The Caribbean-monikered, Canadian-based musician returns with his strongest release to date, Bahamas is Afie; plays Philly’s Boot & Saddle tonight
At age 33, Afie Jurvanen says he’s finally starting to feel comfortable in his own skin when he takes the stage or enters the studio. In fact, the Juno Award-nominated musician (think the Grammy’s for our neighbors to the north) is feeling so confident in his solo artistic abilities that for the first time he’s attached his name to his musical project, Bahamas.
The Toronto-based rocker’s newest album – the August release Bahamas is Afie – features 12 tracks of some of his most personal songs to date, including the song “Bitter Memories” (which recalls a difficult breakup with lines like “Though the memory of us, is sweeter than we really were/Wouldn’t trade all those bitter memories for her”) and “Can’t Take You With Me” (a song dealing with finding a new love with the lyrics “So now I’ll leave behind, all that once was mine/I can’t take you with me where I’m going”).
That’s not to say Jurvanen has constantly been dealing with heartbreak and loss since releasing his 2012 critically acclaimed album Barchords. He got married two years ago (which he says is “basically 45 minutes in marriage years”), and his wife’s wedding ring is depicted on the cover of Bahamas is Afie.
In a way, Jurvanen did divorce himself from past recording methods, moving away from using a full band to playing a majority of instruments in his friend’s basement studio in Toronto last summer. He says the solo process allowed him to explore a musical soundscape he was never able to achieve in the past.
Jurvanen returned to touring last month, opening up for the likes of Wilco and Jack Johnson. We caught up with him last week as he prepared to play at the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival in Frederickton, New Brunswick, where we talked about his appreciation of vintage items, modern technology and recording by himself.
Fly Magazine: I saw the lineup for the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival, and it looked pretty impressive – people like Dr. John, Robert Randolph & the Family Band and Blues Traveler.
Afie Jurvanen: Yeah, it claims to be a blues festival, but I don’t really have the blues. I’m talking to you on an iPhone, so it’s hard to say you actually have the blues when you have an Apple product in your hand.
FM: Are you going to get the iWatch?
AJ: I don’t think I’ll wait in line [laughs]. I have a watch, and it’s been working pretty good. I tend to like things that do one function. I was the slow adopter of the camera phone. I had a camera and a phone for a long time, and now I’ve kind of given in on that. I like my watch. It tells the time really, really well, so I’ll just let it keep doing that.
FM: Are you still a fan of old products versus new products?
AJ: Absolutely. From an aesthetic standpoint, I always gravitate to the older things just because I think there was a lot more effort put into them out of necessity. Things from the ’50s I really seem to gravitate towards. Most of the guitars I play are from the ’50s. Everything just looked cool back then – cars looked cool, refrigerators looked cool, fashion was cool. I think a lot of things reached their zenith from an aesthetic standpoint at that point. It’s not like I’m a Luddite. I’m not trying to live in the past. But the iWatch – I’ll probably leave that for later.
FM: Do you think the quality or lack of quality has carried over to music being made today?
AJ: Geez, I don’t know. I think that people’s tastes have really evolved. Hip hop music is basically pop music now – that’s what white suburban kids are listening to, that’s what everybody’s listening to. So that has such a huge influence on how music is produced and the way music is sold and marketed. I’m a little bit oblivious by choice. The songs that I write don’t necessarily fit in with that stuff, or maybe not as immediately as some other music does. It’s not my attempt to be retro or something like that. I don’t really want to be a throwback act. I’m trying to write new songs and find some perspective that’s my own. Of course, I’m living in a modern age – I’m living in the age of the iWatch and the cell phone and all these other things. I guess I do try to reflect that in the writing.
FM: When did Bahamas is Afie start to take shape?
AJ: I started writing most of those songs about three years ago. I got this guitar that was made in Maine. It’s the only new instrument that I’ve ever owned and kind of accidentally found it. It kind of changed the way I played guitar. I started playing very differently, and because of that I started writing these songs. It was kind of around the time that my last record was coming out. I’ve come to realize that’s basically the cycle you get on. It takes a few years between when you write the songs, when you record them and ultimately when the album comes out. You’re always waiting for something. It’s a good exercise to be ok with just waiting.
FM: Did you buy the guitar in Maine?
AJ: No. I bought the guitar in Toronto, but it was made by Dana Bourgeois, who’s in Maine. We’re going to Maine tomorrow, so part of me is hoping the band is in to a little bit of a detour. We could stop by the shop. It’s in Lewiston, Me. It’s not that far from where we’re staying. But you have to make sure the drummer is cool with going to a guitar factory [laughs]. I’m sure he’ll be fine.
FM: Is this the first time you’ve been inspired to do songwriting by playing a new instrument?
