[Cover photo credit to Matan Rochlitz]
Graeme James is a singer/songwriter whose expansive work might easily lead you to assume that he works with a large band to perform, or even to record, his Folk-inspired multi-genre music. However, the multi-instrumentalist has been working with a loop pedal for some time, driven to not only create multi-layered music in the studio, but on the stage. As New Zealand-born and Netherlands-based performer, James tours extensively, but had actually planned to take time off the road at the time that the pandemic hit. His plans and the situation dovetailed into working on an ambitious project—creating four seasonally-inspired EPs, with a total of 24 songs. Having completed that journey, a selection, as well as some additional tracks, have now also been released by Nettwerk Records as Seasons.
Rather than relying purely on natural phenomenon to inspire the songs on his EPs and new album, Graeme James tapped into much wider cultural heritage associated with seasonality and allowed the seasons to function as symbols and ciphers of human experience. I spoke with Graeme James about the craftsmanship of his approach to carving so many songs out of a seasonal concept and how he found his deeper themes in human stories for some of the songs.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Was working on the four EPs initially driven by a desire to keep creating during a very unstructured time in the world?
Graeme James: The answer is “Yes”, but not for the reasons you might expect. I started planning these EPs in November of 2019, but the thinking was similar. I had been a furiously travelling touring musician for a number of years, but our daughter’s due date was in March 2020. I thought it was time to slow down and be present. I came up with a recording plan to be more present. With the events that transpired, that ended up being pretty fortuitous. Most of my musical friends were cancelling left, right, and center, and as indie musicians, that was dramatic for them.
HMS: I’m so happy to hear that was the case for you. Focusing on something like seasons might have actually been very therapeutic or helpful once you got underway.
GJ: There’s a permanence to the seasons in that they are always changing. There’s a rhythm to it, and that rhythm didn’t really change. It was probably quite helpful for people having time markers with everything up in the air. For me, the seasons are deeply symbolic and metaphorical, and a good way to make sense of life. They can represent so many different aspects of the human condition. It was interesting trying to figure out, “What do the seasons sound like?”
HMS: Did you write the songs for each season during the corresponding season?
GJ: No, that was the funny thing. I decided to release in line with the seasons rather than write and record in line with the seasons. Because it was a longish project, I already had a couple of songs in the bag, but once I got through the first EP, I was starting to have to write with the next season in mind. That was very strange. I was writing Winter during Autumn, and it kind of felt natural because that’ the way things are trending, but then I was writing Spring in the depths of Winter. That was not natural. But I had a lot of Spring things to think about because of the birth of our daughter. Writing for hopeful Spring was kind of therapeutic, bringing positivity into my songwriting.
HMS: Something I found interesting is that you didn’t pursue a purely naturalistic approach to the seasons, but you picked up on associated cultural elements. For instance, you can find seasonal elements in the arts of each cultural era. I feel like you allow for these tangents in the songs.
GJ: There’s a quote that’s probably one of the defining creative quotes of my life. It’s about stealing, from the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work and your theft, will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable. Originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery, celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Goddard said, ‘It is not where you take things from, it is where you take them to.’”
That really set me on a path of liberation and there was an excitement to wondering, “What can I steal?” And yes, the resonance to other peoples’ works across the ages is pretty obvious. I’ve stolen from Indian poets. I’ve stolen from shipwreck stories. The freedom to do that and to celebrate the inspiration that I get from other peoples’ work really took my own originality to a new level. It was kind of ironic.
HMS: Is that an experience that you had recently, or further back in time?
GJ: I think it’s a new thought. I’ve always enjoyed referencing things, but the challenge of writing the 24 songs [for the EPs] was one more of craftsmanship than of artistry. It was like saying, “Go into your workshop and beat the living daylights out of something until it looks the way that it should.” Rather than, for instance, sitting down with an easel in the countryside and feeling inspired. The approach to songwriting had to be one of the craftsman, getting in there and getting it done whether you feel like it or not. On top of the 24 songs, there were also the failed endeavors, so that led me. You pour out your soul for about five or six songs, then you ask, “What else is there?” I think then you start looking for truth, and true experiences, or true ways of framing experience, through insights gleaned from all around.
The challenge of the volume of work really caused me to write a lot more interesting and exciting things because I was sometimes writing from outside my own experiences. That’s really hard, because if you’re trying to write about the experience of 27 dudes in Antarctica in the context of one of the greatest survival stories of the last 200 years, how do you capture that? You go through the experience of feeling like a complete fraud.
HMS: It seems like working with historical material, it would be much harder for a number of reasons. One would be that a song is relatively short and contained, and there’s so much material. In the case of Shackleton, there’s tons of information, but not necessarily the right information. Also, I can see how it’s hard to know when it’s done or when to stop. Was “The Voyage of The James Caird” difficult for those reasons?
