Two years ago, Afie Jurvanen went on a search for something “funky and groovy.”
After endless touring behind his third full-length album, 2014's Bahamas is Afie, the musician, who goes by Bahamas, hit a creative block. He craved something more rhythmic to go with his guitar-driven folk melodies, something that can get his audiences moving, but he wasn’t sure how to accomplish that when, as he admits, “I never wanted to use the words ‘groovy’ or ‘funky’ to the musicians I was working with.”
A solution was soon serendipitously pitched to him by his manager Robbie Lackritz (who also produced the new Bahamas album that's out today): what if he could get studio time with members of D’Angelo’s band, the Vanguard? For Jurvanen, D’Angelo’s 2014 comeback album, Black Messiah, was “the biggest record of the past few years," as he revealed to Billboard. The chance to team up with bassist Pino Palladino and drummer James Gadson — who, separately, have also worked with the likes of Lady Gaga, Keith Urban, the Who and John Mayer — was the spark Jurvanen needed, and when the proposition turned into a reality, the excitement reignited his writing bug.
“Those guys are just so deep in it, they are on another level of rhythm,” Jurvanen gushes over the phone, as he sits at the Toronto Pearson International Airport waiting to fly to his next gig in Halifax. With Gadson and Palladino, Jurvanen didn’t need to verbalize his desires in a way that would potentially feel embarrassing. Instead, he would just “show up and start playing songs and they would just lead them where they may — almost in all cases, they were in the right spot."
“That was the whole point of working with them,” he continued. “I didn’t want to discuss the strategy, or the game plan, or the vibe or anything like that. It was just music, on a really cliché, human, elemental level.”
The result of those sessions with Gadson and Palladino is Jurvanen's new album, with additional songs completed with his bandmates in a Prague studio. And Jurvanen is not afraid to call it his best one yet.
On Earthtones, he succeeds in finding his groove by crafting steady beats as backbones (see the hi-hat march of “No Expectations” or the staccato lyricism of “Bad Boys Need Love Too”) while stretching his singer-songwriter range to new territories like the R&B slink of “So Free.” For Jurvanen, leaping into hip-hop was never the goal, but he is open about his shift in musical taste over the years.
“As far as contemporary music goes, hip-hop is where all of the innovative stuff is happening,” he explains. Partially dictated by what’s popular in mainstream music culture now, Jurvanen says he’s not on top of what’s happening in rock anymore, but that his love of artists like Kanye West, Anderson .Paak and Drake isn’t motivated by genre, but by hip-hop's ambitions and ability to make him feel “like I can venture anywhere I want to go.”
That inspiration has also in part prompted Jurvanen to open up lyrically, a move that he equally credits to fatherhood. “Some of these songs, I wrote them in 10 minutes because I just had 10 minutes,” he reveals. It’s a constraint that was frustrating at first, but later proved to be a code he enthusiastically “cracked” open, liberating him to a style of quick, instinctual songwriting. Now, be it in between his kids’ naps or strolling down the aisle of a grocery store, Jurvanen is ready to put pen to paper.
“The less infrastructure you need to be creative, in a way, that’s a better place to be,” he argues. “The reality is that music is all around me and ideas are all around me — you just have to kind of go for it. I don’t need to be in a studio or locked away with a guitar. I can write a song in the Maple Leafs Lounge right now.”
An example of that is the aforementioned “Bad Boys Need Love Too,” a track that Jurvanen banged out, literally, on his steering wheel while driving around one day. A standout on the album, it’s one of Jurvanen’s most vulnerable moments as he discusses his “deadbeat dad” and how, in retrospect, he wished he was more compassionate towards him. “I was like, you know what that guy needs? He doesn’t need more hate, he doesn’t need more anger — that asshole needs more love, man,” Jurvanen says, of his estranged father, whom he only met three times before he died. “Getting older now, especially having kids of my own, it just gives you that insight into it like, holy smokes, whatever he was going through to have to bail on me like that must’ve been really heavy.”
Even though Jurvanen never got to express this to his dad directly, it’s been an important thing for him to reconcile on his own, both internally and through song because “we carry this stuff with us all over the place and if you don’t get rid of it, this bag just gets heavy, heavy, heavy.” It’s a lesson he hopes his music can teach others in this crucial time of transition in our culture, one where “there’s just so much name-calling, and shaming, and hating going on all the time.” Jurvanen acknowledges that much of this is necessary, but he just wants to remind others that empathy is needed, too.
At the end of the day, Earthtones takes on some heavy topics, from the stresses of everyday demands to deeper problems like depression, but just like his moniker, Jurvanen wants Bahamas to maintain a lightness and optimism. After all, as he says before hanging up and possibly writing yet another song in his brief window of time before boarding his flight: “I just want to feel good, you know? This record has a very, very positive energy to it and I know a lot of artists probably say that a lot, but that’s what the world needs.
“There’s just so many people working so hard to tell us that the world is garbage, but I just want to say that there’s some good and you can try and awkwardly dance to it, if you want to.”
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