Features Interviews Sticky Explores Bahamas

Sticky Explores Bahamas

Article by: Colton Eddy

A sweeping interview with Bahamas' Afie Jurvanen.

Elvis Costello, Sam Roberts and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy selected him as their opener, and his resume reflects work with the highly-respected likes of Feist, Broken Social Scene, Amy Millan and Zeus. If you haven't heard of him by now, this Toronto-based singer-songwriter's unique melodic blend of country-flecked heartache and Sunday-afternoon soul is an island surely worth exploring.

Afie Jurvanen (a.k.a. Bahamas) dropped his acclaimed sophomore album Barchords a short time ago. His first album, Pink Strat, earned a Juno nod and a nomination for the 2010 Polaris Music Prize and this much-needed second helping of his sedate acoustic croon has proven it wasn't a fluke. I caught up with Afie in the heart of CBC's Atrium, and we talked love, death and cereal.

Sticky: A lot of people, especially American journalists, are immediately comparing you to Jack Johnson.

Bahamas: [Laughs] Well yeah, I cant say I was familiar with his music. I mean, I don’t live under a rock, I knew who he was. But I think the name of my band goes a long way for sort of conjuring up images for some people. I didn’t intend it that way.

Sticky: What did you intend?

Bahamas: Well, I mean, I just have a weird name and I liked that. I liked the idea of having a name for a project and my band. I can play solo or I can play with a band and I just like the idea of having a name to encompass the whole thing and inevitably I think you know that you’re going to be compared and referenced toward certain things musically, and obviously there’s certain musical things in my past that people still want to reference. And that’s totally fine, I just think that’s just normal, you know?

Sticky: Right. And you made that choice to go for simplicity rather than the style you were playing with Feist, Jason Collett, or Zeus, and obviously that has something to do with deciding to name the album Barchords.

Bahamas: For sure - the whole idea. First of all, my first record was named after a guitar, and yeah, I just kind of like the idea of embracing my past as a guitar player. Then, of course, Barchords are the simplest form of getting something across. You hear them in punk-rock. You hear them in country music, heavy metal, and beyond that, I’ve come from playing with bands in much bigger venues, theatres and this kind of stuff. So, when I started playing my own music, driving my own car and walking with my guitar, playing in bars... it really was return to basics, in a beautiful way. I kind of relished it and I think a lot of these songs were born of that spirit. That idea.

Sticky: Traveler’s music or mindset?

Bahamas: Yeah! But something elemental, you know? I didn’t have grand ambitions to make something sort of Radiohead-like, using a studio, some sonic instruments...

Sticky: You decided to record it completely live, right?

Bahamas: Yeah, we did most of the recording live. I just sort of don’t have the patience to sit there tinkering with all kinds of different sounds. I find that, for my music, I like to surround myself with players that I trust, you know? So I’m not giving a lot of direction - we start playing and generally they figure out what they should be doing.

Sticky: At what point did you decide this is what I want to do? Was it a concert, an album?

Bahamas: Well, I think it was just in high school. Your friends are so influential. Peer pressure (the good kind and the bad kind) are very much a reality, conscious of it or not. In my case, all my friends bought guitars and so, you know, I wanted one. And I would just play their guitars until I could save and get my own. It gave me music, the same way sports came with a whole social structure, and when my friends and I hung out, we played music and very quickly formed bands; we became a part of this wider community. And in some ways. like twenty years later, I’m still doing the same thing. like hanging out with the same guys. Like the Zeus guys. I went to school with those guys and all my formative musical experiences were with them... we went to high school together, played in bands all through high school, toured a ton together over the years and we were all Jason Collett’s backing band. Then basically I went away to play with Feist, and those guys, at the point, formed Zeus and started making a record. So, I came home from the Feist tour and thought, ‘Well what am I going to do?’ That’s more or less when I started Bahamas and started putting out my own records.

Sticky: Had you been writing before that?

Bahamas: Yeah I was, yeah yeah. I’ve been writing songs for a long time. But Bahamas is sort of the first time that I’ve been committed to my own music and said no to playing other people’s music. It takes a lot of time being in a band.

Sticky: [On the new album] you sing, “I feel like it’s all been done.”

Bahamas: Yeah, It’s just this idea of music and also about relationships or humanity in some way. It’s very hard to be an innovator, you know? I think most musicians will tell you that they’ve strived to innovate, but the reality is that it’s hard. It’s really hard now to do that and you kind of have to be okay with it. You have to know that. Accept that and then make something in the face of that. There is the joy in that kind of acceptance, you know?

