With “in city and country,” their third album, The Young Novelists present a magnificent set of songs inspired by – naturally – city and country, specifically the city and country in their home province of Ontario. We first encountered Graydon James and Laura Spink at last summer’s Home County Music and Art Festival in London, ON – a fortuitous encounter from our perspective because we were immediately captivated by their thoughtful and tuneful songs. This is an album for which we’ve been eagerly waiting, and our patience has been amply rewarded.
Especially on my subsequent listens (on headphones), the great songwriting that has consistently been a hallmark of The Young Novelists’ work really shines on this album with the full band support provided by bassist Derrick Brady, drummer Rory Calexico, and guitarist John Law. This is clearly a project where the two are testing their boundaries and exploring new horizons, to great effect. Songs like “back to the hard times,” “city & country,” and “come round again” in particular demonstrate their versatility and show that The Young Novelists are a folk duo, but they are not just a folk duo; I would be very surprised indeed if this album doesn’t garner them a number of new listeners. (And for those of you for whom this album is your first introduction: go immediately and pick up their previous albums as well. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.)
We’re delighted that The Young Novelists found time to talk to us about the new project.
We’ve been eager for new music from you since we heard you at last summer’s Home County Music and Art Festival in London, ON; you did one of the songs from the new album (“Come Round Again”) there… I’m always curious about the incubation period for new projects, so to speak – how easy or challenging was it to bring this new album to fruition?
It was a relatively straight-forward process but it definitely took time – researching and writing the songs, pre-production with the band, and finagling schedules for studio time. Some of the songs were written a couple of years ago, shortly after the release of our last album, and some were written a couple months before we got into the studio. Some albums take their time to unfold, I guess!
You wrote all the songs about specific towns in Ontario; beyond being from towns like these yourselves (and being able to travel to them easily), what drew you to this particular source of inspiration? What did you discover about them that especially surprised you?
Part of it came from being in these different spaces: a couple of small-town kids living in a big city, but traveling on tour to many other communities of all shapes and sizes. You get to see what’s really different about them and what’s really the same. And you also see how there are misapprehensions about these places, as well. So, we’re trying to talk about community in these songs, and what it means to have a community and a place where you belong; or don’t belong, as the case may be.
For this album, you worked with Howard Bilerman, who’s worked with several notable Canadian acts (Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen), and you recorded at his studio in Montreal; what did he bring to the table, and how did recording away from your home base in Ontario change the experience?
Recording away from home was quite radically different for us. You end up sequestering yourself in the studio, since you don’t have to focus on anything else. It’s refreshing, in a way, but you can definitely get too myopic about the project, which is why it was great to have a fresh set of ears on the songs – and that’s where Howard came in. He is a very Socratic type of producer; he mainly questions your choices and makes you examine your preconceptions, and I think that helps push you artistically and creatively.
You also were able to work with some excellent studio musicians (we’re familiar with Derrick Brady in particular from his work with Lowest of the Low and the Skydiggers); how do you capture some of that studio intensity in your live performances? (I know from the above experience that you’re both wonderfully versatile musicians, but even you can only play so many instruments at once…)
Part of it comes from the songwriting itself, I think. We write songs with plenty of harmonies. And the odd thing about harmonies, in our experience, is that 1 + 1 is somehow greater than 2. So we can relatively easily tap into the dynamic of that, and it lends itself to amping up a performance. But it can also draw people into an intimate moment that couldn’t otherwise be created with just one voice. And while it is true that we can only play so many instruments at once, we are also pushing ourselves more – Graydon is playing a few piano songs at shows, Laura is playing keys for a song now, and we’ve been switching to electric guitar for certain songs. We’re just adding to our sonic palette.
As I’ve been listening to “I Moved On,” it has a flavor very reminiscent (to these middle-aged ears) of Simon & Garfunkel, or even (in the very best way!) America, particularly with the tight harmonies. Your press materials mention S&G as an influence, along with the Beach Boys and James Taylor; what other musicians have deeply inspired you as you’ve developed as musicians?
In terms of inventive song structure, we’re big fans of Wilco. But anyone who can pull off amazing harmonies is always inspiring. Folks like The Good Lovelies and The O’Pears, or fellow Canadian duos like The Small Glories or Tragedy Ann. All great songwriters who know how to effectively use harmony!
“Come Round Again” and “City and Country” in particular are almost – gasp! – rock tunes, and perhaps a bit of a departure? Is this a sound or a direction you might explore more in future projects?
We were raised, at least a bit, on classic rock, so there will always be elements of that in all our albums. Graydon is also a drummer first, and only came to play guitar later in life, so he always wants to write songs that have a great groove. Whether that’s successful or not…time will tell.
In the blog post about “Come Round Again”, you mention belonging to a songwriter’s group. How helpful is it to write and share with your peers before actually recording? Do you find that kind of feedback to be a constructive thing?
It can be helpful, but it really depends on the songwriter. Everyone has their own process for these kind of things and that you have to respect your process. Having said that, if you aren’t pushing yourself to learn something new then you’re missing the point. There’s the craft and there’s the art and both have their place.
You have a number of dates scheduled for May and June – any hints about other summer gigs/festivals/etc. that you can share?
We’re playing some fantastic outdoor shows in July, as well as heading to the States for a nice stretch of shows in August. There are a few family weddings, as well, so in between all that we are honestly hoping to have a little down time. Graydon has two writing projects to finish in order to get them out in 2019, plus we’re planning tours in the fall in both Canada and Europe… Now that we’re talking about it, it’s going to be a busy summer!