Graydon James of The Young Novelists on Old Towns and New Songwriting Territories

Photo by Jen Squires, Courtesy of The Press House

If you know how to look, you can find compelling human narratives anywhere, from the smallest rural hamlet to the busiest city street. Few know that better than Toronto-based indie band The Young Novelists, who researched and explored small Ontario towns for the stories that became their third album, In City and Country.

Husband and wife duo Graydon James and Laura Spink approach their subjects–like identical twins in a love triangle, or an amusement park fallen on hard times–with empathy and warmth. Their characters come from all phases of life, with all kinds of outlooks on where they’re going and where they’ve been. “Come Round Again” beams with romantic optimism in its rollicking guitar licks and piano fills. “It Gets A Little Lonely,” by contrast, looks back on lessons learned the hard way in wistful balladry.

In the studio, the band collaborated with producer Howard Bilerman, who you may know from his work with another husband and wife duo. With its rich organ and string atmospherics, the finished product is fit for a city-sized stage, but avoids overcrowding its small-town stories.

The Young Novelists are gearing up for an international tour, joined on the road by lead guitarist John Law, bassist Tim O’Reilly, and drummer Shawn Killaly. Before embarking on this next part of the journey, James retraced their trail of preparation, parody, and providence in an interview with The All Scene Eye.

Your last album, Made Us Strangers, came out in 2015. At what point did In City and Country start to take shape?

It started before Made Us Strangers came out, which is sort of crazy. I had this notion to write songs inspired by different small towns, and we had started to piece together which towns we were going to travel to and do the research on. We had actually gone to a couple of the towns already and were starting to write the songs. For whatever reason, because we had started the recording process, then you start to think, “ok, what’s the next thing going to be?” Some of the songs are almost two years old, and others were written only a few months before we went into the studio, but that whole time was a big writing, arranging, and editing time.

Can you tell me more about that period of research? I’m always interested when the concept comes before the songs.

Part of the theme of the album is trying to tie together what community means. Where do you belong, and where do you feel like you don’t belong? Small towns have a sort of obvious community. Your next-door neighbor is always part of your community, and that’s not necessarily the case in Toronto, where we live, but there is community there. There are writers groups where people come together from far-flung corners of a city to discuss writing stuff, and that’s a community right there. Those are the people you can then become friends with and hang out, go to a bar, go to a show, or whatever.

It was an interesting process, moving to a large city and trying to find that community, and that was part of the thing behind this album. But then, doing the research–choosing the towns and travelling to them all–we allocated ourselves about a month per town. Obviously, you do a lot of research online these days, but it was also really great to be able to go to these places.

That’s why we picked these specific small towns. They were within about six to eight hour drive, and sometimes quite a bit closer than that, but places where we had some kind of personal connection as well, so just in case the historical research didn’t turn up something, we had some other ways to get a song out of that place. It was a combination of those things, but being able to go and soak up the flavor, talk to people who live there, and get a sense of the unique aspects of each community was all a big part of writing these songs. We wrote a whole bunch of songs and then culled it down to the ten that are on the album, but the whole process was interesting for us.

Of the tracks that ended up on the album, which did you write first?

You know what’s crazy? One of the songs is from quite a long time ago. It actually became the thesis for this album, and that’s the almost-title track, “City and Country.” That was a song that was almost recorded on our first EP. It just didn’t feel like it was a good song for that recording. We kicked it along, and you come back to these things, and if it’s a worthwhile song, hopefully it’ll find its way onto an album when it makes sense. It made a lot of sense for this.

That was a song I had written when I moved to Toronto and had really first thought about the idea of, “how do I fit into this community here in this crazy big city that I’m not used to?” So when this album came up, it was like, “wait a second, this old song almost is the heart of what we’re trying to figure out.”

I think for the songs inspired by specific small towns, “Two of a Kind,” which is the first song on the album, was one of the earliest for sure.

Which of the tracks did you write last?

The last one was “Back to the Hard Times,” which is the second song on the album. [laughs] That was probably three months before we went into the studio that I wrote that song. 

So you get the whole journey in the space of about ten minutes.

[laughs] Yeah, the first and the last. Kind of funny that they ended up being right next to each other on the album, but that happens sometimes. There’s a bit of a feeling like, “well, we’re going into the studio soon, do we have all the songs that are hopefully going to make for a strong album?” You start to poke and prod, like, “which kind of songs don’t we really have? Do we really have a strong ballad? Or do we need an uptempo this or that?”