Sticky: Acceptance seems to be a recurring theme on the album. Acceptance of moving on. Do you ever record when you’re not in that mindset? How do you get to that?

Bahamas: The songwriting is basically born of some emotional thing, generally in the moment. There are times when my memory of some moment is strong enough where I can use that to write a song, you know? Yeah, most of my songs are so direct that they’re born of that moment. So, I’m not someone who says that I’m going to sit down and write an album or I’m going to go to Jamaica and write a song. I’m just always writing songs and once you have enough of them you sort of look and decide which ones go together and have some sort of thematic relationship.

Sticky: How would you sum up this album in one word?

Bahamas: I would call it my second record [laughs]. The thing is, it’s a dark record lyrically, but I think it doesn’t feel that way when I hear it. I think it’s just part of my process to deal with that sort of stuff musically in some sort of light way. And "Okay, I’m Alive" is an example of that, where there are some dark themes in there but the melodies and the spirit of the song doesn’t leave me feeling depressed. It’s some other feeling.

Sticky: Some people fall back on Pink Strat as a self-help salvation. Is there any album for you that you grab for depression or despair?

Bahamas: Well I think that Willie Nelson’s Stardust has for sure been a fixture in my life for a long time. And whatever he’s singing about – I mean, he’s not even singing his own songs on that album – I just believe every word. Something about his voice speaks to me.

Sticky: Is it ever a thought to emulate that in your song-writing?

Bahamas: No, no, no. As I say, I wouldn’t say I try to emulate that at all. I think it’s only natural that those things come through if they really are close to you. And if somebody picks up on that, shit... I would be flattered. I think he’s one of the best singers in the world. The hardest part and the thing that you strive for all the time is just to hear your own voice reflected back at you in some way that makes sense in some way that you’re comfortable with. It’s like when you look in a mirror and some days you’re looking back at yourself like, ‘Is that what I look like?’ And there’s others days that you look at yourself and you’re like ‘Yeah, you know, I’m okay with that’. I think that music is that way too. I just want to be able to hear something twenty years from now and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s true'. I’d be proud to stand next to that thing now. You don’t want to do anything now that isn’t “me” because that will wear thin very quickly.

Sticky: What gave you that type of mentality? Was there a mentor that led you in that direction?

Bahamas: Neil Young, Willie Nelson and all those guys are musical reference points that are guides that helped me sort of subscribe to that sort of ideal. Of course, there are trends in music, the same way that there are trends in fashion or anything else. And in cuisine or whatever, but the bacon and eggs are always there, you know?

Sticky: Speaking of food, let’s compare musicians to cereals. What would Feist be? Zeus? Yourself?

Bahamas: [laughs] Oh. Wow. Well, I think that I would be Life. Boring old Life. It’s like slightly sweet and you just go back to it. You don’t know why. You’re looking down the cereal aisle and there’s all these beautiful cereals with flashy colours and flavours and for whatever reason you just grab the box of Life and head to the check out. I want to be Life cereal. Zeus on the other hand, they put everything they can in there. So I don’t know what they are, Froot Loops?

Sticky and Bahamas, simultaneously: Lucky Charms.

Bahamas: [laughs] Or something, you know? Sometimes that’s what you need. You need to get a little bit of everything at the same time.

Sticky: Back to the lyrics, do you have to be experiencing heartbreak to give that impression of suffering?

Bahamas: Well [laughs] I mean obviously, the answer is yes for me. They’re not born of... I’m not making it up. So the answer is yes! The songs are personal and I’ve tried in the past to write songs with more metaphors of ways of sort of shrouding those ideas. And then again, I end up hearing it and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I don’t hear my voice in that sense. More often than not I go back to this place that’s just the most direct route. It’s more honest.

Sticky: When did you know it was time to go and record the new album? You played most of the songs on tour for so long.

Bahamas: Well, we recorded it some time ago. We had been on tour and the band was just playing well.  I more or less just play with a drummer so the band is just me and the drummer. After my first record was released in America, we toured down there and we will be again doing so in the new year. But yeah, we had just been touring for a while and it’s not that we’ve been playing a ton of new songs, but our musical relationship is just like any other: either it grows in a positive direction over time or you grow a part. I’ve very much grown close to Jason and there’s some unspoken musical lexicon between us that I’m really grateful for, and I’m sure it's not uncommon to other people in other bands.

Sticky: One last question: If you could decide what song to play at your funeral, what would it be?

Bahamas: At my funeral I’d like to hear “No One But You” by Doug Paisley. He’s a dear friend of mine and something about the sound of his voice speaks to me. Maybe it’ll speak to me beyond the grave.

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