THE YOUNG NOVELISTS Letitia VanSant opens at Passim
Through their rich but rustic sound, Toronto roots-rock outfit The Young Novelists deliver a dose of honesty in audible form.
Made us strangers, their upcoming sophomore effort, showcases a significant sonic progression for the band. Ripe with raw but elegant instrumentation and stacked multi-layered harmonies, their pure take on folk-tinged rock translates equally well from the stereo or stage.
What first began as a stack of songs that frontman Graydon James had amassed behind the drum kit in various bands during his university years eventually became a collection of recordings performed by the six-piece band, Graydon James & The Young Novelists. But over time, as James’ wife Laura Spink became integral to the creative process and the band began performing and touring as a duo, the more succinct banner of The Young Novelists was born.
Since dropping their debut EP, a small town eulogy, in 2011, they’ve made impressive strides up the industry incline. Their catalog also includes a live collection and their 2012 debut LP, in the year you were born, which cemented their status as an act to watch. Now, with made us strangers, The Young Novelists are set to make their most impactful musical statement to date.
“We were looking to inject a bit of excitement and edginess into it this time around,” James says, “but also wanted the recordings to be more organic and true.” For that, The Young Novelists enlisted the aid of producer Carlin Nicholson (Jason Collett, The Golden Dogs), also a member of Toronto rock outfit Zeus. Together, with a minimalist approach to recording – no pitch correction, no click tracks, and some cuts captured entirely live off the floor – they added some grit to The Young Novelists’ sonic grace.
Cuts like “brothers in the garage” showcase the fruit of that union – rooted in folk with the band’s captivating and catchy vocal phrasing but boosted by slightly overdriven guitar and a triumphantly authentic chorus. Similarly, “come back to me” is an upbeat earworm that showcases their breadth of influence. Conversely, more sombre offerings like “always make the mistake” – this one anchored by Spink’s vocals – are delicate but alluring.
“This record hinges on interpersonal relationships,” James explains of made us strangers’ underlying lyrical theme, which includes both traditional and non-traditional ones – from brothers in a band to a torrid love triangle to a new father missing the sound of his son’s voice when they’re apart.
As a published author with one novel – The Mall of Small Frustrations – to his name and two others in the works, James’ words carry a weight and depth that demand repeat listens. The hope, he says, is having a listener connect with the sentiment he explores, if not the specific subjects. “As personal as the songs are,” he offers, “I hope they’re connecting to other people in a way that goes beyond the situations I was writing about.”
That connection is perhaps most intense from the stage. From major festivals like Mariposa and CMW to iconic theatres like the Neptune in Halifax to trendsetting hotbeds like Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern, The Young Novelists’ show is as engaging as it is endearing and has earned them slots alongside the likes of Cuff the Duke and The Strumbellas.
The band will have many more opportunities to take to the road in the coming months. “It’s going to be a busy year,” James says, but not with the slightest hint of unease; instead, it’s a shred of excitement that belies his modest demeanor.
Honesty and transparency. They’re at the very core of made us strangers, from the lyrics to the music to the way it was recorded, and that’s sure to foster closer connections between The Young Novelists and their current and future followers.
In a time when embracing the heart and soul of humanity is at a critical moment, Baltimore’s Americana songstress Letitia VanSant releases a poignant collection of originals and one cover on her debut nationally distributed studio album, Gut It To The Studs (To be released in February 2018). VanSant sings of emotional empowerment, taking control of one’s destiny and leading with truth in her singular works.
In her music as in her life, VanSant’s has always sought to wrestle with worthy questions and impact social change. Before her return to Baltimore, VanSant earned a Human Rights Humanitarian Issues concentration from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). Afterwards she traveled to Detroit to work with the Obama campaign and then signed on with AmeriCorps for a year developing gardens at public schools. Five years of work with a progressive advocacy group landed her in Washington DC. On weekends, she reflected on the state of society through her songs, earning a regional following in coffee shops and clubs.
“We are in this political crisis in part because we have a lot of spiritual work to do,” says VanSant. “This moment requires us to think deeply about our priorities, to confront our fears, to really know ourselves. We have to build the relationships and the emotional fortitude to sustain a movement.”
Upon weighing the power of music to move people, she ultimately left her nine-to- five job to become a musician. She hasn’t looked back since, and for good reason. She’s won a slew of awards with Kerrville (New Folk Winner), the Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Contest (Gold; Folk Category), Falcon Ridge (Emerging Artist), and Rocky Mountain Folks Fest Songwriting Contest (1st Alternate). She’s graced the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and placed among the Top 10 listener-voted “Songs of the Year” by her local radio station WTMD.
VanSant’s national debut Gut It To The Studs opens in tandem with her life as a full-time artist. To get off of the beaten path, though, one must contend with the uncertainties of uncharted territory. “Where I’m Bound” shows VanSant persevering through a “land of broken promises and streets of fool’s gold” with a “map in the stars,” and by following her faith.
Upon moving back to Baltimore, VanSant left behind a nonprofit career. In an effort to feel comfortable in her new skin, she looked at her emerging life and had to “Gut It To The Studs.” She sings, “gotta get the wires a-running right ‘fore the dry wall goes back up.” “Taking Back The Reigns” reflects the notion that insecurities will follow you wherever you roam. In order to face your demons and not allow them to swallow up your life, you have to encounter the forces unseen and look them in the eye. If you let fear drive your soul, “then left unchecked it will rule the whole world.” “Dandelion” echoes our generation’s keen interest in building communities that are nourishing and real.
On “The Field,” VanSant likens her inner journey to the labor of farming, as she sings, “I’ll pick up my plough and I’ll pick up my hoe, for the soil is rocky and dry.”
The sole cover on the album, “For What It’s Worth,” stands the test of time as a true protest anthem. VanSant churns out a powerful Americana interpretation inspired by recent protests against police brutality. She comments, “Being in Baltimore, you can’t deny the stark injustice of racial inequality. The killing of Freddie Gray woke a lot of people up. We owe so much to the people who fought for justice in decades past, particularly in the ‘60s when this song was first released. I recorded this song as a reminder to myself that the present moment is just as critically important to our nation’s history.”
The song “Sundown Town” is an account of her reckoning that perceptions of safety reinforce historical patterns of segregation. Read her blog post about the song here.
Upright bass virtuoso Alex Lacquement (Bumper Jacksons, Charm City Junction) produced the album — VanSant says, “he has a special talent for taking the emotional content of a song and translating it into a great arrangement.” The songs were co-produced, engineered and mixed by Don Godwin of Airshow Studio (Takoma Park, MD), and feature vocals and guitar from David McKindley-Ward, VanSant’s long-time collaborator. The album also showcases cameos from some of the region’s greatest musical talents, including Patrick McAvinue (Dailey & Vincent), Laura Wortman (The Honey Dewdrops), Dan Ryan (Super City), Will McKindley-Ward (Fellow Creatures), Sam McCormally (Fellow Creatures), Dan Samuels (Bumper Jacksons), Nick Sjostrom (Caleb Stine & The Brakemen) and Manny Arciniega.