Canadian singer/songwriter Tia McGraff has played to UK audiences for ten years and embarks on an extensive tour early next month. With co-writer, fellow musician, producer and husband Tommy Parham, McGraff has just released her eighth album, Stubborn In My Blood. When we caught up recently we had a lot to talk about.
Starting with the tour, though you’ve built up a loyal following over here how would you describe yourself to someone new to your music?
“That’s simple, we are the real deal! Stubborn in My Blood gives us the confidence to make that claim as every song is real, because each comes from rawness. Tommy and I didn’t work to a schedule but wrote as the songs came to us. When we play live we deliver as intended, it’s just us, two guitars and two vocals. We don’t try to be anything else. In our career we’ve lived in Nashville writing for Music Row, and we’ve travelled throughout Canada, the US and the UK. We feel happy and complete with ourselves as artists as we seek to reach people and move them. On our previous UK tour a member of the audience came up to us after a show to tell us,’when we can sit in a room together as strangers and share music the whole world outside disappears’”.
That’s a wonderful testimonial, what would you say is different about the new album?
“Each record we’ve made is indicative of its time. Our previous release in 2015 Crazy Beautiful, was just that, a time of constant activity as we recorded it in Austin, Nashville and back home in Canada. Last year we made an EP for our UK tour. We had written several new songs, some in the UK (‘Dartmoor,’ about the ponies) so we just cut the record. It’s a collector’s item now! Stubborn In My Blood takes the magic from Crazy Beautiful and the rawness of the EP. It’s much more hands on as Tommy plays more instruments, sang all the harmonies and produced the record. There was a delay in finishing the mixing so we thought, no problem we aren’t on a timetable so we used that opportunity to write another song, ‘Hole In Your Heart’.”
If your albums reflect where you are at the time, what influences lie behind Stubborn?Those boxing gloves you are wearing on the cover suggest you mean business!
“Well, we’ve been round the block so many times. To keep on keeping on in music you must either be stupid or stubborn. Tommy and I are in it together, we’re so passionate about what we are doing hence the boxing gloves! That’s the ‘Stubborn’ bit. Turning to ‘In My Blood’, there’s a lot of roots on the record. I can trace mine back to Transylvania and Scotland. Tommy is Native American and Spanish. Our ancestors came here with dreams and we can’t give up on that. It’s what we do so to take another song from the album, ‘Let ‘em See Your Strong’ (and that’s not a typo either!)”
Of course, that would explain the opening lines of the title track, “My father’s mother came to these shores on a boat from Transylvania, my mother’s great, great uncle died in a war, a Jacobite Scottish Highlander”. Have you dug far into your family history?
“Sure, my mother was a MacDonald from Nairn. Tommy proposed to me on our first visit there! Nairn has a lot in common with where I’m from, Port Dover, Ontario. My grandfather left Transylvania for Canada in 1928 and grandmother aged 20, two years later. We went back there last year, the photo of a railway station on the album cover is where they departed for the New World. My grandmother nearly didn’t make it. When they reached the ship for Canada, she discovered she didn’t have much money. Fearing rejection and having to return to her village, she drew up her full 4 ft 8 inches to tell the guy in charge of embarkation, ‘if you don’t take me on your boat, I’ll take my daughter and jump in the water’. They let her board!”
Does that mean you’ve taken a folkier turn from a some of the more country elements of previous records?
“Perhaps, but we don’t set out to fit a genre. We’ve done the Nashville bit, we’ve done pop and country, and we play some of those songs live. It’s just that Stubborn is testimony to the long haul. If it’s our last album then ok, if there are many more to come then that’s ok too. We just want to carry on making our fans smile.”
What do you consider the most topical aspect of your roots. I detect a protest element, is that correct?
“Yes it is and thank you. Stubborn is a lot about immigration and diversity. Those are very hot topics right now. I’m all about diversity and if you don’t like what you see you should stand up and say something. You don’t have to be violent, music can be very powerful”.
Are you optimistic about the music business now. Is the album format becoming obsolete?
“I am. The music business is massive so we need independent artists who can speak their mind. But don’t forget most things are cyclical. A lot of people are getting into vinyl, wasn’t that supposed to be dead and buried years ago? Albums are still released but with new ways of listening, as artists we have to make sure each of our songs can stand up in its own right. That’s back to storytelling. Actually, we sell a lot of CDs at shows, people want to take home what they’ve just heard.”
So back to the shows, what can we look forward to hearing?
“A bit of everything really. We’ll focus on Stubborn but in two sets we can play some of our older songs too. Remember, it’s two guitars, two mics and our stories”.
And finally, have you any plans for when you get back home?
“We’d like to spend more time writing. It’s been non-stop for ten years. We’d like to write more with younger artists. And there’s Jake, the Road Dawg, the hero of my children’s book”.
Tia McGraff and Tommy Parham start their UK tour on 4 September. What characterises their shows is their ability to connect with a group of people through their music, storytelling and charm. In a world where so many seem to be shouting and ranting at each other, their power of expression and lucidity make them definitely well worth seeing.