This seems like the right time for the genesis of the Grahams’ origin story, told directly by them.
When Doug Met Alyssa
Alyssa: The first time we met …
Doug: I was playing baseball.
Alyssa: He was on my brother’s Little League team.
Doug: He was second base, and I was left field.
Q: How old were you?
Alyssa: I was seven.
Doug: I was like ten, I guess.
Alyssa: I was in the stands with my parents.
Doug: Yeah, I remember just being like, “Oh, Andrew’s sister is looking kind of cute.”
Alyssa (feigning shock): I WAS 7!
Doug: I know, but I was [thinking] like … the word is compelling. Somehow I was compelled to this one. I think most people will probably get that. But we met, sort of like interacted randomly until we were in high school.
Q: So you’re weren’t girlfriend/boyfriend then?
Alyssa: [That happened] when I was a freshman in high school. … He was friends with my brother my whole life. Then, when I was a freshman, he was a senior. He was in a band with my brother, and they would rehearse at my house. And my brother, I love him so much, but he’s not like a bright ray of sunshine. He’s the best but …
Q: What’s your brother’s name?
Doug: But he would be laying flat on the bed, and I’d be in the room, saying like, “So what are we doing?” And he’d be like, “I don’t know.” I’m like, “I’m just gonna go see what Alyssa’s doing.” (laughs)
Alyssa: So we would just start hanging out, and we went to Grateful Dead shows together and started playing guitars together. And then, one day, I think we had already fallen for each other.
Q: When did you officially become a couple?
Alyssa: I was 15. We went to my homecoming and my prom. And then we went on a hike together one day after high school. I was still in high school. He was out.
Q: This was where?
Alyssa (raising her voice for effect): This was NEW JERSEY! New Jersey strong.
Doug: Northern New Jersey. (laughs)
Alyssa: Can’t you tell by the hair? Like [My Cousin Vinny’s] Marisa Tomei. (Pounding her foot on the floor) “My biological clock is ticking like that.” Anyway, sorry, guys.
Doug: There’s recording going on. (nervous laughter)
Alyssa: It’s my house. But anyway, we went hiking and talked and talked about music, and I had just started playing guitar, but I was singing. And when we were done hiking, we sat on the hood of my Honda Accord, and Doug started teaching me about harmonies. You know, as a 15-year-old, you’re just singing the songs. You’re not thinking about meshing voices. He taught me about intervals and harmony and started giving me examples. We started singing harmonies together. And we were like …
Doug: We love music and each other. (laughs)
Alyssa: We love music. And we love each other. That was it.
The Grahams prefer not to reveal their ages or the year they were married but do disclose that they’ll celebrate a major anniversary on 22 November (“We just got rings for it, too,” Alyssa states). The wedding ceremony took place at Pleasantdale Chateau in West Orange, New Jersey, two years after the newlyweds first tied the knot in Dharamsala, India.
Yet it was that profession of love when she was 15 that began their career as a duo, starting as the Electric Company in high school, then according to Doug, “a pretty successful band in college called Blindman’s Holiday” out of Ithaca, New York (where Alyssa went to college), for five years. They waited until Alyssa Hope Altschul became Alyssa Graham before performing “a lot of stuff” under her name. Now knowing their progression, what follows is …
How They Became the Grahams
Doug: We were doing a record called Riverman’s Daughter. We were doing a record under Alyssa Graham’s name.
Alyssa: Making it.
Doug: We were making it, and my mom passed away. And we were basically just evaluating life like anybody might and we both kind of came to the realization that the ego is less important these days. Let’s put our last name on it; everybody just calls us that anyway. “Hey, the Grahams are here.”
Alyssa: And we were doing a lot more harmonizing.
Doug: We broke it down after my mom passed away. That’s when we broke it down into just simple folk music.
Alyssa: That was 2013. That’s when our first record was recorded as the Grahams.
Doug: And that’s why it’s so Americana. Because that had happened in our lives and that’s what Americana sort of came from. That first Carter Family song is about the loss of their mother. So diving into music that’s about that brings you into Americana instantly. So we were just praying or whatever you want to call it for those first couple of records. Getting all that out. Once we got that out, then we were like, “OK, now can we rock out? Can we play some rock now? (laughs) Can we get some synths in here?”
As if worrying about COVID-19 last year wasn’t enough, the Grahams — specifically, Alyssa — faced other major health concerns following the birth of their daughter, including postpartum depression, a wrist injury that required surgery, and a vocal hemorrhage.
