Catching Up with James Sismanes (the 2019 Edition)

(Photo property of James Sismanes)

By: Jacob Elyachar,

I always enjoy when James Sismanes visits Jake’s Take.

James Sismanes is Melbourne, Australia-based creative entrepreneur who turns everything he touches into gold. He collectively composed over 300 jingles on Audio Jingle and Pond5. In addition, he released his first book, The Art of Being Jonny.  Under his stage name, Simmy, James produced a plethora of R&B and hip-hop music for up-and-coming artists such as Dame, Gabe Lustman, and Giulietta. Recently, he released an eight-track album called Make-Believe. James re-imagined eight demos that Michael Jackson previously recorded between from the 1970s to 1990s.

In this edition of Catching Up, James Sismanes opened up about Make-Believe, his plans to share it with the Jackson Family, and the questions he would ask Wade Robson, James Safechuck, and Dan Reed, the three men behind the controversial documentary: Leaving Neverland.

Jacob Elyachar; How have you grown as a creative entrepreneur since the last time we spoke?

James Sismanes: I would like to think I am still on the same trajectory. I am still writing (this time, a period piece about the intersection of the mob and the animation industry in the late 1920s; and – believe it or not – a children’s picture-story book which I am super excited about!) and I am still producing as often as time permits. Musically, I think I have grown quite a bit over the last 12 months. While this latest release is pretty ‘urban’ in nature, I have been working on a ton of film scores and trailer soundtracks that have allowed me to be far more expressive and experimental in my production. I actually had a little iMac meltdown at the end of last year and that forced me into upgrading all of my hardware and software. As a result, I felt compelled to update a fair portion of my sound library which has kind-of sparked an unexpected bout of inspiration – everything happens for a reason, I guess!

Jacob Elyachar: You have been working on a new project: Make-Believe. Could you describe your project to my readers?

James Sismanes: The motivation behind Make-Believe was a little more personal than it was professional in the beginning. I’d always wanted to reproduce some songs I’d had in the vault for many years, but the technology to separate vocals from an instrumental didn’t exist, at least in a competent enough form for my liking. When I discovered software that could do just that, it was time to get to work!

Effectively, Make-Believe is a re-imagining of 8 rare and exclusive demos and cuts from the unreleased Michael Jackson library. I acquired vocals from records spanning from the 1970s to the1990s and utilized both real and virtual instrumentation to bring these songs to life. The goal was to re-imagine and re-produce each track to meet modern industry standards, in the vein and mode of a twentieth-first century Michael Jackson record – and we’ve even got a feature from two-time MJ collaborator, The Notorious B.I.G. on a track called “Buttercup”!

(Music courtesy of James Sismanes)

Jacob Elyachar: Why did you pick some of Michael Jackson’s hidden gems? What were some challenges re-creating some of the King of Pop’s deep cuts?

James Sismanes: Once I discovered the technology to extract any vocal from any instrumental, it was a no-brainer as to what my first release was going to be. A lot of my song selections came down to following two guidelines: a) was the original track available in a high enough quality to allow for a professional reproduction?; and b) was the vocal performance something that Michael would’ve approved of for release, had the production been a little tidier?  

The thing about Michael Jackson is that anything he never released or left incomplete was not necessarily meant to be heard. It was vaulted for a reason – Michael never released anything that was less than genius and so in a way, I did feel a hint of selfishness on my part. The most difficult thing about the record was producing each track to a level and standard that I imagined Michael himself would’ve considered at the very least, acceptable. I was not overly impressed by the production on his most recent posthumous album Xscape (sorry, Timbaland!) and felt that the musical dynamic and range was not as vast and as acoustic as it should’ve been for an MJ album.  I spent a lotof time crafting and re-crafting tracks, subtracting digital instruments, adding real instruments and workingtowards meeting a criteria that was both relevant and authentically Michael Jackson.

Personally, I loved working on two tracks in particular: “Cinderella Stay Awhile” and “Scared of the Moon.” “Cinderella Stay Awhile”allowed me to play with brass instrument samples, live guitar and a balance between a four-to-the-floor drum beat and the use of contemporary 808s – something I think Mike would’ve really had some fun with had he been here in 2019 –, while “Scared of the Moon” gave me the opportunity to get super whimsical. The whole track is fantasy-driven – I used a number of eccentric and playful antique toy samples and coupled them with the sounds of an orchestra ensemble – lots of fun!

