The prairies are totally underrated. The skies are huge. The summers are warm. The people are just about as friendly as you're likely to find anywhere in the world.
And, as such, the flatlands tend to produce people like James Struthers. In the world of this Prairie boy, the skies are always bright. The sun is warming your skin and your heart. And on the phone, he's as affable and charming a person as you're likely to find.
The Winnipeg native majors in the laid-back acoustic jams reminiscent of an early Jack Johnson or John Mayer at his most blue-eyed.
It's summertime driving music and he admits he's trying to evoke a picture of paradise through his music — coastal living, sand in the toes, that sort of thing.
"I'm a really laid back guy and so the groovy acoustic stuff, I'm it. It's not that common in the Prairies I guess," he says from a Starbuck's in Kelowna.
At 22, he's already toured the country seven times — two of those tours were coast-to-coast. He's now embarking on a third, playing some shows with Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Laurell. But for the most part, he's on his own across the country — just him and the wide open road — and it's an experience he says has definitely influenced his songwriting.
"We're all a product of our experience, so everything that happens in my life is definitely influential in how I express myself as an artist, for sure," he says.
He says it wasn't a simple decision to make a career out of music. He attended a strict all-boys Catholic school in Winnipeg — "an intense educational environment," he says — and for years fought the institutional pressure to become a lawyer, engineer or doctor. Most of his former schoolmates are now on their way to lucrative professions, but Struthers says it took years to finally admit to those around him — and to himself — that he would devote himself completely to his art.
Or, as he says, to devoting himself to "slugging it out on the road." The truth of it is, the arts rarely pay well and the life of travelling musician can be a difficult one. And yet, Struthers, the laid-back Prairie boy, is causally optimistic about the whole experience.
"I really like this idea that I'm working towards success. I really don't want to be handed anything. I really enjoy the slugging it out."
His sunny disposition pervades the music. Even his take of "Blue Christmas" feels more like a siesta in a field of daffodils than it does a heart-wrenching holiday away from home.
He explores the usual challenges of the heart — of strained commitments, of troubled love, — but with a warmth and humility that's hard to come by. A mope he is not.
The trick, he says, is to pay as much attention to the world outside as to the world inside.
"I try and be as open as possible to the inputs that are around me," he says. "Often as songwriters we stare at the empty page and search ourselves for inspiration. I mean, you have to do that sometimes, drawing from past experiences, but often those experiences come from what's around you at the time."