Bahamas’ new album Earthtones is the best version of Afie Jurvanen yet. It sings about playing to empty rooms (“Opening Act”), dips into self-care (“No Wrong”) and on “Bad Boys” the album inadvertently sheds a lot of light on the family life of Jurvanen, 37, who is the frontman for the Toronto folk-pop outfit (and a former sideman for Feist).
Oh, Earthtones is soulful as hell, too.
Some credit goes to two titans of timekeeping — bassist Pino Palladino and drummer James Gadson — who, without rehearsals, helped track a lot of the record during a three-day session in L.A. The rest of the heavy lifting is done by Jurvaven and his road band, who pile layers of ethereal harmonies all over the 11-track effort that stands as one of the year’s best so far.
Over a spotty phone connection, CL caught up with Jurvanen before he brings the album to Orpheum in Ybor City on May 18 and talked about bad boys, Canada and why the hell his mom is so damn famous on the hometown music circuit.
Read our Q&A and get more information on the show below. Listen to Earthtones at the bottom of this post.
Alright, I heard most of the answer to the last question, obviously I don't want to mess up the rest of your phoners today, but I think some of the part I lost, you we're talking about trying to grab big ideas for this record, and not focus on the production too much and you were talking about whether or not lately you have been able to be a better song writer in terms of maximizing your time.
I think I just have been trying to be open, I mean everyone talks about being open and I certainly feel I am being open, and only realized later that I have a preconceived idea of how things should go, or I had an assumption of how things were gonna go. So really to go into a process whatever it might be, in my case it's writing songs and making albums, so to actually really go into that with no expectations is challenging in itself and the cool part is that you actually do it, then whatever comes out of the speaker is just a surprise and it's exciting for me to be the maker of that music and I hope it's exciting for the listener because I feel like you can easily hear that excitement in the music, the music is right on the edge of the speaker, just jumping right out at you, there's no real filter between me and the listener, and for me that makes for a real exciting record.
It is a super exciting record, and I don't know if you meant to say out loud, but I think that was the song you were talking to Tom on Q about. So is it safe to say as you continue to write songs — I don't know if you're writing songs right now, you're still writing them in those tiny bits of time that being home with the kids affords you?
I used to just play guitar for hours and hours on end and that's how ideas come to me, and now I'll just sorta grab my ideas, one little line here and there and if it's really something solid then it will stay with me and I can just use that as a jumping off point to write a whole song sort of thing. I mean, yeah, on tour I don't write too too much but these lines come to me and little melodies and things like that and I'll just tuck them away for later. It's an illusive process, I wish I knew exactly how to do it, then I can just do it, and I'll say, "Tomorrow I'm writing this song from 9-to-5," or something like that, but it's not always that easy.
And I don't know a lot about Robbie, but I know he kind of put in a bug in your ear for this album, is he bugging you to make another album?
Well, I mean all the pressure is sort of self induced. Robbie is very supportive and has been my long time manager and co-producer and sort of very intimately involved with everything I do, so we're still in the middle of a tour cycle, we're touring basically until the end of 2019, so these things sort of work on a two year schedule. Or at least that's what I do anyway, so I'll probably start thinking more about that in six to eight months, I'll start thinking 'man I really should get some of these songs down.
Right on, and earlier in the last answer you gave you talked about openness, and being open, and I know you've mentioned this idea of trying to just do the best you can do in your day-to-day life and be the best version of yourself, but I was wondering, how old are your daughters? Because I was thinking about that moment when they may dig into Earthtones and start to understand some of the themes, like you know, you obviously live your life day-to-day and try and be the best person that you can be for them, but how are you going to explain the relationship with your dad? And some of the themes in the record, and that pain that you exercised on this record to your kids if they ask you?
We're pretty I guess you can say 'Modern Family' we're a pretty open family, we talk about everything and sometimes it's too much, and I wish I was like Don Draper or something like that.
[Laughs] I don't think you want to be like Don Draper, man.
No, no, obviously I'm joking but our kids are basically intimately involved in my life, it's almost like my work life and my home life is pretty connected at this point. I think a lot of modern parents are that way. We're kind of the first generation of dads that it's OK to care about your kids and be right there, so I don't know, I don't really think about it.
I mean I'm happy to talk about whatever my kids want to talk about, and of course they're kids so they say the weirdest shit and it's just fun, and they'll just say, "Dad what's this about? How does this happen?," and it kind of comes out of nowhere and it's fun because it makes you think about it. A lot of my songwriting is basically, just because it's there, their curiosity sparks my curiosity kind of thing...Man, I'm trying to find a quiet place to talk to you and it's just like banging...
