Chances are you’ve heard Afie Jurvanen and you don’t even know it.
Though best known under his tropical non de plume Bahamas, Jurvanen is actually a musical stalwart of his native Toronto, having played with an impressive list of Canadian musicians that includes fellow troubadours Jason Collett and Kathleen Edwards. He was also a key part of Feist’s touring ensemble for the better part of three years.
“I know when you list off all the names like that it seems like I’m a hotshot, session guitar player but, the reality is, Toronto does have a relatively small and tight music community,” explains Jurvanen humbly.
Speaking down the line from a non-descript hotel during a day-long promo stint, he speaks with eloquence and humility, “I’m in a nice room, people are bringing me glasses of water, I’m sitting on a leather couch… I feel like Elton John!”
Currently in the country as part of the backing band for Dallas Green’s City and Colour, Jurvanen has also had the opportunity to play a series of intimate solo shows as Bahamas. “I feel really lucky,” he admits, “not only do I get do my own shows, but I get to hang out with my friend and play these big, beautiful theatres.”
The thirty-year old singer/guitarist has been here before, but never to play his own music; which brings us back to that long list of musician friends he’s accumulated. “When someone’s working on an album,” he details, “it’s not a secret, you see your friends at the coffee shop… you run into people and they say ‘why don’t you come by and play on my record?’ For me, I just feel really fortunate that all the people that have said that to me have, first and foremost, been my friends. Secondly, they’ve been making music that I think is cool.”
Under his own stage name, he performs a mix of blues-tinged rock and deft acoustic numbers that prioritise his raspy vocals and understated, but effective guitar playing. Something he has instinctually gleaned from his love of old bluegrass and classical recordings, that were, as he states “all about the performance... because there’s virtually no production.”
“They just place a microphone in front of the musician and that’s the performance,” he continues, “if it moves you, great. If it doesn’t, there’s no secret why… that’s what I admire about those old recordings, because of the limitations of the equipment, all they could really do was manipulate the performance.”
This classicist approach to the studio is what lends Bahamas, and by extension Jurvanen, their easy-going modesty. “I definitely subscribe to those production ideas and I just hope the performance translates at the other end of the speaker… I don’t want to assume that people are going to give a shit about what I’m doing in fifty years, but that’s what you hope for when you’re making something.”
Though only history will tell, there is a timeless quality to Bahamas’ latest, Barchords, and its rich, heart-worn songs. The reflective break-up of ‘Caught Me Thinking’ or the lazy blues of ‘I Got You’ possess what their creator calls “a connective tissue, from the first song to the last.”
What of the dissolution of relationships that seem to be his lyrical preoccupation? “It’s the only way I know how to write,” Jurvanen offers, “to just go from my personal experiences. It would be difficult for me to fabricate or conjure something from thin air. I recognise that a lot of the lyrics are darker… but I think the album’s biggest success is it doesn’t leave me feeling down, he adds. “To me it’s an optimistic record. There’s a sense of celebration and acceptance of all the things you can’t necessarily deal with.”
“There’s a sense of celebration and acceptance of all the things you can’t necessarily deal with.” Indeed the simple chordal and choral hooks of opener ‘Lost In The Light’ begin the record on a beautiful, hopeful mood that persists even through the juxtaposition of darker lyrics with brighter, relaxed arrangements.
Both live and on record, space is the key characteristic of his music. The gaps of silence between phrasing, the space afforded between the instruments. This characteristic is “not just with music,” says Jurvanen, “I feel that way about everything: conversation, cuisine, literature. I’m just drawn to the things that don’t seem forced. Things that aren’t complicated."
“I suppose that’s just reflected in my songwriting and the music I like to make. I just think that it’s more interesting if there’s room for the listener to insert themselves in the song, rather than worrying about cramming every hole.”
To put it another way, Jurvanen’s musical language would rather say nothing than feel forced to say something for the sake of it, “I’m fine with silence, it doesn’t make me feel awkward” he concurs.
Does he feel that other contemporary music is afraid of silence? That it does try to fill up that space regardless? “Of course” he confirms, “the vast majority of contemporary music and fashion and movies - it’s all about getting someone’s attention. You probably have a ten, fifteen second window at getting it… for me, I’m not drawn to that stuff,” he reflects.
Again he defers to that instinctual humbleness, “I’m not the only one playing acoustic guitar… there’s a lot of people doing it and doing it really well. But it would be way more difficult for me to do something else. I’m just doing what comes easiest to me.”
Whether that’s acting as the unsung backing guitarist for famous Canadians, or offering his own lilting solo works as Bahamas – for Jurvanen, this sense of discipline is simply a way of life.
“When I get dressed in the morning, I put on a pair of jeans and I put my jacket on when I leave the house. I don’t worry too much about the right bracelet, or the right belt, it’s just the simplest way. That current runs through everything I do.”