Sadness Equals Art, and Other Lessons

STEPHEN GRAYCE examines the beauty of darkness on his new CD, Looking For Light
by Dane Janz

    In Apopka, Florida, a northwestern suburb of Orlando, there are a lot of the comforts of the metropolis without some of the hassles. Plenty of restaurants, public buildings, food stores and shops line Orange Blossom Trail as it winds toward the great beyond. And just to the north of the artery, schools and residential areas fill in the blanks in the mostly flat countryside.

     It is in this section of town that a lone house is lit at 4 AM on a Friday morning on a quiet street. Behind the windows, Stephen Grayce is finally putting his baby to bed, in a recently-installed home studio christened Boohaven (after his two cats, Boo and Haven). The baby is Looking For Light, the full-length followup to his late-2002 6-track debut CD, Day One.

    That first musical effort was an excruciatingly-delayed dream realized, a beginning to a musical career Grayce had dreamed of  since he was a child in a small West Virginia town , long before relocating to Florida in 1984. The disc was soaked in grief and loss, resentment and frustration, with the anti-war politics of "Red Blue and White" standing beside songs of losing lovers (the cryptic "One Last Kiss"), missing them ("Nonetheless") and seeing them again in the sky (the loving closer "West of Cassiopeia"). The musical style was mostly acoustic folk, but "Red" was polyrhythmic with samples of political speeches, and "Miles To Go" housed the widescreen starkness of a Texas landscape, telling the tale of one who wasn't done with life just yet.

   And if the new CD is any indication, part of that life is pure introspective self-therapy. The themes of the first disc are still here; losing friends (this time to drugs, in the delicate "Smoke And Mirrors"), frustration over lack of control (the California pop-rock of "All These Walls"), the loss of love and the endless search for it (the Coldplay-ish epic "Gone"). But this time the scope widens; the mourning is for post-9/11 American innocence (the brutally stark, French folk-styled "Quiet Please", which Grayce claims to have written with Marianne Faithfull's singing in mind) as well as personal loss ("Billy Can Fly", a quiet tribute to his late father). And this time out, not everything is as unresolved; the apt-titled "Over" is about the song's protagonist putting his foot down on a done romance whether the other half is ready or not.

   "Yeah, it's a logical progression," Grayce says the next day. "Day One was like someone's first therapy session. Not a lot came out, but what came out was really heavy. The new one is a wider path on the same farm. Things were recognized on the first disc that the singer is ready to start trying to take care of on the second one."

   And why is "the singer" third person? "Because," Grayce explains, "this time out the songs aren't necessarily nonfiction. They may be predictions of what I'd take or not take in the future, but once my issues were aired out a little I found room to explore things I hadn't necessarily felt directly. A song like "Billy Can Fly" is very autobiographical, but "Over" is mostly made up. I've never been that forceful in ending a dead-end relationship. I've often lingered far longer than is wise, in fact," he chuckles.

    And while a song like the majestic title track of Looking For Light still houses much regret and grieving, there's a hope in there somewhere that the light will be found? "Oh, sure," Grayce says. "To an extent that was there on the first CD. At the end of "Miles To Go", the lyrics "mother Mary I beseech thee...abandon not your plans to reach me" were a clue that I didn't think all was lost. Now on "Looking For Light" I'm lost emotionally, but asking a friend in the song to keep hoping that I'll get through it because I'm trying, not just sitting there giving up." Indeed, that song's couplet "I'm still on my knees / but I'm holding as tight as I can" sums the battle up quite well.

   And the diversity is exponentially grown on the new disc. While Day One housed but one anomaly, the almost novelty country twang of "Used To You" (originally written for but passed on by country act Brooks and Dunn, Grayce says, in an effort to raise funds for more heartfelt efforts), there are a couple of new angles on the trapezoid this time. The aforementioned "Quiet Please" does indeed sound like a French folk song, all the while alluding to the emotional aftermath of the arrival of very troubled times. "Quiet please / I'm looking for my memories" he sings at the beginning, trying to recall a time when he wasn't looking for the next building to fall. And "High And Fine", the album's closer, is totally left-field, a back-porch picker's Alice In Wonderland of dreams, flaxen hair and casting couches (the song was improvised into a portable MiniDisc recorder late one night at home and left as-is for release). "A friend says I'm entering my Dylan period," Grayce laughs.

   And then there's "Hit The Road", the album's leadoff track. It's straightforward pop-blues-rock, Robert Palmer-style. "Yeah, I definitely had Robert in mind when I wrote and recorded it," Stephen declares. "It was very strange; I finished the track just before I moved the studio to Boohaven. I had taken a 6-foot Robert Palmer poster that I'd had for years out of the tube to show to a friend. I said, 'now I finally have a place to put this'." Two days later, Robert Palmer died in Paris of a sudden heart attack. "It would have made the album anyway, but I was such a Palmer fan. If it hadn't worked, I'd have made it work."

  The influences abound. As diverse as Palmer, James Taylor (and a little Dan Fogelberg), and Sting. And "Smoke And Mirrors" aims for the delicately majestic ground musically of his guitar idol, the late Michael Hedges. "Michael's music taught me that you don't have to be loud to say a lot. He had a keen sense of drama and shadows, of putting a zing right where it's needed and leaving space when it's not." And in the same song, the lost friend becomes Icarus, getting too close to the sun, as Grayce quotes George Harrison's famous words "sun sun sun, here it comes", putting them into a whole new context.

   While that line is cribbed but well-used, others are purely Grayce. "All These Walls" laments middle-age and the what-went-wrong syndrome, with Stephen singing "I used to be a rolling stone / but how this moss has grown" and "baby, if you find me, send  me home". Other great lines are everywhere, from "Over" ("I don't know just what we had / but I know it's over") to the hijinks of "High And Fine" (with the cooler-than-cool lyric "I've seen enough to know that I am blind / but I know enough to know to change my mind").

  So indeed, the elements that made Day One so intriguing remain, with tangents added, and in fact Grayce's variety of styles hints to new goals. His next album, due tentatively by the end of the year, will be a mostly acoustic, quiet album entitled Imperfect Heart. As the final songs from Looking For Light came out, so did several acoustic numbers which gave Stephen the idea for the album, and several songs can have been performed live already. Following that, Stephen may dive into a harder rock approach to fulfill his childhood air-guitar dreams.

  Whatever track he takes next, Looking For Light is indeed a logical progression and opening-up for Grayce, without totally leaving behind the pain that gave it life. Says he, "Sadness equals art if you do it right."

back to stephen grayce menu            back to babaziba main menu