Pulled over on the side of a dirt road somewhere south of the Georgia gnat line, I got the chance to speak with Alyssa and Doug Graham of NYC-based Americana band The Grahams (yes, they are a couple. Yes, we find that to be pretty awesome). While this situation may scream of poor planning, I ask you to reserve your judgment for a moment and consider just how fittingly Folk the atmosphere was for my interview with The Grahams, who just so happened to be driving through a snowstorm in Missouri. With nothing but the dirt road and the South Georgia woods in sight, I spoke with The Grahams about music, the road, their album Riverman’s Daughter, and Huck Finn. So, how’s that for poor planning?
Vinyl Mag: So, how has the tour been?
Alyssa: The tour has been fantastic. Even though the record didn’t come out until September we’ve pretty much been touring since March. South By Southwest was the first gig on the tour, and we’ve been pretty much living in this ’71 Chevy since then. We’ve only had a few days off here and there, and this is like the last leg at the end of the year until late January or February, but it’s really been great.
VM: Is it a little bittersweet that it’s coming to an end, or are you both ready for a little holiday break?
Alyssa: Yeah, I mean we’re ready for a little holiday break, but then we’re gonna get right back on the road and bring the music to more people. We love it. That’s not to say we don’t love our days off, but we live to play music, and touring is part of what makes it so much fun.
VM: You mentioned playing South By Southwest. How was that?
Alyssa: It was great! We’ve played in Austin many times, but this was the first year that we did SXSW. It was so much fun! We met a lot of great people and heard a lot of great music. Some of our favorite musicians and singer/songwriters live in that town. There’s always great music and it’s a great party town, so it was really fun.
VM: Other than SXSW, was there a particular stop on the tour or a single show that sticks out as one of your most memorable?
Alyssa: Well, I mean we’ve had a lot of great stops on the tour, but one of our favorite places is McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Los Angeles. That’s a really great place – well to buy instruments if you’re in the market, but it’s also pretty fun to perform there. They have a great stage and audience. But it’s funny that you ask this question, because we just played one of my favorite gigs in a very long time at a place called the Ignition Music Garage in Goshen, Indiana.
VM: Goshen, Indiana?
Alyssa: It was surprisingly the coolest little town. The greatest venue I’ve been to in a long time. Just the nicest people. It was a huge surprise. We just came from there a few days ago, but it was such a blast.
VM: Has the crowd been pretty great like that for most stops?
Alyssa: Yeah, the crowd everywhere has been pretty great. We toured a bunch before the record came out and – whoa, sorry. We are driving through a snowstorm and this giant truck just passed us.
VM: A snowstorm?
Alyssa: Yeah, normally I would put you on speakerphone so Doug could answer some questions too, but he’s driving very carefully – whoa. Sorry, more big trucks. But we toured a bunch before the record came out so little by little we’ve been bringing in bigger crowds. I feel like we’re up there telling our stories and people are really listening. It’s great to play music, but to really get people on the boat with us and listen to the stories that we experienced driving down the Mississippi is just such a joy for us.
VM: I feel like so many of your songs tell such great stories – do you guys tend to go into the writing process with a story in mind?
Alyssa: I think that particularly for this record we really harnessed the inspiration we got from characters and people that we met along the Mississippi. So, I think a lot of these songs we did, in fact, go into writing them with a character in mind. That’s not to say that we don’t develop the characters or change them as we get further into writing the song. One of the things that Doug always says that’s very true is that we like to create legends based on the people we’ve met and the stories we’ve heard. Like the song “Marnie Hawkins” on the record is based on a childhood experience that Doug and I had growing up in the same town. We took this character that neither of us had ever met and tried to develop her into this frightening legend of the creepy old lady. There’s also another song that actually didn’t make the record called “Tender Annabelle” that’s written about the Great North Woods, and we play that in our live shows. That’s also us just going on an inspiration of a character we met on the road and turning it into a modern day legend of sorts.
VM: Do you get to play a lot of songs live that didn’t make the record?
Alyssa: Doug and I have this philosophy where we like to go into the studio with about double the amount of songs that we know will actually make the record. So, we usually don’t even go into the studio until we have about twenty songs, and then we record as many as we have time for. For Riverman’s Daughter we wound up recording sixteen songs, and then ended up putting twelve songs plus a bonus track on the actual record. All the songs that we’ve written we play live, but at the end of the day we sit back and look at everything we’ve recorded and what goes together as a body of work and what will help the story be best told from beginning to end. We come from the vinyl generation where we like people to actually be able to sit down and go on a journey. I know that’s not necessarily how it works these days, but we like it to all seem like one continuous story in a way. That’s pretty much the process, and the songs that get cut, well, we play them and maybe they’ll make the next record.
VM: I read somewhere that you guys kind of packed everything up and lit out on a trip down the Mississippi River. Do you feel like the desire for a linear journey in the record was influenced by your travels down The Great River Road?
Alyssa: That’s a good question. That was definitely a linear journey. I’m not sure that I view the record as a strict linear story. I mean, there are characters that are actually attached to each other, so it’s a little circuitous in a way. For instance, “Marnie Hawkins” and “Heaven Forbid” are stories that grew out of one another.
VM: Can you tell me a little about your travels on The Great River Road?
Alyssa: Doug and I were basically sitting in our apartment in New York City and wrote the song “Riverman’s Daughter,” and decided this is the direction we want to go in. This is what feels like home to us. We wanted to do the kind of stuff that we were doing when we were kids together, singing harmonies and playing acoustic guitars to tell stories. We decided that, in order to do that better, we needed to get out on the river and live on the Mississippi as much as we could. We started in the Minneapolis area and followed The Great River Road, which is a very small road that follows the Mississippi directly. We just spent the better part of a year playing in small clubs and local dives and talking to the local people and playing with local musicians before we ended up in the Atchafalaya Swamp on a houseboat. Once we were there we sort of stockpiled our stories and lived there as we wrote the record. The journey was very linear, but the boat gave us a chance to revisit lots of places in our minds, which gave the record somewhat of a circular motion.
