The Elemental Approach

Afie Jurvanen’s breakout hit “All the Time” neatly encapsulates the original vibe of his solo Bahamas project: tip-toeing guitars, a subdued rhythm section that gently laps like a rising tide, and soulful vocals that punch and counterpunch the earworm hook, “I’ve got all the time in the world.”

Easygoing to the point of placid, “All the Time” also represents the polar opposite of what this Toronto native is up to today. Since the release of 2015’s double-Juno-winning album Bahamas Is Afie, Afie and wife Naomi have welcomed two kids into the world, nudging Jurvanen to give up his once-meandering songwriting approach in favor of more focus and precision on follow-up album Earthtones.

Recorded with drummer James Gadson and bassist Pino Palladino—two of the session musicians responsible for cult hero D’Angelo’s seminal album Black MessiahEarthtones snaps, crackles, and pops with modern R&B sophistication. Yes, Earthtones’ lead single “Way with Words” feels as breezy as “All the Time”—”Don’t keep me waiting on some SMS” will surely go down as a defining lyric of the millennial generation. But Afie is clearly operating on a higher plane of consciousness.

Folio Weekly: Earthtones came out in January. How have live performances of the material shifted since?
Afie Jurvanen: You get settled in your ways, so it’s a challenge to keep it fresh. My touring band can go wherever I want at a moment’s notice, which is nice—I can extend sections or dynamically change what I’m playing, and they can react in real time. Most of all, audiences seem to really know this new material. They sing along. As a performer, that’s such a fortunate place to be.

In a recent interview, you said, “When you can’t place [a song], either to a specific genre or era, that’s usually a sign it’s going in the right direction.” How much work does it take to get a song to that timeless place?
The songs that have that quality often come to me quickly-the whole idea will arrive fully formed in five or 10 minutes. That’s the best. But you can’t count on that. I think guitar music is going through a bit of a low point. There aren’t many guitar-based singer/songwriters connecting with a huge audience the way R&B and hip hop are. So I’m thinking, “What’s the best way to put this music out and have it appeal to as many people as possible?” For me, that means putting as little of a filter between the music and the people as possible. You don’t have to wonder what I’m up to onstage; the lyrics are right up front, and the guitars are right there jumping off the edge of the speaker without any effects or production. In my experience, people are connecting with those elemental parts of what I’m doing.

We connected with “Bad Boys Need Love Too,” about how growing up with an absentee father affected your own parenthood. Were you excising demons on that one?
When you have kids, you get a second chance to re-evaluate your own history. You get this insight into yourself-it’s the selfish part of being a parent. I can think about how I grew up: What can I do for my dad or other people in this world who are very hard to love? The best thing you can do is show them empathy, love and compassion-all the stuff hippies have been preaching about for a long time.

After the release of Earthtones, you discussed how having kids affected your day-to-day songwriting life. Has that changed significantly as your kids have gotten older?
I have a daughter who’s one, so we’re still in the weeds. [Laughs.] Every day is pretty intense. In general, I’m just trying to be more direct in how I approach songwriting and life. If something feels good-if it’s working-that’s a strong signal that it’s worth pursuing. Be ruthless and less precious. Trust the process. If this idea doesn’t work, another one will work just as well. If you only have 10 minutes, you can probably write a song in 10 minutes.

Which totally flies in the face of a line from your song “Everything to Everyone”: “I don’t work as hard as I could.”
I certainly have friends who work a lot harder than I do. I’ve also had friends move to Los Angeles and go a little too far. You get a divorce or a drug problem. It’s dangerous. You gotta know what you’re after and what sacrifices you’re willing to make. Living in Toronto, I’m in my own bubble. I like it, though; if I didn’t have a family, I might think about moving. But I feel like where I’m at now is sustainable. I want to have a long career. I’d like to be playing music when I’m 50 or 60 years old. The fact that I get to decide my own schedule feels like the biggest achievement.

Have you ever been to the Bahamas?
I haven’t. When I started this solo project, I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, and I needed a name for the project that gave me a little distance. I like the way the word “Bahamas” is not really plural but could be. You say it, and you don’t have to say it twice—people get it. It conjures up nice imagery.