This year's major music discovery is Bahamas, the ongoing project of Canadian singer-songwriter-guitarist Afie Jurvanen. Bahamas teeters between folk, rock and pop, recorded and produced with a burnished sheen, occasionally moody like Bon Iver but mostly more upbeat and occasionally downright joyous. Jurvanen's voice is soft and sweet and authoritative, his lyrics wry and poetic, his songwriting poignant and smart. Bahamas Is Afie, his third release and first on Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records label, came out earlier this year and tonight Bahamas plays Columbia City Theatre. I spoke with him over the phone during a recent tour stop in D.C.
How's the tour going?
The shows have been really awesome. We played New York last night, a big club, and everyone was singing along. That’s a new experience for me.
This album seems to have caught on in a way that your previous ones didn't. Has there been a greater publicity push or is it simply a better album?
I would hope it's best thing I've done whether it's popular or not. I worked really hard on it and hope people hear it. More than anything I think we've been touring quietly, keeping busy for the last five years. Being part of lots of different types of tours, big bands and small bands, bars and theaters and festivals, we've reached a lot of different types of people. I don't know if it's critical mass or whatever but it's nice to feel that momentum. Any artist will tell you that you mostly feel the opposite, like you're banging on the door trying to get attention.
Are the musicians on tour with you now the same ones on the album?
I did most of the playing on the album myself. I worked with a guy named Don Kerr, an engineer and drummer. I played bass, piano and guitar and built up the tracks. We had a violin payer and some singers come in. This is the first time I've done a record like that. Most of the time I'd get a band and play live and see what happened. This was a new experience. I think it satisfies whatever ego thing is going on in my artistry. That’s a very complicated, nebulous world but when I was alone there was no conference with other people, I'd just try an idea and if it didn't work it was obvious and I'd move on. I was able to go through lot of different ideas because of that. But I love playing with a band and I've toured with the same drummer for many years. And I have a guitar player and another singer.
There's something really clean about the production of Bahamas Is Afie, almost like a Top 40 pop or electronic album. But the instrumentation is mostly acoustic. It's an alluring mix.
A lot of modern production, obviously there are all sorts of electronic elements, and pop music doesn't involve acoustic instruments much anymore. But those are the tools I have and I'm trying to get to the point faster, trying to find some way of getting in and out as quickly as possible, musically speaking. My idea of record production is no production at all, more bluegrass or classical approach. Put the mike up and try whatever thing you want people to be moved by. I hope that translates. I feel like it does. The music that moves me the most isn’t the most complicated, it’s the most to the point.
And even while the songs seem to be about the end of a romantic relationship, the album feels really hopeful and positive, almost triumphant or celebratory. Like you're grateful to have just made it through.
I may have used those exact words when to describe what I wanted to do in the studio. There's enough sad music in the world, so if you can express those feelings but still with a celebratory tone, celebrate the broken bits in our lives… that’s an idea I've thought about for years and it comes out in my songwriting. All the songs are very personal for me. I'm always reflecting on my own relationships and life and observing my friends and family.
Right now I'm able to reflect on some of those things that on my last record I struggled with. Time allows you to reflect on things and consider them with a little more patience. You don't have to act on every emotion. You're able to feel it out and hear and understand the important parts.
I'm glad you're hearing a triumphant tone. I do feel that way. I feel more confident with music these days.
We are dynamic creatures by design. I think it's only natural that as a writer I try to encompass that.
Do you feel like being on Jack Johnson's record label might diminish your indie cred?
Has it come up? I think other people bring it up. I don’t think about it. The irony is that he's the only true independent artist I know. He owns his own label and masters and has sold a million records and treated people and important issues with respect. I can't say that about many bands, even bands that align themselves with the most indie nature. I'm proud to say I'm part of that label.
How'd it happen?
I just happened to meet those guys. Not a lot of ambition or headhunting. We just became friends and they wanted to put out the album. They're sweet people and hard working.
You're right that Johnson is on the right side of some major environmental projects.
That’s arguably more important than the music. The music is a tool for pointing people in the right direction in regard to these initiatives the label is involved in. Simple stuff, not drinking bottled water, picking up garbage at the beach, stuff for some reason people aren’t thinking about. If he can remind his fans to spend a minute thinking about this stuff, it's good. It's not complicated.
And I've never placed much stock in the term "indie." I've never aspired to be an indie artist by anyone else's measure. I would like to have a successful music career and the best way to do that is to sell a lot of albums. I won't say no to selling albums to keep my indie cred, if I ever had any in the first place. I wanna have a long career in music, make lots of albums. And it's hard to do that. I don’t take it for granted.
I like the poetry in the lyrics. Each of these songs seems to be about one specific thing or person or moment. They're lucid and specific but universal at the same time.
I like things that are statements, that have clarity to them. But at the same time I like things a little ambitious too. When I first started playing music, it was a big art project. I didn’t know what I was doing. Bahamas seemed like a nice title, it conjured images before people hear the music. Since then it's not only an art project, it's my career. I feel a lot more comfortable with who I am and that this is what I'm doing. I get on stage, I say, "Hi, I'm Afie." It's not a character. I'm trying to play music that has some authenticity to it, hopefully, and people respond to that in a positive way.
Whose ring is that on the album cover?
That’s my wife's wedding ring. She took that photo a long time ago, before I had the album title. I don't know if it's because it's close up, but there's something intimate about it. You can see right in there. And that's normally the most private thing. Those ideas represent the album in a nice way. The music carries those same ideas.
Bahamas photo by Reynard Li