BAHAMAS – BARCHORDS
Bahamas is the musical pseudonym of Toronto-based singer-songwriter-guitarist Afie Jurvanen, whose disarmingly forthright, captivatingly melodic songs have already earned him both a devoted fan base and a significant amount of critical acclaim on both sides of the border.
On the second Bahamas album Barchords, the determined, down-to-earth tunesmith delivers a beautifully bittersweet, infectiously uplifting set whose insightful lyrics, rousing melodies and raw, intimate performances exude an organic warmth and a timeless sense of universality. Jurvanen’s compositions are effortlessly accessible yet defy easy categorization, rewarding continued attention with multiple musical and emotional layers that reveal themselves with repeat listens.
Despite his tropical nom de music, Afie (pronounce AY-fee) isn’t from the Caribbean, but from Barrie, a working-class town in rural Ontario. In addition to his own work as Bahamas, Jurvanen won considerable attention during an extended stint working with Feist, with whom he recorded and toured extensively as guitarist/keyboardist. While his associations with other artists demonstrated his collaborative skills, it’s his own songs that mark Jurvanen as an exceptional talent.
After touring internationally with Feist for three years and returning home with a large backlog of new compositions, Afie recorded Bahamas’ 2009 debut Pink Strat. That album’s combination of sterling songwriting and sparse, lo-fi arrangements struck a chord with listeners and critics in Canada, where it received nominations for a prestigious Juno Award and Polaris Prize. That notoriety led to some high-profile touring and festival appearances.
Barchords—which Jurvanen recorded with his touring drummer Jason Tait and bassist Darcy Yates—offers 12 compelling new examples of Afie’s distinctive songcraft, including such personally-charged numbers as the haunting album-opener “Lost in the Light,” the loping, lilting ballad “Montreal,” the rocking yet intimate “I Got You Babe” and the bittersweetly uplifting “OK, Alright, I’m Alive.” Those tunes, like the rest of Barchords, demonstrate Jurvanen’s uncanny knack for combining subtly indelible melodies with lyrics of uncommon insight and vulnerability. The songs’ eloquent evocations of longing, loss and regret are supported by Afie’s sublimely expressive vocals and subtly inventive guitar work.
“My tendency is to write from a very personal place, trying to be as honest as I can be within two or three minutes, so there ends up being a lot of ‘I’ and ‘me’ in the songs,” Jurvanen notes. “There’s forays into different styles and perspectives, but more often than not I tend to come back to basic storytelling, where there’s a beginning and an ending. However, I do think the songwriting is a little more open-ended on this record, where the listener can fill in some of the details and chime in with their own imaginations.”
Where his creative process is concerned, Jurvanen is intensely focused, yet confident enough in his muse to keep himself open to spontaneity and chance. “I would never describe myself as laid back—quite the opposite, in fact. But 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. And musically that translates into always seeking to get to the point as quick as possible, which translates into the production of the records being pretty simple.”
“The simplest thing is usually the thing that moves me the most, and I don’t think that having a million options is necessarily a good thing,” Afie continues. “I like working with constrictions and forcing myself to work within certain parameters, like only bringing one guitar to the show. I think that a good idea will shine through, whether you record it in a sophisticated studio or on a ghetto blaster. As much as I subscribe to a lot of older production techniques and recording ideas, my main concern is just getting the job done and coming up with something that I think people will be able to connect with.”
“I’m putting this record out there at a time when there’s so much competition to be heard,” he notes. “The week that my album comes out, there are a thousand other albums coming out, and a thousand more the week after that. I think it’s harder now to find real connections with people, just because there’s all this really negative, hurtful stuff out there that’s bombarding us all the time. But you can’t just be a hermit and go back to the land. If you want to have a career in music, then you actually have to get out there and get to work.”
Although Jurvanen draws upon an array of sounds and instrumental textures in the studio, Bahamas’ live lineup is a stripped-down duo consisting of himself, drummer Tait and vocalists Carleigh Aikins and Felicity Williams.
“Not having a bass player is a conscious decision,” Afie explains. “It forces me to reinvent the songs when we play live. It’s more exciting to me when I have to figure a way to present the songs within a simpler framework. Also, when we play live, it’s not uncommon for me to change the arrangements and take the song wherever I want to. We can do that because I don’t have to teach someone the chords or the structure. Jason is a good listener and a really responsive player, so I can just launch into something and he’ll follow along, and it’s allowed me to stumble happily into some new musical landscapes.”
That sense of adventure and discovery is present throughout Barchords. “I’ve been accused of being an old soul or whatever, but I’m not the only one,” Jurvanen states. “You just do your best to create something that’s pure and honest. I’m fallible, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But I’m always trying to find some way to connect and to be more honest—in life and in music. I have to think that there are a lot of people out there who see things in a similar kind of way.”
On Birds Say, the Massachusetts-based quartet’s wide-open arrangements are marked by the skillful vocal interplay of the four singers. When bassist Dave Senft, guitarist and banjo player Don Mitchell, classical violinist and folk mandolinist Auyon Mukharji, and cellist and guitar picker Harris Paseltiner gather around a single microphone and let their richly-textured voices loose, they splash their melodies with a sunny melancholy that brings their lyrics to vibrant life. Subtle musical shadings take cues from 60s folk, chamber pop, bluegrass, classical music, and modern indie rock, while aching harmonies are complemented by tones from the harmonium, frailing banjo, 12-string electric guitar, Wurlitzer, auto-chord organ, and grand piano. The result is a collection of quietly passionate songs that defy easy categorization.
