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Posted March 31, 2022 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Graeme James Explores Passing of Time on ‘Seasons’

Graeme James Photo: Matan Rochlitz
Graeme James Photo: Matan Rochlitz

Singer-songwriter Graeme James plays an array of instruments on his new Nettwerk Records release, Seasons, the follow-up to his Nettwerk debut, 2019’s The Long Way Home, and his earlier independent efforts. James also produced the album, which allowed him to sandwich together as many layers of violin, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, bass, double bass, banjo, baritone ukulele, viola, cello, harmonica, accordion, and percussion as he wanted. For Seasons, he got piano, horn, percussion and vocal contributions from friends. While it doesn’t attract the same attention as hipster releases from Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver and Iron And Wine, the album’s carefully crafted songs stand up next to anything by any of those aforementioned indie acts. James recently spoke via Zoom from his home in the Netherlands, where he was “catching up on some admin duties regarding all the various strains of my life” in preparation for the release of Seasons.

What was it like to grow up in New Zealand?

It’s brilliant. It’s a wonderful place. It’s spectacular. I get up in New Plymouth. It’s by the sea, and there’s a giant volcano that dominates the landscape. It’s a special place.

At what point did you start studying violin?

My parents lived in the Netherlands for a while. I started learning violin in Amsterdam when I was 7. It’s a strange, full circle thing that brought me back here.

You had to give up classical violin?

I was having issues with overuse injuries related to my ligaments being slightly more stretchy than most people. It’s kind of a technical thing, but I was playing with a lot of pain. It had always been that way. I assumed that everyone else had that as well. At some point, I realized other people were just enjoying playing. I ended up thinking that a classical music career wasn’t a good idea.

But that didn’t deter you from learning to play a bunch of different instruments.

I went into a bit of a detox. I went to university and picked up a guitar and started writing songs. I didn’t touch a violin for two or three years. Not that I was against it. I was just in a different space. Eventually, I started thinking that I could go back to it, and it came back into the forefront.

What kind of music did you listen to?

It’s all pretty varied. It’s a lot of stuff your parents listened to. I remember being deeply impressed at the time by the ’80s back catalog of U2, which my dad brought home. It was all the early stuff up until The Joshua Tree. I loved the visual imagery. Bono was able to paint pictures with words. I thought, “I can see this.” I remember being quite disturbed when I got around to seeing some of the music videos. I thought, “This is not how it’s supposed to be.” It let me know that the music I enjoy is full of simile and metaphor. It’s not necessarily the genre I ended up in, but David Gray is also an amazing lyricist. I listened to a lot of world music as well, which was all the rage at the time.

You originally busked on the streets of New Zealand. Talk about that.

My dad would drag us onto the street to play Christmas carols. We had a bit of a jam band. It was my brother on percussion things and my dad on guitar and singing and I would play violin and mandolin. At the time, I hated it. I was not a fan of that situation. But it was the sort thing that opened up a world of possibilities for me in the future. In your early teens, you would rather die than do that sort of thing.

Busking ended up becoming a bit of theme in my career.

What was the first track you recorded?

I started playing a lot of covers. I was always playing a lot of covers. If you are a street musician, you get more traction. I would do covers of songs that would throw people off so they wouldn’t immediately know that I was playing something like “Wonderwall.” That would stop them, and they would go, “What is this song?” Eventually, I thought I should sell some CDs, so I got some studio time and a sound engineer and went at it with no idea what I was doing. I just wanted to make an album. I sold a bunch on the street. It went alright. Some got picked up on Spotify. Years later, one of the tracks is approaching 20 million streams now, which is kind of bizarre given the complete lack of knowledge I had going into the studio.  

Is that how Nettwerk found out about you?

Yes. My songs started popping up in [label owner] Terry McBride’s playlist. By this time, I had released a second covers and an album of originals. There was a bunch of artists I really liked on the label, and I thought it was a great fit.

Talk about the genesis of Seasons.

New Zealand doesn’t get snow so much. For me, the seasons here in the Netherlands and the whole Northern Hemisphere area have a particular rhythm. As someone who doesn’t always do the best job of slowing down, it causes you to mark the passage of time in a much more meaningful way.

It doesn’t snow much there?

It’s the kind of thing that people hope happens. It’s usually three or four days a year.

Talk about how your songs on Seasons fit together?

The album itself tracks from spring through winter and there are three songs per season. Each season has its own metaphor and themes that come out and overlap with other areas of life. A lot of that can be the context of tracking a lifespan from spring through winter. Or tracking seasons of relationships. It’s just full of some potent metaphors. The idea behind it was to the use the seasons as a springboard for exploring life.  

Where did you go to record?

Some friends and I rent a room in the old American Embassy in the Hague. It’s this iconic building that’s a slightly jarring 1950s block. It overlooks a paved square from the 1600s. It’s just beautiful. It’s recorded there with collaborations from friends. It was mixed in Colorado by a good friend of mine there.

The sonic quality is fantastic.

A lot of the credit goes to the wonderful engineer. It’s also just having the time to spend in the studio. I started this project before lockdown, but it ended up coinciding with having more time and space to really explore. For me, the songwriting was happening prior to lockdown and went into the studio after the birth of our daughter. She was born two weeks before lockdown. We had a lot of time. I hired a cello and found an old accordion. There were all sorts of interesting things to throw into the mix. I bought a banjo and leaned into a folksy roots and singer-songwriter instrumentation.  

I love the banjo on “The Fool.”

In terms of the recording process, I recorded a bit of banjo that was slightly out of tune. It overlapped with some banjo that was in tune, and I ended up doubling it. There’s a beauty in doing things that aren’t quite perfect. It has a spring theme in terms of presenting those realizations.

“Everlasting Love” is about when you have a deeper love and appreciation for someone. What made you want to write that type of tune?

That song in particular is about how my wife and I have been married seven years. There’s the initial kind of love you have, which is very intense but not always accurate. The intensity of things tends to die down — provided it’s somewhat of a healthy relationship. You anticipate what they would want and vice versa and end up with a relationship that is more meaningful than the chemical concoction you are stewing in. When people say, “We’ve fallen out of love or are no longer in love.,” I think it was just a figment of their imagination. The fact that it disappeared is not surprising. You’re chasing something that is not meant to be in that state. The song is celebrating a deeper connection.  

You create own cover art, drawn in a distinctive pen-and-ink style partly inspired by vintage children’s books and linocut printing. When did you being this EP series?

I was reflecting on this recently. When I was a child, I had a vague interest in art. When I was young, I would tell people I wanted to be a helicopter pilot or drawer. I didn’t keep in touch with that side of me. I just thought it would be good to get back into it. I did it for the first single, which was a while back. It was a simple drawing. It started me on this path, and it is no longer simple and was taking me a long time. I really enjoyed that process. It was a real learning curve. It was an interesting insight into the nature of limitations. I thought that in order to have any kind of style throughout, I need to have some limitations otherwise every piece would be different. In this case, it was no cross hatching and only two tones of color. It caused me no end of drama trying to solve problems but it also meant that there was a style and consistency that developed. It’s the same in music. You can’t just do whatever you want.

Choosing your limitations really informs your art and sets it free in a way as well.

Are you able to tour in support of the album?

Doing a couple of shows in the Netherlands. We have a few other life circumstances, which means I won’t be doing any significant touring. It’s not likely to be a massive tour at this time, but I might do some stuff at the end of the year.

Photo: Matan Rochlitz


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.