The Best-Laid Plans Never Get Laid?
Singer-songwriter STEPHEN GRAYCE gives in to his inner chameleon

by Allen Darck

  Stephen Grayce is pointing to a tree. It's a large pine in a bordering backyard, broken off at 30 feet by hurricanes that battered the small suburb of Orlando where he lives a few years ago. He's pointing to a hole near the top on the right side.

      "Watch closely," he says. Then without warning, he lets out a tremolo tongue-noise, kind of like the "rrrrrrrrrrowlllllllll" in Roy Orbinson's famous song "Oh Pretty Woman", only with just the "rrrrrrrrr" part escaping. Within two seconds something appears in the hole- the head and beak of a large, perhaps somewhat startled red-bellied woodpecker.

     "That's Willie," says Grayce, beaming. "I can call him out if he's home. Do I have too much time on my hands?" He laughs, if a little uneasily.

     Well, maybe. But by many accounts, including his own, it's hard-earned. In the three years that have passed since the singer-songwriter grayced the world (sorry, had to say it) with his well-received second CD, Looking For Light, he's been busy, partly by design, partly by fate. That disc, a collision of haunting lyricism and folk/rock smarts, was being mixed in February of 2004 when Grayce was suddenly overtaken by a rash of new song ideas, all of them coming in the acoustic guitar/voice millieu that characterized his live performances; while similar ideas got fleshed out to mostly complex one-man-band arrangements before, these seemed to call for the stripped-down approach.

     Stephen takes a deep breath to continue the story. "So here I am trying to concentrate on finishing the CD, and all of a sudden I'm in writing mode, in a big way. And I'm toying with making sculpture for the first time and come up with a heart, but one that looks like it's a little weatherbeaten and scarred. That's where the idea for Imperfect Heart came from."

  Ah, Imperfect Heart. Stephen intended it to be a quiet, all-acoustic affair, his take on Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska approach. He was writing and recording the songs, both at home and at Full Sail Studios, home of the famous recording-engineer school ; he had the CD cover, a picture of that sculpture, done before the second song was even recorded. Stephen Grayce was on the fast track and in total control at the same time.

   Then the planets fell out of line. He started writing songs that called for the more dramatic, layered approach he had favored on the previous disc. When he got them into the studio, they became even more rambunctious, some re-written on the spot to suit the arrangements he suddenly heard in his mind, almost against his will. The original concept became even hazier as the tracks varied more widely, from the quiet introspection of his original vision to the stark jazz-step of "Half A Moon" (the lyrics of which bemoan his dismay at the bad ending of a Rickie Lee Jones concert he had seen in 2005) to the downright funkiness of "Thing You Say", with (gasp!) a wildcat of an electric guitar solo.

   Compounding all this were bouts with recurring stomach problems, an extended bout with flu, and the four-month hospitalization of Stephen's BFF, John Hofker, from what started as a blood clot and became a dark comedy of complication after complication. "Everything just kind of started to spin," says Stephen, "and every time something calmed down something else went wild. Once John went down that was it. By the time I got home from the hospital I just wanted to crash every day. And since the songs weren't cooperating with the original vision, that's just what I did." For distraction when he could manage it, he joined up with and played bass in Blues Matters, a local duo that became a trio when he added bass to recordings they were making at his home studio.

    Once he got some rest and got back to work, though, a funny thing happened. Pop-rock came to his rescue in the form of a song that was more Psychedelic Furs than Dan Fogelberg. "Lovers And Liars" pushed its way out of Stephen's pen and led him right down the path to something he hadn't imagined: letting go. Says he, "I liked the song so much that I knew it was going on the album regardless. I listened to everything I had recorded and realized that, although the styles weren't overtly homogenous, the lyrics were different stories surrounding the same themes; lovers and liars. Go figure. Once I let my first plan go, everything just fell into place in a matter of days."

   Indeed, within a couple of weeks it became the title track for the project (although "Imperfect Heart" itself, the first-recorded track for the disc, stayed as well). A new cover design came together quickly; the heart sculpture made it to the inside of the booklet, now in a disembodied hand (Grayce's, of course) that holds it gently while at the same time betraying crossed fingers behind it, summing up the title of the disc quite nicely.

   And, who'd have figured, the original dream paid off after all. The new disc is anchored by acoustic or acoustic-sounding pieces, from the atmospheric opening instrumental "Zero Five" (which got its name because it was written and recorded just after midnight as 2005 began) to the guitar-with-vocal-and-choir of "Just Like You" to the forlorn look-what-I-messed-up of the closing "Hindsight (Clear)". And while the tangents are many and the boundaries are stretched, from retro-sounding be-bop ("Good To Go") to the protesting attack on how life can suck in "Welcome To America", those quiet pieces go for the ears and heart at the same time, anchoring the entire disc. And new sounds emerge as well: the set features Stephen's first recorded slide work on two songs, and "Imperfect Heart" triple-tracks a traditional stringed instrument called a bowed psaltery, a small triangular-shaped thing that looks like a cross between a dulcimer and a violin. He found the instrument at a craft market when he returned to his West Virginia hometown area for a concert. (See psalteries like the one he used, made by Greg and Tish Westman,  here.)

   Make no mistake, this is mostly a relationship album, as opposed to Looking For Light's concentration on inner turmoil. "See Your Eyes" is an out-and-out love song; "Blind" is a reverb-laden apology from a lover who hasn't loved as well as he should have but sees the error of his ways now. And couched in the British-art-rock title song, if you listen closely, are backing vocals chanting, "ooooh, you love, you lie".

   The multifaceted sound with the solitary center took Grayce by surprise. "I had put all this planning into showing a heart," he says, "and ended up showing not just that but the other facets that make up a person; doubt, anger, love, regret, humor. I had been so regulated to what I wanted to put out that I forgot that this is music. It's art. And sometimes art tells you where to go, not the other way around. Probably most of the time actually."

   So now the CD is done, and Stephen is very happy with the results. He had been worried; he had liked the last disc so much that he put his own pressure on the followup. Now that he has mastered surrender-and-release, what's next?

   Plans, of course. Some more ornate songs left over from the sessions need to be finished and may point the way toward another album. And then there's another step in Grayce's long-mapped master plan: a good old-fashioned rock disc, which has shown its potential in occasional sessions. But Stephen Grayce's big plan is not to plan as much.

    "I have lots of ideas," he says, "but I may have new ones down the road that are totally different. From now on, I'll follow the music."

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