Video by Bob Green
James Rotondi’s globe-trotting life in music, the performing arts, and journalism includes playing headlining gigs at European rock festivals, writing cover stories for Japanese guitar magazines, studying Shakespeare at British drama schools, and composing music for global television and media outlets.
Now a resident of New York City, Rotondi is currently a member of NYC super-groups The Cringe and Dexter Lake, an in-demand session guitarist, a composer for music houses like Duo-Tone and Volume, a contributing writer for Sound & Vision and Premier Guitar magazines, and a voice-over and vocal specialist with credits including Disney, Snapple and many others.
In addition, he blogs about politics, music, soccer and spirituality for the Huffington Post, and leads his own band, Roto’s Magic Act, whose second album, “Into the Unknown,” will be released in 2014.
Rotondi began performing at age 16, surreptitiously sneaking into Boston clubs as a member of bands—including Teacher’s Pet and Dogs in Traffic—with players twice his age. Later, after receiving a degree in Literature and Music from Bennington College, he returned to Boston and began performing in bands and playing coffehouses alongside future stars like Mary Lou Lord, The Lemonheads, Ellis Paul, and Dar Williams. He also began contributing regular music reviews to The Boston Phoenix.
He relocated to San Francisco in 1992, accepting a position as Features Editor of Guitar Player magazine, where he established the magazine’s annual Songwriting issue, and interviewed hundreds of artists, including Carlos Santana, James Hetfield, Eddie Van Halen, Ani DiFranco, and many more. He received a Music Journalism award in 1994 for his cover story on John Lennon, co-written with colleague Jas Obrecht. He also began composing and playing on TV commercials, scoring ads for Dell, Heinz, and other major clients.
A former member of avant-jazz group The Grassy Knoll (Verve/Antilles), Rotondi toured the US in 1997 and 1998, joined Northwestern chanteuse McKinley on a tour opening for David Crosby, and was asked to play guitar and keyboards for Mr. Bungle, touring internationally for the next two years in Europe, Japan, Australia and the US. IN 2001, he joined French superstars Air as a keyboard player and singer, and performed sold-out shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Paris Olympia, and other storied venues worldwide. The group also appeared on Top of the Pops, The Craig Kilborn Show, and others.
Moving to New York in 2003, he became the Editor in Chief of Future Music US and Guitar World’s Bass Guitar, launched the band Jettatura with drummer Dave Hill, Jr., and sang and played on award-winning network TV spots for Snapple, Quaker Oats, and Olympus. Indeed, Rotondi has written, played and sung on close to a hundred spots for national and international television and internet play, producing music at his own ZenEasy Studios, and collaborating with composers at key music houses including JSM, Tonefarmer, Duo-Tone, Volume Music, Big Planet Music, and Elias Associates.
In 2010, Rotondi was accepted into the prestigious acting program at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and returned to New York to appear in productions of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Much Ado About Nothing, at Manhattan’s American Globe Theatre.
Combining those dramatic skills and his musical chops, in the last few years he has also developed a different way of sharing the joy of songwriting and performing: presenting large-scale songwriting workshops for companies including American Express and Microsoft, under the auspices of the innovative team-building provider, Song Division.
Under his nomme du guerre “Roto,” he has performed original songs across the country over the last decade, releasing the critically acclaimed album “Summer Home” album in 2009, which critics have called “hip, seductive and brilliantly produced,” with a “wit worthy of Warren Zevon or Ray Davies.”
He is also the founder of the Bad Eliots, one half of 80s-inspired duo Spy Empire, and is a regular member of the songwriting workshop founded by Austin tunesmith Bob Schneider, whose members have included Matt Nathanson, Jason Mraz, Ari Hest, and others.
His upcoming album, “Into the Unknown,” rides equally on a spirited wave of literate power-pop, tuneful alt-country and even reimagined southern rock, to emerge with a unique distillation of urbane artists like Elvis Costello, Alex Chilton, Gram Parsons, Sufjan Stevens, John Mayer, and Harry Nillsson.
Shot through with Roto’s incendiary electric and acoustic guitar playing, the album is equally noteworthy for the stellar contributions of Roto’s Magic Act, a collective of top-tier players from New York, LA, San Francisco and Austin, including drummers Shawn Pelton and Matt Chamberlain, and others whose CVs include Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Tori Amos, Antony & the Johnsons, Dido, The Bonedaddies, Joan Osbourne, and many more.