Afie Jurvanen is a master of delicious tone. His sense of melody and volume is astonishing as the accomplished singer-songwriter forges luminous expressions of song. Since 2009 his musical moniker ‘Bahamas’ has blessed the world’s ears with honest, direct, and potent records, hinged on smooth and comforting vocal layers, tasteful and restrained guitar brilliance, chiseled into a world of minimalistic funk and folk rhythms. Jurvanen is a brilliant artist and we’re not tossing the word about lightly. He makes songwriting and smooth, soulful delivery seem easy time and time again.
On his recent release, Sad Hunk (released 10/9 via Brushfire), Bahamas once again brings a gorgeous and powerful collection of songs. The Canadian artist exudes a humble and magnetic quality as he croons to themes that will help us navigate life, love, relationships, and what it means to be humans coexisting (or trying to) here on earth. In the sentiment of Jurvanen: be comfortable with who you are, let your hair down, let your gut out a little bit. We’re all learning how to be ourselves. How to love ourselves. It can be hard as hell but maybe that’s why we’re all here. To grow and help each other along the way.
Glide recently caught up with Jurvanen while he was up in the Cape Breton Highlands, which is on the easternmost part of Canada. With salmon season ending that weekend, Jurvanen got a pass from his wife to spend a couple of days fishing. But before those adventures took place, we dug into his creative process, fishing, his new record Sad Hunk, and some serious insights on Bahamas’ tone, recording techniques, and giving into inspiration.
I really dig the new record Sad Hunk. I’ve actually been listening to your music for about ten years – a girlfriend years ago turned me onto your tunes.
That’s how it works – the girlfriend gateway…
Do you have a songwriting process that you tend to gravitate towards?
I can’t say that I have a strictly defined process. I have identified what’s most important for me and it’s allowing myself to be bored, allowing myself to daydream a little bit. If I’m too busy, listening to too many podcasts, too much music, over-stimulating my mind, it will seem like all my ideas are percolating at a lower level and I won’t have access to them. That’s a crucial part for me. It’s why I like to get out of town, go fishing, get into a zone with no cell phone reception. It sounds cliche but that works for me to unlock whatever is going on in there.
Often I’ll have ideas for songs but it isn’t clear how to turn them into songs. To get them into songs is my process of daydreaming and being bored. I go through phases where I listen to records and make an effort to discover new music and reconnect with older music. When I start to feel like I’m going to be writing I stop listening to everything else. Almost for fear that it might pollute whatever idea I’m having. I want to make sure those ideas are original and my own. I’ll go through long periods where I don’t really listen to much music. More and more I’m realizing that for me discipline is more important than inspiration. Putting myself in a position for an idea to come – this gives me more chances to hit on a song. It’s the same with fishing. All my friends who catch a lot of fish – it’s because they’re on the riverway more than I am. You have to put yourself in that position even when you don’t necessarily feel inspired. You have to get to that place — where if lightning does strike you’re ready to get it in the bottle.
Is Sad Hunk all new songs?
By and large, they’re all new tunes with the exception of one. The last song ‘Wisdom of the World,’ I recorded for my last record and it just didn’t come out how I wanted it to. I forgot about the song and my manager suggested we take a crack at it for the new record. We ended up getting a cool version of it. All the rest of them are new.
When I came off the road in September 2019 and I had never really come off the road and not had something else on the calendar. I’ve never taken a break. Ever. I got to a point where I realized I needed to take a break. My family and I had recently moved to the coast and I wanted to get familiar with our new home and all that stuff. So… we played that last show in September and then about two weeks later I realized I was miserable. I was no fun to be around. I was so cranky. I realized how much I like to work. I like being busy, being challenged and engaged, and pushed. I certainly get that experience from touring, but also from writing and making records.
I called my manager and asked him to book the studio for December. In that two-month period, I worked on my tunes, went for my walks, did my daydreaming, and got the songs in order. That’s another thing I’ve realized: a little pressure and a deadline work well for me. I got to the studio and everyone was ready to go. We ended up making the record in five days, it came together pretty effortlessly. The musicians tapped into the songs very quickly. The lyrics are pretty direct and the melodies and songs were really intact. I would play the song once for the band and then let them figure it out. They did a great job I think.
There is so much feel and it’s so tight — even in its looseness and sway.
Totally. You set up a framework. Once you have that framework set, chaos can come in and out as you want it to. I felt confident that the songs were good and the arrangements were solid. At that point it’s nice to hand it over to a group of musicians that are really talented. It’s like giving a good cook fresh ingredients. Make it hard for them to serve you a bad meal (both laugh)
I love the volume of your music – Is controlling volume something that you think about a lot?