There’s a lot of apocryphal tales about producers saying to songwriters, “well, this album doesn’t have a such-and-such, so you need to go write that.” There’s a story about Bruce Springsteen, and I forget what album it was, but the producer was like, “well, there’s no hit on this one, Bruce, you’ve got to write a hit,” and he went home and wrote “Dancing in the Dark.”

I’ve heard that story, I think it was Born in the USA.

Right, which is crazy to think about. There are clearly full-on radio hits on that album, and then “Dancing in the Dark” is about being forced to write a song.

In City and Country does hit a lot of those well-rounded album bases,  so it’s interesting that was a consideration in the songs you wrote.

And when you’re going through, too, considering which songs will be on the album, you kind of go, “well, these three all fill a similar void, so we can only choose one of them to be on the album,” and then sometimes you have your in-depth discussions with each other–some heated discussions–about which is going to be the one that gets on the album.

It’s an interesting process, and I don’t know how much it occurs anymore. We’re sort of moving away from an album model. I know people still do make albums, and they like to make albums, but obviously with the streaming world that we’re in, singles and solo songs are more the thing these days.

You mentioned communities of writers. I read in your blog post about “Come Round Again” that you were part of a songwriting group, which led to that song being written the way it was. Can you tell me more about that group and how you got involved?

The Songwriters’ Association of Canada had a songwriting challenge. This was in 2016, and it was four songs in four weeks. I had done it in 2015 as well, when it was six songs in six weeks. It was just an interesting challenge. Can you do it, and are they going to be decent songs?

The first challenge, which is where “Come Round Again” came from, was to write a song with two chords. I had many songs with just three chords, and I really had been thinking about, like, “how do I get the simplest song that’s still interesting?” Or hopefully interesting, anyway. So the challenge of writing a song with two chords and still trying to make it a fully fledged song, that’s a good challenge. Musically speaking, that’s where that came from.

The story and the lyrics were from the small town stuff. I had read this story about this small town Bonnie-and-Clyde-style heist that was both heartwarming and ridiculous at the same time. This star-crossed couple, they went on a quote unquote crime spree that wasn’t really a crime spree. I mean, they stole stuff, but it was all like, a purse from a dentist’s office, and a spool of copper wire from a hardware store, stuff like that. They were caught and went to jail, but I ended up writing three–sort of three and a half–songs about that couple, and about various situations I imagined them in.

It’s a very dramatic kind of idea, this couple who want to get out of this small town, and their idea to get out is to steal stuff, sell it, and then go live the life of luxury somewhere in Brazil, or something.

You mentioned Bruce Springsteen, and this is a very similar idea. That style of taking these small town stories and making them kind of epic.

That’s true, I didn’t think about that. It’s funny, I had this ridiculous idea once. We have rehearsals quite often, and one time with the band, I was like, “why don’t we just come up with a Bruce-Springsteen-style song?” I was just freestyling lyrics on the spot, which I love to do, because I’m a doofus. It was a lot of like, you have to talk about a vehicle somehow, a car, and you have to talk about the road, and you have to talk about the night, and those things have to be in the song in order for it to sound like a Bruce Springsteen song. We called that “Loose Springsteen” for a while.

[laughs] That’s very funny.

It was a fun exercise.

You’ve written a few of these blog posts explaining the origin stories of the songs. What made you want to lay out where they all came from in such specificity?

Part of that was just trying to highlight the real places we had gone to and the real stories behind these songs. Because sometimes the stories are fairly personal in a lot of ways. I probably have written way too many of those “I had a bad relationship, and I’m going to write a song about it” kind of songs. It’s a bit of a breath of fresh air artistically to be able to write a song about something different in that way.

And then I like the idea of bringing these things to the light. These crazy stories actually happened, and these are things that I think are worthwhile for people to know and to hear about. In part because you realize that there is something connecting all of us, and we all have this understanding of who we are. Human nature, and what it means, and this sense that you’re not alone; there are other people out there suffering through various things and trying to figure it out for themselves. I think that’s a lot of what music is.

What’s the dynamic like between you and Laura when you’re working on a project like this?

Our dynamic has changed somewhat over the years. It used to be the case that I would just write the song and bring it, and be like, “here’s the song,” and that’s that. Which is not necessarily a great way to work. This is way more collaborative.

Laura’s main role is more editorial. She has a strong ability to be able to say, “well this is not working,” or “it’s a goofy line,” or “you can write better than this,” and she’s very honest with me. But that’s a pretty intense and important role. The editor can often help shape your ideas and force you to be a better writer. That’s a really great thing, but you can’t give that job to just anybody, because there are so many people who will just be like, “oh yeah, that’s fine.” You need somebody who’s going to be honest about whether it’s working or whether it’s not working.

