Bahamas’ Afie Jurvanen on the State of the Music Industry and How to Write a Perfect Love SongMusic Features How To
There’s a great chance that you had heard who Afie Jurvanen was long before you knew of Bahamas. The Canadian songwriter spent his earliest musical days as a sideman for Feist, Zeus and Jason Collett before striking out on his own under the Bahamas moniker. Now on his third album, Bahamas Is Afie, he’s starting to see some of his biggest success, thanks to a prime placement in a Verizon commercial where James Franco is is free-falling from a building, barely escaping a messy ending thanks to his mobile, all while the Bahamas song “All The Time” is soundtracking the moment.
Paste: You’ve come to be known as the man who almost killed James Franco.
Afie Jurvanen: I thought it was kind of unfortunate that I didn’t get a free phone. I could have used one.
Paste: I would hope they would have paid well enough for you to get your own phone. I get it though. You supply the song, you get a goodie.
Jurvanen: They pay quite well, but that’s how most musicians make a living now. Nobody’s buying the album, so you look to different revenue streams.
Paste: Was there ever a time when musicians really could survive off of the album sales? Even during the ‘80s, I’m sure the labels still took the biggest chunk.
Jurvanen: For sure. I can’t speak to the particulars of anyone else’s deal, but it’s a numbers game. If you’re selling 50 to a 100,000 records and you’re not making any money, you’re probably spending too much money. But those albums, man oh man, it’s not like they spared any expense. Especially when the videos came around and they started spending half a million dollars on them.
Paste: Everybody had a private jet just to go to the grocery store.
Jurvanen: It’s a different time now. In general, you sell a lot less records, so you look to other places to keep the bus rolling, so to speak.
Paste: You’ve been doing this long enough. Have you figured it out, how to budget well? Because you’re a midlevel artist, right?
Jurvanen: That’s a very apt description. “Midlevel artist.” Yeah, I’ve always been really fortunate to keep doing what we’re doing. It’s not like there is any great change. There’s not a lot of luxury as far as us traveling around. We’re still traveling in a van. I’m really lucky that I’m from Canada. They have a lot of subsidies and stuff like that for the arts there, so that’s more or less how I’m able to afford bringing a band on the road. I do a fair amount of touring solo, and that’s when I can’t afford to bring my band. So you can apply for grants and these types of things to help offset the costs.
Paste: Would that ever work here in the States? Is there a reason it works so well there and doesn’t exist here?
Jurvanen: Well first of all, we’re one-tenth the size of you. Thirty-five million people there. You would have to have so much more money, I imagine, to give people a fair shot. I think, and I probably shouldn’t speak too much because I’m not American, but I think there’s other things that you guys could be spending your money on.
Paste: There’s a lot of things we could be spending our money on.
Jurvanen: You get your healthcare and education sorted out, and then start paying people to make weird, improvisational jazz records.
Paste: You know, I’m hopeful. And I go through the years when I’m not, where I’m like “Oh this is bad and it’s only getting worse.” But I’m hopeful, and little things turn around.
Jurvanen: The difference that I notice is that there is a competitive edge here, which I don’t think is a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing. I think there’s so many musicians putting out great records all the time that it really forces you to up the quality of what you’re doing. Anytime that you’re in a situation that sort of pushes you, I think that’s a good thing.
Paste: Have you been listening to Hot Country?
Jurvanen: Hot Country?
Paste: You’re talking about there being a lot of good music out there, but then there’s also this thing called Hot Country.
Jurvanen: I kind of like Hot Country. I don’t know. I spent a lot of my youth listening to Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Travis Tritt. If that falls under Hot Country, then…
Paste: It would have been then. Hot Country and Bro Country, those type of things, I’m not sure the competition is really there as much as, “Hey, this formula works and they’ll keep giving us money for it over and over.” Your life could be so much easier if you became a Hot Country artist.
Jurvanen: I should think about doing that. I have thought about doing that!
Paste: No, you’ve made this really great record. I know you’ve had some great accolades already bestowed upon it. Especially the song “All The Time.” It really even seems like a surprise hit to me. Like, when I first heard the song, it’s not like it jumps straight out like “Stronger Than That,” instant single. Obviously a single. And a song like “Little Record Girl” is instantly catchy. But then you hear “All The Time” and think “Really cool song, but…” I would have never expected it to take off like it did. It’s got a weird formula. There’s a countryman of yours, Dan Mangan, who once said “It seems the weirder I get, the more popular I get.” And that almost seems the case now with “All The Time.” When you wrote that, did you ever have the thought that it would work?
Jurvanen: Well yeah, absolutely. I mean, like, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m not trying to make records that are like the 50th best record. I’m trying to make the best record I can, you know? It’s not that I expected to be this huge, great, smash success, but at the same time I do think the quality is high, I can stand behind it, and if other people get behind it, then that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to have a career in music, which is hard to do. You can never pinpoint what song people are going to grab on to. You can try to ram things down people’s throat, but it’ll often be track eight, or whatever, Side B that really sort of grabs them. I’m glad that song has some traction because I like playing it, and it can sort of take on different takes. It’s good to have songs that are malleable and agile.
