Timothy Robert Graham’s first full-length album is a strong indie pop debut.
By Stephen Miller, Editor
– The Capitol Hill Times -
Timothy Robert Graham was waiting in his living room, bundled on a cold afternoon in a pea coat and scarf. He had laid out two cups of green tea and a plate of mandarin orange slices to fuel our discussion about his new LP, “The Hidden Rose,” in the very room where he tracked most of the record.
“It was making the most of what I had and not worrying about what I didn’t have,” he said of a project he pulled together entirely on his own, either around the schedules of his four female housemates or in a cabin on Camano Island.
Time and money constraints aside, “The Hidden Rose” is a solid effort in composition, performance and recording. The album pulls, pretty effortlessly, both from Graham’s days in hardcore punk and more recent interests in melodic pop and Fleet Foxes-esque indie folk. The arpeggiated electric guitars, lilting vocal swoons and thin-cymbaled drum kit give “Rose” a tinge of Buckley’s “Grace.” And Graham’s tenor is as comfortable hovering above acoustic guitar strumming in a light falsetto as it is projecting over a weave of overdriven telecasters.
Though the record does rely heavily on similar, repetitive phrasing and recycled instrumental ideas, the repetition does more to establish an identifiable sound and cohesion in an artist’s debut LP than to feel redundant. And though there are the rare hints at a homemade record – amp hums and the occasional squeak – it’s an airplay-ready recording overall.
It’s strange then that the album nearly never happened, and that, when it finally did, was entirely the work of one artist.
Graham, 25, got his start as a bassist and drummer. His grandfather, Robert Drasnin, played in tiki jazz groups and wrote music for “The Twilight Zone” and “Mission: Impossible.”
“I grew up with him always in the music study plucking away at a piano and always willing to let me sit next to him as he wrote songs,” Graham remembered. Drasnin’s influence was likely instilled in the younger artist who, after splitting from the hardcore scene for melody-driven pop, said he will base an entire song on a major seventh chord.
So Graham, who looks something like a well-dressed, trendier Seattle version of Rob Thomas, decided to study recording at Shoreline Community College, where he learned to trim a song’s fat from teachers like Sue Ennis, who wrote some of Heart’s multiplatinum hits.
“Her idea of writing a good song was telling a pertinent story and selling 100,000 records, and you had to do both,” Graham said of Ennis.
“Then I got out of college, didn’t get an internship at a studio I wanted, couldn’t form a band. Nothing was going right,” he said. “I kind of tossed it all away and was depressed because I wasn’t making music. What’s the point? If you’re not making money, how can you justify spending hour and hours every week making music.” But Graham’s wife, a practical literature student, started kicking him some of the books she was reading in her classes, including works by Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard. It was Dillard’s “Holy the Firm” that revived Graham’s musical passion.
“The book justified for me why it was worthwhile to make art and to spend your life at it, and to give it everything that you’ve got, have nothing come of it and then die,” he said. “That was a life worth pursuing.”
Fueled by inspiration from “Holy the Firm” and a new take on the songwriting process and discipline derived from his wife’s prose writing manuals, Graham laid the groundwork for his 2011 EP, “A Beggar’s Bread,” and then “Rose.”
In writing songs, story has always been important, said the artist who refused to learn to read as child for fear his mother would stop reading to him. His songs find meaning in literature and are often based on relationships and their breakdowns.
“There are moments when my wife is in the room, next to me and I’m captured by wonder and awe. And then there are times when my wife is right next to me and I’m as far away as I could be, or I feel like she is,” he said of one theme that reoccurs in his music.
“The next time I want to jump off a cliff, I want to have that song there to go, ‘Remember? There’s good things worth continuing on for.’”
Though Graham recorded “The Hidden Rose” entirely on his own, he’ll be performing it in its entirety at the release show at Barboza on Sunday with a full band. The group brings their own flare and energy to the stage performance, he said, but strictly follows the lines he wrote for each instrument.
How audiences receive “Rose” may have an impact on how he records his next project, he said, but it won’t affect his decision to continue working. Sell 100,000 records or not, he said, “I’m going to write songs for the rest of my life.”
Timothy Robert Graham, with Wayfarer: Repurposed Hymns, and Garage Voice
925 E. Pike St
Sunday, Jan. 20