Afie Jurvanen, also known as Bahamas, is a musician at a crossroads. Though he received good notices for his 2009 debut Pink Strat, he is mainly known for bringing his self-taught skills on the guitar to the music of other Toronto musicians, including Feist and Jason Collett. With the release of Barchords, Bahamas is prepared to end his career as a sideman and follow his own muse. In a conversation recorded before a show in his native Toronto, Bahamas talked about the need to strike out on his own, the necessity to put on a good show for your parents, and the idea that, in the end, getting by with a little help from your friends isn’t such a bad thing.
Hey, is this a good time?
Yeah. I’m actually headed back to my apartment to get cleaned up. I’m playing in Toronto tonight, so that’s nice. The venue is like five blocks from my apartment, so it’s like having an off day.
But you still get paid.
Yeah. You get paid, and your mom comes. Actually, my mom’s coming. It’s not an off day. It’s a long work day.
You have to impress your mom?
Sure. You have to entertain your mom and make sure she stays interested. It’s a big deal for my mom because she lives in the country. Plus she has a broken leg right now.
For those of us just getting to know you from Barchords, who is Bahamas as a musician?
I think that’s kind of a hard question to answer. There are a lot of different types of music that I’m interested in making, and I chose the name Bahamas because it felt like it encompassed that part of me. I’ve been living in Toronto for the past few years, and I’ve had the fortune to play a lot of great music with my friends. I bring all of those experiences to Bahamas.
Barchords is kind of your new old record, right? It was recorded quite a while ago, but is just getting a release now?
That’s true, but I think the same thing can be said for most records. There seems to be lag. If you’re a writer or a musician or an architect, you can come up with something, but by the time it’s consumed by someone else, it’s old, you know? Obviously, that’s a term that can mean many different things, but I recorded this album a while ago and then the American label wanted to re-release my first album. It was a little bittersweet, because it meant that this one was pushed back a little further. Ultimately, I’m kind of glad that it happened. We were able to extend and tour a bunch on the last album, and it gave me some time to sit with this one and make sure that it was the one I wanted to have out there as an ambassador on my behalf. In a way I think the record benefited from that time.
Explain that to me.
Sometimes when you do things too quickly, you regret them. Again, not just musically, but sometimes you put out a record in the heat of the moment. When you put out a record like that, you may hear it years down the road and it’s not the picture of yourself that you envisioned. With this album, I had the time before I released to check in with that older version of myself. I thought about who he was and what he was doing, and I was okay with it. That was a good sign. When I was a teenager I played in lots of different types of bands. It can take forever to find out who you are. You play in punk bands and country bands, and then hopefully you can distill down some kind of accurate version of yourself.
As you start your tour on this album, do you feel any distance from this music, or is it still pretty current to you?
I don’t. I think that this music was written from a place that’s honest, and I was trying to be as direct as possible. It’s not hard for me to sing these songs at all. I think that in many ways, it’s very healthy for me to sing them. They do deal with some darker subject matter, but it’s not something I want to forget- it’s something I want to move on from. If you don’t deal with those kinds of things, you end up carrying them with you. I think that goes for music too.
You’ve obviously moved past the issues that make up a lot of the thematic weight of Barchords, but how are you different today from the musician recorded on this record?
I think I’m going further and further in my desire to strip things down to some kind of elemental level. I know I’m not the first person to say that, but I don’t tour with a bass player; I tour with a drummer and two singers. As I try to figure things out, this is my way of finding a way to translate the meat and potatoes of these songs within that context. There are a lot of embellishments on the record, but I’m not interested in getting up every night and recreating the album. I don’t think it’s like Bob Dylan style or anything where the songs are unrecognizable, but I do like to let the songs flow according to the night and according to the venue. I like the songs to be a little bit more agile in that permutation.
Your records are essentially live albums. What makes them unique from each other?
The way we made the second record was the exact same way we made the first. We just set up in a room and recorded with no headphones. Everyone would just listen to each other, and there were no rehearsals. I would start the song off, and the musicians would fall in line within one or two takes to where they should be. There wasn’t a lot of discussion; I think the main difference is that I worked harder on the songwriting. I tried to make the songs as direct and concise as possible, so they would dictate what the arrangements would be. We did the whole record in six days, so I can tell you that I didn’t think too much about it. Everything was just emotion. If it felt right, we kept it. If it didn’t, we did another take. I went on pure emotion. That’s kind of how I operate with everything in life. They really are both live records.
With all due respect to Pink Strat, your first album, how do you account for the fact that Barchords sounds so much deeper? You’re telling me the process was essentially the same.
There are a variety of factors. The first is that I’m probably a better musician and singer than I was when I recorded the first album. Maybe the engineer that I work with got a couple of new microphones. The mystery of producing is just that; it’s a mystery to me. I don’t think that my music necessarily sounds like bluegrass or classical music, but I definitely appreciate the production aesthetics of both of those things. There’s literally no production; they just put a microphone in front of a musician. If something moves you about that piece of music, it’s strictly the performance. I try to apply a lot of those theories to my own recording. I don’t mess around a lot with guitar pedals or complicated mixing technique. Those things don’t move me.
You’re an artist that’s always writing. How much do the songs on Bar Chords sound like the songs you’re writing now?
I would say that they sound nothing like them. I’m hoping that my voice and guitar playing are the threads that listeners can follow from album to album. I’m always trying to move to a place where there is as little as possible between me and the listener. I might make a record that is just me playing guitar. It sounds like a crazy idea, but Gillian Welch and obviously Bob Dylan have records like that. They speak to me so much more than records that have full production. When a lyric connects with a melody in the right way, it’s the most moving experience for me. In my songwriting, I’m always trying to move closer and closer to that idea.
As you move forward, how much time is going to be spent on Bahamas and how much will be spent with playing with other bands? How do you balance that?
I mean, you don’t. The reality is that you just don’t. I’m really grateful that a lot of my friends here in Toronto ask me to be a part of their records and play in their bands. I’ve got to do a lot of traveling and play music with a lot of people at varying levels of popularity, but ultimately being such a part of the music scene in Toronto came at the sacrifice of my own songs. I put my own music on the back burner and went on tour with other people. It was definitely really satisfying, and you learn to flex your own muscles by playing in someone else’s band. But now I’ve made these two records, and I want to make another and another one after that. I guess I’m just not the best multitasker. There’s no way that I can commit to being in someone else’s band again the way I did before.
As you step away from being the guy on the side, what’s going to make you happy? At what point can you step back and just be proud of what you have done.
Truth be told, and I know it’s a cliché at this point, but I’ve been playing music with my friends since high school, and that’s still the biggest part of doing it is the sense of camaraderie and being part of something. Bahamas is my thing and carries my name, but it’s something that other people have helped me with. That’s the thing that keeps me coming back. Not much has really changed for me in the last ten years. Though I might release a sad album, I’m a pretty satisfied and happy dude.