A few months ago I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing members of Toronto indie rock band Low Hanging Lights following the release of their EP Insulated Picnic Bag. Last week, their singer-songwriter/guitarist Al Grantham released a solo album and sat down with me to discuss his songwriting process, what he was aiming for with this project and what it’s like being an indie artist in a big city.

Stephanie Beatson: With your solo work, what kind of sound are you trying to achieve? You told me before that you are strongly influenced by Bob Dylan and a lot of his contemporaries in the seventies, partially because of the lyrical content. How does that translate into what you’re trying to do as a solo artist?

Al Grantham: The original idea for the record was for it to be kind of a throwback, a confessional singer-songwriter album that would be pretty stripped down with basic instrumentation. What ended up happening is once I got into the studio, I can’t help myself, but I want to try to make really weird sounds and arrangements. We did a couple of weird things on one track and then I said, “Whatever. Let’s just make the whole album like this.” I like hearing weird and new things. To me that’s way more exciting than the alternative. I think the songwriting is very old school songwriter stuff, but we dress it up with arrangements that are hopefully a little more progressive and different.

SB: Tell me about the instrumentation on the album.

AG: Originally we wanted to do the whole album live off the floor, acoustic and vocals. It was supposed to be a Nashville Skyline Bob Dylan -type album, or a Neil Young album. Kind of a throwback with minimal instrumentation and just make it folky, rootsy. We went about recording guitar and vocals, but it’s really stupid to record that way without a click track and then record drums to them. Thankfully Kaleb Hikele, the producer, is a freak and can do that sort of thing. Luckily, after listening through we decided we could record drums to about two thirds of the tracks after the fact. A few of them we had to re-record with a click track. I like the looseness of the live-off-the-floor tracks, but I think I’m a better vocalist when I’m recording them after the fact. I’m glad we have a blend though. It makes the album more varied.

SB: In what ways does your solo project differ from the band stuff?

AG: Ian Boos (bassist in Low Hanging Lights) used to play in a punk band. That’s his background. I like a heavier sound as well, so we made a decision to streamline LHL about a year and a half ago and play more upbeat, heavier stuff but still with some strange things in the arrangements. The solo stuff I don’t think about playing live. I kinda like that because I feel like I don’t have to be hampered in the studio. Not to say that the tracks on the album couldn’t be played live, they all could with the right people, but I don’t have to worry about it which gives me the freedom to do whatever I want with the arrangements. That’s exciting because it’s like the sky is the limit. You can go down the rabbit hole without having to worry about finding a way back out. In terms of the band and the music, there are similarities. We’ve been playing two or three of the tracks on the album as a band, but made them more streamlined and aggressive.

Al Grantham2

SB: What was the inspiration behind this album?

AG: When I started writing the songs, I was going through a really bad break-up that was messy. It fell apart and it was pretty bleak. I was in a bad spot. It was kind of like when you’re eighteen or nineteen and you’re kind of messed up, and you write compulsively. It is a very therapeutic thing. I’m not sure when that stopped for me, and I still enjoy writing, but I didn’t do it out of necessity. After what happened a year and a half ago, that feeling came back and I found myself writing all the time because I had to. Then I had all these songs. I wasn’t even really planning on making an album, but the idea came around and I got excited about it. I’ll have to get another broken heart before the next album! When you’re writing from a dark place it comes so easily. When you’re not feeling that dark or sad anymore, it’s hard to know what to write about. Lately I’ve been writing about people and characters I see around town. It’s so easy to see stories everywhere you look.

SB:  What’s it like to be an aging independent musician?

AG: It’s difficult. At times you feel like a crazy person. I’ve sacrificed everything in my life so far (career, money, girlfriend, family) for something that’s not always very rewarding. When it is though, it really is. That keeps me going. That and the fact that I’m not sure how functional and effective I’d be in a normal environment anyways. I remember the last few years I spent in Paris (Ontario) when I was trying to figure out what path to choose in life. I was so bored growing up there at times that I could literally feel myself dying. The thought of settling down into something comfortable at the age of twenty-two was scarier than every horror film I’d ever seen combined. Also, I really believe this is the worst time in history to be a musician, unless in the middle ages musicians were executed for bad performances or something.

It’s a strange feeling to keep investing so much time and money into something that doesn’t even seem to be on an upward trajectory. I’m a total independent. I don’t work with a label. I’m used to playing empty rooms, and have been for ten years. I’m almost thirty. This is just a crazy, crazy thing to keep doing. You do it though, because you know somewhere, someplace, there are people who will really, really understand what you’re doing and you will make their lives better in some capacity.