Paste: You were talking about the album, and I’ve heard you tell this story many times now about why you titled it Bahamas Is Afie with this line about “a more realized version of myself.” What was the case on the last two records? Did you not think at the time that they were the most realized version of yourself to the point where you’re going to get to your next record, and then what’s that one going to look like?
Jurvanen: I would hope that if I make another record that it’s just that much deeper into some truer version of who I am and what I’m doing. But I think that these, what I was referencing was my state of mind, where I’m at. I’m a lot more comfortable with what I’m doing and who I am. And so I think that sort of confidence is reflected in the music. On the first two records it’s—I mean I have really fond memories of making those records, but I can say that I didn’t really know. I didn’t have a clear vision. It was a lot more of “let’s just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks.”
Paste: And what you made there is still good spaghetti.
Jurvanen: And it’s nice when you have no expectations because you’re always going to end up being surprised. The first two albums were made very much that way, but this one, as I said earlier, as I was writing these songs, all the they ideas just kept coming. I was like, “Wow, I got ideas for rhythm and arrangements and all this different stuff.” And so I think that’s what I mean when I say it’s a more realized thing. I got to play a lot of the instruments, so there’s just a lot of me on there and I realize it’s probably wrapped up in ego and all of this other kind of stuff.
Paste: That’s when you start playing Willie Nelson’s version of “All Of Me.”
Jurvanen: I love Stardust.
Paste: How can you not love Stardust? You’d have to be soulless.
Jurvanen: I know. I can’t even joke about it. It’s too sacred for me.
Paste: How close have you come to writing the perfect love song?
Jurvanen: Jeez, I’m always trying. I don’t know. I think the “Sunshine Blues” off of my first album, I still love singing that song. It has a sort of naivety to it that, there’s just a purity there. It’s not trying to be complex at all. So, I would say that’s pretty close for me. That’s always the goal for me to have a love song that has both sides. You want to have a very sad song that’s full of love. If you don’t have one or the other, people call that cheesy. You got to have both.
Paste: The simplicity that you’re talking about, it’s almost surprising when I’m listening to some of your songs that I think all of these things are happening, but when you break them down, they’re so basic, musically. Is there a point when you’re writing these that you say, “I can’t go G-C-D”?
Jurvanen: Never. I don’t think there is a shortage of artists who want to make make things complicated or [use] lots of different chords, and I say go for it. You can have all the chords. I look at guys like Tony Rice or Van Morrison and they literally play the same three chords over and over through their whole career. So as you progress as a musician, things that I hear now when I play G-C-D are so different from the things I heard 10 years ago, and I would imagine that 10 years from now, hopefully there will be that much more music that will be unlocked within those three chords.
Paste: Isn’t that crazy that that can even happen?
Jurvanen: It’s like anything else in life. You think about if all you made was fried egg sandwiches for the next 10 years, I bet you’d want to eat the one that you made after 10 years. The egg will be cooked perfectly, the bread will be toasted just the way you want it, you’ll have discovered the perfect Himalayan sea salt. All that stuff, it just takes time. There’s no way to really rush through that.
Paste: One of the songs on the record that we were talking about, “Little Record Girl”…
Jurvanen: It’s G-C-D.
Paste: Is it?
Paste: Is it really? I didn’t know that.
Jurvanen: Absolutely. There’s literally no other chords in that song.
Paste: Ha! Well what I’m getting to, and without even knowing that but a similar statement, that song could have existed in 1957. That song could have been a Buddy Holly tune. But it doesn’t exactly sound of that time, and I guess that’s what you’re getting to. That song comes out in 2014 and it sounds of 2014. You’ve found a way to take that old sound and not sound like you were totally copping it.
Jurvanen: Yeah, I’m not really trying to be retro or sound like something from the past. I’m wearing a very technical modern garment. I mean, this is 2014. I have an iPhone in my pocket. It would be facetious if I tried to sort of put out something from that time.
Paste: But if we had a time machine, I think you’d do OK.
Jurvanen: Sure, and there are a lot of things that I love about that time period from an aesthetics point to the music…
Paste: But probably not the medicine.
Jurvanen: Some things have come a long way. But yeah, musically, I would hope to make music relevant to the time I’m in and hopefully stay relevant as the years go on. It’s very very hard to know, as you’re making something, if the song has that quality. Every once in a while, you’re like, “Yes, this has it.” But that’s part of the challenge.
Paste: Do you think we’ll ever figure out time travel?
Jurvanen: I think we’ve started to do that. I think we’ve started to suspend our lives with the phones.
Paste: No one ever really dies anymore. You can exist somewhere forever now.
Jurvanen: Considering the advancements in things that we’ve seen in my short lifetime, I would imagine that by the end of my life, there will be some things that are unrecognizable. Kind of scary to think about.
Paste: I’m hearing scientists say that if people of our age make it long enough, there’s a chance that you could just not die. Of natural causes at least. That they will have figured out the pill to rearrange your DNA to not break down.
Jurvanen: That presents a whole new set of problems. Who wants that anxiety? Not me.
Paste: I think it’d be fun to make it into several hundred years. You’d probably get bored eventually, four or five hundred years in. Sea turtles though, they can’t have all the fun.
Jurvanen: I’m not even that old, and I’m already griping about the young people. I don’t know if I want to spend another 200 years complaining about teenagers.