Pulling A Neil Young
(With Help From Tom Petty)?
Stephen Grayce jumps from box to box
by Gail Ryan
It's 4 AM at Boohaven, singer-songwriter Stephen Grayce's home studio in a rural Orlando suburb. Grayce is four days into mixing his new album, Walking Through Fire. He calls longtime partner John Hofker in to listen to two versions of the Byrds-like midtempo country-rock track "Hang On" - one that dives right in with the full band, the other with just his ubiquitous acoustic 12-string on the first bars before the rest of the band - the "band" being Grayce on all instruments and a computerized drum program - jump in.
"Which one do you like best?", he asks. Hofker readily chooses the 12-string lead-in version. "That's it then," Grayce says.
This is memorable because it may be the first time in a long while that someone else, close as they may be, gets the final word on anything having to do with Grayce's music.. From his debut on, Mr. Grayce has been mostly a one-man band and more: he's been a one-man everything, from writing the songs to playing them to mixing and mastering them, even designing, photographing and printing the covers. He invented a pseudonym for the new album's photographer just so he'd see less of his name in the credits. "I was afraid they were looking cartoony," he explains. "Produced by Stephen Grayce, written by/mixed by/mastered by/floor mopped by.." his list dissolves into a low chuckle. "Like an old John Candy SCTV skit."
With constant steerage from one person, you'd think Grayce's canon would be consistent. It is and it isn't. The songwriting is tops, showing off influences as diverse as they get. His 2002 debut EP, Day One, was mostly country and folk, with a kind of a rock-march protest song thrown in. Then came 2004's Looking For Light, which added dashes of dream-pop and blues-rock to the mix. Next, 2007's Lovers And Liars brought out everything from the Psychedelic Furs-influenced title song to pure folk to bebop and even a funk tune; and finally, the astounding Songs From Dark Rooms in '09 lived up to its name with the ghosts of Robert Palmer and T. Rex's Marc Bolan living side-by-side with echoes of Cat Stevens and even a little Neil Diamond. It sounds like a real mixed bag, but Rooms in particular was powerful, cohesive, and a collection of tougher songs that held up to the concept of the title as well as individually. It wasn't just a bunch of great songs - it was a real album.
So when it came time to start the followup, Grayce was stuck for awhile, loving the previous album but not wanting to duplicate it. The result was another direction, back to a folk-rock base, this time with a pop-single feel thrown in. Heavy on melody, big harmonized choruses and drama, Walking Through Fire is the perfect addition to Grayce's canon - kind of like seeing yet another side of him. The lyrical subject matter also twists and turns, detailing not only his milestones but those of others, be it the old friend who's been nearly destroyed in "Angeline" or the lover who needs to get their own life cleaned up before joining his in "Fall With You". And while it's clearly not a retreat - songs like the wistful "Imaginary Towns" and the Tom Petty rock of "That Again" are definitely still going forward - it's yet another path for an artist who may have almost touched as many musical bases as Neil Young in the course of four and a half albums. And as this interview shows, Stephen Grayce is as surprised as anyone else.
Q: So how did Walking Through Fire come together? The songs aren't all alike musically but definitely hold together as a kind of concept album, with different people going through different trials.
A: The majority of the album was written in a few months, I guess I was in pop-folk mode so they all fell in line. "Sugarland" was written in 2003, and I've played it live a lot over the years, but I just didn't get the studio take I wanted until this album was about halfway done. "Airspeed" had been played a couple times live. Everything else I think was written after Songs From Dark Rooms came out.
Q: Let's sidetrack a little and talk about that  album. It had folkier moments but was mostly heavier blues-based rock, it was quite a departure from Lovers And Liars' more down-home feel and approach.
A: I got the urge to rock out, which the songs kind of took me to as they came. "Keeping Secrets" came first, and after I recorded it, it inspired me to see what else was there. I really liked that it held together as a rock album, but thematically it was split. Five of the first seven songs are about relationships, or the ends of relationships actually (smiles), "Bethesda" is kind of like the twisted country song for a break, then it gets pretty deeply existential, from faith crisis to life crisis to friend's crisis. I named the album after about the third song appeared, and every song after fit the theme. I think it's the first kind of concept album for me. Wasn't planned that way but the music led the way. And two of the songs were very old and just waiting for an album - "Little Bit Of Heart" is a demo from the original Eighties session in Columbus, and "Hotel Blue" was written in 1977, my T. Rex tribute as it were.
