30 Sep MUSE Interviews: An Hour with The Abrams
What do you call authentic homegrown talent that also happens to be a pair of brothers? Throw in some bluegrass roots mixed with classic rock and roll vibes and you’ve got none other than Kingston’s very own country artists, The Abrams.
As rural Ontario natives, James and John were raised in music. I had the honour of chatting with one half of the Abrams. Picking the brain of John Abrams on the creative process, we talked making music, taking tours, attending Queen’s, and everything in between. From balancing their undergrad degrees and producing their newly released EP to their one-night experience coming back to K-Town to play the Grand, the Abrams are making their mark on the Canadian music industry. From family to faith, the down to earth duo gives credit to every experience and individual who had a hand in shaping their journey— but it’s clear that this is only the beginning.
Whether the brothers are busy topping the charts with their new hit single “Fine” or making history as being among the youngest singers ever to play the Grand Ole Opry, don’t let their fame fool you– they’re also among the rare kind of humble artists who play music with a mission. Their deeply genuine desire to touch lives and spread love through a universal understanding of their lyrics reveals a universal truth: no matter your situation, there is hope that “everything’s gonna be fine.”
MUSE: You released your EP on May 20th! What can listeners expect from it? Tell me what makes it unique from your previous work.
John: This EP is a combination of our history and heritage of playing bluegrass, gospel, and old country music with work we’ve done with Gavin Brown since we started working together in Toronto in 2014. He’s an excellent pop-rock producer, so it was a really great bridge coming from our history and also tying in with his work, bridging the gap into a sound that is representative of who we are today.
MUSE: It sounds like music is super close to home for you guys. I’ve heard you’re fourth generation musicians, so you grew up in music and it runs in your family. How has that connection influenced your work— specifically, this EP?
John: Growing up playing bluegrass and country music is at the core of who we are. We were 9 and 11, respectively, when we started touring, so the “brother harmonies” are at the centre of our sound: playing our instruments, singing together, and listening to classic bluegrass and country brother singers, such as the Louvin brothers or Jim and Jesse McReynolds. For a couple of years prior to this EP, James and I had been on the road touring the US though mostly small towns, a lot of which had fallen under hard times more recently. Quite importantly, there’s a hope and optimism that remains in the heart of these communities. Everyone coming together to listen to music was an inspirational thing for James and I—it just lets people smile and feel hopeful and excited that they can break out of routine in life and be present with the moment.
MUSE: That spirit definitely resonates in your music. Listening to your hit single “Fine” gives off such relaxed and fun vibes— it’s all about going with the flow and enjoying life. What inspires you in your music and your everyday lives?
John: James and I are very fortunate to have a hugely supportive family as a foundation. My wife is a huge inspiration for me, and James’ girlfriend certainly for him as well. We grew up with our faith as a big part of us, which goes hand-in-hand with family. Spreading love and compassion is at the heart of our faith. Growing up in church singing gospel songs and Christian music is definitely present on this record, even though it’s not a gospel record. I think it’s relevant on a broader note, as James and I always want to make sure that, no matter what we do on stage, people’s lives are touched in a positive way. We want them to come to the show and feel happier and more fulfilled after having left. Connecting with people directly makes us go, “OK, we’re doing something right— let’s keep doing this.” Those are all the areas that form the basis of our inspiration.
MUSE: I like how you aim for things that are so universal. Just listening to the songs, all those aspects are evident— the family, the faith— and it’s relatable. Your goal of reaching people and spreading that love and compassion definitely shows through the sentimental lyrics and harmonies.
John: All those elements together keep us levelheaded and provide so much inspiration; and you hit the nail on the head with ‘universal.’ Our concept of writing is that we need to be able to tell uniquely personal stories that capture something universally understood, whether by a 65-year-old man in the audience or an 18-year-old girl. We’re starting to see how this record is resonating with people and it’s very exciting to see that we’ve hit a really great space between personal and universal—it exudes sentiments that resonate across all generations and barriers.
MUSE: That’s really nice to hear. I’ve heard that you guys put on a show in Kingston this June, so you two are no strangers to performing. What do you love most about this experience?
John: We always love coming back to Kingston. There’s a different kind of energy when you play for your hometown crowd. For us, getting on stage at the Grand Theatre is a beautiful thing. The first time James and I played the Grand, I think I was 12, and we opened for Kelly Trachet, a fantastic fiddle player from this area (that’s how we started— James and I were predominantly fiddle players and singers). I’ll never forget when we were in the back dressing room, where they have the bright lights around the mirrors— you know, like in the movies? From that memory, I recall us saying, “this is it, we made it, we’re huge!” because of those lights around the mirrors, and we kept playing with them, flipping them on and off. So, even still, I’ll give the lights a couple flicks just for old times’ sake. We really grew from Kingston and our greatly supportive fan base here is a huge part of why we’re still playing.
