It’s been 10 years since Afie Jurvanen recorded his first album, Pink Strat, in an Ontario cabin, and subsequently released it under the band name Bahamas. “It sounded like a place I’d rather be,” he told the Georgia Straight when that album came out, “although nobody seems to know exactly where that name came from.”
The singer-guitarist, familiar for accompanying folks like Feist and Jason Collett, seems to enjoy periods of retreat and advance. And now he’s back with Earthtones. For his fourth full-length release, the imaginary Bahamian builds a set of ’70s-style, country-soul-flavoured originals around his tremolo-laden guitar and an increasingly confident voice. Is he a laid-back Bobby Womack of the north woods? Or more of a wintry Bill Withers?
“Either one works for me,” says Jurvanen, on the phone from San Diego, where he’s about to perform at the Belly Up Tavern, on a tour that’s been sold out pretty much everywhere he’s going.
“Bill Withers in particular writes lyrics the way I would like to write: free of irony and with very few metaphors. I feel that the songs on this new record are some of the most direct I’ve ever written. I don’t want to say that irony is easier, but it is quite challenging to stand up there and just put it out the way you really feel about something or somebody. You don’t have to wonder what I’m singing about.”
The bandleader has currently settled into a sound that manages to be both spare and lush at the same time. His touring group features bass and drums, three female vocalists, and two guitars—with his own (there’s that Strat again) doing frequent counterpoint with that of fellow Torontonian Christine Bougie, who also plays killer lap-steel. If you Google his recent visit to Jimmy Kimmel Live, you’ll find veteran session drummer James Gadson and legendary bassist Pino Palladino doubling up the rhythm section. They add more pocket, not noise, to the band for his “Way With Words”. And how did that happen?
“I did the bulk of the tracks for this record in Los Angeles, and Pino and James played on virtually all of it. Christine and I played all the guitars with them, live, and it was very organic. So, since the show is shot in L.A., it seemed like a great opportunity to combine forces!”
On that appropriately titled number, he sings, “I had a way with words for a while/They call it substance over style.” And here we can, in fact, wonder what he’s wording about.
“That’s actually the oldest tune in the record,” Jurvanen explains. “And I hesitated to include it, because all the others were written just for this album. It’s about a band I had that broke up a long time ago, because it had some issues,” he adds with a chuckle. “It’s really about finding yourself, and saying, ‘I’m a good person and I’m trying to live a good life.’ ”
Innate sincerity, chilled-out guitars, and excellent groove are hallmarks of Earthtones. All in all, it’s the most relaxed outing for this veteran player. It even closes with the Leonard Cohen-esque confessional of the solo “Any Place”, in which he vows “to live my life inside a song”. So far, that seems to be working out quite well.
“There’s no real production here,” he concludes. “We just allowed the music to happen in the studio, and you get this instinctive cross-breeding of genres. But in the end, this record is really about the lyrics. I’m trying not to complicate the picture.”
Bahamas and the Weather Station play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday (March 1).