Music can be all-consuming, taking you to the highest highs and lowest lows. James Grim is especially well qualified to speak on that subject. His recent re-emergence with the Woodcutters project presents an artist who’s cultivated the lessons of life in a hard-touring band and rekindled a passion for songwriting in its purest form. In this interview we share his reflections and new single ‘Letter from an Old Man’.
The last time I saw you, you were tearing it up at The Old Bar with your band Brothers Grim Blue Murders. It sounds like that came to a crashing halt in the end. Can you describe the moment and circumstances when you thought things had to change?
I think the end for Brothers Grim was a culmination of many moments over a number of years. I’m sure it’s not unusual for any band that spends hours upon hours and years upon years touring to get sick of each other in the end.
When a band kicks off no one really cares about starving or barely covering the rent, all you’re focused on is dragging an audience into a rollicking frenzy. At least that’s how it began for us, I think; we didn’t question the sacrifices, we just worked hard and always gave our all whether there were two people in front of us or two thousand. I think the Touring lifestyle is not for everybody, it comes with a lot of excess, not much sleep, long days of travel and many hours of waiting around for the following city’s venue to open and the fun to begin. Don’t get me wrong, the shows, the people, the venues were always great and we made beautiful lasting friendships but outside of those interactions are many hours and hours of challenging moments (often at the expense of the rest of your life) and this push pull of extreme highs and very low lows can mess with your head after a while.
Eventually the fractured relationships between members, excessive drinking/partying and increasingly complex brotherly issues became too toxic for all of us to sustain. The lows start to significantly outweigh the highs and the focus becomes less and less about the music and more about surviving the fact that you hate each other.
I think at the end of it all, it’d still taken me a year and half to really come to terms that we’d given everything we had to Brothers Grim and that we had to call it before it killed us.
There’s a lot of love between most of us now, but I don’t think any of us spoke to each other for about two years.
Tell us about the experience of working with Frank and your fellow musicians on this track? How did it take shape from concept, to writing to recording?
If there’s one thing I learnt from my time in Brothers Grim it’s that the most important thing about making music is looking after each other and valuing each other’s contributions. Woodcutters is a loose collection of many musicians who have sat down with me one at a time to build or add to a collection of songs. There are no pressures attached to it. No timeframes. No album launch dates. No tour commitments.
It centers around friendship and music. Each musician is free to come and go as they please and our personal relationship is at the forefront of each musical interaction. Get together, enjoy a good catch up and then create something together.
Working with Frank and the other musicians on this track was an absolute delight. Easy and collaborative.
I wrote Letter from an Old Man with Frank in a small Newtown B&B back in 2016 and I can still remember that evening like it was last week. It was late in the evening and we talked about the narrative of the song for a while. I sang him the melodies I’d been toying with and he listened and asked a few questions. Frank is a very intuitive and versatile player so it didn’t take him long to strum out accompanying chords and backing vocal harmonies. I remember it coming together really easily and when we finished looking at each other thinking ‘Wow! We have something special in our hands.’
Later I worked with Jamie Messenger back in Melbourne to arrange the song as a piano ballad. I see Messenger as the core ingredient in the Woodcutters sound. He knows exactly how to phrase a chord or passage to enhance the emotional narrative of a song. The recording we made during that session was just meant to be a demo, but the take was so raw and beautiful we ended up using it as the base for the final version.
Next Matt Wicking added some backing vocals. He has such a beautiful angelic voice and I love how he places his harmonies. It literally gives me chills.
I was going to leave it at that but a few years later during a recording session with Jason Bunn for another project inspiration struck. We were just about to pack up when I had a spontaneous impulse to see what a lone viola would bring to Letters. Jason is an incredible and accomplished classical musician who has the ability to improvise over all kinds of genres. He also just happens to be one of the nicest humans on earth. His performance was recorded in less than ten minutes but is still one of my favourite elements of the song. So vulnerable, immediate and perfect in its imperfections.
Next I asked Jy-Perry Banks from the Heartsville Music Group to add a touch of Lap-steel. I was after a feeling more than a stand out part. I wanted a ‘Ghost in the shell’ that sat just underneath everything poking its head up from time to time. What he delivered was beyond expectation. Such a legend. Then at the end of 2021 I had the opportunity between lock-downs to fit in a recording session with Frank Sultana again. Not only is the solid timbre in Franks’ voice a perfect counterpoint to mine and an anchor to the song but the session marked the end of the song’s production and a perfect bookend to a songwriting process that had begun between the two of us five years ago.
There’s a great Tom Wait’s-like quality to this track, bringing to mind his earlier recordings. Can you talk to that a little bit?
I’ve never tried to emulate any particular singer; I just work with the dulcet tones I’ve been given. But it is fair to say Tom Waits has made his mark on me over the years. In particular the ‘Blue Valentine’ album with songs like Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis and Kentucky Avenue.
I’ve always loved the subjects in his narratives and his celebration of the broken. Dark brooders like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Mark Lanegan also come to mind. They’re not flamboyant or pretty vocalists so they focus their musicality into the performance and the power of the lyric.
I think the biggest influence on this track for me would be Australia’s Don Walker. His songwriting and lyricism have inspired me the most in how I approach songwriting. He really knows how to combine the right amount of optimism in his cynicism, love in his loss and city in his country. I think subconsciously he may have also had an influence on me when choosing to have a piano as the driving force behind the Woodcutters songs. There’s an intimacy to piano ballads that works well with deep emotive voices.
Plus all of these artists are brilliant lyricists who have an exceptional ability to paint lifetimes into a finite amount of words. There’s a real craft to being able to achieve that and I think that’s what I strive for most in my songwriting.
What place do you want music to have in your life these days?
A positive place. Music is still very much at the forefront of my creative life but I think the ‘end game’ has changed. For most of my musical career I think it’s been about pushing to get some kind of notoriety or recognition which requires constant output and jumping through the ever-shifting hoops of the music Industry. These days, I don’t care about fame, partying or having a million ‘friends’ who barely know me. I have wonderful friends, a loving partner and a cheeky little daughter and I’m more than content with how full that makes my life.
Creating one song at a time with people I love for people I love. I feel much more at peace with the simplicity of that.