Stronger Than We Know: An Interview with Jeffrey James

Photo courtesy of Chance Edwards

Writing a sad song always seems to come so naturally. For Jeffrey James, he felt like sad songs were the only ones he had written for an entire week in late 2019, so he was determined one day to write something uplifting instead. The production team he regularly works with, L√íNIS, were also on board for a lighthearted track. From that session came “We Can Be Heroes”.

The song was one of several that he pitched to NBC’s groundbreaking songwriting series, Songland, and chosen to be featured on the show’s second season. Within a few days, he was in Los Angeles working alongside songwriter, producer and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder.

“He gave me a MasterClass on songwriting,” James said. “He took the song and turned it from what I thought was a good song into a much better song.”

The experience on Songland was a positive one, from a production standpoint down to the level of professionalism in the studio. James appreciated that each songwriter’s backstory was not about overcoming obstacles or falling down on hard times - it was about the song itself and the songwriter’s journey. He also appreciated that it wasn’t a talent show, it was about making the best version of a song and pitching it to an artist.

For James, “We Can Be Heroes” was pitched to country singer, songwriter and producer Martina McBride. McBride chose the song to move to the second round, where James worked with Tedder on the lyrics. Although the core of the song stayed true to the original, Tedder brought ideas to the verses to make the message of the song more relatable.

“I want to feel more emotion but I want to feel authentic,” Tedder said during the episode.

By adding the extra chorus sections and tightening the verses, the second performance of “We Can Be Heroes” gave McBride and the panelists goosebumps. Ultimately the song was not chosen for McBride to record, but it received overwhelming online support.

“You never know how you're going to come across on TV so I was happy with [the final performance], which meant the support other people had felt even better,” James said. “The fact that people are seeing what I'm seeing and they're connecting to the song in their own way is the dream for a songwriter. I make music for myself but I hope that other people connect with what I'm making, and it's nice to see when other people are feeling the same things you are.”

Despite originally writing the song in late 2019, “We Can Be Heroes” took on a whole new meaning as 2020 transitioned into global devastation. To Jeffrey James, the song is saying that waiting for someone else to stand up and take charge isn’t going to help anyone, so being that person can instead bring people together. Whether people take away that message or something else entirely is up to them, and that’s the beauty of songwriting.