VM: So… how many times did you reread Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while you were travelling the road?
Alyssa: It’s so funny – not only did we read it, but we also bought the audio book and listened to it a few times during the drive. Of course, that was actually a catalyst. We were writing the song “Riverman’s Daughter,” and both of us were harkening back to our childhood of reading Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The original idea was to get on a boat on the northern Mississippi and ride it all the way down to Louisiana, but we did all of this research and they won’t actually let you do that without a Captain. So, what we did was just follow The Great River Road and tour down the river as we drove. Every day we would go out kayaking on the Mississippi or take a steamboat or do whatever we could to actually get out on the river though.
VM: That’s so awesome. Huck Finn is one of my favorites.
Alyssa: Yeah, it’s great. The whole culture on the Mississippi is pretty fascinating. We got to go to Hanibal, Missouri, which is where Mark Twain grew up and where all of the myths come to life. We saw a lot of the landmarks that Twain drew from in his writing. It was pretty fascinating… We also went to the birthplace of Popeye, but that wasn’t quite as factual.
VM: Still equally as incredible. You can’t beat Popeye.
Alyssa: Popeye is great. He wasn’t quite as big a part of our story though.
VM: Fair enough. Do you think that being together for so long makes writing songs and telling stories easier?
Alyssa: That’s a really good question. It’s hard for me to answer, because Doug and I have always written songs together. We haven’t really written with anyone else. I think that it’s never easy. It’s like a marriage – I mean, we are married, but it’s a different kind of marriage, writing and playing music together. We fight and negotiate all the time when we’re writing together. I’ll come to him sometimes like “this is the greatest song I’ve ever written!” and he’s like “eh, not so much.” Sometimes I do the same thing to him, and even though it pisses both of us off, it challenges us to write something better, and we’re really grateful that we have each other to write with. I feel like if I was writing with a stranger at a publishing company or something, I wouldn’t trust them enough to tell me where I need to go. Doug and I know each other so well that we can trust one another. We complete each other’s thoughts at times. I think being in love helps us get a blend that hopefully sounds organic.
VM: Other than Huck and Popeye, who are some of your biggest influences?
Alyssa: I think Doug and I would both agree that our greatest influences and one of our biggest bonds growing up was Neil Young. We both had every piece of vinyl that Neil Young ever made. We knew all of his songs and would harmonize to him growing up. Also, Bob Dylan and The Band. As we got older we went back and looked at music that really influenced the musicians that we listened to growing up. We went back in history to the real early Folk stuff like The Carter Family and Woody Guthrie and Bill Monroe and that sort of stuff. It all sort of stems from the same Folk movement that came to America from Scotland and England. We are just really fascinated with great storytellers. Someone who tells a great story is more important to us than the sonic aspect. People who wrote great Folk music really speak to us.
VM: I feel like all of the old Folk singers like The Carter Family were very influenced by Gospel music. There seems to be that same sort of Gospel influence in your music when it comes to songs like “Revival Time” and “If You’re In New York.” Do you feel like Gospel music has influenced you at all?
Alyssa: Yeah, I love that kind of stuff. We grew up listening to a lot of Aretha Franklin. There’s definitely an African American gospel and soul influence on the record that we really appreciate. We listen to a lot of Gospel and try to take in as much as we can. Certainly “Revival Time” is a song that took that direction.
VM: Only one more question… If you had to choose, would you be Huck or Tom?
Alyssa: Can I be Bessie?
VM: Of course!
Alyssa: Yes! Let me get Doug to answer this one too.
Doug: Easily Huck Finn. He’s wilder and crazier!
*So be sure to check out Riverman’s Daughter, and be sure to catch The Grahams on tour.
December 11 – The High Watt – Nashville, TN
December 13 – Palmetto – Charleston, SC
December 14 – Kirk Avenue Music Hall, – Roanoke, VA – (with Underhill Rose)
Hailing from 'The Good Life City' of Albany, Georgia, Colby Pines is the middle child of five boys. While his family is primarily comprised of men, the Pines family did have a female dog once... unfortunately she died... God bless his poor mother. When Mr. Pines was in third grade the doctors discovered that he had an extra bone in his knee. The bone did not possess any magical powers or help Colby run faster/jump higher, so the doctors surgically removed the bone and refused to let Colby keep it as a souvenir. Colby recently graduated from the University of Georgia with a Bachelor's degree in English and a Master's degree in having cool friends and wearing great sweaters. Colby studied abroad at Oxford University's Trinity College where he was able to visit three of the four coasts, but was not able to bring back a baby with a British accent. Colby enjoys going to the movies, scotch, traveling, playing folk music with his band, BirdHead, eating good and bad food, writing, dabbling, playing Fantasy Football with his Pigskinz and Sundee Beerz League, reading a great book, and all sorts of music. While Colby has a bit of a bipolar taste in music, some of his favorite bands include: Band of Horses, Death Cab for Cutie, 2pac, Washed Out, Johnny Cash, Childish Gambino, Local Natives, The Beatles, Danny Brown, and Beach House. Colby is currently single and quite possibly ready to mingle. Colby has broken five bones, saved two children from drowning, been to Canada twice, and almost fallen into The Grand Canyon once. While he tends to miss things like Breaking Bad, eighth grade, Hey Arnold!, and Surge soda, Colby's excited for the future where he hopes to continue writing and doing the things that he loves.