Gimme Your Answers: An Interview w/ Al Grantham

Al Grantham
Photo by Annelise Lallemand

Toronto singer-songwriter Al Grantham has a gift for draping life’s situations in brilliant poetry and setting said poetry to an equally as beautiful melody. Most at home on stage with his guitar, Grantham is an observer of the run-of-the-mill. He sings of Yard Sales, Video Game Addiction, East Chinatown, and how sometimes people and things aren’t what you thought they would be. He does all this with a captivating, bluesy alley howl that more than stands up to his unique and thought-provoking lyrics. Al sat down with AMBY to talk about his upcoming album. Read on as we discuss his favourite lyrics, the importance of transparency in society and finally recording the music he’s heard in his head all along. Al’s bio states that you ‘can call him up for a drink whenever’ and you totally should. He’s one heck of a storyteller.

AMBY: Hey Al, thanks for sitting down with me today. Can you tell our readers what it was like growing up in Paris, ON and how you feel it shaped you as an artist?

Al Grantham: Growing up in Paris was pretty good in hindsight.  My parents had moved there from Toronto and I had family in the city so I would go there every few months; Toronto was this sort-of ‘magical’ ‘shiny’ thing to me; I wanted to play with that toy more.  I had a pretty normal upbringing in Paris; your typical small-town childhood. I was the ‘fat kid’ in school, I was obese when I was a child, and I was kind of a loner and I’m an introvert so I was just shy; super shy. My parents are artsy, theatrical kind of people which wasn’t really the norm in Paris at that time, so I felt like an outsider a lot of the time. I didn’t have a hard time from my peers; I think I just imposed a lot of that stuff onto myself.

AMBY: So, if current-day Al Grantham could tell high-school Al Grantham anything, what would it be?

AG: [Pauses, then sings] Don’t you take it too bad, if you’re feeling unloving / If you’re feeling unfeeling / Don’t you take it too bad (Townes Van Zandt – Don’t Take It Too Bad) I think I would tell him that.

AMBY: I think he would really like that. What are some of your favourite lyrics you’ve written so far?

AG: I really like ‘Ms. Who I Thought That You Were”. Obviously, as you know, my lyrics tend to go on and on at times

AMBY: Arch over subjects…

AG: Yea, exactly. They’re really long and dense, and I like (Ms. Who I Thought That You Were) because it is the opposite of that – it’s straight to the point, there is an economy of words within it and it is very direct. It really came from the heart and came from my own experience. It is amazing how naked and plain the truth can be after you experience it. It’s a bit more cluttered and dense when you’re just trying to see something from afar.  I think ’64 Main’ is a pretty song. Joe (Thomas from Hungry Lake) really likes that song. It was the first love song I ever wrote, so that was nice.  I wish I had a list of my songs in front of me [laughs]. I really like the words in ‘Greetings from Little Saigon’ which is from my upcoming record.

AMBY: I really like “Oh My^5”

AG: Yea! I kinda wish I still had the balls I did back then; the balls and the nerve… and the blind ambition to write a song like that. I remember sitting in a William’s Café writing that song, that’s where I got the line “While filthy Claude Monet replicas such on the walls and flip-off the passers-by” because there was some cheesy art there in the café.

AMBY: I like the line “You don’t know/care that you are an imitator” the use of the slash is really clever.

AG: [laughs] It seems pretty pretentious though, to be honest with you, in hindsight; maybe not. I’m probably just being hard on myself.

AMBY: Maybe a little hard on yourself.  So, some of your songs describe relationships that didn’t work out so well in the end. Have you ever been approached by a former partner who thinks or knows that a song was written about them?

AG: I did write a song about a former girlfriend, that Low Hanging Lights ended up doing, called ‘Wrecker of Days (There Is a Hate)’, it was on the EP we did called ‘Insulated Picnic Bag’. So this former girlfriend of mine, she is a fellow musician, so I knew in the back of my head that she was going to hear it eventually and it did make me pretty nervous. She finally did hear it and actually wrote me an email to tell me that she was hurt in the moment and certain things made her emotional but she also really enjoyed it; it kind of molded a different perspective on what happened.

AMBY: That’s actually amazing

AG: It was very gracious of her to have that reaction. She has a bottomless heart and is incredibly talented; a good person.

AMBY: What are some of the weirdest places you’ve found inspiration?

