Doug Paisley and Bahamas Are Canadian Music's Odd Couple
They have different strengths, but their years of friendship can be heard in the chemistry of Paisley's 'Say What You Like'
Published Mar 14, 2023Sometimes even the most celebrated singer-songwriters need a nudge from an equally talented pal. Toronto's Doug Paisley has been praised by The New Yorker, the Band's Garth Hudson and more for his economic yet stirring take on alt-country, alighting a novel's worth of imagery with merely an unvarnished lyric and soothing acoustic strums.
He's less gifted at whittling down album tracklists.
"I'm like Mother Goose who lives in the shoe, loving all my songs equally, but I've got way too many of them," Paisley says with the same tossed off idiosyncrasy he brings to his songs (and the cover art of his albums, like the mannequin on Constant Companion). "So for someone to say 'That song's really worth working on' is really helpful."
That special discerning someone is none other than Afie Jurvanen, better known as Canadian alt-folk hitmaker and multiple JUNO winner Bahamas, who produced Paisley's new album, Say What You Like. Though he's quick to downplay his role, Jurvanen was honoured to support his friend, telling Paisley during a joint Zoom interview with Exclaim!, "It's apparent from your songs that you're a thoughtful guy. But when any of us are thinking, 'How am I going to turn these songs into an album?' it's possible to overthink things."
Paisley doesn't hedge: "I was lost in all the songs I'm working on, just sitting at home playing guitar. Afie's got a little more momentum than me, to say the least. He really encouraged me to focus in on certain songs, and then get to the recording stage."
They're not as much of an odd couple as casual listeners might expect. A bit like Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau from the famous film of the same name, Paisley and Jurvanen were short-term roommates — "Or I was his tenant, depending on how you looked at it" quips Jurvanen. And yes, Paisley may often pare his songs to their pure essence, while fans love how Bahamas plays the studio like an instrument until his biggest hits have cozily immersive atmospherics. But they were cut from the same tight-knit Toronto alt-folk cloth, crossing paths occasionally — Jurvanen mostly as a side man, Paisley playing mainly bluegrass covers — until Jurvanen heard Paisley's 2008 self-titled debut while visiting a mutual musician friend.
Jurvanen was so floored by Paisley's songwriting and singing he promptly dialled Paisley up and invited him to jam over coffee or beers. What Jurvanen describes as a "fast friendship" resulted in a few fits and starts collaborations, one of which Paisley has "on a quarter-inch tape upstairs in a drawer from an analogue Nagra tape machine Afie bought, from when he recorded me back in '08. So this has been going on for a long time."
Anyone familiar with both singer-songwriters' deep cuts won't be surprised that Paisley's latest is one of the very few outside projects Jurvanen has produced. Though Bahamas' intricate production is renowned, Jurvanen says, "I always try to have at least one that's really just 'this song and nothing else' on every album." He cheekily adds, "Maybe that comes a little more natural to you, Doug. Because I'm often looking to add ketchup and mayonnaise."
Jurvanen also knows such an acoustic keeper when he hears it, loving Say What You Like's "Holy Roller" from the moment he heard Paisley play the nakedly lovelorn ballad live years ago. That, "I Wanted It Too Much" and Paisley's borderline a cappella duet "Rewrite History" with Felicity Williams work as an unplugged trinity of sorts on the new album that made Jurvanen say upon hearing them: "They're great as is. And I think they play well off the other songs that are more obviously arranged and produced."
A prime example of the latter is "Old Hometown," arguably Say What You Like's best song, on which Paisley's husky voice and heartfelt lyricism meld with Jurvanen's production into the Canadian Traveling Wilburys you didn't know you needed. For such fleshed out Say What You Like songs, Paisley is also quick to credit the session musicians, essentially Bahamas' touring band: guitarist Christine Bougie, steel guitarist Michael Eckert, lap steel guitarist Don Rooke, drummer Don Kerr, harmony vocalist Felicity Williams and bassist Darcy Yates (all of whom interrupted Jurvanen with their clamouring to work with Paisley before he could even finish inviting them, their Bahamas bandleader recalls). Together, their efforts on "Old Hometown" amounted to "a lot of playing on there, but none of it stands out so much," says Paisley. He adds, "Afie had great ideas for guitar parts and directions for the different players throughout the album. You almost can't tell where one person leaves off and another begins. The synergy is profound."
Paisley and Jurvanen soon sound even more simpatico over Zoom, as the latter describes "being friends with Doug long enough to know his love of the snare drum on Al Green songs. And country singer Don Williams, and his producer Garth Fundis's—"
"—everything. My love of Don Williams everything." Paisley playfully cuts him off.
To this, Jurvanen adds, "Knowing those touchstones is useful in the studio with the musicians. And makes me think: 'Old Hometown' is a bit of a soul tune."
That leads Jurvanen to confess: "I'm accused of wanting the snare obscenely loud, as if everything's a Def Leppard record. So it's good to have people saying 'The lead vocal's probably more important than the snare, bud.' But that was a pretty good-sounding snare on 'Old Hometown', if I do say so myself. " Paisley seconds this enthusiastically.
Such banter and band chemistry would, of course, combust blissfully on stage, a notion that Paisley admits to considering: "Any chance I have to play with any or all of these players live would be so fun."
Jurvanen can't help but chime in: "Dude: you'll be John Mayer and we'll be Grateful Dead. 'Doug and Company.' We gotta print the T-shirt."
It's a proposition Paisley can't deny, as he slyly replies, "I'm there!"
Before they sign off, Jurvanen ribs Paisley a bit more: "I'm just psyched for you Doug. Love ya. But gotta say: the reporter here has an advance stream of the album. I haven't heard it since we finished. Hook me up!"
With that, Doug Paisley deadpans: "I'll send it and an NDA for you to sign."