SB: What’s your favourite song that you’ve written so far?

AG: For a long time it was “Solitary City Man Death,” a Low Hanging Lights song. Musically and melodically I thought it was the most interested song I’d written. Recently I really like “Ms. Who I Thought That You Were,” because it’s so simple and really direct. I listened to After the Gold Rush by Neil Young right before bed one night, and when I woke up in the morning I grabbed the guitar right away and tried to write something in that style. It evolved into that song.

SB: What would you say your favourite subject matter you’ve written about has been?

AG: I always try to write about personal experiences. I wrote a song about Optimist Park in Paris, Ontario which is on the first album I put out. I think just writing about relationship dynamics. I think a lot of people think they know more than they do, including myself. I think it’s a human condition that we all believe that we should have answers to a lot of things. When something goes awry, then we get angry because we have other expectations and we think something’s a certain way. In reality there are a million different valid perceptions about anything. We’re not above basic human processes like attraction, repulsion, that kind of thing. I try to get across in songs that I really don’t know anything, haha. It’s okay to not know. People always need a definitive answer for everything, you know? We don’t do well with the unknown. But that’s okay. It’s life.

I wrote a video game song called “Never Found a Princess” about video game addiction. I wrote a song called “Emo Porn Ballad” about the porn star Sasha Grey. I think it’s a really weird, interesting industry. It’s one of the most profitable industries in the world but it’s still so taboo to talk about it. Most people watch porn in some capacity, but a lot of people still feel uncomfortable admitting it. Sasha Grey is an interesting case because in interviews, she’s very intelligent, very articulate and she’s done some serious acting as well. That led to a song. I’m always interested by people and subjects that are on the fringe. I’ve always identified with outsiders.

Al Grantham’s original (it’s got theremin!), interesting and poignant self-titled album is out now and available on Bandcamp.

Photos by Stephanie Beatson. 

Low Hanging Lights

One of the best parts about meeting and interviewing bands is that I get to meet and interact with really great people. Almost without exception, all of the musicians I have met over the years have been hard working, humble and appreciative people and I really respect that. The gentlemen who make up Toronto band Low Hanging Lights are no exception. While setting up the interview, they kindly offered me a place to stay for the night in case I didn’t want to make the drive back home late at night. When I met them in person, they were just as welcoming. Before we get into the interview, let me introduce the band.

Low Hanging Lights formed in early 2011 following a solo album that singer/songwriter Alex Grantham released. After many line-up changes, the band has found the right mix with Grantham on guitar/vocals, Ian Boos on bass/vocals and drummer Aaron Bennett on drums/vocals.

Funny story about how Grantham and Boos originally hooked up. Both grew up in Paris, a small Ontario town about an hour and a half from Toronto. After Grantham released his solo album, there was a feature piece in a local Paris newspaper which Boos’s mother read, and suggested to Boos that he contact Grantham so they could play music together. Boos had also recently moved to Toronto, so he contacted Grantham and they started jamming, originally with Boos on drums. It became apparent that Boos was more inclined to play bass, so they decided to bring on a new drummer. Enter Bennett. The band first released an EP titled Small Talk.

The show I attended on June 28 was a launch for their latest release, titled Insulated Picnic Bag.

Within the music, their small-town roots and love of folk music can be heard alongside influences and experiences picked up since moving to the big city. As for their musical influences, they’re huge Nirvana fans, enjoying the distortion and noise aspects that have crept more and more into their latest repertoire. These little outbursts of noise are injected, like moments of chaos that eventually sleep when their momentum fades out. There’s punk in there too, with the way they move onstage and also that they don’t seem to strive for “perfection” (think over-production) when performing or recording, preferring something of a raw, emotive sound. Lyrics are of the utmost importance and are a driving force for Grantham, who does most of the songwriting. The lyrics are thoughtful and a main focus.

It’s this interesting blend that give Low Hanging Lights their unique sound. Since settling into their charismatic three-piece group, the music has become less folky and more direct, highlighting punk and rock elements. They also strive for a visual component, and brought a friend they affectionately call “Michael Jackson Jr.” who danced along to their set and had some killer moves.

