If it weren’t for AmericanaFest 2021, I probably never would have heard of the Grahams, much less met and interviewed them. That’s sort of ironic, considering the husband-and-wife duo comprised of Doug and Alyssa Graham didn’t get invited to officially play at the four-day festival in September that brought more than 200 acts into Nashville for showcases and intriguing special events.
Our scheduled interview was tied into the Grahams’ brief afternoon appearance at one of those delightfully surprising and harmonious gatherings (which they co-hosted). After hearing some of their music — including that abbreviated set and the three-song EP Sha La La to be released Friday (15 October) — I’m not sure why the entertaining and outspoken twosome ever get passed over.
These East Coast transplants are probably wondering, too, judging by the refreshingly frank comments they made right from the get-go when their absence from the guest list of AmericanaFest 2021 acts was pointed out.
The Grahams, after all, seem like a truly rare and adventurous pair who — while dodging genres or comfortable niches — like to create innovative sounds and alternative-thinking projects or films on their terms. Releasing three full-length studio albums starting with 2013’s Riverman’s Daughter, they’ve somehow traveled under the radar for other westerners like myself. Yet, a built-in stubbornness persists that prevents tough times and personal struggles from derailing their lifelong love for each other or their music.
This interview took place in an upstairs bedroom on an East Nashville property they own while living elsewhere in Nashville with their two-year-old daughter Georgette. “Her initials are GIG [for Georgette Ida Graham],” points out Alyssa, who is eagerly awaiting her arrival shortly after this chat. “So we always like to say every other gig was just a soundcheck.”
Originally from the New York-New Jersey area, the married couple were childhood sweethearts, longtime singing-songwriting partners, and now co-owners and co-operators of 3 Sirens Studio, described as “a hidden, invite-only East Nashville space”. In rooms filled with instruments like vintage keyboards, along with chandeliers and sweeping murals of nude women and grinning skeleton skulls, there’s also a New York State of mind — and attitude — percolating within its confines.
Providing snappy repartee as priceless as twice-as-nice vocals, their commitment to deep compassion and devotion (but not without differences of opinion) is evident. They’ll often repeat or finish each other’s sentences. So several exchanges (edited for clarity and, believe it or not, brevity) between the two are highlighted here, offering a glimpse inside the Grahams’ surreal world. Enjoy following this fine line of discussion, then compare their answers in a special “Two for the (Game) Show” series of Americana-Fast.
AmericanaFest Snub Hubbub
Certainly not one to hold back in conversation and told any “off the record comments” would be excluded, Alyssa immediately jokes, “I’ve been in this position before. Strike it from the record!” (laughs) So the subject naturally turns to AmericanaFest’s 2021 lineup.
Alyssa: Yeah, they don’t give us any love.
Q: Why not?
Alyssa: I mean, I’m just bitter. (laughs)
Doug: Bitter and jaded. Not a big deal.
Alyssa: No, I’m joking, but we’ve done AmericanaFest, I think two or three times. This year we didn’t get much love. But I think there are so many artists just because of the pandemic that have released things in the last few months because it’s like, “Oh, wow, we can go out and make music again. Let’s get something out there. And the Americana conference is coming up.”
Then there’s Nashville …
Alyssa: We are from Jersey, and we’re New Yorkers and feel like we’ve been down in Nashville for six or seven years. It’s an interesting community down here.
Q: Interesting how?
Alyssa: Well, I’m going to be the poster child (laughs) for like the anti-Nashville (laughing) … No. You know what? I love Nashville.
Doug: We both love Nashville a lot. It’s an amazing city.
Alyssa: We live here. We love it. We opened 3 Sirens here so we could build an artistic community that shares our sort of view of the world and art. But I do think it’s a hard town to make your way in if you’re not from here. Or even if, maybe I dare say, you’re not from the South. I think that we’re New Yorkers, and I’m not using that as an excuse of why we haven’t been, like, paraded around town. I’m just saying it’s a feeling. You feel like an outsider. Even after seven, eight years.
