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May 2018 - Brandon Grafius

Lansing Area Folk Singer Brings Back the Story within the Song

Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn

Brandon GrafiusRemember the good ol’ days when songs had meaning? When lyrics and a compelling stories by Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce and Bob Dylan filled the charts? If Holt singer-songwriter and finger-picker guitar player Brandon Grafius has anything to say about it, those days are back – or rather, never left.

He grew up in a musical family, his dad played the French horn, and his mother still is a professional harpist. The pair met in the Michigan State Symphony.

“Music has always been a part of our household,” Grafius said. We have a picture of me when I was about 3 years old, and there was a John Denver record playing, and I picked up a tennis racket and began playing along.”

Growing up, Grafius was drawn to the singer-songwriter movement of the ‘70s. Even though he went to high school during the ‘90s, donning flannel and a fan of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, he also spinned Gordon Lightfoot records at home. He began studying piano, music theory, and sang in choirs in high school. After picking up an electric bass during college, he quickly realized it wasn’t as interesting just by himself. He turned to an acoustic guitar, and has been playing acoustic music ever since.

“Time in a Bottle” grabbed on to me, “Stayin’ Alive” – not so much,” Grafius said of his musical preferences.

“First of all, I was drawn to … just the production, the sounds, the acoustic instruments, the mixtures of guitars, the fiddles … Part of it is just the sounds. I’ve also always been drawn to poetry, and I found that the 70s singer songwriter --I hate to call it a movement, but those people are trying to work through some of these ideas of how do you adapt poetic structures. How do you work with these ideas of coming out of the music of the ‘50s where lyrical content was not so important; and moving into Bob Dylan and the ‘60s where we really started to think how can we introduce those ideas, tell that story,” Grafius said.

The former East Lansing resident took a seven year detour out in California, before his Michigan roots called him back home. His latest sophomore album, to be released Friday, May 11, Highways and Brandon GrafiusBackroads, has many thematic elements of travel, and what/where home feels like. The record was recorded at Troubador Studios in Lansing, and features musicians, and friends Brandon looks up to and is fans of. Donny Brown (The Verve Pipe) plays drums, Monte Pride plays second guitar, and Erin Zindle (The Ragbirds) plays the fiddle. Grafius’ cousin, David Cooper (Dallas Symphony, Berlin Phiharmonic) also plays the French horn.

“In the song on my new album, ‘Sacramento,’ I try to grapple with what that feels like and this feeling of California as such a great place. I was going to school at UC Davis, you have Berkeley right next door, you’ve got the Bay area, Wine Country, the Redwoods, Lake Tahoe -- you’ve got everything. And somehow, it still never felt like home.”

The singer-songwriter studied English at MSU, and mastered in Poetry at UC Davis. After that, he finished a phD in Old Testament biblical studies. Questions of spirituality are all throughout the record, according to Grafius.

“Questions about what is important to us in life, how we move towards the better parts of ourselves. -- I think those issues are threaded throughout the album, and the poetry hopefully comes through as well,” Grafius said. “Lyrics are important to me, I feel like if I don’t have anything important to say in the songs -- I might as well just keep them as instrumentals. It’s important for me to have anchors in terms of the images, in terms of the poetic structures of the song.”

Just as his musical influences have a strong sense in storytelling, so does Grafius’ latest release: our mitten state being the most cohesive thread of all the songs.

“I think that these songs individually are melodic and singable, and have their own charms – but I really do think of it as a whole work,” he said.

“There’s a song ‘200 Miles,’ about driving back to Chicago, from Michigan, so that’s situated on I-94W. ‘Midwestern Sky’ has an image on the album jacket of the clouds over Sleeping Bear Dunes. ‘Roll Away’ is set on the Manistee River.

H.O.M.E.S. isn’t just an acronym for remembering Michigan’s Great Lakes, but it’s also a feeling if you ask Grafius. Home is a place, full of familiar friends, family and feelings.

“It’s about these emotional connections we make with places, and what it means to call some places home, and to not feel at home at other places, and how we get to those places that feel like home,” Grafius said.

“I call the album Highways and Backroads because so many of them are about those journeys to the Brandon Grafiusplaces we feel comfortable. Sometimes you can take the highway and it’s a straight line, and you can travel fast and there’s nothing in your way, and you can just get from one point to the other. Sometimes, you have to take the backroads and maybe have some more detours, and more things that stop you along the way.”

While life tends to throw plenty of curveballs and detours along the way, arriving at this record has Grafius feeling like it’s all led up to this moment.

“I’m looking to share this album and these songs with as many people as possible,” Grafius said. “I’m really proud of this album. I’ve been recording music since I was 14 in a basement with a 4-track and a couple of friends, and feeling like this is the album I’ve been trying to make for most of my life.”

“It feels like a lot has been pointing towards developing my ability to put this together. Whether it’s the moneymaker or not, it’s the one that feels like I’ve arrived where I want to be,” he added.

Grafius has shared stages with Michigander, Olivia Mainville and the Aquatic Troupe, and appreciates Michigan’s collaborative and connected nature. He enjoyed working with Erin Zindle on the new album, having been a longtime fan of The Ragbirds.

“The energy that they bring to their sets … their songs are all grounded in a searching, striving toward something better. They’re thoughtful, and still energetic – motion filled. Singer-songwriters too often get caught in mopey-ness. I’ve sure written my share of mope-y songs,” he laughed.

Brandon Grafius will be performing Friday, May 11 with Monte Pride, and Doug Mains & the City Folk at Mac’s Bar in Lansing. On May 20, he will be playing with The Dangling Participles at Lansing’s The Avenue. The big show is planned for Thursday, May 31 – the album release show at the Robin Theatre in Lansing’s REO Town.

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