It’s hard for John and James Abrams to recall a time in their lives where they weren’t creating and playing music together. As fourth-generation musicians, The Abrams have taken the “family business” to a whole new level with their recent signing to Warner Music Canada and major label self-titled debut EP, set to be released in September.
Their lives have revolved around music since childhood. Now that they’ve, in a sense, successfully completed their apprenticeship, The Abrams are poised to step onto the larger stages that modern country music offers.
2019 will mark the duos fourth appearance at Canada’s largest Country Music Festival – Boots and Hearts – when they kick things off on the Front Porch Stage on Friday, August 9.
We asked John Abrams about country music and their long journey.
We all know the music cliché of the artist that works hard to pay their dues before their debut major label album comes out, but you guys take the prize – it’s getting on 20 years as a unit. Those dues should be paid in full by now. Did it feel like a long journey?
It has been a long journey, but spending time on what you love is never time wasted. This whole thing started out back in the early 2000s when James and I were 9 and 11 years old, and at that time, we were performing as often as we could at Bluegrass festivals, churches, strawberry socials, fairs and legions all over the US and Canada.
It was never really a “hobby” for us, but it certainly started out more as an activity we enjoyed with our family. Funny enough, in the early 2000s we guested on the WSM Midnight Jamboree in Nashville with a classic Bluegrass artist named Larry Sparks. The other guest who Larry invited that evening was a singer-guitarist. We hung out with this other singer backstage for a bit in the dressing room, waiting for our respective turns to go on stage for a song. We didn’t say much to each other, but we knew this was a guy who had paid his dues in Nashville for about 15 years. He went on to become a superstar: Keith Urban.
I think as kids, being a part of those moments, that history and culture in Country music, knowing that a lot of people have to work hard for decades before they ever see the fruits of their labour, always encouraged us to keep at it. In the end, we love it, and that’s why we’re still here.
Basically, your whole lives have been about music. What is your first recollection of music in your life?
James and I used to sit in the car with our parents and grandparents and listen to old Country, bluegrass and folk tapes growing up. I think the first song I ever remember us listening to was “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” by John Prine and Nanci Griffith, but what really kicked off our performing career was the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” Soundtrack. James and I learned “Keep on the Sunny Side”, “I’ll Fly Away” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” which became the first three songs we performed together on stage. That record exposed us to the rich history of Country music, and we were immediately hooked. As a kid I used to fantasize about my adult life, driving around blasting “Man of Constant Sorrow” at full volume in my car. Guess what I do in the summertime with the windows down today? Yep.
Was it always destined to be country music for you?
Yes, but there were a lot of necessary detours along the way. In our early teen years, we spun a lot of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs, but in our late teens we became enamoured with how Bluegrass influenced folk and rock in the 60s and 70s. We started listening to The Band, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Neil Young and others from that era. We always listened to a little Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels on the side too. We were really influenced by the gritty realism of the lyrics that came out of that era of rock, a lot of it having been inspired by themes of loneliness and heartache that run through bluegrass. Modern country, with its embrace of artists like the Zac Brown Band, The Brothers Osborne, Chris Stapleton, and others started to look like the best home for our sound after we started blending roots/bluegrass with rock. That vision became fully realized when we started working with producer Gavin Brown in 2014.
Did anything change once Warner came into the picture?
Everything changed, in a phenomenal way. James and I suddenly became connected with a big team of experienced, driven and compassionate people who were there to help us manage our career (I promise you they didn’t pay me to say this). It was like pouring gasoline on the flame. We still manage ourselves, but now we have a great deal of help. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Sakamoto Entertainment and Anthem Entertainment, who we also work with on a daily basis.
On the first EP you worked with a Canadian legend: Gavin Brown. What was that process like?
Gavin is a force of nature in many ways. I think what always worked so well in our collaborations with him, both in the writer’s room and in the studio, was in how tenacious and determined we all are. He is a powerfully energetic producer, and so it was important to allow ourselves to surrender to the process, experiment, and try new things to see what would help push us toward success. Bear in mind, we were about 13 years into our career at that point, so it took a few leaps of faith, but Gavin believed in us, which is why it ended up being such a great partnership. It ultimately led to our deal with Warner. A few months into 2016 we released “Fine”, which made it to the Top 40 on the Country charts.
I bet you’re dying to get the new EP out?
Yes. This one has been a long process, but it has really been worth it. We’re so excited about these songs.
Tell us a bit about Reminder and what we can expect.
Reminder came together as a result of a ton of writing James and I have been doing in Nashville for the past two years. We wrote over 40 songs for this record, and we’re still writing. The time we spent really allowed us to focus on what we felt were the best songs out of the bunch, and it also let us revise, edit and work on lyrics for much longer than we were able to in the past. As a result, we came up with a collection of big energy songs that feel quintessentially “Abrams”. It features some of our best writing, and more importantly, songs that really tell our own story.