Oh my god, it’s literally everything. I appreciate that you’re tapped into that. I wouldn’t be so arrogant to think that I have that much wisdom to offer younger bands but volume is everything. When you listen to those old Beatles records or Motown records, most people would be shocked to know how quiet those musicians are playing. In order to make the sound big, full and tight – and to achieve everything you want – the biggest way to control all of that is with volume. Our stage volume when we play live is really quiet. I don’t use in-ear monitors, we play to the room. I’m not shy about telling the drummer to play quieter and quieter and quieter — to the point where the drummer is playing with chopsticks. (both laugh)
Do you play music? Do you play guitar?
Yeah – I play some guitar and write songs.
So, you know … If you strum an acoustic guitar as hard as you can it’s not necessarily the nicest parts of the instrument that get louder. Sure… the volume is louder but it’s not necessarily the most pleasing sound. I’ve realized the same with drums, with bass, with almost everything. Of course there are exceptions but if you turn your guitar amp all the way up and barely touch the strings the sound that comes out – to my ears – is so much better. It’s a counter-intuitive thing for some people. The more you control volume the more music you have access to, the more dynamic range you have access to. It allows more room on the track for the music to breathe. I’m not sure if any of that made sense but I definitely think volume is super important and dynamics are also really important.
It does make sense. Got me thinking about JJ Cale – his volume is so perfect.
Oh yeah. All those records mean a lot to me. Something I heard about those early JJ Cale records was that he had a young baby at home. So a lot of those home recordings were recorded in the middle of the night and he’s kind of whispering. He developed a whole style of recording based on that and then realizing how cool it sounded.
I learned pretty early on as a guitar player how to play quietly. I’ve always had small guitar amps. If and when I do use an amp in the studio I use a little Fender Champ. If you want a big and aggressive sound you wind one of those things out and it sounds huge.
I love the song “Not Cool Anymore” – it reminds me of a song John Prine might have written. Can you tell me about that one?
The meaning of the song is sort of the opposite of what the title suggests. One of those things – when you stop trying to be cool you actually become cool. Ultimately it’s about being comfortable with who you are, letting your hair down, letting your gut out a little bit. Learning how to be yourself. It’s hard. The most meaningful music and conversations are the ones where you’re showing your true self. To do that you have to accept yourself. I remember when I came up with the melody I was singing it over and over again. I had some other verses written but ended up just wanting it to be a two-minute song. In and out – and the message is clear.
‘Less Than Love’ is another song that really got me thinking.
That song for me is pretty personal. I’m singing openly about my life and my married life. As I’m sure you know, it encompasses all things. If you only believe in fairy tales then, of course, you’re going to think every day you’re going to have birds circling around your head, holding hands, and everything is about being in love. To me, actual true love is about the hard times. The parts where you’re pretty fucking ugly and you’re learning to love each other through that. Learning how to be someone’s partner when they’re at their worst. That’s true love to me.
Man, I dig that.
That’s another song where I just loved singing those lines. I was able to come up with a lot of lines that felt very strong on their own.
When they all come together you get a more vivid picture of what true love is. All the good and all the bad and it’s the best. It’s a challenge and it’s rewarding at the same time. I feel like it’s important to sing about the darker stuff. For me, it’s more honest. We’re living in a world where you see manicured versions of people. It’s nice to remind myself that life is everything, the whole enchilada. Not just the perfect moment, but all the moments.
That really resonates. All those moments contrast each other.
You got to embrace that. You gotta see something challenging and run towards it. More and more I’m realizing that the uncomfortable places are where the rewarding work is done.
Yes, totally. I like hip hop a lot. Mostly because of the lyrics. They’re able to sing about modern times and the life we’re all living so effortlessly. I find that a lot of singer-songwriters have trouble with that. It’s hard to sing about emails and checking your iPhone in a cool way as a singer-songwriter. Whereas in hip hop it can sound so effortless and natural. I listen to a fair amount of hip hop and R&B so it’s cool that some of that energy is making its way to the track.
You went deep with your voice on that track. (‘Bad Boys’)
Yeah, we were recording and I got a really bad cold around Christmas time. I called my manager and told him to book the studio for the next morning. When I was waking up in the morning my voice was insane. I was accessing all these low notes. We did ‘Bad Boys’ and ‘Any Place’ – which is another low vocal song.
That’s so cool! I would have never guessed that.
I try and take advantage of those moments. If you have a broken finger maybe you’ll come up with the coolest guitar riff because you’re not using that pinky you’d normally use to reach the fret. More and more I try to have that mentality towards things. Rather than focusing on what you don’t have access to – working with what you’ve got.
Photo Credit: Dave Gillespie