Interview | FFS 5 with The Grahams

The Grahams have turned a new leaf in 2021. Their new tunes, ‘Beyond the Palisades’ and ‘Pilgrims and Punks’, pave the way for an ambitious sonic evolution. More akin to throwback soul and cinematic dream-pop, their ‘innovator’ tag has been showing an awful lot in the lead-up to their new album, Sha La La (15 October). Their approach, they state, was to “just get really high and make art for art’s sake.” It shows; stripped away from all of the logistic trappings of music making in the modern world, we’re left with the Grahams at their most artistically experimental and plumed to date. And, you know what? We’re better for it.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to the present day?

How much time you got, because it’s been a long strange trip. I would say we both have always been drawn to music. Ever since we were young kids growing up together in New Jersey and stealing vinyl from our older siblings. Doug and I fell in love at a very young age. He was my older brothers’ friend. Actually, they played in a high school band together called Odyssey. Lol. Doug and I started hanging out when I was about 14, though we had known each other since I was 7 and he was 10.  We fell in love over Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, and of course, The Grateful Dead. We went to concerts together in NYC, both at Madison Square Garden and in the underground clubs, where we snuck in with fake ID’s and sought out new upcoming musicians. 

There are two defining moments I always look back on. One was my sweet sixteen (which btw was a raging keg party at my parents house). The other was on top of my Honda Accord after a big hike at Ramapo Reservations. 

My Sweet Sixteen was the first time I sang in public. Doug and all my brothers’ friends were always playing music and noodling on guitars. That night, I got a little drunk (and stoned) and got the chutzpah to start singing, “I Second That Emotion” by Smokey Robinson. Doug turned to me in awe (I still have the photograph someone took that night of Doug staring at me singing). I think I shocked everyone. It was that night that Doug and I started falling in love and dreaming of a life together in music. The second defining moment was well into our love affair after a long hike at Ramapo. We talked about music the whole day. Bowie and Queen and Blondie. Doug started teaching me the concept of harmony and intervals. When we got back to my Honda, we sat on the hood for hours trying to harmonize together. This was a very new concept to me. Though I could belt one out I didn’t know anything about the workings of music. What happened was magical. Our voices blended together like perfect colors on a canvas. From that moment on we spent every waking hour together. 

We formed our first touring band in college called Blindman’s Holliday followed by the, “Alyssa Graham” years. In 2012, when Doug’s mom (my mother-in-law) died we formed The Grahams.  We are forever evolving and changing as musicians but we are first and foremost best friends, childhood sweethearts and lovers throughout time and space. 

As an artist, how do you define success?

That definition changes A LOT with age. We have never defined success by money. That would be a ridiculous way to measure success when you’re a musician. Lol. I mean any working musician knows that.  However, I do think over the years we have “chased the dream.”  We have tried to work hard, gain an audience, create legions of adoring fans, get our faces on magazine covers, and hear ourselves on the radio. A lot of true narcissism goes into being a musician. However, much of this was probably to impress our parents and friends. As we got older and had our daughter, Georgette, I think we really found success in the art itself.  Honestly, it took me longer than Doug to get to a place where making something beautiful was enough. Doug has always made art for art’s sake. Nowadays, we both define success as creating something beautiful that we can be proud of and that someday our daughter will look at or listen to and think that her parents made the world more spectacular and inspired. 

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

Ha! Well, nowadays, for me it’s dealing with a vocal injury. A vocal hemorrhage and pseudocyst to be specific. I’ve been in vocal therapy and recovery for over a year but I’m determined and happy to work on my voice.  As far as the industry, it’s constantly changing and trying to change and adapt with it is too exhausting so we just don’t. 

When we grew up, we were spinning vinyl records and going to see our favorite bands in small clubs. We would mail order tickets months in advance to see the Grateful Dead. The waiting was part of the thrill. We would plan months in advance and it would be one or two spectacular mind blowing evenings. Nowadays, everything is right at your fingertips. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s just different. 

I think we are at a great place in our career right now. We tour when we can and when we feel we can actually reach an audience that loves music. We do virtual shows (especially these past 16 months) and that’s actually a great way to reach a wider audience and make a bigger impact. However, I guess we’re old fashioned because playing live with our band in front of a live audience is really the most fulfilling. We never wanted to be internet sensations. Lol. That’s just not us. 

I think for Doug and me, the biggest challenge in the music industry now is technology. We didn’t grow up with iPhones and the internet and all the modern technology that musicians use these days to promote themselves. We are not those people who live on our phones and document everything for the world to see. As a matter of fact, we traveled to Nashville recently and Doug left his phone in CO. Oh well. We like to live in the moment and have some privacy so we suck at FB and IG and Stories, etc. Come see us live and we’ll talk to you after the show. It’s too hard to “keep up with the Joneses” on social media, so we don’t try.  Listen to our music and you’ll get to know us through our songs. 

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as a band? What do you hope to achieve?

As I said, we are always looking to grow and improve as musicians and artists. Realistically, we can only do what comes naturally. We make art for art’s sake. Doug is an incredible sculptor and painter as well. We try to incorporate beauty into everything we do, not just for us but also for our daughter and her future. We’ve all been living through some dark days and it can take a toll on you. We want to push the envelope, explore, challenge ourselves. We never want to get boxed in which is probably one of the reasons people can’t define our sound. We keep changing. I don’t understand how or why an artist would want to make the same sounds over and over again. I respect sticking with what you know but for Doug and me the exploration and adventure is a big part of the art. At the end of the day, we want people to love our music but we need to keep growing and exploring new territory.  

If we can continue to contribute beautiful sounds to this world that our daughter can enjoy for years to come, that’s an accomplishment. 

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

It’s no secret that in order to write our records we take ridiculous adventures. We live on houseboats in swamps, we ride every train line in the US, we drive motorcycles across Route 66. We do these things to stretch our wings. It inspires us to get out of our comfort zone and see new things. 

We also love the woods. It’s sort of our spiritual hideaway. We spend much of our time on long hikes in the mountains whether the Rockies or the Adirondacks. We get lost in the woods and talk for hours. Doug would say this is my happy place. I feel connected in the mountains. It frees up my mind to imagine new melodies and words. 

Additionally, Doug is an incredible fine artist. He sculpts with wire and paints on canvas. He probably would never go on tour again if I let him just stay home and paint. Lol. 

We love music but it’s not our entire life.  We spend so much time just being. Being in the moment. In the woods. In the art studio. We spend so much time just being together and that’s inspiring. 

Words by: Jonathan Frahm