Check out the home page at bahamasmusic.net and the pop-up video there in no way resembles a Bahamian vacation. It details a wintry visit from singer-guitarist Afie Jurvanen to his mother’s snowbound house north of Toronto. The video is mostly in Finnish, with subtitles. You might think he did this for Scandinavian TV in his mom’s homeland, but you’d be wrong.
“We did it to be different,” says the musician, on the phone from his hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia, some hours before opening for Jack Johnson, on a tour that will take him to Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium. As a musician, composer, and bandleader, the guy—a veteran at 32—does things differently. For electric guitars, he prefers beat-up old Sears catalogue specials, like Silvertones and Harmonys, as demonstrated while touring and recording with acts as varied as the iconoclastic Feist, folky Jason Collett, and hard-rocking Zeus.
“I just like those cheap guitars,” he says. “They’re fun instruments, and super-lightweight—usually hollow. And you get sounds out of ’em you don’t usually hear from the standard brands.”
The same can be said of Bahamas, as demonstrated recently with the free iTunes concert broadcast from London, England. The quartet consists of the leader, a drummer, and two female vocalists. Remarkably, they put out enough good noise to command the largest stage. The concept goes well with Jurvanen’s songwriting, which could be described as the lean-in-and-listen variety, and with his sense of humour, which is dry as a Helsinki summer.
“I’m used to people taking a while to warm up to what I do,” he notes. “Pretty much all I’ve been doing for the past couple years is opening up for other artists’ audiences. You get used to it.”
This doesn’t mean he has learned to pander. Jurvanen’s originals plus the odd covers included on his two albums—2009’s breakthrough Pink Strat and last year’s Barchords—are full of unexpected melodic twists, subtle shifts in mood and harmony, sinewy guitar lines, and clever turns of wordplay. (Check out the excellent YouTube performance of his meditative “Lost in the Light” featuring k.d. lang, or him dueting with Kathleen Edwards on a sultry version of “Snowbird”.) What his tunes don’t have is anthemic choruses and overbearing hooks.
“That’s kind of unfortunate, really,” he admits with a sigh. “I wish I could write those things. I’m sure it would be a lot better for my RRSPs and everything else. But that’s just not what comes naturally to me. Some people can fight what comes naturally to them, but for me it’s much more comfortable to do what I like and hope other people get interested.”
Although he may favour funky old electrics, that faux-Finnish video shows him strumming a high-end Bourgeois acoustic (that’s a brand, not a put-down) with a rich, burnished sound.
“That’s the first new guitar I’ve ever owned, and certainly the best. I love it. Any guitar that makes you want to play is worth having, and this one makes me want to write more songs.”
To that end, Jurvanen is working on what he calls a folk record—something that will feature bare-bones recitations that, clearly, will show just how strong those bones can be. Heck, maybe he’ll even go Scandi on one or more.
“I thought about that,” he says with a laugh. “But it would probably be smarter to work on my French first!”