AJ: No, not at all. I think there’s a reason musicians gravitate towards instruments. The way something sounds really informs the way that you write and the way you behave. It’s kind of like if you’re wearing a suit, you’re going to behave in a certain way than if you’re wearing jogging pants. It’s going to influence how you stand, it’s going to influence your posture, it’s going to influence the way you communicate with people. I feel like an instrument has that power – maybe even more so. Just the tonal characteristics. My first album is called Pink Strat, and I named it after my first guitar. That’s kind of always been a theme for me. I don’t have a Wilco-size arsenal of guitars or anything – I only have 10 guitars, but even that is a lot. So if I’m feeling stagnant on one, it’s nice to be able to have another instrument and just play similar chords and see if something else gets unlocked.
FM: Speaking of Wilco, how was your experience opening up for them last week?
AJ: It was great – super fun. They’ve been playing for so long, and I think there are so few bands that are in that position. Most bands break up, so it’s really inspiring to be around people like that. They’re older than I am, and there’s not that many healthy role models in the music business, so it’s nice to be around guys who are still playing and still loving it.
FM: You’ve said that Bahamas is Afie is a more fully realized version of yourself. How did that happen compared to past recording experiences? What is your state of mind or the place in time you were in?
AJ: It’s a little combination of everything, as most things are. First and foremost, I feel more comfortable and confident with who I am – musically speaking. When you’re first starting out, it’s almost like you’re a teenager. You don’t really know who you are, so you put on baggy pants and skinny jeans and you try on all these different outfits. I think I spent the first few years doing that. Now I feel a lot more comfortable, and from that place I can discover all these different types of music. And for this album, I did the recording with a different approach. Normally, I’d set up with a band and we’d all play together in a room. You’d have this pretty real-life picture of what the sound was going to be. For this one, I set up with one other guy – Don Kerr, who was the drummer and engineer. We would play through the songs, and then I would sort of run around the room in circles and layer up the piano and the bass and the vocals to build the tracks. That was kind of a new process for me, and it was amazing. I really felt this musical agility.
FM: So doing things virtually by yourself was a good process?
AJ: I really love playing with a band because you’re responding to each other and reacting to each other. There’s something so conversational about that, and I’ve always played that way, so I’m comfortable doing that. But this way we recorded the new album was an experiment, and thankfully it was a successful experiment. There’s a lot of freedom when there’s nobody there to check your ideas with. You just go for it, and it’s really fast. And if it’s not working, it becomes apparent really quickly, so you just move on. I kind of like that. Normally when you work with a band, you talk about the part and what’s going to happen and what everybody thinks. There was none of that. It was basically the most selfish type of recording a person could do [laughs].
FM: Selfish in a good way, I’d imagine?
AJ: Yeah, there’s definitely some self-indulgence that goes on when you [record] that way. Thankfully I didn’t go Brian Wilson-style and take 10 years to do anything. But I’m not the first person to do that, and I’m certainly not the last. It’s exciting for me to be a little bit out of my element and my comfort zone. I think that’s a good thing for creative people. If you’re trying to create something new, you don’t really want to rely on habits.
FM: How long did the recording process take?
AJ: It probably took about a month. Don has kids, so they would go to school and we would record from about 9 to 3 every day. That went off an on for about a month or so. It was all last summer. I was playing a lot of festivals on the weekends, so I would come home, ride my bike over to his studio and we would crack around for five or six hours. It was a pretty leisurely pace. It wasn’t some grueling marathon of 14-hour days or anything. I’ve been part of those before – they’re pretty fun, too. But this was a sober daytime affair.
FM: Did getting married help you get into that comfort zone for the creation of Bahamas is Afie?
AJ: Yeah, of course she’s very close to me and pretty much influences everything I do. I think most musicians would tell you when you’re doing all the traveling, it’s really easy to lose sight of where you’re at and where you’re from and what it’s all about. You get caught up in moving around and drinking beer in places with no windows. Suddenly you think that’s the most important thing in the world. But for me, family and my version of home is extremely important. That definitely contributes to who I am and therefore contributes to how I write songs and how I put things out in the world.
FM: What is the most valuable thing that you possess?
AJ: The sentimental part of me and the actual part of me would say my wife and my family. That’s the stuff that’s most important to me. I’ve been playing music long before it was my career, and I will continue to play music long after it’s my career. So music is just a constant, and I don’t take it for granted. But it’s the thing that comes easiest to me. Those other relationships in my life that are really important, they require a lot of work and a lot of attention. I like focusing all my energy there, so those things are really valuable to me. As far as physical things, I have a Stratocaster that I love [laughs]. I have a ’50s Strat that Leo Fender probably held himself. That particular instrument basically invented rock and roll and pioneered this whole new thing that obviously influenced me and thousands of other musicians. It’s iconic, like a Harley Davidson. A hundred years from now, you’ll go into a music store and there will be a wall of Stratocasters. But to be holding one that was among the first ones to be made is pretty special.
Bahamas performs at the Boot & Saddle (1131 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia) tonight, September 15. 8pm doors. 8:30pm show. 21+. $12. Click here for tickets.