With his latest album Seasons, Graeme James wanted to turn the emotional response of Mother Nature’s ever-changing cycles into sound. The end result is an atmospheric journey that highlights the days of your life, as told through the periods of natural transition that impacts us all.
Seasons is available April 1 on Nettwerk Records.
I recently sat down with James to discuss seasonal metaphors, emphatic reactions to music, and why climbing the mountain makes standing on the peak all the more valuable.
AH: Your upcoming album Seasons is more than just a collection of music—it’s an atmospheric escape that takes the listener out of the chaos of daily life. How much of your songwriting involves trying to create a feeling or vibe and not just a great song?
GJ: Actually the whole premise behind Seasons was trying to capture the emotional essence of each of the seasons. I found that each of the seasons is full of beautiful metaphors that help us to understand our own lives. I think most people have strong memories attached to the passing of the seasons and I was hoping to transport people back into those moments and provide a space for contemplation.
AH: You play a slew of instruments, but is there one that you feel more at home at than others? When looking at Seasons, where did most of the songs originate in terms of the instrument of inspiration?
GJ: Probably violin/fiddle. I took classical violin lessons for 10 years, which gave me a great foundation for teaching myself the other instruments I play. But because I tend to start with chords, followed by melody, followed by lyrics, I will usually start writing with guitar, ukulele or banjo. It’s mostly just a question of which instrument is lying around at the time.
AH: Again, Seasons pulled me out of the moment and transported me to some place else—a sort of internal zen. Does writing have the same effect on you that listening to other artists’ music does? Is putting all of your creative self into a song a cathartic experience?
GJ: I wish it was! Because I tend to write songs as a part of the discipline of my craft as a songwriter, I often find the process to be hard work. It is enjoyable and satisfying but I find myself straining to find the right metaphors, turns of phrase and song structure. It’s usually not until a song is finished that I can sit back and enjoy it for what it is.
AH: What would someone learn about you in sitting down to listen to Seasons front to back?
GJ: I’m not exactly sure, but maybe that I am always searching for understanding and redemption in this life. My songwriting is mostly a journey of contemplation—especially so on Seasons
AH: What are you most proud of with this album and why?
GJ: I think I’m most proud of the feelings this album evokes in me when I listen back to it. My goal was to distill the emotional qualities of each of the seasons into sound and I’m really pleased with how it has turned out.
AH: You produce your own albums. Are there ever moments where musician Graeme butts heads with producer Graeme in terms of what you want to achieve creatively and what is possible when you dive into the recording process?
GJ: Great question. ‘Producer Graeme’ makes ‘Musician Graeme’ do all sorts of things that he is definitely not qualified to do. I play quite a bit of double bass, cello and accordion on this album. In the studio I often found myself attempting up to 50-100 takes on instruments that I was definitely not competent enough on to play to a live audience.
Actually one of the most enjoyable things that I did on this album was to involve a bunch of friends in the recording process—particularly a drummer and a piano/organ player. Their wonderful playing on this album was a real inspiration to the producer in me and helped shape a number of the songs.
AH: You were born in New Zealand, based in the Netherlands, and you have toured all over. At a time when it seems that there is so much division in the world, how have you personally seen music become a unifying force? And, beyond that, how can music heal in ways that other mediums cannot?
GJ: I think music is incredibly medicinal. Because good music speaks clearly to the human condition, I feel like it does breed empathy. I really think that good music (and all good art for that matter) causes us to feel known and understood in a way that softens us to the world and to other people.
AH: We are about seven years removed from your debut album News From Nowhere. Where have you changed the most as a songwriter/artist, and what would you say the source of that creative transformation is?
GJ: I feel a lot more freedom in my art these days. I think that the main challenge any creative person needs to face is the battle against fear. Fear of failure, fear of running out of ideas, fear of rejection, and every other internal criticism imaginable. It is the artist’s cross to bear and having borne it for a few years now, I am getting comfortable with its weight. My favorite quote right now is from Andy Warhol: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
AH: Would the Graeme who first picked up an instrument be surprised by Seasons and your musical journey thus far, and if so, why?
GJ: I think my mind would be blown to be honest—especially as I saw myself becoming a concert violinist, playing in orchestras. I still have so much to learn, but think the thing that pleases me the most is how I’ve developed as a songwriter in the folk genre and how my recorded music has been able to connect with people all across the world.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
GJ: (Laughter) Definitely not! I find the retrospective very satisfying, but looking forward I know that the joy will be in the journey. The true satisfaction of the mountain top view only comes from the sweat and pain of actually climbing the mountain.
For all things Graeme James, visit www.graemejamesmusic.com.