Doug: That’s probably just on us.
Alyssa: But we love it here.
Later, when asked to clarify their AmericanaFest history:
Doug: We play all over the country, but we rarely play in Nashville.
Alyssa: We’ve played AmericanaFest, though. I think three years? Two or three years?
Doug: Two years.
Alyssa: And then [festival organizers] said, “Oh, you’re from New York.”
Doug: Then they said, “Take a year off, and then you’ll have a new record out.” And then they said “no” to that next time. Then there were “maybe” a couple of other times where we just got passed up. You know, I sound like I’m bitter (fake crying) and upset by it. (Alyssa laughs) But the honest truth is, like, it’s cool. They were working their hardest to try and get new people in.
Alyssa: And I respect that.
Doug: So it’s all good. We do feel it, though. But at the same time, we love this community. We don’t care about it that much, but we’re just telling you because it’s just (fake crying again) …
Alyssa: Well, you’re telling everyone because you’re on the record right now. We’re not shy about it.
The Grahams purchased the property serving as home base for 3 Sirens “about two or three years ago,” according to Alyssa. “And we’ve been slowly building it into just this artistic vision that we have for a space. We’re going back to the ’60s with Greenwich Village. That Greenwich Village scene of musicians collaborating and sharing artistic ideas and developing sounds and helping to develop artists, which we don’t feel like happens that much anymore. We have so many talented people from this town and other towns. They get passed up a lot because they don’t have the right story or they don’t have the right look.”
Alyssa and Doug brainstormed with “our partner in crime,” producer/engineer Dexter Green, who runs the studio and lives on the property. Not just anyone can call to book the studio space, though.
Bands (along with their producers) need an invitation to record at 3 Sirens, with an added bonus. Also allowed to stay there during the days they’re recording can be a “dream” experience for all involved, Doug believes. While not charging the artists they invite, the real challenge he contends, will be “trying to keep it secret at the same time. How do we do that?” (laughs)
Creating 3 Sirens
Doug: We did a session where we got together with David [Garza, at Austin’s South by Southwest in 2016]. He wanted to get together with John Doe of X, and we organized a session. Alyssa, myself, and David at a studio in Austin where we played. “OK, we get three songs, three different artists. They get three days to make a record, and we’ll put out three artists a year.” So John Doe was our first.
Alyssa: We didn’t have this property [at the time]. We were kind of creating these sessions that were, you know, no audience, no cellphones, no big instruments. Just a single guitar and the artists. So John Doe came and did the first one, and it was amazing. It was just something you don’t get from John Doe that often.
Doug: And we just released it on our [3 Sirens] website.
Alyssa: We released it to all his fans for free just for people to see a different side. We did the same thing with [Ben] Kweller and then Garza. Then we decided we really want to develop this idea and do more.
Doug: Do more. It’s too small. We need more room to grow.… We need partners. If we’re really gonna do this, let’s not just make out, make three records, and put them out.
Alyssa: Not just make out? We can’t make out?
Doug: Let’s make out after this interview.
Doug (laughing): But let’s do something bigger. That’s ultimately what it is. There’s an idea that as a musician, you have to be great. OK, we all want to be great artists. We all want to have everyone recognize that. But then you might get to a point like we did, where you’re like, “OK, we feel good. We’re pretty good.” But there’s more than just being a great musician.
Alyssa: That’s right.
Doug: There’s more. It’s just like being a great musician is small.
Alyssa: It’s not small.
Doug: Let’s do something more important that’s not necessarily about us or with us. It’s something that’s other than us. We can make it bigger than the Grahams could ever be. …
Alyssa: It’s still happening. We’re working with such great people. The people we surround ourselves with are only people that we like. It’s not that it’s exclusive, but again it’s this quiet, invitation-only, either you know us, or you know Dex, or you know somebody that knows one of us or you know some of the people that work for us. We’ve had a lot of artists need a place to get away from it all and come in here and use the space for videos or writing sessions, or live recordings. So it makes it easy for us to develop it because it’s just word of mouth now. Once somebody has been here and done something in the space, they want to come back. Or they want to tell their friends about it.
