At the Grammy Awards on Sunday night, much was made of the “musical family” – which is to say an industry of recording artists and suits who “take care of their own,” to borrow a phrase from Bruce Springsteen’s performance.
Not to say that the outpouring of emotion at the awards ceremony wasn’t genuine, but the camaraderie on the ground, in cities across North America, is more tangible than what you find among the red carpets, warm thoughts and standing ovations at a once-a-year gala.
And it goes a long way.
A couple of weeks ago Afie Jurvanen – the gifted Toronto guitarist and fast-rising singer-songwriter who calls himself Bahamas – was on the phone with Jack Johnson.
Johnson is the singer-songwriter who, when he’s not selling out amphitheatres across North America, kicks back in Hawaii, surfing with his buds. Hanging five and heaven on earth, who wouldn’t want that? But after the phone call, it occurred to Jurvanen, who just released his gracefully rocking second album, Barchords, that paradise needn’t mean palm trees.
“I realized that I was part of a musical community,” he says, speaking in his neighbourhood coffee shop in Kensington Market. “Talking to Jack was a great reminder of that.”
Toronto, as a musical hot spot, has received glowing press lately. A New York Times blogger, citing critically lauded albums last year by Feist, Drake, The Weeknd, Austra and a couple of others, postulated that Toronto was “having its Seattle moment.” That’s not quite accurate – Seattle’s scene in the 1990s was built upon one sound (grunge) and one label (Sub Pop) – but clearly there’s something happening in Canada’s largest city.
Talking with a few local musicians over the last few months, the thing that keeps coming up is Toronto’s camaraderie. “This is probably one of the most nurturing, creative and honest music communities I’ll probably ever know,” said the Ottawa-born singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards (who was seen with her boyfriend, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, at Sunday’s Grammys). “Friendship here trumps the art, and I think it actually makes the art better. No one’s afraid to step out, and everyone’s encouraged. It’s never judged as competitive.”
Jurvanen joined Edwards on a feather-light duet of Snowbird for a live CBC Radio taping recently. When I tell Jurvanen that Edwards referred to him as her Kris Kristofferson – she being the Rita Coolidge counterpart – the tall, dark and handsome fellow breaks out an aw-shucks million-dollar smile. “We’ve known each other for a while,” he says. “It’s nice to have friends putting out records at the same time, so that we can do stuff like that.”
Stuff like that happens all the time in the momentary music capital of the world. He isn’t signed to Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts label, but Jurvanen is in that circle. Prior to launching a solo career with 2009’s balmy folk-rock record Pink Strat, he was a member of Feist’s road band. He’s toured with rockers Zeus and singer-songwriter Jason Collett, and he recorded both his albums (at his then-girlfriend’s house north of Toronto) with the help of Robbie Lackritz, his former roommate. Lackritz is Feist’s road manager; Jurvanen refers to him as his engineer, manager and “best buddy.”
Jurvanen also once lived with Doug Paisley, the velvet-baritone country troubadour whose career is also taking off. “His voice and his songs are the greatest of our time,” testifies Jurvanen. Paisley’s Constant Companion from 2010 was recorded at a studio owned by singer-songwriter Hayden Desser, who, as a favour to Paisley, didn’t charge much. Musicians on the album included Blue Rodeo’s Bazil Donovan and Feist, who not only sang on a pair of songs but shopped the finished product around to various local record labels.
Barchords, a stylish victory of retro-minimalist restraint and fluid folk rock, is a follow-up to – and step-up from – Pink Strat. Where the recording of that first album was near impromptu, the second is more textured and fleshed out, made by an artist who’s more assured as a frontman and songwriter. Fellow musicians tweeting their love of Bahamas and Barchords included Johnson, Edwards, Sarah Harmer and Ryan Adams.
Where Pink Strat held themes of longing, Barchords covers a relationship realized and then lost. “I don’t try to mask a lot of things,” says Jurvanen, who nevertheless prefers not to name his muse and former girlfriend. “Songwriting is part of my process for dealing with life, and part of my life is that relationship, and part of that relationship is pain.”
Because he’s signed to Johnson’s Brushfire label, Jurvanen was in California recently. There, he surfed and happened across a recording session involving James Taylor, Ben Harper and Willie Nelson, an idol and an influence. “It’s the promised land for sure,” Jurvanen admits. “But my family and friends are here, which overrides any desire to hang out in my board shorts, ocean-side. For me, it just seems right to be here.”
Before he leaves the coffee shop, Jurvanen pushes a CD by Tamara Lindeman across the table. A couple of months ago, Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene told me about her as well. “We played together in December,” Jurvanen says of the young Toronto singer-songwriter who makes music under the name The Weather Station. “This woman is doing something heavy, and I’m just trying to spread the gospel.”
Understood. After all, what are friends for?
Bahamas plays Vancouver, March 27; Kelowna, B.C., March 28; Calgary, March 29; Edmonton, March 30; Regina, March 31; Waterloo, Ont., April 10; Hamilton, April 11; Ottawa, April 12; and Toronto, April 13.
THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
With a strong slate of critically-acclaimed albums from 2011, Toronto has been talked up in some circles as the world’s top music city of the moment. The next wave of Hogtown artists making noise in 2012 includes Bahamas and the following hotly tipped acts:
Slakadeliqs: The Sarnia-born singer-producer recently unveiled the alter-ego of Slakah the Beatchild. The album from Slakadeliqs – The Other Side of Tomorrow – is an experimental side-project of spacey soul and out-there funk and rock.
Emma-Lee: Following up her sublime, jazzy debut Never Just a Dream from 2008, the CBC Radio-approved/// singer-photographer discovers her inner rock chick with the just-out Backseat Heroine.
Sandro Perri: Long known for his crafty production work as much as his own genre-shifting endeavours, Perri’s latest release (the artful folk-rock of Impossible Spaces) is just about a lock for the Polaris Prize shortlist.
Yamantaka//Sonic Titan: The Toronto-by-Montreal duo of Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B do a tribal-theatrical take on psychedelic rock, complete with kabuki face-paint and dragon puppetry on stage.
The Weather Station: The working name of Tamara Lindeman, who’s also a member of the Bruce Peninsula, a roots-rock collective. Haunting, quiet, poetic and woodsy banjo music is are found on her sophomore release, All Of It Was Mine.