MUSE: How has the Queen’s community influenced your music?
John: Queen’s has always been very supportive of us. James and I both go to the university. I just graduated from Film and Media and James is in science. I took an 8-year period to do my undergrad degree, since I would go off on the road and come back, but we have always maintained getting our education while working on our music. Being able to work and develop critical thinking skills at Queen’s hugely helps us everyday in the way we write songs and it’s one in the same with spending time on the road: working hard, playing shows every night, and having to get up the next day. That kind of work ethic really poured back into our degrees, so that when we came back from touring, we weren’t wasting any time, and we had a little bit more perspective than we did the last time. We have so many friends at Queen’s that are hugely supportive of our music. We’ve played on campus a couple times, but hopefully we’ll be back to play Frosh Week at some point, since it’s been on our list forever.
MUSE: It’s nice that you both started off so close to home and that you’ve grown so much in such a short time. How do you think your music has evolved over time? Do you think it has changed a lot?
John: It totally has evolved. Originally, the education we received from learning how to play bluegrass music was rigid and proper, down in the Southern U.S. where it originates. Our exposure to bluegrass was like the school of music for us, where we learned how to sing and play really precisely, whether it was the fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin— all those instruments. One of the beautiful things about the genre is that someone will always give you their time. A great example of graciousness in bluegrass music is playing the Grand Ole Opry when I was 15 and James was 12. We were among the youngest performers to have ever played there, but we were brought up on stage by Mike Snider, a renowned bluegrass banjo comedian.
Anyways, from there, we moved into the school of rock and roll, such as with with our records “Blue on Brown” and “Northern Redemption.” The transitional phase for us was working with Chris Brown from Wolfe Island, who was formerly in a band called Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. He’s a fantastic musician, songwriter, and producer, who really helped James and I come out of that highly correct and precise architecture of bluegrass music. It was a great experiment bridging very different musicians and prepared us for our next phase of working with Gavin. We went from playing precise bluegrass to putting a band and rock music behind it. The key part of this transitional phase is its resemblance to a return to our childhood— that is, going back to super precise harmonies but doing it with a band. Essentially, that’s how we ended up at this EP. It’s a highly precise art form, but you still hear that organic influence from our early years.
MUSE: You said that you’ve been influenced by a lot of different types of music and you’ve dabbled in different genres. It seems as though your records were very different at times as your music evolved. What were your influences at each of these different times?
John: The early stuff that got us going include classic country brother harmonies I mentioned earlier. We grew up listening to classic bluegrass, like Tony Rice and Bill Monroe. During that transition phase, we were listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and Harlow Guthrie. “Blue on Brown” was a tribute record (Bob Dylan, 2007) and we started listening to The Band around that time— they were a huge pioneer for roots rock. We got really into that stuff from the 70s, like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, and Bryan Adams too, who definitely influenced the rock elements on this record. For this chapter, James and I are reconnecting with the years we spent in Nashville through country music. The huge choruses of the anthemic rock songs come through songs on the EP like “Champion” and “Still In Love” to express that idea of rock-influenced country.
MUSE: Is it safe to call you country artists? Since you guys are so versatile, what would you call yourselves?
John: This record is a country record for sure. James and I are fully embracing the genre because that’s who we are. We had a family farm in Joyceville and we grew up in Sydenham, ON. It would absolutely be safe to say we’re country artists, and I also think we’ve embraced the genre because it’s the home for all of these other genres. Nowadays, “country” is so diverse— it’s a big word that means more than people think. Many people associated country music with a very specific thing, but the genre has been found again. You hear everything on the radio, from George Strait, to Florida Georgia Line collaborating with Nelly and basically having rap verses in their songs, to Sam Hunt at the total pop end of country, to even Avicii bringing in country vocalists and doing country EDM with “Hey Brother.” Country music is a big word and that captures a lot and we certainly embrace ourselves as country artists.
MUSE: Now, here you guys are, getting bigger and better and making your mark in the Canadian music industry. Your future’s looking bright!
John: I’m glad you think so! We’re crossing our fingers and throwing up prayers that we continue to be blessed with the opportunities because there’s nothing more beautiful than playing on stage and getting to connect spiritually with so many people. Music is a very powerful language knowing no boundaries that we hope to use to reach as many people as possible. Everything aside, our whole goal for playing music is that people experience something that resonates with their soul.