AG: Well, I oftentimes find the most common, mundane things to be sources of inspiration. In fact, the sort of daily minutia of the working class and normal people is what really fascinates me – the inner workings of their world, the psychology of those individuals and what causes them to live the lives they lead. I don’t know if I’ve had too many weird sources of inspiration. I know that sometimes I will have really weird moments in my life and try and work them into a song but I’m more influenced by, lets say, the old Asian man sitting on his porch step smoking cigarettes all day who I would see back when I lived in East Chinatown.

AMBY: Some of your music calls out societal decline and almost a thin veneer of civilization that we take for granted. What do you think are some of the greatest challenges we face as a society?

AG: I think, more and more, transparency and honesty amongst the different classes.  To be honest, I don’t think we are in some sort of epidemic horrible social collapse even though I probably give that impression with some of my lyrics.  I think, for the most part, we’re ok. We are as we are going to be and the way things are is as they should be because we’re just animals. At the risk of sounding horribly nihilistic or despairing, I think we are also privy to thinking that we are capable of more than what we are.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I just think that it’s reality. The one thing that does bother me about this modern age is that the levels of transparency and disclosure are vanishing. We’ve got Governments now who are so adept at being corrupt and manipulative. They find a way to spin the corruption to make it seem like the complete opposite is true. It just becomes more and more challenging for the everyday person, who has their own things to deal with, be it kids or a job that is wearing on them or trying to make money, to even have time to care about social justice, let alone become any sort of vigilante. But all those realities are what the elite feast upon because all these things keep the other people down.  I worry about corporate influence too – essentially you’ve got corporations running the United States, the world’s biggest superpower, and that becomes very, very dangerous. I worry about the effect this will have on empathy – peace, love and understanding, man. It’s all about the bottom line, man.

AMBY: There isn’t a whole lot of heart

AG: Well, there is between you and me, but that’s because we’re sitting in the same room trying to be honest with one another. The world doesn’t operate like that; the world doesn’t operate in a little room where everyone is sitting together.

AMBY: Maybe the world should start sitting together more in little rooms.

AG: That would be nice. We have a fireplace, so we can just invite them over here.

AMBY: Ok! So, Al Grantham’s little room…

AG: We’ll have Al Grantham, we’ll have Donald Trump, you’ll be here to document it, and we can have ISIS over there on the couch.

AMBY: Are we playing instruments?

AG: We can play instruments and board games. We’ll start to see the bonds forge and all of a sudden problems will shrink. They’ll start to think “hey, this guy isn’t really that bad, he’s just kind-of an idiot, but there’s some good in that guy.

AMBY: I think we’ve pretty much solved the world’s problems in the last 2 minutes.

AG: Yea, absolutely.

AMBY: In March of this year, your band ‘Low Hanging Lights’ decided to part ways, how are you feeling about being a solo act? I know we spoke a few weeks ago at your show about how comfortable you feel onstage, just you and your guitar.

AG: I feel great because I feel like I can do anything and I’ve always been a pretty independent person, at times a person who doesn’t necessarily play well with others – not in the musical sense, more in the philosophical sense. I like doing my own thing. Sometimes there are parts of a vision that are impossible to articulate to other people and the only way to do it is through your own art. When you’re working in a band, you might have a vision but that vision is no longer just yours – everyone has to be included.

AMBY: I would think, at times, you would have to sacrifice certain elements of your vision in that scenario.

AG: I’ve been a bit of a control freak in the past when it comes to that sort of thing.  I’ve always tried to make my music very idiosyncratic; really original and interesting music and sometimes that necessitates a singular approach because it’s just kind of zany and bizarre.

AMBY: How do you feel about your fans comparing you to Bob Dylan?

AG: Oh well, you know, obviously it’s an honour! [laughs] When you start out making any type of art you imitate your idols because that’s the learning process; you try and re-create what you love. Back when I started out writing songs with just a guitar and a voice, I was obsessed with Dylan. I mean, I think that’s pretty clear. I just loved his method of storytelling which seemed to be more of an unbiased, objective observer; a wallflower. I tried to re-create that in my own music, I mean, obviously there are differences between us – I think I’m a bit poppier than Dylan, but I worry about comparing myself to Bob Dylan because I’m definitely not Bob Dylan [laughs]

AMBY: You wrote ‘When I Was a Boy’ over a three year span. You recorded the entire thing, one track at a time, with one microphone – making you a one-man band, which is awesome. What are some adjectives you would use to describe the whole process?

