Orlando singer-songwriter on lessons learned, bridges burned, and the upcoming Hurricane Days album (if it ever gets here)
by Mark Dunn
Stephen Grayce is a strange case for what's left of the music industry
- a gifted songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist who doesn't care
if he's famous or not. He's passed up touring opportunities to play open-mics
near his Orlando home. And like many of his ilk, his psyche can be fragile
despite his outgoing demeanor; his last album, 2011's Walking Through
Fire, saw him wistful for the simpler life of yesteryear, bitter
over past transgressions real or imagined (the song "Airspeed" begins with
the line "Do you ever get tired of hurting me"...), sad for one friend
and hopeful for another. And where does he go from here? At the moment,
Stephen Grayce has no idea.
1. Is a new album in the works? It's been three years, which ties the longest stretch you've gone between albums.
There is definitely new music coming,
but at this point I don't have a specific timetable. After the last album
I took a long break, because it had pretty much drained me, both physically
and emotionally. So a year and a half later I started recording song ideas
again. Not demos, just snippets, riffs and lyrics as they came to me while
I was just jamming with myself latenight. Now I have a bank of about 70
ideas with only a couple of them fleshed out. One song is recorded for
the next album, start to finish - as far as writing, about four other songs
are at least halfway written but not recorded. I'd love to have a disc
out this year, but I'm not going to put timing over quality. I have very
few regrets as far as recorded output goes, and I'd like to keep it that
2. Does this pace suit you? Is it purposeful or frustrating?
It started out purposeful, and now it's frustrating! (laughs) I really
needed the long decompression, but I wasn't counting on the long, slow
return. I want to push myself, but I know from experience that it never
works. I have to let go to let the writing come out. For awhile I was really
panicked because I was beginning to wonder if the muse was coming back
at all. The shape of the songs and album only became apparent in the last
six months. Before then I couldn't have told you if the next one was going
to be rock, country or a polka disc.
3. So what's the feel of the new music so far?
Definitely still showing the folk take, but more rock-infused than Walking
Through Fire. On that album I was more wistful, the new stuff so
far is more aggressive. The working title is Hurricane Days,
after the first song that came out. The things coming to the fore now are
more rocking and more cinematic at the same time, I guess.
3. On the surface, Walking Through Fire seemed to be the most personal writing you'd done since Looking For Light in 2004. Are you finding the new songs to be that confessional?
The first two that came out were so personal that I had to consciously
pull back and rewrite a little. I had to re-route for awhile. So I went
backwards and released The Dreamland Demos [a free digital
EP of Grayce's earliest rock demos from the mid-to-late-Eighties] to kind
of cleanse the palate and take my mind off things for awhile. Then I found
a track from 2004, [the country-rocker] "The Only Mistake (I Made Twice)",
and decided that it was too gimmicky, too near novelty to put on the next
album, so I put it out for free as well. I really loved "Used To You",
off the first EP in 2002, but for awhile I regretted doing it because I
thought it undermined public perception of myself as a serious artist.
It was a novelty song as well, "The Only Mistake" could be its fucking
B-side! So I decided not to make that mistake again, no pun intended. I
don't feel the need to water things down just to get them heard. Then conversely,
when all this personal stuff started coming through I thought, "How can
I water this down?" (laughs) It's a stuggle, I tell ya!
4. "The Only Mistake (I Made Twice)" [ which can be heard or downloaded free on Grayce's Reverbnation page ] is definitely in line with "Used To You", but the lyrics have much more of a reality bite to them. Lines like "but the money and the bullshit beckoned, babe / and you folded right in half" are pretty intriguing. Is there a story there?
Yeah, but I'm not going to go into it too deeply. The song was first recorded
early on, in my second-ever session at Full Sail University Studios in
2004, and at the time I shelved it because I was ambivalent about the lyrics.
I thought maybe they were about a real person, and it didn't seem fair
to make that judgement out loud at the time. Of course, once that person
was gone it seemed okay again! (laughs) And no, I'm not giving any
5. The Dreamland Demos are straightforward rock and pop, which gave no indication of the folk sound that would surface on your official debut [Day One, 2002]. What happened to change the approach in that time?
That's hard to judge. I could just say
'time', but the rock thing showed up here and there on the next two albums,
and then it took over on Songs From Dark Rooms. It's just where
my head was at. Plus a couple of songs on the debut were co-written with
a friend in Nashville who was much farther down that country road than
I was. And I guess I had just found myself a little more in the time between
One. I was calmer on the one hand, but so introspective and afraid
of opening up on the other. "Nonetheless" [about the death of a friend]
in particular was deeper than I meant to go, and it really tore me up.
We're talking crying between takes. That song was out for five years before
I sang it live. I had to get that far away from the recording of it.
6. Is that level of emotion rare in your writing?
I guess so, in that regard. I mean, I can write about my inner turmoil
all I want, but losing someone you love is as raw as it gets. There's always
some emotion, though, and it can come out in different ways. The few political
songs I've put out - "Red, Blue and White," "Welcome To America" - are
where the anger side shows most. George Worthless Bush really fucked things
up, and I'm not sure there's a way back. So there's that.
7. Has your political side caused any controversy?
One of the perks of being a little-known artist is that you don't get the chance to rile many people up, but it's happened. I played "Welcome To America" one night and an old guy, a veteran I assume, got all pissed off and stormed out of the club, thinking the lyrics were about hating the country, which was bullshit. The song is saying that anything can happen here, and it's not always good. But that's the kind of willful misinterpretation you see every day now, and I don't miss people like that. Glad they're gone. I wish they'd go further, like somewhere where they can't make it to a voting booth. Ironically, these are the people that probably thought "Born In The U.S.A." was about loving America when it was really about being screwed by it.
I still perform "Welcome To America" but had to amend one lyric. In the
original I say "saw the prez on the tube today / a weathered lie in flesh
and grey", referring to Bush of course. Once we had a real president I
couldn't say that any more. Fortunately or unfortuntely, by that time there
was a whole new gang of senators that had adopted his lie-and-take-the-money
stance, so I just changed "prez" to "senator" and it's still honest. It
taught me about getting too specific, though - that song could have been
too dated to sing after Bush left if it weren't for the assholes he left
8. Is there a writing pattern for you, where either music or lyrics usually come first?
It comes in snippets either way. Either I'll find a riff and get back to
it later, or I'll think of one lyric line and file it away for future use,
until I can find the rest of the song. Once or twice I've had entire songs
come pretty quickly, but that's not the rule. I have two different songs
that were started a few years ago that are still waiting for bridges or
choruses - now that's frustrating. I really love them so far but just haven't
been able to find the other parts to finish them.
9. Do you have a plan for what comes after this album, or do you think that far ahead?
I have a few ideas, but I can't dwell on them until this disc is done.
I'd like to do an album that is just me and the acoustic 12-string, either
live or live-in-the-studio, maybe with occasional harmonica. Not all straightforward
folk, but all solo. That's how I perform live, so this way live and recorded
would be the same, which is very rare - I think I've only done about three
or four songs like that to date. I've thought for years that I'd love to
that, record it here at my home studio. And if I had a master plan it would
include a very produced, loosely conceptual album called Deep South
- the phrase referring to everything from the actual American South, to
hell, to, um, lower parts of human anatomy. But that's going to take a
lot of discipline and drive that I just don't have yet.
10. You've said that you often have a cover and/or title for an album long before it's done. Is there a title waiting for that solo voice-and-guitar album?
Maybe Live In The Living Room. We'll see.
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