Who produced this one?
We worked predominantly on the writing side with Keith Stegall’s team of songwriters, as well as some of our label/publishing-mates over at Anthem Entertainment (formerly Ole). Keith produced the first few Zac Brown records, and has worked on almost every Alan Jackson record. Matt Rovey worked with Keith for years, engineering those same records, and produced our first single, “Sounds Good to Me”, along with another track on our new album. Matt is a phenomenal producer and an excellent collaborator. We had some of the best times in the studio with Matt. Jeff Dalziel also produced a couple great tracks for us. Jeff did a great job at bringing out the heart and soul of our live show on the record. Lastly, James and I produced a couple tracks, along with David Mohacsi at Noble Street Studio. David worked with us through the years we were teamed up with Gavin Brown.
I noticed from the two samples we’ve got from the EP that it has a bigger sound than the previous one. Was that a conscious move or did it just develop that way?
First of all, the album draws a lot of influence from the big working-rock songs of the 80s and 90s. James and I love Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams, John Mellencamp, and Tom Cochrane. We have listened to this corner of country-influenced-rock for years. More importantly, however, we wanted this record to really nail down how we play live. It has so much of the two of us at the centre of it, especially in how it captures the dynamic we have onstage. It’s perhaps the first record that really does this. We have spent years working on building a high energy and exciting live show, and it was always difficult to reflect that sound in the studio. This record nails it, in our view. The record is also influenced by the Zac Brown Band, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who all have strong live shows and do well to capture that sound on a record.
Let’s talk about the first two songs we’ve heard from Reminder. What can you tell us about the songs:
Sounds Good To Me
We wrote this song with Kevin Mac and Chris Paterno over at Keith’s studio in Berry Hill, Nashville. “Sounds Good to Me” is all about appreciating the little things in life, which seem like they don’t really matter, but they end up being the most important. It uses a simple little phrase we often casually throw out in conversation… “Yeah, sure, sounds good to me”, but we wanted this to be said in response to life’s best moments, especially with the person you love. James and I both have people in our lives, my wife Alex and his girlfriend Kyla, who go above and beyond in their support. The song is very autobiographical in that way.
Better Late Than Never
This song was a blast to record. It unashamedly takes a ton of influence from the big love-rock songs of the 80s and 90s: songs with huge optimistic romantic phrases and head-banging energy. These are the songs we would listen to on our school bus. All of us kids would sing along with Blink 182, Bon Jovi and Rick Springfield, only to arrive home and listen to The Rembrandts in the opening of Friends (“I’ll Be There For You”). In that way, “Better Late Than Never” is powerfully nostalgic for us. We always thought this genre would intersect so well with Country, especially considering we come from a pretty high-energy corner of Country music (Bluegrass).
This was our opportunity to mash-up those styles. It’s going to be so fun to play it live.
What’s it like spending all your professional time with your brother?
It’s the best. James and I are such a great team. I think it all comes down to the fact that we started so young, working together toward a common goal. It also helps that we are good friends “outside the office” too.
If you can define it, are you guys the fighting brothers, the joking brothers, the loving brothers or something else entirely?
Well we definitely have “joking brother” moments on tour. We sometimes get each other laughing so hard we can barely breathe. One of us is typically driving the tour bus. But we’re definitely the “loving brothers” overall.
Just like your career. You guys are veterans of Boots & Hearts. You’re back this year. Do you have any fond Boots memories?
Performing on the main stage in 2017 was a real highlight for us. It’s one of the biggest stages we have ever performed on, so it was pretty exhilarating.
You were there in the second year of the festival and then later on, so you’ve seen it develop into the massive festival it is. Do you guys take in the fun of the festival when you’re there?
We definitely try and watch other artists perform when we play Boots. There are always great performances to be seen. We also try and bring a couple guests with us to the festival, so they can experience the show from backstage. Standing up on the balcony side-stage and watching the whole show from a birds eye view is something really special. I think what is so encouraging about Boots & Hearts, one of the biggest Country festivals in North America, is that it serves as living proof of how important Country music is to Canadians.
Music has always been your life. It might be a hard question, but if there was no music, what do you think you’d be doing now instead?
That’s a question we hope to never answer! Regardless of what we ever do in life outside our music, music will always be a major part of it, and will influence it in some major way. That said, James and I are pretty versatile people. We love the business of music a great deal, so we are always working a great deal on the management and marketing side too. It keeps it interesting, especially when we are not writing or on tour.
For more on The Abrams, visit them at theabramsmusic.com.