I can hear you perfectly now all of a sudden, I don't know if you can hear me but I can hear you great. I can't even hear the noises around you.
Yeah, a million trucks and machines and shit around.
Yeah. Atlanta. So you're talking about your kids and parenting, your mom works in Children’s Aid Society, and it was kind of cool to hear Talia and Tom talk about how they've met her. She's as famous as you are, how did that happen? I know she's heavily involved, but it seems any journalist that has covered you in the past almost wants to see you so they can see your mom.
Well, she's a very big character in every way possible and in Canada I bit of a head start musically, and have been sort of active for a long time and Canada is a really small country, by comparison. it's like the state of California or something like that has that amount of people the entire country has, so once you start playing music it doesn't take long before you kind of meet everybody — or it seems like you do anyway — and so I've been bringing her with me to the award shows and all the little concerts, and I brought her on tour and stuff like that and she's not really shy at all, right?
She'll just walk up to anybody and introduce herself and say, "That's my son, he's a musician," and so she ends up meeting a lot more people than I do because I'm sort of in my own little bubble most of the time, but yeah, it's a nice reminder for me because she can celebrate it all and enjoy it all, where as I'm like, I don't know, hung up on my own ego and stuff and I'm just like free from a lot of that stuff.
So it's just a nice reminder to have her around because theres no irony, theres no motivation, she's just pure joy like most moms. Most mom's just want to celebrate their kids, so we all should be so lucky.
Yeah, I like hearing you talk about your mom, and it makes me think like, is she retired? Is this the kind of situation, because I think Tampa is your last show before you go to Gulf Shores, is this the type of thing where mom can come down and the family can come down to Alabama and watch the kids or watch you recreate Alan Jackson "Chattahoochee" water ski thing?
Yeah, I mean that would be sweet, and they do come along, it's just a lot of the travel we do is a grind and it's not super luxurious so we try and pick the ones where there's a little more time, if we're in a place for two or three days and the schedule is a little more forgiving then that's more fun to have the family out for, but on this tour we're just like bang bang bang, in a different place every day and a lot of these venues, there like in industrial areas or there not really downtown a lot of the time, you know what I mean? The summer time is really great for that because we play so many festivals and a lot of the festivals are so family friendly it's not like how it used to be, no one is like dropping acid. At least not in my circle or not in my shows.
[Laughs] Not at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Yeah, not at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, but in general they're all really family friendly and those are just so great, they often come out to a lot of those.
So at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, I don't know if you were joking when you said this in past interviews, but you said that some of the songs on here were these uptempo songs that you can play at festivals, is that plan worked out for you? Have you found something different in the audience on this particular album cycle?
Yeah, it's nice to have some uptempo or funkier material that if you're headlining or if you're playing later in the day and people have been out in the sun all day and they're feeling good and they want to dance it's nice to be able to sort of go there but another thing I realized is that people seem to really love the slow jams and frankly I love playing them, they are songs that come more naturally to me and I write a lot of more downtempo sort of songs. The nice thing is it's nice to play to a huge crowd and not feel like you have to just do the rock version, you can actually control the bass and just draw people in by just being relaxed and playing the songs that really come naturally to me. That's been the flip side revelation of having all these other songs — these uptempo songs that it's sort of the slow jams that people get off on. Ya'know?
Yeah, I mean I think the first song I heard from you was "Lost in the Light" and that was obviously a slow jam, contemplative, introspective, and that was from the Brushfire era, and I think on this particular tour, and I'm guessing through 2019, you're gonna hit a lot of these same U.S cities that Jack took you on tour over this last year. What's it been like to add to your existing fan base, the fans you picked up on the Jack Johnson tour, I mean he's one of those people you admire for being able to live outside the media, so I would imagine that his fans kind of fit in with your old fans too?
Yeah, of course. We have been very fortunate to tour with lots of bands and Jack is one of them and we had great shows with him, and cool thing about his fans is they're not really connected to any scene, they're really just music fans through and through, they really love his music, so if you're playing to a crowd of 20,000 people and 10-percent of those people dig what you're doing that's just good math, so those are good tours for us.
It's often people who just come to the show, and they're really open, again they don't have any expectations and it's nice to be able be the underdog and just surprise people and have them come away being be like, "Man, that opening band was so cool," Even if they don't remember your name. It's nice to be able to be in that position so yeah, I don't know. I'm fortunate that I get to do both. We get to do our own shows in theaters and clubs and then it's sort of nice to get to be the support band on those bigger tours, because they're a lot of fun, too.