You can also run into the problem of somebody who doesn’t know you as well, and maybe doesn’t pick up on what you’re going for.

That too, because a lot of lyrics can be pretty vague, and it’s like, “what’s the real story here, what are you actually trying to say?” That’s key too, because you don’t want people to just be completely lost. I don’t necessarily want people to get everything from one listen. I don’t want the story to be too obvious, and I also don’t want it to be too strictly, “this is the story and it doesn’t apply to anybody else.” You want to make it a bit universal. But then again, sometimes by being really specific, you can make it universal, which is a wonderful, weird thing.

I wanted to touch on a track that I haven’t seen a blog post about yet. Can you tell me the story behind “It Gets a Little Lonely,” the last track?

This is probably one of the weirdest providences for one of the songs. I was in a community called Cobourg, and I was on the street taking a lot of photos of these beautiful historic buildings. There’s this old courthouse that’s now a theater, and there’s an old jail down by the waterfront in this cool small town. And this older gentleman saw me taking these photos, kind of running across the street, taking a photo from this angle, running back, taking a photo from this angle. He was like, “what the heck are you doing?”

I got into the whole project, and what it was, and these songs inspired by small towns. And we started talking about his life, and what he had done, and he came up with these gems of lines that–unfortunately I didn’t have a tape recorder or anything. I was just making mental notes of like, “ok, I’ve got to remember these lines, because these are some great things.” He was the person who said the chorus line, which is, “growing older means you only / get to find out it gets a little lonely.” He also said things like, “I learned my lessons the hard way.” I feel like it’s probable I should credit him for some of these lines, but I didn’t get his name either. But it was a 15 to 20 minute conversation on the street with somebody, and that’s what made the song.

There’s a lot of crazy history in this one particular town, as there is in almost every small town, and none of that really made it into the song, but that’s not important. What’s important is it was inspired by a person, and a conversation I had with somebody, just randomly on the street. That’s kind of a cool thing.

When you’re engaged in that process long enough, something invariably jumps out at you.

I have to admit, when he first started talking to me, I was like, “I just want to get these photos and get back to my vehicle, I don’t necessarily want to have this conversation.” But after a couple moments of talking, I was realizing, “this is a good thing, this is connection with a person, and this is something different than looking at dry historical documents and trying to figure out what the story is. This is a real person with a story right here, right in front of me, so pay attention to that.”

You talk about community, and the way that works in small towns, and that’s a great example, isn’t it?

Yeah, and a number of these impetuses of songs did come from just sitting and talking to people and hearing the stories they had. Everybody has some great, crazy stories they can tell you. It was just a really good thing to be able to have this kick in the pants to sit down and listen to those stories.

Can you tell me more about the recording of this album?

The producer was actually somebody I met when I was doing this singer-songwriter residency at the Banff Center for the Arts. Essentially, it’s a small university campus set on the side of a mountain in the Rockies–so, pretty amazing–and they have all different kinds of artist residencies, like dance, theater, writing, and music. If you’re somebody who ever wants to do some kind of writing residency, it’s a great place to go. We had two weeks, there were 24 songwriters, and Howard Bilerman was the person who was the producer for our studio time.

I ended up being in the studio quite a lot. My first instrument is the drums, and a lot of the people there were like, “well, if I have some recording time, let’s record some drums with my songs that I’m writing.” So I was in the studio almost every day, sometimes twice or three times a day, for these three hour recording sessions. I got to know Howard pretty well, and it was great to work with him just on that project. I was asking him, like, “we’re looking to record our next album–what’s your space like? Where are you located?”

He was in Montreal, and he had this great studio, so we decided it was a good idea for us to go to Montreal, which was our first time ever recording away from home. We had always recorded in Toronto before, so it was another interesting thing to just be out of your regular space. Your only job is to wake up, go to the studio, be as creative as you can for 10 to 12 hours, and collapse from exhaustion at the end of it.

It’s another expression of the premise of the album. Here you are recording in the city after you’ve visited all these small towns.

There’s amazingly cool little communities in Montreal as well, obviously, so it was cool to be able to explore that. I’ve been there many times, but I’ve never been able to spend a significant chunk of time there.

But it is a weird thing, creativity on a timeline. You’re like, “we want to put every strong idea we can into this album,” so you throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Howard was great at sifting through the ideas and being like, “well, let’s figure out what we’re going to put here, because we don’t necessarily have all the time in the world, so we have to bring it down to the best possible ideas.” He was really great at helping us figure out which those were.

That’s a whole other world of editing, when you actually have to package and produce the songs.