GJ: That was probably the biggest songwriting challenge I’ve ever had because I read Shackleton’s book South. Digging into the story, I was quite moved by the grandiosity of it all, and it’s just a good old yarn on top of everything else. I didn’t even have a chorus for that song, so that limited me even more. I just had three verses and an Outro. The logical thing would have been to have written a Bob Dylan-ish 16 verse saga with a harmonica somewhere between each verse. But I didn’t feel like I wanted to go down that path, and I had already told the label that I was doing this song. I needed to send it off to the sound engineer, and I was down to the wire on that one. I found myself at 4AM before it needed to be sent to the sound engineer, just battling with the limitation of words.
I came to the realization that, given all that Shackleton had experienced, I imagine when he was writing his book, he was wondering, “How can I possibly communicate to people what has been experienced?” I think he would have had to deal with the limitation of words. The realization that he would have struggled to capture it in a book set me free that my ability to capture it in 150 words was null and void. I ended up settling on the realization, also, that music can convey something else. It can convey a sense of place and the emotions attached to that through the dynamics of it. I realized that I could attempt to create a sound of a place and a context. I had that as the backdrop to the words. I loved the result of it, but that was a really, really hard song. It pushed me to the limit of my ability.
HMS: I love the point that Shackleton was also the writer of this thing, and you’re not the first to try to capture it. It’s a humbling thing to realize that you’re just telling a version of something, but that can also be really freeing. Was creating the music for it less of a challenge?
GJ: The music was a really strange thing, because it had no chorus. I’m glad I didn’t create a chorus, because that’s usually the moral of the story. But the music for that song probably dates back at least eight years. It’s something I found noodling around on a loop pedal. There was something about it that felt grand and otherworldly. It was only when a friend drew my attention to the story that I wrote a guitar part. The brass part just came out of nowhere. In some ways, the sonics were pre-written, but then there was an old accordion lying around the studio. Though I play a lot of instruments, I don’t actually play an accordion, but my producer said, “Play that!” I had to do a hundred takes to get it right.
So there was accordion, banjo, and mandolin. My accountant, who is also my drummer, went into the studio with me and we recorded it before we even had all the lyrics. We had only the opening lines. The lyrics were the last, last thing that I was writing. Rolling Stone mentioned the “increasingly tumultuous drum part”, which is kind of cool because my accountant-drummer did a take where I said, “Just go back in one more time and go berserk.” And he did. Back in the studio, when I put it on, it had this wildness that helped form the rest of the song. You get these moments that are fortuitous. So there was songwriting, but there was also the studio happening, too.
HMS: I can see how including something chaotic might help suggest something bigger, like a natural environment.
GJ: Yes, exactly. Something that wasn’t orderly was needed. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, in the context of this song, having that underlying the song really carried the momentum. The drums are kind of the sea.
HMS: This is not the only interesting song on the album. There are many. But the timing is interesting because there’s so much focus on the Shackleton expedition right now. I think that’s part of why the story is so fascinating, by the way, it’s too strange for there to be a moral of the story.
GJ: The whole basis of the expedition was arrogance. I resonate with that whole story on some level because I could see myself doing something ridiculous from a place of ego and desperation. So there’s this madness in the premise of it, but there’s this genius of trying to get out of a situation that you didn’t need to be in to begin with. There’s no moral to it, but just, “Good job, but terrible job!”
HMS: I can see a lot of harmony and sympathy in these songs about seasonal change, but did you grapple at all with the force and power of the seasons on a larger scale? Did that feel inexorable or did the natural feel like an affirmative, grounding thing?
GJ: I think I grappled more with what each season represents rather than with the relentless march of the seasons. That wasn’t as much an issue, perhaps because each season speaks to a different thing for me, personally. For me, the season to explore the darker side of things was the Winter. Those songs dealt with things that I’ve avoided a little bit in my musical career in terms of my songwriting. I’ve written heaps of songs about dying, but there’s always been an upshot, a positive spin. I thought in order to do the season of Winter justice, I needed to lean into these things a little more.
When I started writing songs at about age 16, I realized that I should actually write from a range of perspectives, rather than just being sad, or in love, but I’ve always tried not to go into a place of despair. But I wondered what the point would be of writing a chipper Winter album. I wanted to explore death, and the sense of having wasted one’s life. For me, as much as Autumn is beautiful, but is calling out, “Watch out!”, so Winter contains the seeds Spring in a kind of hopeful way, as well. There’s a resurrection lying dormant in Winter.
HMS: It’s kind of shocking to think about that, sometimes, in the very middle of Winter itself. We’ve just been through that, since March feels like a shocking time. One week there’s nothing, then the wheel seems to turn, whereas it’s really been turning the whole time.
GJ: There’s about a week when there’s a shocking explosion of things. Before that, everything gives the appearance of death. If you didn’t know what had happened, you’d ask, “What happened to this forest??” You have this celebration at the beginning of Winter, then you get this drawn-out thing that doesn’t look alive. Spring is a bit of a shock, in a good way.