Doug: We’ll see what’s next.
Alyssa: I am obsessed with [American author and poet] Gertrude Stein. We had that idea of bringing artists together in a safe space so they can just do stuff that maybe their label wouldn’t let them do or doesn’t want them to do. Or people that need a little development. So we’re also going to be putting out some [artist] records on the 3 Sirens label. You know, we’ve been there.
Alyssa (asked to cite examples): The first record’s going to come out next year. It’s [East Nashville-based singer-songwriter] Derek Hoke. So those sessions that we first started in Austin … that side of it will be more us putting out artists, developing artists. That’s our dream.
Luck on Their Side
Like many other musicians, the Grahams’ live event schedule since the pandemic was put on hold, replaced by virtual shows after the release of their most recent full-length album, Kids Like Us, on March 26, 2020. “Perfect timing,” Alyssa notes sarcastically before Doug quickly adds with a laugh, “Right before the big European tour.” (United Kingdom dates for 2022 were announced recently.)
Without an AmericanaFest 2021 invite, they essentially went rogue during the week of the 22-25 September event, playing for Paste Magazine that Monday, the 5 Spot on Tuesday, then concluding the week as one of 10 acts recording for the Luck Mansion Sessions in their own studio.
The two-day (23-24 September) private event co-hosted by 3 Sirens and Luck Presents before a limited audience required, like at most AmericanaFest’s venues, proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test (within the last 72 hours), with masks worn inside. Audio and video of the recorded sessions will be made available at a later date.
Thursday’s guest performers — each playing three or four songs — included Valerie June, Allison Russell, and future 3 Sirens artist Hoke. The Grahams, emerging roots star Sierra Ferrell, and Marcus King topped Friday’s bill. Russell, one-half of the Birds of Chicago duo who recently made her impressive solo album debut with Outside Child, gave a knockout performance at the Americana Music Honors and Awards show on 22 September, then found a new fan the next day at these sessions. “Oh my God. She blew me away,” Alyssa proclaims. “I’d never heard of her, never seen her.”
Regarding how this event came together, Alyssa adds, “We worked with Luck [Presents] on sort of developing what would be good for the co-brand. We actually had originally a list of like 30 musicians that we wanted to approach and talk to. We kind of whittled it down between the 3 Sirens team and the Luck team to come up with what would give people the best experience. …”
Of course, Alyssa caps it with a joke, saying, “You know, we just get a kickback being able to play. (She and Doug laugh) No, but they’ve been really nice to us.”
The Grahams — backed by bassist Aaron Boehler and drummer Paddy Ryan — opened their four-song session with the poppy “Don’t Give Your Heart Away” (from Kids Like Us, with its music video premiering in 2020 at PopMatters). Then Alyssa prematurely began to introduce “a song we wrote for the late, great Richard Swift” before realizing, “Oh, oops, this is not the song. … The next one will be, though.”
“Beyond the Palisades”, a rousing Broadway-like number from Sha La La, preceded “Searching the Milky Way”, their Kids Like Us song for Swift, who reportedly suffered from alcohol addiction and died on 3 July 2018 at the tender age of 41. The former member of the Shins and other bands “started producing our record Kids Like Us and sadly passed away in the middle of it,” Alyssa explains.
Before the Grahams closed with “Lay Me Down”, a gospel-tinged tune from 2016’s Glory Bound, there was this heartfelt onstage exchange between the loving couple.
Alyssa: Doug and I have been together for most of our lives, and he kind of saved me, I think, from everything.
Doug: You’re telling my story.
Alyssa: Yeah, but you’re always protecting me.