Bigger is better – or so goes the timeworn adage. If you really believe it, you won’t be trifled with anything less than “all you can eat.” Fuel economy is measured in GPM – gallons per mile.
And any concert worth seeing has a stage full of dancers, a lightshow to rival the daily solar petawatt (a whole lotta watts!) output, and maybe, just maybe a real song or two.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing criminal about a great musical production. Other than the fact that it obscures good music – and even worse, dresses up bad music.
Critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Alyssa Graham said it best in a recent interview with knotmove.com as she readied for the release of her outstanding new record, The Lock, Stock & Soul EP.
“If the song isn’t good by itself on an acoustic guitar with a voice then it’s not a great song. And really, all a good song needs is one instrument and a voice – or if there’s no vocal, there’s no vocal.”
Graham is certainly familiar with great songs. Her self-released debut, What Love Is was proclaimed as one of the “Best New Recordings of 2005” by All About Jazz. And after signing with Sunnyside Records in 2008, she released her follow-up album Echo to further critical and commercial acclaim.
The solid sophomore endeavor charted at number 24 on the Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz Chart and was named a “Critics Choice CD” by the New York Times.
And while the triumph of her earlier efforts may have raised the bar for her following work, Graham never flinched. All it takes is a quick listen to convince fans that Graham’s brilliance continues with the recently released LS&S.
Graham talked about the accomplishment of her first full-length album, Echo.
“I had just finished studying at the New England Conservatory (of Music), so I wanted to do a jazz record, but I wanted it to be me – somebody who grew up with all the folk music, and rock, and classic rock, and pop and all that kind of stuff.”
“I think that Echo was so successful because it was sort of a singer-songwriter album with jazz artists. And it was put in a jazz genre and people were ready for it. People had open ears for jazz and it wasn’t just traditional jazz music.”
“So I think it did really well because younger people were just starting to appreciate jazz and somebody came out with an album that they could understand that was still categorized as jazz. It turned them on. So we reached a lot of younger people who were starting to listen to jazz and that felt really great.”
Given Graham’s early jazz-focused music, some have described the folk rock and pop flavored Lock, Stock & Soul as a departure for the gifted artist – when in reality, she simply turned to her musical roots for inspiration.
“Someone when they were interviewing me said, ‘Was this album (Lock, Stock and Soul) sort of a coming home for you?’ You know, Echo was this record that was about traveling and exploring the world and different kinds of music and this record was more about coming home.”
“I don’t see it as a departure from who I am. So when people say it’s a departure, I look at them funny and go, ‘What are you talking about? It’s a departure from what (chuckling)?’”
“You know people just love to compartmentalize and categorize and put labels and genres. So, OK, Echo was sort of bordering on jazz and bordering on pop singer-songwriter. And now this has gone over to the other edge of singer-songwriter. So I don’t think it’s a departure from the fabric of who I am.”
“This album was just so fun to record and so natural to us. For me, I tried to create a sound and this sort of rolled out. I try really hard to let the team that we have, that is so amazing, let them worry about topping the last record (laughing). And I just make the music I wanna make at the time.”
It isn’t the first time that Graham has professed the importance of maintaining her musical integrity. Early in her career, she “dodged a musical bullet” of sorts.
After a packed performance at The Bitter End in New York, she met with a major-label rep that wanted to get her into the recording studio to turn out a demo. At the outset, Graham was understandably ecstatic about the impending opportunity – but that would soon change.
“My personal experience with that was that I had created a bank of songs that were really important to me and really close to me. Of course, any young artist who gets a big offer from a major label is gonna be excited.”
“So when the cards were laid on the table and they were telling me, ‘Well, we’re gonna have choreographers and we’re gonna produce it this way.’ You know, we demoed some of the stuff and I heard some of the stuff and it just wasn’t who I wanted to be.”
“People were standing over me while I was tryin’ to create a vibe in a room – which is already hard – tryin’ to create a vibe in a song in a vocal booth. And they were sayin’, ‘Oh, well you need to sound more like so-and-so.’ One person said, ‘Oh, you need to give me that ‘little girl’ sound in your voice (laughing).’”
“I didn’t even know at this point if I was gonna be successful or not, but I knew I wanted to be successful based on the tunes that I wrote and how people would respond to them and not what monsters could be created from them.”
Befitting Graham’s return to her musical roots, the recording approach for LS&S was somewhat of a throwback as well. Sessions were largely tracked live, with the musicians gathered in a circle without isolation booths to prevent sound from bleeding over. The result was a wonderfully imperfect record.
“It’s something that I think I had to learn. I think I had to let go of perfection, not that I was ever perfect. But I think with Echo, there was this goal to have everything in pitch and the phrasing be perfect in juxtaposition with the drums and the bass.”
“The producer of that record (Jon Cowherd), who is amazing and one of my best friends, had a vision of more perfection. And that didn’t come easy for me ‘cause I never think of myself as a perfect vocalist in any way. I don’t think any musician does. I think most of us are ‘self-loathing’ (chuckling).”
“But with Lock, Stock and Soul, it was really Craig Street (Grammy winning producer) who got me to just shake off any qualms with imperfection.”
Street resorted to a bit of trickery to get the vocals that he wanted for the record. He told Graham that she was just doing “scratch vocals” and after they finished tracking, told her that they were done. To her surprise, Street told Graham that those initial vocals – what she believed to be a “dry run” – would be used for the final product.
“He really tricked me (laughing). I hated him for it at the time. But of course, I adore him for it now. Because I listened to the project, and for the first five days listened to what he told me to come home with.”
“All I said was, ‘Ah, my pitch was off here.’ Coming from studying music, you just hear those things. I hear when my pitch is off. I hear when my voice cracks. I hear all the little imperfections that probably nobody else hears.”
“But you know, five days later, that was the stuff I was drawn to. And that was the stuff that made it beautiful. Those are the things you remember – the things you love about music or about your lover or about whoever.”
And it’s very clear when her voice cracks or her pitch is off – at least according – we love her music even more. It’s the imperfections in Alyssa Graham’s music that really make it perfect…