“Undress and fall into arms, you were completed the day you were born. Undress and fall into arms, remove your face” are some poignant lyrics in ‘A Sharp Minor Suicide’, the song on their website that is most similar to their more recent output, with a noise outro to finish an indie-rock song which emphasizes lyrics. The song was composed after Grantham read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He is voicing his distaste for arrogance and reaffirming his belief that everyone has flaws, and on a fundamental level, we’re all the same. “Everyone should be full of doubt, apprehension, skepticism and curiosity.”

Following their energetic and intense set at The Press Club, the band and I sat and discussed their music, lyrics and much more.

Stephanie Beatson: How has being in Toronto affected your songwriting?

Alex Grantham: Most of my songs were written when I lived back home. I’ve often thought that there’s a freedom from responsibility when you’re living in the house you grew up in. You don’t have to be the grown-up which gives you freedom to create. Now that I’m a busy dude trying to scrape by in Toronto, it’s sometimes hard to sit down and write songs, but I do it. The songs are different because they’re informed by where I live now.

Aaron Bennett: I grew up in a small town too and I think the difference is the level of artistic license that you can take in a big city is way more. There’s more people trying different things. You can meet so many more musicians, artists, filmmakers and share a common bond. It’s inspiring.

Ian Boos: I can literally walk down the street and see some of my favourite bands. Last night I saw Beck. It’s so inspiring having that access. In a bigger-picture sense, some of Alex’s earlier songs might have been a little simpler but since moving to the city, you can hear there’s more chaos in the music now. I think bands are taken in by their scenery.

Grantham: One of my favourite things about being in this band is that I feel we have so much room to grow. I feel like we haven’t tapped into the full potential of what we could be. We’re getting more aggressive and realizing what works for us and our musical personalities.  You never want to feel like you’re at a dead-end with a band.

Bennett: The city allows that growth as well. There are more venues here.

Ian Boos

Where do you draw your songwriting influences from?

Grantham: I’m usually more liable to write a new song when I’m in a place of emotional vulnerability. I went through a really bad break-up about a year ago and I got an entire album out of it. Whenever I’m in a place of emotional turmoil is when I write more, which is probably true for a lot of people. It’s so hard to write a happy song! [Laughs].

Bennett: We were talking about this the other day. For me, I think a song has to be really genuine and people relate to it when it’s genuine. When you write a happy song, it’s hard to make it not campy. A song that evokes darker feelings is easier to relate to. You can almost make that connection instantly. For myself, if I were to write a song, it would have to have those real elements.

Boos: When Alex is writing a song from the bottom of his heart, that’s the way we play it.

Bennett: What drew me to this band were the lyrics. They’re really thought out. That’s what made me want to work with them. I connected with the music and I think other people do too.

Alex Grantham

You guys have an obvious punk influence, and to me the biggest thing about punk is the attitude and often the lyrics and music take a backseat to the attitude. In your music, lyrics are the driving force. How do you manage to get the two seemingly opposing traits to work in tandem?

Grantham: As a songwriter, I’ve been very much influenced by Bob Dylan and many others from the ’70s. Their lyrics were very confessional and emotional. To me, the best thing about punk — and you talked about attitude — is it’s non-conformist, it’s  skepticism, it’s anti-authority. It’s questioning what’s laid before you and I think you can do that in an intellectual way like Dylan did. When you do it that way, it’s not some bush-league thing, it’s a higher intellectual pursuit. I read a lot of philosophy when I was in my early twenties and it had a profound impact on me. I read a book called The Outsider by Colin Wilson, Straw Dogs by John Gray and those books touched me because they’re intellectual and they’re punk inspired. If I could equate that to music, that was punkish because it was anti-conformist but it was done in an elegant and intelligent way and I respect that. Sometimes punk music can be a bit crass and stupid, and I hate it when punk music is demeaned like that because I think the higher goal of punk is more noble.

Do you have any closing words you’d like to share?

Boos: We want to be theatrical, we want to play well and we want to give it all we have. That’s what we do and it’s true to our hearts. We believe in it. We believe in the lyrics, we believe in the songs and I think that if we get a chance, we’re going to take it.

Grantham: If you can afford a grande latte at Starbucks, you can afford to see a really good musical act in Toronto. Next time you go out, consider that for every one established act, there are twenty up-and-coming who are doing amazing shows. Find the smaller clubs; Press Club, Not My Dog, Rancho Relaxo, Silver Dollar… any of these small bars. If you want to see original music in Toronto, all you have to do is take the initiative and pay a $5 cover, the cost of a cup of coffee.

