Ayden Graham is an indie folk rock singer-songwriter from the San Francisco Bay Area. Growing up on the music of Sting, Al Green, and Cat Stevens, he began his career busking in front of the local Three Twins Ice Cream shop in Marin County. With a regular spot at the Sweetwater Saloon, Graham exploded onto the local music scene as a promising young voice.
During two solo trips to Ireland, Graham sharpened his Celtic fiddle playing in the pubs and sang on the streets for his supper. Then while studying literature and electronic music at UCSC, Ayden was introduced to the underground music scene of Santa Cruz. Graham began to craft a unique artistic identity, incorporating his poignant songwriting with the myriad influences that surrounded him. Ayden’s music combines heartfelt lyricism, chamber music elegance, rock, jazz & funk grooves, with eerie electronica atmosphere.
Wooden Bones is the vibrant debut EP for singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ayden Graham.
In this interview spotlight, I chat with Ayden about motivations, the latest project, challenges and more.
Full Q&A along with links and music below.
Where are you from and what style of music do you create? (In your own words, not necessarily in marketing terms or by popular genre classifications.)
I was born in Toronto, Canada, and raised in California. I moved around a lot with my parents from age 5 – 7, but we eventually settled in the Bay Area, just north of San Francisco. The music I create is based in the Irish troubadour tradition with a modern twist of rock, jazz and electronic sounds. My songs have an autumnal quality, laced with hopeful melancholy that savors the bitter sweetness of life. I strive to make music that provides solace to those in need, the lonely, the broken-hearted and estranged, and perhaps make the world a little brighter for all of us.
What led you down the path of music and what motivates you to keep going?
Since my youngest days I can remember this burning desire to perform. My parents were both modern world dancers and I grew up sleeping on the floors of dance studios, surrounded by Celtic, Indian, and Middle Eastern music. They took me to see Cirque du Soleil’s show Alegria when I was 4 years old, and between the clowns, acrobats, and fantastical costumes, I was hooked! The circus artists sang in French, Italian, and even an invented language; I was utterly transported!
When we moved from Canada, I was only 4, but it was as if a part of my soul was left fluttering in the wind. I never felt at home anywhere, all I wanted was to get out and see the world. During my school years, I often felt that I was on a different wavelength than most of my peers. I didn’t resonate with anything integral to American culture: sports, celebrities, and consumerism to name a few. I had been given an upbringing that made me very aware of the multitude of cultures across the globe.
When I began playing violin at the age of 8, I realized how many ways that magical instrument could be played depending on the culture that adopted it. I saw the films Latcho Drom and The Red Violin, and felt this yearning excitement kindling inside me. I wanted to be a gypsy, a wandering vagabond with my violin. Since then I have been on a quest for new sounds to express my creativity through. I’ve often gravitated more toward the esoteric and ethereal qualities in music, from cinema and circus soundtracks to ambient electronic, I’m always searching for the essence of something otherworldly, perhaps even divine.
Of course, when I started dating in high school, the ensuing heartbreak sent me into a more introspective state. I picked up the guitar and began exploring lyric writing and singing. I found that people really responded to my passionate performances, that my voice and words resonated strongly with those whose challenges mirrored mine. I decided that I wanted to be a songwriter and put words to those complex emotions that are often felt but seldom expressed.
Even now, I am still motivated by that initial spark, the childhood dream of joining the circus, but now it is tempered by the pragmatism of adulthood. There are half-written songs that need finishing, shows to book and market and I’m working to integrate violin more into my songs using looping and Ableton Live. I’m always learning as I go, and there is so much more I want to experience. In 2018 I’ll be laying the groundwork for my first international tour, hopefully utilizing my favorite travel method of couch surfing. I’m really looking forward to sharing and connecting with people all over the world.
The Wooden Bones EP is your first official release; what was the journey like from inception to completion? Were you trying to accomplish anything specific?
The decision to record this EP was a long time in the making. I had been writing songs since before college and I always thought that there would be a certain point where it was obvious that I had an album. But then, you know, life happened, and it never quite felt like the timing was right. I just knew that if I could manage to commit to recording then it would happen, one way or another. After a few false starts (which really turned out to be the demo-ing process unbeknownst to me) I moved back with my family and began to save money for the project. I couldn’t even remember why I was saving, I just wanted to perform and make a living doing it.
After three years of working, playing weddings and editing top 40 fitness mixes, I finally had enough money saved to make something happen. I booked my first studio dates at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco and went in to record for five days. The idea was to do a song a day, but really we had to build each track like a house with a foundation, drums and scratch vocals, then guitar and piano, then cello and so on. I chose to go with Tiny Telephone because they are an all-analog studio and the idea of a modest production that is sort of rough on the edges appealed to me; “sloppy hi-fi” as the owner JV likes to put it. I was going to do the best I could with single takes straight to tape. It was quite exhausting but it really taught me a lot about studio preparation and being able to fully embody a song on repeated takes.
When the first string of days was over, I still had more ideas, and I went back for overdubs on separate days over the course of three months. With my vision and the direction from co-producer-engineer James Riotto, I was able to layer a lot of sounds together. Of course there’s still parts I would have liked to do better, but I really had to learn to let go of it and allow myself the room to grow on the next release.
I would say that my vision for the EP was for it to be an introduction to a heartfelt songwriting voice, unobscured by excess. I wanted the recordings to be raw, intimate, and poignantly honest, bringing the listener to a deeper place through vulnerability. In that aspect I think I achieved what I set out to do.
Name one or two challenges you face as an indie musician in this oversaturated, digital music age? How has technology helped you (since we know it does help)?
I would say that being an indie musician is incredibly liberating. I feel that I have the power to make the art I am inspired to make and find the audience that will be receptive to it. That being said, the DIY approach requires you wear a lot of hats, not only making music but also doing design and marketing. It takes a lot of stamina, and it’s often tempting to look for an easier way. I’ve been approached by several “PR” and “Booking” agencies that require upfront payment and pre-sale tickets. After seriously considering taking the leap with them, I realized how it really would not pan out in my favor. There are no shortcuts, if you want to achieve what you set out to do and actualize your dreams; you have to be wary of getting taken advantage of.
With so many tools out there it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but even the simplest apps are useful. Websites like Canva and Pixlr have made it incredibly easy to create my brand. I’m really proud of the visual aesthetic on my EP, I hired one freelance artist, the marvelous Lauren Ringelman, and the rest of the web/print formatting I was able to do myself. FB advertising has also been crucial for reaching a wider audience, but targeting only the most interested listeners as potential super fans.
Where is the best place to connect with you online and discover more music?
You can follow me on:
Anything else before we sign off?
I really appreciate getting the opportunity to tell my story here. Conversation is so good for stimulating new ideas; I definitely got some new insights from this interview. Thanks MTM!
And to all you potential listeners, I’m just getting started, so please join me on this journey and let’s grow together!