"It Can Be Whatever I Want It to Be": An Interview with Bahamas
PopMatters chats with Toronto-based Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas) about his booming hometown artistic scene, recording "quiet music", and making records he wants to hear.
Bahamas, the nom de guerre of Toronto-based singer-songwriter Afie Jurvanen, is enjoying a warm winter. In the wake of his second critically-acclaimed record in three years -- the just-released Barchords, on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire label -- the 31-year-old has a lot to be excited about. Enjoying critical acclaim at home and abroad, influential supporters in the industry (including Ryan Adams and Bon Iver), and a growing sweep of fans on both sides of the wire, Bahamas may be the next big thing to emerge from Hog Town. Or, maybe not. As talented as he is, as handsome and pin-uppable as he looks, and as warm and inviting as his music can be, Bahamas is aimed squarely away from the pop charts. In his hands, gorgeous, soulful hooks are left unembellished, unencumbered by the expected metronymic drums, pulsing bass, and slick studio gloss that tends to infect so many of his peers’ work.
On his latest record, almost every opportunity to come away with a surefire radio number is sidestepped. Still, nowhere is the record alienating or inaccessible, especially since it is rife with references to old soul songs, quotes from classic country music, and awash all through in a certain early 1970s Willie Mitchell-style intimacy. No, it isn’t that the record is inaccessible -- it’s just that it appears to be self-consciously designed not to be too accessible. A kind of anti-pop pop musician, Jurvanen winds up somewhere in that sweet spot where those discerning rock snobs can respect his craft while everyone else can get wrapped up in the beauty of it all. It’s tough terrain to navigate, and perhaps the most impressive thing about this artist is how fully he appears to have realized his own vision on this score.
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The Toronto music scene has really mushroomed over the past decade, and you’ve been connected with many of the main players. You played guitar with Feist, you played with Zeus on the last record, you tour with Jason Collett, you’ve played with Doug Paisley, Kathleen Edwards, and this list goes on and on… Could you talk a bit about the Toronto scene right now and maybe anyone in particular that is inspiring you or that you are working with?
I do think there is a scene. The scene (for lack of a better word), the musical community here is really strong and it seems to always be rejuvenating itself with different bands and different projects, and people here are really supportive. In some ways it seems small, like it seems that everybody kind of knows each other. The entire Feist band is from Toronto, and the Zeus guys I grew up with, I went to high school with, and have known them for many years. Jay Collett lived down the street from me and I've known Doug [Paisley] for a while. They're just like musical friendships that are extensions of actual friendships, you know? And I've just been fortunate that all of my friends have kind of been involved in cool musical pursuits. I feel really lucky to have been a part of it. Yes, there are some really cool things happening in Toronto. There is a band called The Weather Station, which we’re going to do a few shows with in April, and I hope we get to do a whole bunch more, but it really is one woman and she’s a fantastic songwriter and guitar player. I would really strongly recommend that everybody checks her out. She’s great.
I absolutely agree. I love that record. It’s produced by Daniel Romano, is it not?
Yes! And that’s the other guy I was going to say, is Daniel Romano. He has a new album that’s not out yet, but he and I are pals, and I got hold of a copy of it. It’s awesome. It’s really just country music. He’s not from the South or from Nashville or anything, but he’s definitely a student of George Jones and Marty Robbins, and all this classic country music. And, I just believe it: his voice and his playing and everything really just suits the sound so well.
I mean, honestly, Romano’s Sleep Beneath the Willow was probably my favourite album last year.
Well, wait until you hear this new one, man. I'm not sure when it’s coming out. It may be in the springtime or the summer, but it’s really fantastic.
Something that is true of most of the folks we just discussed is a fairly stripped down approach to music production. Your new record [Barchords] is often described as minimalist and, it’s funny, I don’t know if that’s the right word. It feels more like the right word is refined. There’s not a lot of filler here. There are not a lot of flourishes. I wonder if you can talk about the way you construct these songs.
Well, I mean, for sure. I think a lot of people are searching to describe the record, so I've heard those terms before and I guess it’s like it’s not something that I discuss with the band or with the engineer. But, I definitely think that my overall approach to songwriting is just this idea of some sort of distillation process where you're constantly striving to find the essence of something, you know? And, really, just put as little between the listener and the song as possible. I mean, I think that a lot of the songs are sort of fleshed out in different ways on the album, but there isn't really production in the sense of modern recordings where there are a lot of effects or whatever. I mean the vocals are loud and up-front, and I mean maybe that’s what people are commenting on.
There is also this sense that a lot of your musical cues seem to be coming from 1960s-era soul. I hear a lot of these riffs on the record; some sound very similar to old Stax stuff, for instance.