Yeah, and having an idea of what’s going to work and what’s not, from just a simple, “what if we do strings here?” “Well, I think it would be better for the dynamics if we had strings over here instead.” That kind of stuff requires a great outside source, because I’m the guy who wants to make everything happen all the time. I want it to be as crazy complicated as it can be. The studio allows you to do that, but it’s not always a good idea.

How did you go about arranging the strings?

The string stuff was actually quite intense, because we only had the string players for two days. They came in, and they had heard the songs in demo format, but things change as you’re recording them, so the demos weren’t the same as the studio stuff. It’s all about how to fit their previously arranged ideas into what we have now.

They’re fantastic. I could never do that. As a drummer, I’ve played drums for a lot of different things. You just come in, and you’re playing a beat. It’s not that crazy. There’s a little bit of arrangement to go on for sure, but there’s so much less that you’re doing, which is why I love the drums. I’m a very bare-bones kind of musician, but with strings, there’s tons of theory that goes on. Having two days with these string players, Justin Wright and Lana Tomlin, you’d say, “how about these six ideas?” And they’d be like, “ok, let’s try these,” and then they’d figure it out between them and just play it. It was like, “oh, that’s amazing.” Things always sound kind of fantastic to me.

I almost feel like it would be like if I was a scriptwriter, and some actors came in and actually did the acting. They’d be like, “I see the script, but there’s a lot of subtext I could throw here, or I could make this a funny line, or I could make it a sad line,” and you’re like, “oh yeah, wow, you could do a lot just from the source material.” They can explore it all, which is amazing. There’s this way that emotion gets super amped by having string stuff going on.

You gave me a neat segue into something else I wanted to ask. Being somebody who’s had experience with fiction writing, and with drama, and all these other forms of storytelling, what makes songwriting such an attractive medium?

It’s sort of a weird combination. I would never say that lyric writing was poetry, but it is related to poetry in a way. Trying to tell a coherent story, and you have how many words? Like 150, 200 words maybe for a song? That’s a really great challenge. You have to just pack it in, and it has to be a very dense, but also coherent kind of thing. Finding a particular twist of phrase that you haven’t necessarily heard that way before, and it really explains the situation you want to talk about, that’s a really satisfying moment, artistically or creatively.

As a lazy person, it also is one of the faster ways to write stories. I do write short stories, and I write longer fiction as well, and sometimes you’re just like, “oh, I’ve been banging my head against the wall trying to write this story for three months, and it’s however many thousand words,” and you’re like, “is it even worth it now? Maybe it’s not even a good story.” With songs, it can be like, “well, I spent a day on that. I have two verses, and they don’t feel good, but whatever, I’ll just throw it away and do something else.” It’s much more instant gratification, which is maybe not a good thing.

But it is a unique thing. Similar to the way short fiction behooves you to find more efficient ways of getting from point A to point B, or figuring out what it is you’re actually writing about, I think songwriting is an amped up version of that.

Yeah, it’s like, you can include–certainly you need to have one strong narrative. Maybe you can have two things going on, maybe three. Then it starts to get real complicated, but it is a wonderful puzzle to try to figure it out as well.

What’s next for The Young Novelists now that the album is out?

There’s a good amount of touring, which is always fun. We still love playing music in front of crowds, so we get to do that, and that’s wonderful. And we get to share the songs. We’ve been slowly playing songs live over the course of the past couple years, because you always want to test songs live and see how people react to them. But we don’t want to play all ten songs from the new album without being able to have the album to sell, because it feels like a weird tease to people. So now it’s kind of wonderful to be able to have some shows where we can just play all the new songs and have people hear them in that format as well.

Also, for whatever reason, we tend to play more full band shows around the time of album releases, and those are really wonderful for us in a different way. We play as a duo quite often, and that’s totally great, but it’s cool to have the full band and the energy of that.

We’ve been to Europe before, we’re going to head back with this album, and we’re hoping to go to a couple places we haven’t been in the states before, like possibly Texas or the northwest. One of those two. We’ve mainly been in the northeast and the midwest, so it’s wonderful to be able to go to new territories and have new music to give to people.

That’s a big joy with touring; you don’t necessarily get to hang out for a lot of time, but there’s a lot of cool communities. There’s a lot of cool, crazy things we’ve seen, and a lot of nice venues. We did a tour recently where we got to play in an abandoned grain elevator that’s now an art museum.

Where is that?

Dawson Creek, British Columbia. That’s another part of the community aspect, too. Obviously, music brings people together, and there’s a lot of communities where there’s basically one place to play. It might be that abandoned grain elevator, because it’s the biggest space they have to congregate.


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