I’m writing about Canadiana and that quest for “National Identity” … Or at least that’s what I tell Bahamas’ Afie Jurvenen in the awkward first moments of our conversation. And we talked about that but about so much more too. Mostly, we talked about love. And Toronto. And music … and Toronto.
We talked about the elusive quest for what it means to be Canadian. And I had to gush a little. I love Barchords. It’s easily one of my favourite albums of the first half of the year. So we talked about that a bit…
Michelle: It feels like a little secret…
Afie: I hope it doesn’t stay a secret for too long. I suppose there’s some truth to that yeah. When you put something like that into the world it’s an acknowledgement of a secret.
M: So talk me through your creative process. Are you a ritualistic writer?
A: It’s sort of ongoing. I just write songs whenever I can, really. If a little spark of something comes to me I just try and be open to it. And to make time for it. I find that the biggest challenge, making time and giving yourself room for something like that to happen. I’m always writing all the time. It’s a little more difficult when you’re travelling all the time because when you have a free moment you just want to be sleeping. But when I’m home it’s part of my routine, I wake up in the morning and drink coffee and usually pick up the guitar after that.
M: What comes first? The lyrics or the music?
A: Usually it’s the lyrics. More often the not the lyrics come first and those inspire the melody and generally kind of dictate how the song should be. I just try and get out of the way a little. In the past when I have tried to muscle things around too much, either lyrically or musically they just sound too contrived or something. I know it’s cliché to say but the best songs are the ones you don’t have to work too hard for. I think other things in life are kind of like that too. The best relationships, the ones you really have to work at, there’s probably a reason. And the ones that come naturally and communication feels right and you feel comfortable in the presence of that person is probably the person you should be next to … Mostly I compose on guitar. I don’t have a piano at home, I have a little electronic keyboard but I don’t play it very often. I’d love to have a piano someday.
M: Where do you find your inspiration?
A: Definitely from my experience. I think the songs are personal and the lyrics are pretty direct. It’s part of my process to deal with a lot of failed communication—to embrace that idea in the songs. There’s definitely some darker material lyrically on the record, I recognize that. The thing I’m happiest with this record is that the way the lyrics are framed against the melodies and arrangements doesn’t leave me feeling down, I don’t feel like it’s downer album. In fact I feel it’s sort of the opposite. In some ways it’s very cathartic. The whole record just leaves me feeling very optimistic when I listen to it.
M: I love that it feels like there’s a hopeful tone after a lot of heartache. Country music is fucking sad. Are you a country boy? Is that an accurate place to situate yourself in the huge world of impossible to classify?
A: Well, I love country music. In fact, these days probably more than anything else that’s what I listen to when I’m just by myself playing guitar or whatever. I spend a fair amount of time playing that kind of music. It’s interesting because in Toronto there seems to be a bit of alt-country or Americana or whatever—and I don’t necessarily subscribe to those ideas—but in a city like Toronto there are those types of bands. Whereas in Montreal that doesn’t really exist. They don’t really understand cowboy music. I do think it’s kind of interesting that for whatever reason Toronto has more akin with south Carolina than with it’s immediate neighbours. I love country music but I wouldn’t call myself a country artist, especially not in the modern definition. I guess I just feel like there’s a lot of different types of music I would like to explore and that’s just one of the worlds I hang out in. Artistically I know my ambition is to make a lot of different types of albums over the course of many years. I don’t want to have too many road maps because I think maps are dangerous, I think sometimes you just have to go with your instincts.
M: And the draw of country music? Is it the honesty?
A: Yeah, I think so. I think that people have been writing songs from that standpoint from basically as long as popular songs have existed and going back to that rich well and will continue to do because it’s just the thing that’s a constant in all our lives. And it’s elusive too, it’s that big sort of mystery. And what works for two people doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else. Everyone’s thing is their own. People spend so much energy thinking about it, working on it, being frustrated about it and ultimately writing songs is just a big extension of all those feelings.
M: Where do you go time and time again? Who has moved you musically?
A: Willie Nelson—I’m just mildly addicted. It’s a rare thing. Him and Neil Young and Bob Dylan. People who are continuing some sort of traditional song writing and obviously they are also innovators and people who broke a lot of ground in music. And while I think that’s really difficult to do I think you have to try.
M: So who of your Toronto colleagues are you loving? Who’s getting you hot these days?
A: Doug Paisley! He’s a great, great songwriter. We hang out and play guitar and every once in a while he’ll show me a new song and they are consistently strong.
M: So what does it mean to be Canadian songwriter? Is there something that makes Canadian music unique?
A: Obviously I’m proud to be Canadian and there’s epic beauty from coast to coast but that being said, it has no connection to my songwriting. I don’t really think about being a Canadian when I’m writing songs, it’s just more of a visceral emotional thing. That’s not to say I won’t ever. There are a lot of songs by artists that I really respect that embrace that “being Canadian”. We’re a small country and we’re next to a large country and so for a lot of artists I can understand why they would want to react to that and embrace that.
M: Do you think there’s something that sets a Canadian musician apart from our big bad neighbours? An attitude if not a songwriting style?
A: There’s probably an underdog attitude. It does seem a little bit difficult to get attention when you start touring in America. There’s so many great records coming out all the time and so many bands touring that when you’re in Toronto or Halifax and you’re calling down asking for a gig I think it does harden people and makes you feel like a bit of an underdog. And when you do get those opportunities you want to make the most of them. If it’s anything it’s unconscious, I don’t know many artists that would consciously react to that. I mean, I think that there’s people like Joel Plaskett and really embrace being Canadian and reference certain towns and imagery in his songs and he does it really well. And people have been doing that in Irish folk music and country music. But I am not sure it’s a specifically Canadian thing—you sing about you know really and it just so happens that I’m Canadian.
M: Tour’s going well? Exhausting?
A: Yep. And that’s part of being in a band. You kind of have to get into that routine. I like it. It’s a routine I start to look forward to when I’m at home. But I can’t really complain. You put out a record and you hope people respond in some way. I’m grateful to get the opportunity to go out and play because you don’t always get that.
A couple of days later I had the pleasure of seeing Bahamas perform a very intimate show at a small club in downtown Edmonton. The room was packed and silent while he played, all ears turned towards a charismatic front man telling deep dark secrets of long lost loves and missed communications. He is a man who tells it like it is. Between songs he is calm, charming, funny and a bit sarcastic. Without a doubt he is grabbing those opportunities and kicking everyone’s ass along the way.