’ headspace and contemplation. This introductory piece holds true to the concept of these songs being insecurities you can dance to.

“Galleons and Rowboats” is a slower jam, bringing in a synthesizer heavy mix, moving away from a percussive dependency, and features an expressive guitar solo that is complimented by saxophone backing. Whether James planned it or not, the inclusion of this track shows a well-rounded nature and presence to his vocals and overall flexibility in producing.

“2003” brings back the late-night jam session feel with oscillations between danceable beats and vocal-backed interludes all tied together with intriguing lyrics and a synthesizer feature. Ultimately, the EP as a whole is good listening for everything from a productive work session to a late-night house party, thanks to the high energy and character.

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