In the lexicon of sports, a “utility player” is defined as someone who has the ability to competently play and fill in for any position on the field. Even though at a young age the Toronto-born musician Afie Jurvanen chose the route of the arts over its competitive cousin, the title translates to his music.
Playing backup guitar for the likes of Feist and Howie Beck in the earlier part of his career, Jurvanen’s breakthrough moment as a singular singer-songwriter came with the formation of Bahamas. Bringing his own ideas and emotions to the forefront, the release of 2009’s Pink Strat saw the emergence of an artist of rare talent and emotional depth, harkening back to a time when you couldn’t chew up and spit out a love song like a piece of sour candy. Topping himself on his most recent album Barchords, Jurvanen has managed to capture the depths of love and relationships with an understated yet beautiful complexity. As much an instruction manual as it is a testament of personal crisis, the album shows that to wade through the schizophrenic tides of heartache, one only needs the strength of self and the will to hang on.
Before opening for Milo Greene on tomorrow night at the High Noon Saloon (tickets here), I spoke to Jurvanen about the recording of Barchords, his love of hats, and how an older version of himself watches over everything he creates.
True Endeavors: When did you first begin writing music and honing your craft?
Afie Jurvanen: That’s many many moons ago. I think I started writing songs before I had any notion of doing it professionally or anything like that. And basically, that was because it was easier to write my own songs than to try and play other people’s, before I even knew how to play chords on a guitar or things like that. I could bang out a rhythm on something or make up my own chords on a guitar and sing along to it. So I just made my own recordings on a ghetto blaster, things that are pretty common to suburban kids. Then when you get into high school, obviously if you’re into sports, there’s a big community for you, and if you’re into the arts there’s another community equally as big. I just fell into the latter and quickly met a lot of other people who were interested in the things I was. It was a pretty typical teenage experience that really were my formative musical years.
Your original recordings predated high school. How old would you say you were when you first picked up a guitar?
I was probably in the seventh grade. I played drums, or I guess I considered myself a drummer. Looking back, I probably wasn’t much of a drummer. But I really did love the drums when I was younger. I just loved the immediacy of hitting something and a sound coming out. So that really spoke to me, and I made makeshift drum kits and things like that. I begged my mom for a guitar for a long time, but it took a while before I got one.
In your press materials, you’re quoted in saying: “I do tend to operate at a slower pace than the rest of the world. That’s by intention, choosing not to interact with the world in the same way as everyone else, because it’s just a healthier state of mind for me to be in. I just can’t bring myself to worry about the same things that everyone else worries about.” What exactly do you mean by that? Would you consider yourself somewhat reclusive? Does that extend to things like Facebook?
Definitely [Facebook] stuff has typically been overwhelming to me. I’m grateful that I have a manager and a record label that definitely understand the technology, embrace it and use it in a way that represents me. I just think that musically and otherwise in life, I feel that my world is fairly small. I have my travel gear, I have my friends with me on the road, and it can feel pretty insular, you know? And those are the kinds of things I concern myself with. If I started to worry more about all that other stuff, I feel I would lose focus on the things that matter to me. I suppose musically, that translates to trying to write better songs all the time. I don’t get all that inspired by seeing a lot of this modern music that is sort of made very quickly and made to be consumed very quickly. And the literature and music and films and conversations that draw me in are the ones that have a little more substance, something that takes more than an initial interest to get into.
Facebook and other social media also offers a somewhat false representation of people. If seeking out “truth” is the ultimate aim of the artist, to be too enamored or consumed by these false realities could be harmful to your person and your art.
Oh for sure. It’s very easy to create and fabricate any image of yourself that you want, and not just musicians. It could be anybody. You could take a picture of yourself beside a Ferrari and put it up on your Facebook page, and that sends out a message that is pretty strong. I know that’s sort of a crude analogy, but I think it sort of feeds into this human emotion that people want to receive something back. And I’m already doing that by putting music out into the world, and consciously putting it out there to be consumed. And that’s satisfying enough for me. That’s about all I can handle.
Jonathan Franzen also put it very well in an essay of his that “To friend a person [on Facebook] is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”
He’s a fantastic writer. That is bang on. That is much more poetic than I could ever put it. I think praise can be quite harmful. So if you’re gonna go to [Facebook] to read about all the good things that people say about you, you have to be also ready to read about the bad things.