“Now I have a pseudocyst that I’ve been in vocal therapy for,” Alyssa reports. “I’m scheduled for surgery that I’m hoping I don’t need to get because the therapy is working really well. Like two months ago, I couldn’t sing.”
Also developing a condition called de Quervain’s tenosynovitis (mommy’s wrist, in layman’s terms) that was caused by constantly lifting and carrying her then-1-year-old during a pandemic when “we had no family around, no siblings,” she underwent surgery. Eight weeks of recovery followed before she could play guitar. “So I had a bum wrist, bum vocal cords. There were other things.”
So how did they manage to find time to work on their Sha La La EP? “In the year of the pandemic where there’s nothing else to do?” Alyssa jokingly replies.
“We were able to get together with [producer] Dan Molad [who co-produced Kids Like Us] and Dex Green, and the four of us holed up here and just had scraps of songs and were like, ‘Can we just make some music that no one will ever have to hear? Let’s just make songs that don’t have endings or beginnings,'” Doug recalls. “We were just kind of fooling around and kind of put together these three songs and totally loved them.”
They include recent singles “Beyond the Palisades” and “Pilgrims and Punks” (with this live version now available) along with “Love Collector”, an epic treatment reminiscent of ’60s girls groups and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound that will yield an upcoming music video.
Needing to be reminded about the original question regarding the EP, Alyssa responds, “This was a welcome distraction to come here and just bang out some sounds. And that’s what we intended to do. … It was the first time we went into the studio without 16 perfectly crafted songs ready to go.”
They’ve also been writing material for what they promise will be a full-length album release in 2022. “And you know what?” Alyssa concludes. “Everything’s not that precious. The only thing that’s precious is our daughter and each other. And the songs? They’re just windows in time. That’s all.”
Even when it’s difficult to know when to take them seriously, the Grahams don’t hide their feelings about a few sure things in their life — love, family, and the music they hope to keep making. Seriously.
The Grahams play Americana-Fast:
Two for the (Game) Show Edition
How many of the same random questions can each of you answer in 60 seconds? Since this is tailored for duos, let’s have only one of you in the room at a time so the other won’t hear your answers, then we’ll reveal them together for comparison’s sake.
Alyssa: I’ll go first. I’m really bad at this shit.
Who’s the boss?
Alyssa: Me. He would say the same thing. He’s got a much more easygoing temperament and I’m much more of an organized sort of aggressive bulldog.
Doug: Alyssa, clearly. Duh!
Who’s the more competitive between the two of you?
Alyssa: I don’t think either of us are really competitive. But between the two of us, probably me. (laughs)
Doug: Definitely her. Come on. She said me, but definitely her.
Who’s the more levelheaded?
Alyssa: Probably me.
Doug: Me. I’m calmer. I can take it all in better than she can.
How do you settle arguments?
Alyssa: Oh, he wins. He talks and talks and talks them out for hours and hours and hours.
Doug: Talk them out. (laughs) There’s a lot of talking out. A lot of letting the other person win for both of us, honestly.
Duo that was the biggest influence on your career or music?
Alyssa: Oh, very good question. (Alarm goes off) Am I past the 60 seconds? (Yeah, but go ahead and answer) Duo? I mean, Neil Young was the most influential person. God, I really don’t know.
Doug: It’s not a duo. Crosby, Stills and Nash is something for harmonies. Neil Young is such a big influence on us. It’s hard to break down. Are we supposed to say Stills and Young Band? (laughs)
Alyssa (returning after thinking of an answer): I’ll tell you a favorite duo. Heart. (laughs, contending the two Wilson sisters are the Heart of the group)
Favorite movie-star couple or TV couple?
Alyssa: Hmmmm. I loved Salma Hayek and Ed Norton when they were together. They’re kinda like us. (laughs)
Doug: I’d probably have to go all the way back to … (pausing to ponder) It was Lucy and Desi [Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz).
Festival that now tops your to-do list?
Alyssa: I want to play the Long Road festival [north of London, rescheduled for 26-28 August 2022].
Doug: I’d love to play festivals. I don’t have a favorite one. Luck Reunion [in Luck Texas, scheduled for 17 March 2022]. How about that one?
This is the second in a post-AmericanaFest series of interviews with artists who appeared in Nashville from September 22-25. See photos here, and read the wrap-up and more AmericanaFest 2021 coverage at PopMatters.