Q: "Bethesda" was almost a Lou Reed kind of country song.
A: Bingo. That's what I was going for. I love the way he can take a nice melody and put lyrics that you woudn't expect to go with it into it, like "The Kids", which I've covered live a couple of times. Nice to know someone heard that. He's a real influence, both his wit and his wisdom.
Q: So how did you get from a stomper like "Keeping Secrets" to the new album? It's folkier, much more pop, even nostalgic.
A: I guess a little bit of wistful crept in here and there. (Laughs) It really grew out of [the first track] "Sugarland". It led me into a mindset, just like "Keeping Secrets" did on the last one. There's always been a pop side to me, and I love a good melody for sure, so I just ended up there this time. I don't try to analyze it too much - if I try to force a project in a direction it almost never goes there.
There's some rock on there too - I guess folk-rock or country-rock. "That Again" is definitely a Tom Petty influence kind of thing, and "Fall With You" is in the same musical vein. All in all though, I think the current state of the ol' Union had something to do with the nostalgia coming out, like "do I even remember what it was like before the world went to shit?"
Q: Was there more personal experience on this album, or more storytelling?
A: "Imaginary Towns" is definitely me wishing things were simpler and more friendly like they were in the past, or at least how I perceived it then. "Angeline" is definitely personal, about running into an old friend that has just been used by life and spit out. And "Stone In The Road" came from wanting to encourage a friend who was going through a tough time.There's always some real and some imagined stuff.
Q: Speaking of encouragement, "Hang On" may be the most positive-sounding thing you've ever recorded.
A: Yeah, an inspirational song from me, who knew? (Laughs) It just came out. The chord pattern happened first, the idea of dropping a beat when it isn't expected really appealed to me.The lyrics aren't talking to anyone in particular, they just came out, maybe because of the economy or how strange things are now.
Q: Does the music usually come first and dictate the feel of the song?
A: That's happened more and more as I've gone along. I do a lot of just strumming to see what happens late at night. I'll still get a phrase in my head sometimes and write it down for future use though.
Q: What would you consider your best songs or performances of them so far? You've covered a lot of ground musically.
A: You're always a little closer to your last album of course, so I can't be too objective about that, but I love "Sugarland" and "Imaginary Towns". I think "West Of Cassiopeia" [from his 2002 debut Day One], "Hit The Road" [From Looking For Light] and "Hang On" are as close to classic as I can get so far. Those have gotten the best audience responses too, so I guess that colors my perception a little. "Used To You" is a high point, but my live version is radically different from the recorded one.
Q: On your albums you're a one-man band; live it's just you and a 12-string acoustic, and sometimes a little harmonica. That causes some obvious dilemmas I imagine.
A: Not as much as you'd think. Almost all the songs start out on one guitar when they're born, and I'm always thinking about live performance. I do fuller arrangements in the studio but the live arrangement comes first. There are only one or two songs that I can't do live. "Haven" [a guitar-and-voice ballad from 2007's Lovers And Liars disc] has only been done once live because I'm so into the original vocals, with three-part backgrounds, that it sounded too stark to me to convey the emotion correctly live. I'll try it again soon and see if I can let go of that feeling. I also think I'll eventually do a total me-and-one-guitar album.
Q: You said once that you're always a half-album ahead of the new release when it comes out. Where are you now?
A: (Laughs) Oh, God, where am I? I'm always doing mock album covers, so I already have three to choose from for the next album. Musically, though, for the first time I backed away the second this album was out - no sessions, no big writing other than bits and pieces. I was ready to take a break and let a little more inspiration seep in before I started the next one. Six months later and I'm just starting to think about working up some demos for the next project.
Q: And have you found the inspiration you needed?
A: Fortunately, yeah. There's inspiration everywhere. And it's still coming.
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