AG: Awful, excruciating, frustrating, draining, enabling and ultimately incredibly fulfilling. It was not easy. A lot of times I was sitting on a chair for 3-4 hours without getting up, trying to nail a little piano part because I’m not a piano player but also I wanted it to be perfect.  I had that sort of ‘first record ambition’ back then, in a perfectionist sense where it had to be exactly what I wanted; there could be no room for error.

AMBY: In the end was it exactly what you wanted.

AG: Yes.

AMBY: Your self-titled album, your sophomore album, was produced by Kaleb Heikle. What was it like working with Kaleb after completing ‘When I Was a Boy’ on your own?

AG: It was great because Kaleb and I are really good buddies….

[Ian Boos from Low Hanging Lights walks in]

AG: Hey, this is Ian, he played in ‘Low Hanging Lights’, actually you might know each other from the last show.

AMBY: Hey Ian, how’s it going?

IB: Great, how’s your interview going?

AMBY: Really good, we’ve solved the world’s problems.

AG: Yea, we already figured out how to fix society.

AMBY: Donald Trump and ISIS are coming by here later…

AG: To play board games

IB: That’s cool; I actually know them both pretty well.

AMBY: Ok, cool, Ian is on-board.

AG: [laughs] ok so, Kaleb! It was really easy. We actually lived together for about 3 years and are really good friends so it was just really casual; there was no pressure or stress. There were a lot of times that we were supposed to work on the album where we just ended up getting drunk and being idiots because it was so casual.  He is an incredible musician; he is a classically trained pianist and a classically trained penis too.

AG & AMBY: [laugh]

AMBY: He brought a lot of great ideas to the record too and I was ok with it. After playing in the band I learned that it was ok to let other people ideas in and sometimes they can be better than your own.

AMBY: So the making of your two records were almost polar opposite experiences

AG: They were, and truthfully that was almost by design. Every time I record an album I always want to try new things; do something totally different if I can.

AMBY: Who are your musical and literary heroes?

AG: In terms of music, I was always into the big acts when I was a kid: The Beatles, Dylan, The Beach Boys. I also really love outcast singer-songwriters who have gone against the grain which is why I have a lot of respect for Daniel Johnston. Literary heroes would have to be Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King. In my early 20’s I was really into philosophy and was reading a lot of Camus – I stopped reading that stuff because it was just too heady.

AMBY: So what is next for Al Grantham? How is your new record coming along?

AG: It’s coming along well; slow and steady wins the race. It’s already sounding much closer, from a production and mixing standpoint, to what I have always heard in my head; moreso than anything else I’ve done before, so that is really exciting. I feel like my whole life has been this long journey to find the music that I’ve heard in my head and be able to make that a physical thing…

AMBY: And now it’s coming to fruition

AG: Yea. Somehow I’ve gotten here! I only half knew what I was doing the whole time but it seems to be happening which is extremely exciting.

AMBY: Are you recording this record with Kaleb again?

AG: Actually, I am recording with Ryan Webb from Hungry Lake – he’s the guy who produced and engineered our last ‘Low Hanging Lights’ EP, which also sounds awesome. Kaleb is also hanging out and helping out this time. I wanted him to be there because I had such an amazing experience with him on the last record and I needed his brain there because he has a good musical brain. Sometimes if I’m struggling with a little bass part or an arrangement, I can ask him what he thinks and he will always have an idea.

AMBY: Will there be any special guest appearances on the new record?

AG: I’ll probably have Drake come on and do some stuff

AMBY: Ah, so the limo I saw leaving as I arrived, that was him, wasn’t it?

AG: SHHH. You don’t want to draw a crowd.

AMBY & AG: [laugh]

AG: Mac Demarco probably. We can hack darts.

AMBY: Maybe for an entire track. No singing or instruments, just smoking.

AG: Yea. Oh and Elton John and The Queen.

AMBY: Anybody big?

AG: Well sure, if we were talking about dream scenarios we could have Joe Thomas (from Hungry Lake) do a song.

AMBY: I don’t know if you could get him

AG: Well one can hope and dream.

AMBY & AG: [laugh]

AG: Ok but really, I’m going to have Kaleb play on some tracks. Shanti and Vale Abbot are going to sing on the album – it’s the first time I’ve ever written a song for someone else to sing, so that’s going to be cool.

AMBY: My final question for you today – what is something about Al Grantham that your fans don’t know yet?

AG: This might be my last record. I’ll just leave it at that [wry smile].


Thank you Al Grantham, for giving us your answers!

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Interview by Heather Cook | @Outroupistache1

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