“Each song and set of lyrics are created by all of us together, a sort of ‘group stream-of-consciousness,’” Harris says. “So we moved away from a single lead vocalist and started gravitating towards singing in unison, passing the melody around, or harmonizing in four parts through an entire song.” Live and on record, they present a unified voice by clustering around a single condenser microphone and blending their voices in the room before they hit the mic.
Darlingside assembled the songs that make up Birds Say over the past three years in their kitchens and living rooms, on cabin retreats, and while visiting each other’s childhood homes. They recorded at Dimension Sound Studios in Boston with engineer and co-producer Dan Cardinal during the city’s snowiest month in history, the streets empty due to travel bans.
Sparse notes from banjo, acoustic guitar, violin and grand piano punctuate the solemn “White Horses,” in keeping with the song’s themes of haunting nostalgia and bleak winter inertia. “Looking for a trace of our orchard underground / Growing in the basements beneath a brand new town,” Harris sings delicately while the others support him with high, mournful harmonies. Auyon, Dave, and Harris sing in unison to begin “The God of Loss,” a song that laments the inevitable clash of the narrator’s familial, cultural, and romantic loyalties. Auyon’s somber fiddle and the unadorned arrangement recall the isolated wail of an old Appalachian folk song, transplanted into a bed of churning guitars. “Harrison Ford” rides lightheartedly on an echoing hand percussion loop, goosed along by Don’s chattering banjo as he sings a lyric full of complex internal rhymes in a style that’s part vocalese, part sideshow spiel. The ensemble supplies bursts of fractured harmonies that mirror the action of the swordfight the speaker is having with a man who may, or may not, be Harrison Ford.
The title track “Birds Say” is a vocal tour de force, with layered nylon-string guitars, violin, and cello underpinning 12 multi-tracked voices that fill the sonic space with rich overtones and intertwining harmonies as they muse on the mysteries of communication and interconnection. Brittle synthesizer-like sounds from Auyon’s mandolin seamlessly mesh with acoustic and 12-string Danelectro guitars for the folk rock groove of “Go Back.” The arresting a cappella intro features all four voices lifted in harmonies that recall CSNY (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young). The propulsive music shifts under the vocalists, fervent as they attempt to untie the knots that connect past and future.
“We wrote this record thinking about our childhoods, our transition into adulthood together, and the complexities of life that we all have to grapple with now,” Don says. Lyrically and musically, the band will follow a song wherever it takes them. “We don’t really think about genre,” Auyon observes. “We don’t see any limits except ‘no jazz,’ because none of us know how to play it.” And yet the band’s close harmonies and carefully crafted arrangements do occasionally spill into loose free-form outros, surreal dream spaces, and textural experimentation. “We started dipping into some psychedelic sounds with Dan,” says Harris, “re-amping our group vocals through a rotating organ speaker to give them a melting, wavering Doppler effect, or pushing an instrument through an Echoplex tape delay, which can make an acoustic guitar sound like a spaceship taking off.” Amid unexpected soundscapes, the songs remain familiar, looking backward and forward at the same time.
The members of Darlingside met at Williams College in western Massachusetts. “Auyon and I were paired as freshman year roommates,” Dave recalls. “We fought often, but we spent so much time together that we very quickly became like brothers.” They joined a singing group with Don, and Harris joined the same group two years later. From there, the four bonded over a shared interest in songwriting, despite a diversity of musical backgrounds and performance styles including chamber music, choral singing, Celtic session playing, and street busking. As soon as Harris, the youngest, graduated, the friends moved into a house on the Connecticut River in Hadley, MA. “We had ‘family dinners’ almost every night,” says Dave, “rotating cooking for one another, and we spent a lot of our free time out on a dilapidated houseboat that we called the ‘Shack Raft.’”
Darlingside first toured as a five-piece indie rock band with drums, but finding the right delicate balance of voices and instruments was a challenge early on. Then, in 2013, the band parted ways with their long-time friend and drummer. “In our first few shows without Sam, we felt naked,” says Auyon. Listening to the current quartet, you can hear fingers on strings, breathing in the singing, squeaks and pumps from a harmonium. The band now performs the songs the same way they practice and write them—seeing them live is like sitting in their living room. There are still vestiges of the rock format: electric guitar fuzz and ambient feedback creep into otherwise acoustic arrangements. But in the new format, voices and melody have shifted to the forefront—a shift that has become important to the band. Harris explains, “we try to write songs that exist out of the context we set them into, songs that can just be sung.”
After six years of playing together and a decade-plus of knowing each other, the band’s collaborative process has evolved side by side with their friendships. “We’ve become intimate with each other’s childhoods, families, fears, goals, insecurities and body odors,” Auyon notes. “That kind of closeness is typically limited to romantic relationships. It’s gotten to the point where we often mistake each other’s stories and memories for our own.” Birds Say is a patchwork of the artistic and personal visions of four equal songwriters—a mashup of their individual and collective experiences and dreams. “The process is so entangled,” Don says, “I sometimes can’t remember what I wrote, or what anyone else wrote. We don’t consider a song finished until we’re all satisfied with it. It may not be the fastest process, but we know that when we all agree on something, it’ll sound like us.”