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Rochester musician performed mostly in her family’s cafe. Then Anita Baker walked in.

Mercedes Mejia/Michigan Radio
Stephie James is playing at the Tip Top Deluxe in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, July 11.

Her stage name is Stephie James, but friends and family here in Michigan know her best as Stephanie Hamood.

The Nashville based singer-songwriter got her start playing gigs at a coffee shop her family opened near Detroit. 

Now, after years of touring with big name bands, James is getting ready to release her debut album later this year.

Her music radiates with the vintage atmosphere of the 1960s mixed with a little surf rock.

James credits her mom for introducing her to musicals at a young age, and says listening to show tunes shaped the way she thinks about song writing.

“I got into a lot of 60s stuff like Roy Orbison and Phil Spector records. And when I was really young it was Bob Dylan. And once I heard Dylan, it was like, 'Ok, this is what I want to do, I want to write songs.'"

In 2009, while still in high school, James craved a place where she and friends could play music. At the same time her family opened a small shop called Dessert Oasis in Rochester. The idea was to bring the community together with sweets and live music. And you could find James playing almost every night for hours on end.

“A lot of my friends played music as well, and we didn’t have a place to play. We didn’t want to do the covers at bars; they also wouldn’t let us play in bars because we weren’t 21. So, kids would play guitar in the parking lots after school and hang out," James said. "I thought that if we kind of made a place for it and just built up that community. That’s like a big thing for me, like artists supporting other artists. And so that was just what we did. We started promoting shows and putting on shows there.  And booking a lot of local Michigan acts and who are still making incredible music and have passed through those doors at that coffee shop, it’s pretty cool.”

One night while James was on stage at her coffee shop, none other than eight-time Grammy-winning R&B legend Anita Baker walked in the door.

“I knew who she was like right away … and I was so nervous. You’re standing there kind of defenseless. She’s watching me, and I’m like 'Oh man don’t mess up.'"

Baker told James to consider taking her music career more seriously. And so James had a decision to make: stay in college at Oakland University or go on tour with Anita Baker.

“And when I got the call from Anita Baker to go on the road, it was like, there will always be a classroom. I could always get a degree, but Anita Baker doesn't call everyday and say come on the road, so I better do it."

James didn’t have a hard time finding work in Nashville. For a while, she worked with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. She also toured with Nikki Lane and Michigan’s own The Accidentals before deciding to focus on her own project. Earlier this year, James released a new single titled “Silent Film.” 

The song was picked up by another Grammy-winner, Michael Bolton, and released in conjunction with the premiere of Boltons’s documentary film American Dream: Detroit.

Now, James is working with Alabama Shakes producer Andrija Tokic to debut her first solo album coming out at the end of the year.

In the middle of all this newfound success, she and her family are still committed to supporting local artists in her home state. Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters opened a second location in downtown Detroit earlier this year.  

Stephie James is playing at the Tip Top Deluxe in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, July 11.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was updated July 11, 2018, to correct the location of Dessert Oasis from Royal Oak to Rochester.

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Mercedes Mejia is a producer and director of Stateside.
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