Good songs needn’t take inspiration from social strife, or contain grand, impenetrable themes. Sometimes they can simply express something new about our day-to-day lives, putting the commonplace in a fresh light.
That’s what I get from the music of Graydon James (above left) a Toronto-based musician. His first record goodnight, young novelist [sic] was a 40-track double album that, despite its girth, was a remarkably easy listen. It felt more like a collection of great short stories than an epic novel.
Now with a backing band behind him named for that record, and a new one on the way, we spoke with James about his songwriting process, family life and love of pancakes.
What’s the word on a full album from Graydon James and the Young Novelists?
Full-length studio album coming in September. We’ve got a week or two of mastering, then we’ll get it printed up ... and then sit on it. We’ll get some steam going before release.
You came on the scene with a 40-track double album. Will this record be similarly ambitious?
It will not have as many songs [laughs.] A good 40-odd minutes. We’re calling it In the Year You Were Born.
Is the Young Novelists lineup a solid one, now?
Yeah. It’s a group that got assembled over time.
Has it become more democratic?
It’s very democratic. They say democracy would be the worst form of government if it wasn’t the best. Things take a lot longer but ultimately the music is richer for it, and everyone has more invested in it. I want that variation in terms of what they can bring to the table. And they’re all far, far better at their instruments than I’ve ever been.
Does that democracy still place you as president?
I have some veto power, but everybody does. If someone says “There’s no way we’re going to put cowbell in this song!” then there’s no cowbell. I’ve been outvoted fairly regularly. My ideas are just terrible, that’s the problem.
I’ve picked up on your self-deprecating nature in other interviews as well, with that what instruments are you very proficient at?
I started as a drummer, and was a drummer for a lot of bands. I was in 11 bands at one point. It’s still my instrument of choice but I tend to write on guitar on piano. Much more recent instruments for me. I’m still learning and will be for the next ... 50, 60 years if I’m still around.
Are those 11 bands still around?
Some of them are. It was kind of a nice thing, ‘cause I knew a lot of musicians already when I decided to start my own band. The hardest part was actually finding a drummer.
Do you think it’s relatively easy to pick up on songs and integrate with an established band as the drummer, not having to follow a prescribed note-for-note pattern?
Drumming can certainly change a song. It provides a base. Hopefully everybody is just in the same headspace as to what a song should sound like, someone’s not coming out of left field with something crazy. But if that happens maybe the band will go with it, and craziness will occur. Hit singles, I dunno.
Even as an indie artist, does writing singles – catchier, simpler songs – mean anything to you?
I don’t think about what I’m doing when I’m writing a song. Something has to interest me long enough to make it to [final writing stages.] I don’t really consider if a song sticks out on an album as a single particularly. Obviously, all I write are hit singles [laughs.]
Do unused songs stay with you, or if they don’t make an album have they had their chance so to speak?
Well, I remember when I first moved to Toronto I had a notebook with about 40 songs in it. I don’t remember them and I don’t really miss them. They’re somewhere out there.
When and where do you get your writing done?
Nowadays it’s tough, I have a 17-month-old son and a full-time job with Canada Post. Between being a mailman and having a son and playing music it’s hard to find time to write. It’s usually at home between my son’s naps.
Has he inspired you to write more contemplative music?
He’s made me write more energetic songs. It’s fun to make him dance. But the lyrics have gotten sillier, writing songs about pancakes.
Do you write about your family?
Yes. I have a song about my brother, “Older Brothers Never Listen,” a new song about my father and son, “I Was a Young Man’s Son.” And of course songs about chocolate pancakes.
Is anything fair game? Have you put lyrics aside because they felt too personal?
Everything is fair game, pretty much. In the studio for this upcoming record I got a little teary singing each one in the vocal both. So everything is personal. You need that strong connection.
Alternately, have you written completely fictional songs, that may have no basis in your actual experiences?
I’ve written songs from another person’s viewpoint, people who might not like me. An ex-girlfriend’s perspective on a break up, and if it sounds like I’m lambasting someone in the song that person is me. Nothing outside my own life, just another perspective.
Have you actively played the songs to the people that inspired them?
Sometimes it’s a good idea and sometimes not. I played one for my brother-in-law and he was kind of [suspicious] like “What is that really saying about me?” I hope to make my commentary non-judgmental.
Graydon James and the Young Novelists will perform June 9 at Lee's Palace in Toronto.