Bennett: Whatever you do — whether it be art, film, music — always do it with integrity. Never compromise. Do what you feel is best and someone will like it. If you’re doing what you love, that will last far beyond a flash-in-the-pan band or movie that comes along. Longevity is important. Often today, artistry in music is lost. When you see independent bands trying to do something new or different, give it a chance and support them.

The guys dressed up in suits for their show to mimic their dress in this video for ‘Solitary City Man Death’.

Photos by Stephanie Beatson

julian taylor band

Greetings from Toronto! Canadian Music Week, moved to May this year (no doubt due to weather…), is upon us! Here are a few recommendations for bands that are part of the festivities this week.

The festival begins Tuesday night, and though it’s not as busy as the rest of the week, it does feature Low Hanging Lights, an electric folk/rock band with definite punk influence. They capitalize on raw, “live show” sounding music, so you know they’re going to sound just as good — if not better — live. They play at Baltic Avenue at 11 p.m.

On Wednesday, Julian Taylor Band is playing a free show in The Lobby Lounge at the Shangri La Hotel at 8 p.m. Julian Taylor is an accomplished artist and frankly, I’m surprised he isn’t more well known. He has released seven albums, has ten top-40 hits and has played over 2000 live shows in the last decade. He and his band put on electrifying live shows that kick it on all levels. He can sing, man can he sing, and is backed by a group of stellar musicians. He also writes hooky songs with great riffs, and did I mention he’s a total babe?

Meredith Shaw is playing at midnight on Wednesday at C’est What. Her song “Hardest Goodbye” was chosen as CBC’s song of the week in March and she’s had a couple tunes from her latest release (also Hardest Goodbye) featured on CBC Radio 2 over the last several months. She’s creating some serious buzz, so come check out what she’s all about.

There are several interesting acts featured on Thursday. Megafauna, a group from Austin, Texas, are playing at 9 p.m. at the Bovine Sex Club. They’re here promoting their recent release, Maximalist, an album that aims to unabashedly bring their supercharged music to the greatest heights. They’re hella hooky songs also boast rhythmic shifts, syncopation and fuse musical styles into something unique that could fall somewhere under the category of rock. They’re innovative and in a sea of hundreds of bands and acts this week, we need that.

Flash Lightnin’ is also playing Thursday, at The Dakota Tavern at 11 p.m. Their brand of gritty rock is just awesome. Recently back from touring with ZZ Top, they just released their album For the Sinners, so grab a beer and check them out. Seriously. They know how to rock.

Le Trouble are playing twice this week, once on Thursday at 11 p.m. at The Hideout, and again on Friday at Handlebar at midnight. Their music is a blast of punk energy with power-pop melodies and danceability. The pianist in me grins delightfully that they have keyboards. They’ll also be playing in Montreal at Osheaga (August 1-3).

Also on Friday, Robyn Dell’Unto and Donovan Woods are both playing at The Vault at 8 p.m. and 10:15 p.m., respectively. Dell’Unto has released two records of sweet and touching pop songs, and is backed by some truly amazing musicians. Juno nominee Donovan Woods is a character. His songs are not only catchy, but also clever and often hilarious. He has this awkwardness on stage that is irresistibly charming. If you enjoy acoustic music and singer-songwriters, you won’t want to miss this night.

Papillon, out of Montreal, plays three times this week; at midnight on Thursday at Cherry Cola’s, at 2 a.m. Friday at the Dakota Tavern and at 10 p.m. on Saturday at the Bovine Sex Club. They’re a fun, energetic rock band and I’m glad they’re bringing some Montreal flare this week.

Also on Saturday, Oh Susanna and the Dinner Belles are playing at 11 p.m. and midnight as part of the Sonic Unyon showcase at Cherry Cola’s. Oh Susanna is a narrative songwriter whose expressive voice carries you into a dreamworld created within her songs. She has been touring regularly since releasing her sixth album Soon the Birds in 2011, and most recently headed to the Yukon with Justin Rutledge and Kim Beggs. She has a lovely voice and is an enchanting performer. The Dinner Belles are an endearing group of acoustic musicians with a southern sound and beautiful harmonies. With roots, country and folk influences, it’s no surprise that the band typically rehearse, write and even perform in a barn filled with antiques and other unusual items. I dare you not to tap your toes along with their music.

Yes, indeed! There is much to keep busy with this week. Look out for show reviews coming soon.