Well, yes. I mean it’s not as though I'm like looking back there and sort of consciously trying to emulate those things, but I definitely like… The music that speaks to me is more or less older music. And it has been for a long time. I mean that’s not that uncommon. Most musicians reach back a little further than recent years or something. But I mean, yes, old recordings, you know Sam Cooke is a great hero of mine, Willie Nelson’s recordings, Stax recordings; like a lot of those recordings were made in a time when production and recording techniques and that stuff that were in their infancy, I think were really, you know, just [there to support] the quality of the song and the quality of the musicians, and things like that. I guess I just subscribe to those ideas. I don’t rely too heavily on effects or editing, or anything like that, so, yes, it just kind of forces you to be focused on the song and that’s definitely where I'm most comfortable, you know.
Yes, certainly the Willie Nelson influence is very clear on a song like “Montreal”, for instance. Right down to the guitar solo.
Yes, absolutely. I get it, but I think I didn’t intend for it to come out that way, but it just did and then it just felt right, so you know. Why would we try to add a whole bunch of stuff to try to get it away from that thing? So, I just kind of let the song be what it is.
Bahamas - "I Got You Babe"
I've read that you were interested in making “quiet music”. I'm curious about what that might mean.
Well, I mean I just think that when you're younger and you're first starting out, you’ve kind of mapped a lot of your inabilities. Sometimes it is like someone will be yelling at you and it’s not so much the content of what they're saying, but the way that they are delivering it that is the moving thing; I guess I wanted to move away from that idea. I just toured a lot, played in different bands, and sort of over the years worked on my idea of how I want to present my own songs. When I started being quieter, I found all this stuff that was just interesting to me in my voice. I liked the idea of just lying next to someone on a pillow and singing in their ear. You wouldn’t think to approach a recording that way, but when I tried that out, I just found a comfortable place there. I think that, as a musician and as a singer, you're just constantly trying to find some way to hear yourself and see yourself in the music, and that seemed to be one way for me to do that, you know.
There seems to be a real affinity here between you and Doug Paisley, who described the making of his album [Constant Companion] to me in similar ways. I mean trying to approach something that felt more intimate than a lot of the stuff he was hearing on the radio.
Yes, well, Doug and I used to be roommates. Yeah, we’re best friends and have toured together, and I've played on his albums and stuff, and absolutely, we definitely subscribe to the same ideas. I think a lot of the ideas for songwriting and production stuff -- I don’t think that our records really come out the same at all -- but I do think that’s part of the reason why we’re friends and why there’s like a real connection there. It’s because there’s an understanding that you want the approach not to get in the way of whatever’s happening, you know?
Speaking of intimacy: Is this a “breakup record”? I mean this not so much as a personal question but more that, as there seems to be a sub-genre in pop music that is defined by artists going through these types of changes, I'm wondering what you think about the idea that this record gets cast as a “breakup record”.
Well, I don’t think that I consciously thought about that. I definitely think that we recorded a lot of songs and loved all those songs. I chose the ones that had some sort of connective narrative, you know, and in this case there is some sort of darker topic and lyrics and things like that in there, but I think the other sort of common thread that runs through all them is that they don’t leave me feeling dark or negative, even though the lyrics can sometimes be born of something sad, you know? I guess the way that they're presented, I am left with some sense of optimism, you know? And so obviously people will try and describe the record as that little breakup album or whatever. And I'm okay with that if it helps people digest the material in some way, or contextualize it. But it doesn’t conjure up any of those images for me, you know? I mean it may be a breakup album, but it doesn’t make me feel that way.
Well, in a song like “Okay, Alright, I'm Alive,” is kind of right there in the title talking about this. There is a grudging acceptance of the happiness. It’s kind of like a “happy blues,” in a sense, right?
Yes, exactly. Exactly. And that’s sort of an idea that I've been exploring for some time. On my first record I have a song called “Sunshine Blues,” which is basically a love song about this person who can just never get the other person to notice them and is sort of constantly in pursuit of that. But [he] is also kind of happy in that position. Somehow you can be happy never actually getting what you want.
Well and the dyad of the joy and sadness I think is maybe how you put it or -- I'm sort of badly paraphrasing -- but -- that duality of emotion that comes along with breaking up seems to be something that motivates your writing on this record.
Yes, for sure. But I try not to get too caught up being worried about over-explaining things or over-describing things. I mean the lyrics are pretty straightforward and, as I said, they're sort of mixed throughout. You can hear them and there is some sort of narrative that runs through the record and…I don’t know. I'm not exactly sure, like if I were to listen to it now, obviously with time your perspective changes, you know, but all of those songs were born from a very different place [than I am in now], right? And so now, obviously, you put something into the world and you start to do interviews and you start to tour and people start to form their own relationships with the songs and then suddenly you kind of have to look back on those songs and try and figure them out again, you know?
