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INTERVIEW: Michigan singer-songwriter Brandon Grafius

Hi Brandon, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Thanks for giving me the chance to chat! I’m well – working hard to promote the new album, with lots of shows on the horizon. The radio campaign started this week, so last week my kitchen was taken over by stacks of bubble mailers. I’m really thrilled with the early response to the album, and looking forward to seeing it start to take off.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Sacramento”?

It’s one of my favorite songs on the album – the rolling 6/8 tempo feels warm and inviting, and the melody on the chorus is really strong. It feels like it begs to be sung along with. I love the interplay between the piano and fiddle! And it’s a breakup song, but to a city instead of a person.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

I grew up in Michigan; I’m third-generation Michigan State. But I needed to get away for a little while after college, and found myself heading out to California to work on a graduate degree in poetry at UC Davis. It was a great time in my life, but after seven years on the West Coast it felt like time to head back to Michigan. I tried to capture that feeling of appreciating a place, but still not feeling like it connects with the part of yourself that makes it feel like “home.” There’s a long line of songs, like “The Boxer” or “New York’s Not My Home,” about someone coming to the city, then leaving with their tail between their legs; I actually think this song is a little different. There’s not a sense of failure or even regret – just someone who’s ready to be back home again.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

I’d love to, but unfortunately it’s not in the budget now! If this release goes well enough, I’d love to work on a video.

The single comes off your new album Highways and Backroads – what’s the story behind the title?

All of the songs on the album are connected to a place; the cd comes with a booklet that’s set up to look like old polaroids. I spent last summer traveling around Michigan, trying to capture all of the places that had inspired these songs. Some of them are obvious – “Cardinal in Winter” mentions the view out the window of my house, and “Two Hundred Miles” is about the drive from Chicago back to Lansing, late at night, when there’s nothing to think about but the choices you’ve made and the person you still hope you can become. Some of them are a little more abstract; “Roll Away,” for example, is connected in my mind to the Manistee River, and I started thinking about the root metaphor of “Company Store” while I was at the mining museum in Ishpeming. (Way up north of the Mackinac Bridge.)

So I had this connecting thread of place, and even more than that, a recurring meditation on how we get to these places – the places we call home, the places we feel trapped in, the places where we want our lives to be. Sometimes, the roads to these places are straight lines, along blacktop highways. And sometimes, these places are a little more off the beaten path, and we need to take a winding, dirt road to get there. “Highways and Backroads” seemed like the perfect phrase to tie these concepts together.

How was the recording and writing process?

With a couple of exceptions, these songs were all written while I was finishing my last graduate degree (a PhD in Hebrew Bible). I was traveling back and forth to Chicago once a week – about 200 miles each way. And I was also teaching in Detroit, another 100 mile one-way drive. So there was lots of time to think in the car, lots of time to look at the sky, lots of time to soak up the landscape. The last few years have also been a time of tremendous change in my life; my marriage fell apart about four years ago, and I’ve recently settled into another long-term relationship. So there are intimations of those events scattered throughout the songs, if you look for them. The songs were all written on a guitar, but I very often had full arrangements in my mind before the writing was even finished; I heard the fiddle part in “Things Get Right” from the beginning, and knew exactly how I wanted the chorus to swell in “Sacramento.”

Recording was a long process! I’ve got a pretty demanding day job, so I spent a little over a year squeezing in a couple of sessions a week, first recording my tracks, then adding in the session musicians. Since it was built one layer at a time, I spent a lot of time charting out how all of the instruments would fit together. Sometimes, I felt more like a manager than a musician, trying to coordinate everybody’s schedule and find ways to make these sessions happen around everyone’s busy lives. But I couldn’t be more happy with the results – it was pretty amazing to hear these songs emerge from out of my head into the real world, one layer at a time.

What role does Michigan play in your writing?

Michigan plays a huge role in my writing because it’s where I grew up; I think if I had grown up somewhere else, that place would play a huge role in my writing, and my music would be very different. One of the constant struggles for any songwriter is figuring out how to put these abstract emotions into particular, concrete terms – instead of saying, “Hold on through the winter, even if you feel depressed because it’s cold and cloudy,” the song says, “There’s a cardinal in winter.” Finding those specific images can be hard work. On this album, I’ve been working with finding those images in the places around me.

And Michigan isn’t like any other place; the people who live here have a real pride in our state, and what it does to shape us as people. It’s a great blend of rural and urban, with college towns scattered throughout, and some of the best microbrews in the nation. Sometimes I wish I wrote songs that were more obviously “universal,” but I find myself constantly returning to the imagery of Michigan.

What aspect of travelling and comfort did you get to explore on this record?

The traveling aspect is right on the surface, but “comfort” is an interesting word to use, and an interesting contrast to traveling. In some ways, these songs view those as polar opposites; “Roll Away” and “Two Hundred Miles,” in particular, are both about the journey as almost a spiritual trial, with the arrival as representing becoming the person you’re striving to be. In that sense, home is comfort, travel is discomfort. “Cardinal in Winter” also shares this view of home. But “Things Get Right” finds resolution in a place that’s not home, but becomes home because of the person you’re with, and “Company Store” presents a “home” that feels more like a prison. So I think a major theme in the album is exploring this discourse between home and travel, unease and comfort.

Any plans to hit the road?

Right now, all my shows are local – I’ve got a lot of shows scheduled over the next few months, but they’re all in mid-Michigan. It’s an exciting set of concerts though – I’m getting the chance to perform with some of the best artists in Michigan, many of whom I’ve admired as a fan for years.

What else is happening next in Brandon Grafius’ world?

There’s always a lot happening in my world! I’ve also got a book that recently came out, though it’s worlds away from what I do with my music; it’s a very academic work on the relationship between the Bible and horror narratives. I just remarried a few months ago, and am really enjoying adjusting to being married again. And in terms of music, I’m still writing, still performing, and looking forward to sharing some of these new songs with audiences to see how they respond. “Highways and Backroads” is such a lush, full album – lately, I’ve been interested in exploring what I can do when I write songs for just a couple of acoustic guitars and hand percussion. I don’t know what the next album will look like, but it’s already starting to come together.

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About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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