When it comes to crafting albums, singer-songwriter Graeme James seems to follow two philosophies: Do it yourself, and think big.
And no, those are not conflicting notions. James, a talented multi-instrumentalist, plays a dizzying array of instruments on his new Nettwerk Records release, Seasons (out April 1, 2022) — just as he did on his Nettwerk debut, 2019’s The Long Way Home, and his earlier independent efforts. He’s been a one-man band since he started his career as a busker in his native New Zealand, and still uses his trusty loop pedal to create his own mini-orchestra when he performs live.
James also produces his recordings, which allows him to sandwich together as many layers of violin, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, bass, double bass, banjo, baritone ukulele, viola, cello, harmonica, accordion, and percussion as he wants. For Seasons, he did request piano, horn, percussion and vocal contributions from friends.
He even creates his own cover art, drawn in a distinctive pen-and-ink style partly inspired by vintage children’s books and linocut printing.
As for the “go big” part, that’s more about his approach to subject matter. On The Long Way Home, James did with words and music what Einstein did with math: explore the nature of time and space. With Seasons, James contemplates the cycles of life and the human condition, as measured by nature’s own time clock. These are not idle musings about mundane situations. Though he might use tiny brushstrokes to define minute details, James paints panoramas, not postcards.
The Long Way Home wasn’t a concept album; its theme emerged organically whereas
Seasons definitely is. Starting with spring, it cycles through to winter via 12 songs of such intimacy and delicate beauty, they invoke another Einstein comparison — to the fictional literary gem, Einstein’s Dreams. The album’s first single in particular, “Everlasting Love” (releasing February 18, 2022), would fit perfectly within that petite book’s pages.
In a Rolling Stone “Songs You Need to Know” feature about the Seasons track, “The Voyage of the James Caird,” writer David Browne observed, “James’ records tend to be calm and ruminative, recalling the work of fellow modern balladeers like Nathaniel Rateliff (during his unplugged moments) and Phoebe Bridgers.”
These are not bad comparisons. James’ musical style also reflects his love for Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver and Iron And Wine — though it’s doubtful any of them belong to the unique musical club James has just joined; it’s open only to composers of Celtic-veined doomed-ship songs inspired by actual disasters.
James mentions fellow violinist Andrew Bird as another favorite; both began studying as children. James was heading toward a career as a classical violinist when repetitive strain injuries caused him to make other plans.
Like those artists and many others, James has often turned to the natural world for inspiration. His first album of original work, 2016’s News from Nowhere, was shaped by the landscapes of his native country. Seasons came to life after James and his partner, Zoe, moved to the Netherlands in 2018. “In New Zealand, most of the trees are evergreen,” he notes. “You don’t get as much seasonal distinction as you do in Europe or North America. The Netherlands is northern Europe, so you’re getting a lot of range. The weather here really caused me to appreciate seasonality, and come to appreciate all of the seasons for the richness they bring to life.”
With the Seasons release, James continues plumbing subjects he began exploring in a four-EP series released from fall of 2020 through summer of 2021. On the opening track, “The Fool,” he marvels at “the splendor of a world being made anew.”
The second song, “A Sea of Infinite Possibilities,” literally represents new life; it opens with the sound of his daughter’s beating heart. Recorded in utero, it’s the first sound Eva’s parents ever heard her make. “It was so rhythmic and beautiful that I thought, ‘I’m just gonna tape this as a keepsake,’” James recalls. But that incubating life quickly inspired the song. “It’s all about her,” he adds, “about the potential of this person that you’ve never met, but you know will change your life.”
In “All the Lives We’ve Ever Lived,” James gently layers percussion to evoke the natural rhythm of changing seasons. The pretty melody also builds in layers: mandolin, then piano, then cello, each one adding more texture. As if carried on a soft breeze, James’ vocals eventually slip in; he sings, “And summer sighed/Through dappled light/And carried us away/Like falling leaves in flight.”
His nuanced way with a metaphor becomes evident as he reaches the first chorus: “Isn’t it just beautiful/The fire in the autumn trees/Don’t weep for summer lying still/Slain amongst the fallen leaves.” “It describes the change from summer to autumn, and there’s a sense of loss, because summer is wonderful,” he elaborates. “The ‘don’t weep for summer’ line is really an instruction to self to celebrate whatever is coming, not to mourn what’s gone. Summer isn’t coming back around, but there’s a wonderful thing happening still. If you try to hold on to the thing that’s been, you’ll lose out on what’s happening in the moment. For me, at least, there is a real poignancy to it — but also a leaning into what is coming.”
James says he wrote “Everlasting Love” as a celebration of committed love. “Most love songs are written about the desire to be in a relationship with someone, or about the feelings you have in the first six months of a relationship when you are barely sane and hardly know the person,” he says, adding, “I wanted to write about the less heady, but much deeper love and appreciation you have for someone when you actually know them, and have walked a long journey with them through all of life’s trials and tribulations.”
It’s a sweet sentiment, delivered on a cantering tempo with swells of mandolin and organ, mariachi horn embellishments and piano counterpoints — a spirited arrangement that’s all about motion. And there’s only one direction for it to go: forward and straight into the next season, whatever it may bring.