New Zealander Graeme James Talks Writing ‘Seasons’ From His Adopted Home In Europe

[Cover photo credit to Matan Rochlitz]

Graeme James is a multi-instrumentalist and Modern Folk artist who hails from New Zealand originally but has been living in the Netherlands since 2018. Taking time off a usually very busy live performance schedule for 2020 in anticipation of the birth of his daughter also meant that he planned a substantial writing project during that time. Coincidentally, the world shut down during the same period, but the writing time became a blessing for James. In that time he followed through on a very ambitious project to create four EPs of songs, each one dedicated to a season of the year, and to conclude the project by gathering some of the songs, as well as a couple of new ones, onto one LP, Seasons, which was released in April 2022 by Nettwerk Records.

Graeme James and I had a fascinating inter-continental chat about his experiences working on the EPs and the LP, and you can still find the first part of that conversation here on Wildfire Music + News. In particular, we talked about the fascination surrounding the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s expedition due to finding his shipwreck recently, and James’ own song-chronicle of that expedition called “The Voyage of The James Caird”. However, I’m pleased to bring you the second part of that conversation today, in which Graeme spoke about how people interact with nature and see time, and what it’s been like as a New Zealander from the Southern Hemisphere writing 28 songs about seasons that weren’t exactly native to his personal experience before moving to Northern Europe.

HMS: What do you think prompts such fascination with things like the Shackleton Expedition, as we see in your song, “The Voyage of the James Caird”? Does it have to do with how we view the natural world?

Graeme James: I think they are stories from a time when the world was very small. There’s something that feels right to us about the world being unexplored, with adventures to be had. The world became bigger again, actually, during Covid, because you just couldn’t do things. I think there’s an aspect of our psyche that wants to feel small in a big world, where things aren’t predictable and adventures can still be had. I’m not sure how that coincides with this era that we’re in, but I think there’s an aspect of the desire to be caught up in big things. I think that sort of era was the last time there were such unknowns.

HMS: I think what people are doing now is naturally seeking out big landscapes where things seem very dramatic, like Iceland, or your native New Zealand, or even Scandinavia. It’s not just about reconnecting with nature, it’s to try to see humanity differently and have a sense of wonder or the sublime.

GJ: I don’t totally believe this, but on some level I do, that peak humanity might have been around 2015. I don’t mean this in terms of experience, since some people were having an awful time, but there was a sense that we were moving forward, and technology was going to be the great savior of things. Then there was a turning point where we realized, “Maybe this isn’t actually all good for us.” I mean that in terms of mental health and things like that. The relentless march of technology led us forward and we realized, “Truth is impossible to find anymore.” I think there’s probably also a longing for some of the clarity of the past, though everyone looks at the past with nostalgia and rose-colored glasses.

HMS: It occurs to me that all the science fiction and shows of that period were more optimistic and now they are increasingly dystopian.

GJ: Utopia doesn’t seem quite as achievable in the public consciousness now. The flaws run pretty deep in humanity.

HMS: I understand that for this collection, Seasons, you had to select which ones to include, because there were many more songs on the four EPs. Were you thinking about song order back when you were working on the EPs?

GJ: I didn’t think about transitions all that much at the beginning. In terms of the song-order on the EPs, on the Winter EP, I ended with the song “Time”, which has the chorus, “I’m not afraid of death, I’m just terrified of time.” It finishes on a hopeful last note, and I wanted to leave it at that point. In terms of the album, Seasons, it’s a journey from Spring through into Winter, so I did think a lot about transitions and attempted to make it seamless. I really wanted to get the feeling of each season in particular.

HMS: Is it ideal to listen to Seasons in order, together?

GJ: That is the general idea. It was cool because even though it was difficult to select the songs that I wanted on Seasons, I got the chance to write a couple more. I actually wrote two new songs for the project. By the time I got to the end of the EPs, I think I had more clarity about what I wanted to say. I’d just written 24 songs and I was supposed to write two that were two singles which was a little stressful from an industry perspective, but it was also nice to revisit things, particularly the feature track, “All The Lives We’ve Ever Lived.” There were some things that I wanted to say regarding Autumn that just felt so applicable to where I was in life. “Everlasting Love” was the other additional track.

HMS: I dug into both of those tracks a lot and I did notice that they were a bit more from a birds’ eye view when it came to the rest of the album. As sparkly as “Everlasting Love” is, “All The Lives We’ve Ever Lived,” is just as deep and meditative. Both are really enjoyable songs.

GJ: “Everlasting Love” was originally going to be on the Summer EP, but I could see that it was going to be really hard to do from scratch, so I planned to put it aside and make it one of the singles. I had it in my back pocket and that really helped. Instead, I could focus on writing “All The Lives We’ve Ever Lived”.

HMS: Even though “Everlasting Love” was planned as a summer track, it was nice that it released around Valentine’s Day when the winter months seemed so bleak.

GJ: The other thing that’s been semi-ridiculous for me about this process is that I’m a Southern Hemisphere-originating artist. All of the cultural references are based around Europe and North America for these seasons. If you’re near the equator, though, it’s hot or it’s rainy. Being based in Northern Europe in recent years, though, helped me embrace the seasons more.

New Zealand is somewhat seasonal, but not as seasonal as the northern half of North America. We don’t have deciduous trees, so it’s green all year round, and you don’t get a sense of death and rebirth in the same way. At the same time, a decent percentage of my fanbase is based in New Zealand. So releasing “Everlasting Love” in the height of the summer in New Zealand was funny. I had released all of the EPs in reverse for me, but I released that song then on purpose.

HMS: That’s amazing. That means that your whole perception of these seasons has probably been received through cultural products like books, music, and films. That’s fascinating because it’s like you’ve been to a lot of Halloween parties but haven’t experienced Halloween.

GJ: Especially when it comes to things like Christmas. In New Zealand, the common thing to do for Christmas is to have a barbeque. That’s the experience of Christmas and summer holidays for me. Being here in the Northern Hemisphere now has felt completely right in terms of this cultural influence. All the depictions of these things in every cultural format feels based on this. It felt both very unnatural and very natural at the same time, like being in New Zealand in the summer holidays and seeing decorations for Christmas based around snow. It’s surreal. You’ll also see pictures of Santa at the beach.

HMS: I think human beings like patterns such as the seasons represent. There’s something anthropological about that. So even if you don’t live in a place that has such firm divisions, it seems romantic.

GJ: There’s something about the spacing of the seasons, I think. From a cultural perspective, these things are super-dominant, but from the experiential level, it’s different. I think only about a quarter of the world’s population experiences the seasons the way that they are portrayed. The seasons mean a different thing in Nigeria or India.

Because so much of our existence is defined by vegetation, everything has a season from that perspective. There’s a season for mangoes. But it does still dominate peoples’ consciousnesses wherever you are. However, I have really enjoyed being here in the Netherlands and experiencing this particular flavor of things.

HMS: I guess you may never write another song about seasons again, having written 28 of them, not to mention the ones that you probably didn’t use! But it’s great that audiences can listed to Seasons and also to the expanded version of the EPs if they are so inclined.

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