It’s been said that your latest LP Barchords was recorded very quickly. Were they songs you’d already been toying around with, or was a lot of it impromptu?
I put out my first record [Pink Strat] and toured quite extensively on it, but over that time I was kind of working on the songs for Barchords. But when we recorded it, I guess I did the majority of the work beforehand. I’d worked on the songs as much as I could, I felt pretty solid about the ideas, and assembled the musicians to all play in a room. Then I just counted the songs off. Usually, pretty quickly, the musicians that I play with would find their step. I guess I prefer to do it that way, to surround myself with people whose instincts I trust and let them find the best way into the song. Rather than talk about it, over-analyze it and come up with something that’s super calculated.
I couldn’t be happier with how the recording turned out. I know there’s sort of dark, lyrical matter and things on there, but I do feel that the recording has a celebratory tone to it. That was sort of an unconscious thing that happened, and I’m really glad that it did.
There’s always a large gestation period from the time an album is written, recorded, and when the artist finally goes on tour to promote it. What kind of place where you in at the time when you wrote it, and how do you look at it now?
Well, it’s definitely been years. I don’t listen to it that often, but I guess the best thing is that I can still hear myself in the songs. I can hear it and I’m comfortable with it. And I think that’s because I was just honest with myself during the moment it was recorded. I know I’m not the first one to say it, but generally that’s the best policy if you want to look back on things and stand beside what you’ve created, you know?
Whether you were honest or not?
Exactly. Absolutely. I think when we were recording–and I guess anytime I’m recording something for that matter–I’m always checking in with an older version of myself and making sure he’s okay with whatever I’m doing now. I want to be able to experience things ten, twenty, thirty years from now and be okay with them.
I’m assuming it was written during a time of heartbreak?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, that’s been a constant source of inspiration for writers, music and otherwise, for millennia. I’m just yet another guy going through that deep well of inspiration.
One of the things I think you do very well on the album is balance the myriad of schizophrenic emotions that someone goes through after a breakup. There are songs that contain cravings for reconciliation, but also the feeling that whatever happens, everything will inevitably be alright.
I can only speak for my own emotions, but they are sporadic and they do change. That’s definitely human. Learning to accept that is probably the best use of anyone’s energy rather than trying to figure it all out. I think trying to accept yourself is a better use of your energy and time.
Your videos are very bold and minimalist. I especially liked the video for “Caught Me Thinking.” Where’d you get all the hats for that video?
I love hats. I have a pretty extensive collection. I mean, I would have loved to use more, but it’s just that we sang the song with each hat on the whole way through. Once you get up to thirty hats, that’s a full days work. At that point, I was just like, “Okay, that’s it.” [Laughs.] I guess [the video] is some sort of humorous version of saying something that’s rather dark. I tried to make other videos for that song that I guess were a little too ambitious or too professional or something. And I was getting all this pressure to make a video, so I just thought, well, I’m just going to invite these guys over to my house, record the song a bunch of times, and that’ll be it. Oftentimes, I think having no idea or only having a semblance of an idea can lead to something a little more authentic. Making videos is still something I’m getting comfortable with. It’s not something I’m passionate about it, but it’s necessary when promoting records. So I guess I’m just trying to make things, like my records, that I can stand by and be okay with.
Hearing the lack of intent behind the video is funny. I originally saw it on YouTube, and while I was scrolling through the comments, one user posted this in-depth analysis of how the video is a metaphor for your various “thinking caps,” that each hat is a different facet of your personality.
[Laughs.] Well, I’m flattered that anyone is spending any time to analyze or comment on [the video], but I don’t know…I can tell you we rented the lights and stuff in the morning, we went to my house and worked on it all afternoon into the evening, and that was it. There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about the meaning behind each individual hat. [Laughs.] We just sort of grabbed them out of the bag and started singing.
I think people do that with songs, too, trying to put meanings to things. That’s kind of amazing. I mean, I do the same thing. If I’m listening to Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson, I’m sort of trying to imagine: what is this song really about? What were they going through when they wrote it? Because something about it is conjuring up these emotions in me. How could they possibly speak to something that I’m going through? And I think that’s just a natural emotion, to try and relate or understand something if it moves you. So I guess if people are doing that to my songs or my videos, I’m grateful for that.
You’re going to have people writing college theses about the meaning behind each hat and how they correlate to the different parts of your brain.
That could be a whole new video in and of itself.
–interview by Austin Duerst
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