Yeah, your band is pretty memorable and I think that has a lot to do with also Christine and Felicity and Carleigh, are they on the tour with you again?
Felicity and Christine are—I've been playing with for a few years, and yeah, Felicity and Christine are featured pretty heavily on this new album and definitely on this tour, I sort of give them lots of room to step out and take over a lot of musical space. I love the way the sound so, I figured if I like it theres a good chance other people will like it. Maybe that's arrogant but they're just so talented and so musical.
Yeah, and I guess it's interesting to hear you mention that they were there for the sessions, because I was imagining like this backing band and Pino and Gadsen are there, but they were session guys for that, you know? You have to chart the songs out, are there extra players you had to teach the arrangements to as you got ready for your own tour?
Well, I mean I have a touring band that I've toured with for a long time and even on this new record, they played on a few tracks and they play so well, and you can't really tell who's playing what. Pino or James. So it's really a testament to them as musicians, they are world class musicians and again, I feel really lucky to play with them but yeah, the way we made this record was a little bit in pieces. I went to L.A and worked with those guys for three days and then I went to Prague and worked for a few days with my touring band and then I worked in Paris for a little bit and then I worked back in Toronto with me and Christine on all the tracks, we just did all the overdubs on all the tracks, so that's not typically my favorite way to work just because you lose the energy and momentum that you get initially when you're tracking the bed tracks.
But in this case it kind of worked out because it gave me a little bit of time to sit with the tracks and I could think about how to approach them, so after we have the bed tracks with Pino and James, that sort of told us a lot of what we were supposed to do, or how we're supposed to add to the track, so theres not a whole lot of discussion, I like to work with musicians who have their own personality and if something's not right generally it's apparent to every body in the room and we'll try a different approach but it's not a whole lot of me telling people what to play, it's more like, I hope my melodies and my lyrics are strong enough that they kind of tell you what you should playing, so I don't have to actually say it.
And back to these big ideas that you kind of tried to put on Earthtones and thinking about the song "Bad Boys" specifically. That song is kind of about not being about being able to hate your way out of a situation, I don't know if you're getting to see your fans a lot but is that kind of song that gets people to come up to you after shows and they say it changed them or their approach to how they see their own relationships with people?
That song is important to me just as a writer that one sort of came really quickly and hit a lot of important marks for me, but yeah, it's been nice playing it at the shows, people really respond to it, and the thing is it's a heavy tune but it's also fun. When we're playing it live it's energetic and the lyrics are fun and people like to sing along.
Do they do the "Do you know what I'm talking about," is that the crowd response?
That's exactly it, it sort of has it's built in call and response to it that I didn't know it was gonna go that way but it seems like people naturally sing along to it that way, and it's fun. It has an endemic quality to it, so as a performer that's the best place to, just to have songs that do all the work for you and do all the heavy lifting and you can just enjoy it just as the fans are enjoying it in a way.
Cool, and I think I'm down to my last question here. I like that you mentioned the small feel of Canada and maybe Toronto specifically, from the outside people might think that Toronto might be rising, there's Drake and The Weeknd and obviously The Leafs had a good season this year, but I was wondering about your feelings about the city? You created some special moments, I know you're not into the kitsch novelty stuff, but you did a skating rink show once and I think you did a show where there were like 200 people on stage, one of the release shows. Do you have a plan for Toronto and what you want to continue to bring back to your hometown?
Well, we play there. In a weird way your hometown just becomes another town as far as touring goes. My connection to Toronto is in some ways has nothing to do with music, so we play in Toronto maybe once every two years, and we'll play in Atlanta or Chicago or Los Angeles, in some cases more than we're playing in Toronto.
Toronto is a great city, it really can hold it's own with any other international city, it's got everything you want out of a big city and for me that's where I come up and I'm sort of familiar and comfortable [with] and as you mentioned it's definitely punches above it's weight, it's producing song writers at a very very high caliber that are connecting internationally in Drake and the Weeknd and that's been happening forever. I don't know what's going on but theres a lot of great writers and great musicians and it's nice to be in good company and be a small part of that for sure is a bonus.
Cool, man. Well thanks for your time today and sorry about the messed up signal earlier, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your tour. Stay cool, and see you when you get to Tampa.
No problem, thanks for the call. Alright, see you then.