We keep talking about the lyrics, the vocals. You're always identified in the press as a guitarist first and foremost. Does it become tiresome to you that critics always emphasize your instrument over your voice?
Well, you know, I don’t know if it becomes tiresome. I don’t have any control over that, you know, but if that’s what people respond to then, well. Of course, that’s part of my history, my musical history, and just part of who I am. I’m flattered that people seem to respond to the guitar playing, because I guess there’s part of me that doesn’t believe that people still like guitar-based music, because there seems to be such an emphasis on synthesizers and drum machines. There’s all kinds of music that’s made with computers, a lot of cool music, but it’s stuff that I don’t know anything about. All of my formative years were spent playing the guitar in rock ‘n’ roll bands, so I guess I'm just grateful that I'm still sort of exploring that world and people seem to be responding to it, you know?
Speaking of computers, this record seems like it's recorded live off the floor, is it not?
Most of it is live off the floor or like with the drums and vocal and guitar and the bass, and then I would go back and just do whatever on guitar or do some backing vocals or stuff like that. But we did a lot of the singing live and I think that sort of influences the recording in a really nice way. You just get a depth of space that you can't really get otherwise. There are certain elements you can kind of fake-create in the mix, but to my ear anyway you can't really fake that. When the drums are in the vocal mic and the guitar is in the drum mics, you sort of have this cross-pollination of sound. You can't fake that and I think that this recording definitely benefits from that, because you get a nice sense of where the band is performing and it really has a character to the sound, you know? Like, on all my favorite recordings you would hear the studio space and the environment that the songs are born from, and a lot of that comes from using one or two mics and the musicians really mixing with the album, and just creating some environments for the song to live in.
I guess that speaks to this idea of the minimalism or the refined nature of the music that we were talking about. It’s that you use space so much. I mean there is a lot of space where somebody else might panic and throw in a flourish or something, and you leave it open and that natural reverb of the room really gets picked up.
More often than not. I will leave space rather than just try and put something in there for the sake of filling it up. That just seems to make sense to me and I suppose that’s just a representation of the rest of my life too. You know like if I'm having a conversation with someone, I will contribute to that conversation as much as possible. I would hope that I wouldn’t try and like, you know, just fabricate something, or say something just for the sake of saying something. I mean I’d rather have awkward dead air than say something for the sake of it, you know?
Is this the mark of somebody who has experience in songwriting and recording? Because it’s the classic sort of curse of the new musician. The first time in the studio they feel like they need to use all the tricks.
Yes. Well, I suppose I am grateful that I have a fair amount of experience recording and just playing with other people, and I think like for me the thing that I really benefit is sort of choosing to play with people that I trust. I just trust their musical instincts. A musical conversation is not unlike any other conversation or relationship. [In life] you just want to find people that you can be yourself with. And that can be the hardest thing, you know? And so to find people that you can play music with really is the equivalent. You just kind of start playing and people respond to you in a certain way and you respond to them, and it really is like a conversation, you know?
Well, your interplay with your drummer [Jason Tait] on this record is, in many ways. what makes the record work. It’s so obvious that you have that rapport.
Well, that’s really flattering --thank you. Yes, I mean I think he’s a really fantastic musician and the more we play together I think that we’ve become better listeners and better partners in some ways. [The two of us] tour without a bass player; it’s just guitar, drums and voice, and so there isn't a lot of room for the two of us to sort of inhabit and you really have to know when to just kind of hold your place and when to step out, because everything is just so exposed, you know? The drums are just so naked and the guitars are very upfront. Some people will look at the guitar and drums and think that you have got to approach it from a White Stripes or heavy rock ‘n’ roll approach, and I just don’t really agree with those ideas. I just think it really is a limitless sort of combination. You can be whatever you want and all of the necessary musical elements are there -- the rhythm and harmonies, and melodies. Playing with a guy like him is really a pleasure, because we can do whatever we want to do, you know?
You tour without a bassist, but you record with one. I wonder if you could talk about how that complicates or, I don’t know, provides opportunities for you when you remove the bass from these songs now and take them out on tour.
It’s not so much a complication anymore, just because we’ve been doing it for so long that the sound just makes sense to me. I've sort of figured out a way to play the guitar where I just play a lot of the bass lines and melodies sort of at the same time. In a way it’s really liberating, because I don’t have to share that sonic space with anyone. I can do whatever I want to, whenever I want to. The songs kind of change from night to night; we have arrangements and we've spent time crafting those songs, but because there is no bass player or no other person that I have to really worry about, I can change chords, I can expand certain sections, and I can really do whatever I want with the songs. And that’s been really liberating and exciting for me over the last few years, to realize that it can be whatever I want it to be.