(Music courtesy of James Sismanes)

Jacob Elyachar: Do you have plans to show this work to the King of Pop’s estate or to the Jackson Family? Why or why not?

James Sismanes: I would certainly love to. The first litmus test comes in gauging the response of the MJ community. I was lucky enough to have a YouTube channel with 30K subscribers called ‘UniversMichaelJackson’ repost the entire album, and so far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive which is a great start. I have tweeted Michael’s nephew, Taj, a couple of times but it is a little tricky to get him to notice! Besides that, I have reached out to a number of MJ blogs and podcasts which are slowly getting behind the record – the hope is that once the wider MJ community has a chance to give the record a spin, if it passes that pesky ole litmus test, then it’s a worthy-enough project to share with the estate.

Jacob Elyachar: One of the biggest stories of 2019 was the controversial release of the polarizing documentary: Leaving Neverland. On social media, you defended the King of Pop’s legacy. If you had the chance to confront Wade Robson, James Safechuck, and Dan Reed (the documentary’s director), what would you tell them?

James Sismanes: Now that is a difficult question! I guess I would not say anything, necessary. I would ask a number of questions, though. I would ask them why they decided to fabricate the symbolic burning of MJ’s glove and jacket in the final “scene” of Leaving Neverland when they sold their entire memorabilia collection through Julien’s Auctions in 2011. I would ask Safechuck how he could have spent time at MJ’s home during Thanksgiving of 1987 when MJ was on his Bad tour in Australia at that very same time. I would also ask him how his mother could have danced in celebration when MJ died in 2009, when his deposition reveals that he did not realize the alleged abuse until 2013. I would ask them why their accusations are so eerily similar to a pedophile fantasy book written by Victor Gutierrez. I would ask them why they have been suing the estate for millions for years, and why their supposed corroborative stories of the same events have changed so many times throughout the years.

I would ask Robson why he referred to himself as a “master of deception,” why he never mentioned that Michael set him up with his niece (only for him to leave her for… Britney Spears) and why he so vehemently petitioned to choreograph the Cirque du Soleil musical in Vegas, which would have effectively meant dedicating his career to celebrating the legacy of his alleged perpetrator. I would also ask Dan Reed why he never attempted to interview anyone else who spent time at Neverland that could give credence to any of the above facts, and why he decided to produce such a one-sided, partisan, manipulative narrative with only one agenda in mind.

I could go on and on. Look, I am not so dogmatic – I am very open to hearing both sides of any argument. But I deal with facts and evidence and at this point, all I am hearing is sensationalism and anecdotal narratives without any supporting evidence. Sorry – I am a little passionate about this topic!

Jacob Elyachar: As the tenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death approaches, how has the King of Pop’s legacy made an impact on you as a musician? James Sismanes: Originally, I was meant to release this project on the eve of the tenth anniversary. But with the stigma surrounding MJ’s legacy at the moment, I felt that releasing this album now could do far more good. Ever since I was a kid, Michael Jackson was the definition of music to me. He has inspired me both personally and professionally for most of my life – from my love of urban R&B/pop/hip-hop to my lifelong fascination and fondness of the story of Peter Pan and the wonders of imagination. Musically, nearly everything I do and every sound I play within the urban genre was once innovated by Michael – in a way, any musician working in the fields of R&B, hip-hop, and pop today have Michael to thank for something.

Jacob Elyachar: What can my readers expect from you as 2019 moves forward?

James Sismanes: I will likely be a little quiet for the rest of 2019. I am actually getting married next month and then building my first house soon after so it’s time to do some adulting for now! I will have a couple of new tracks coming out on my AudioJungle portfolio but stay tuned in 2020 when I plan to release my next two books!

To listen to Make-Believe, head over to the DatPiff website.

You can also connect with James Sismanes on social media. Visit his Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube channels.

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Copyright 2019 Jacob Elyachar