“The most obvious difference with this record was that we said, ‘Fuck the genre labels people want to put on us. We never felt they fit us anyway,” says Alyssa Graham.
“We didn’t want to stay within any boundaries. We wanted to just let go and explore, and it made all the difference,” adds her husband, Doug Graham. “For the first time, there was no self-doubt, no self-loathing – just gratitude, bliss, and a complete sense of satisfaction in the process and the results. We’ve never been so genuinely happy about a record.”
The Jersey born, New York grown, Nashville based couple, known simply as The Grahams, have carved out new artistic paths with their third record, Kids Like Us, which was producer-legend Richard Swift’s last project before his death in 2018. With stellar songwriting and bold arrangements, the new record is a love letter to the timeless pop albums Alyssa and Doug grew up with, harkening back to a time when Brian Wilson, Nancy Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, The Ronettes and Diana Ross & The Supremes ruled the airwaves.
“Perhaps we started writing this album with a sense of escapism. However, through the process the record helped us let go of the idea that we had to fit in somewhere. We wanted people to know who we are for real,” says Alyssa. “That’s what the record is to me. It’s a shedding of skin.”
Alyssa and Doug have been performing together since they were teenagers growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, sneaking into New York City to hear their favorite bands play. They burst onto the Americana scene in 2013 with their debut, Riverman’s Daughter, which features songs written while traveling the Mississippi River and the Louisiana swamps in search of inspiration.
The album was a worldwide smash in the booming Americana scene, eventually spending eleven weeks in the Top 40 at Americana Radio. The follow-up, 2015’s Glory Bound, influenced by the couple’s adventures on trains all over America, was declared “easily one of the best Americana albums of the year” by No Depression. A film, Rattle the Hocks, produced and directed by Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, chronicled those journeys and became an international film-festival favorite.
For Kids Like Us, The Grahams once again lit out for parts unknown – this time on a wild motorcycle ride along Route 66, at the height of the 2016 election season.
“Everything about Route 66 – the neon signs, the motels, the cars, the souvenirs, even the menus – are stuck in a different time,” Alyssa says. “Of course the music that developed would have moments of fantasy, moments of horror, even some moments of the supernatural.”
Their work with Richard Swift – and with co-Producer Dan Molad (Lucius, Elizabeth & the Catapult, The Wild Reeds), who later took over the project – was what enabled The Grahams to channel all that chaotic stimulus into something big, lush, ambitious, and profoundly satisfying.
With the kind of gorgeous, aching melodies only hinted at on their previous records, and the fearless arrangements that Swift and Molad are known for, Kids Like Us might just be one of those instant classics that music lovers used to swoon over in rock and roll’s heyday. It doesn’t hurt to have a killer band comprised of members of Lucius, The Night Sweats and The Raconteurs.
“We wanted to work with Swift because of his unique sense of modernist preservation. We got so much more. Richard was like magic. He was like nobody we’d ever met before. You instantly wanted to be near him and be part of his world and suck in the mysterious energy and love he put out,” Alyssa says of working with their production Dream Team. “Danny is like a long-lost friend. It was like we’d known him in past lives and yet he surprised us at every moment with his ingenious creativity. Danny’s magic is in his pure curiosity. He was able to utilize our voices together in a way we had never explored in the past and this helped to create a new sound for us.”
Where The Graham’s first two records were minimalist and sometimes acoustic, Kids Like Us finds the duo exploring a wider range of sounds, as befits a record written on one of America’s longest, most storied roads. The new songs grew out of motel-room whispers and campfire musings as much as from studio experimentation. “Don’t Give Your Heart Away” is twangy pop with a David Lynchian sheen; “Kids Like Us” takes a modernized Antonioni feel in new directions. “Searching The Milky Way” is a 50’s biker flick directed by Quentin Tarantino.
“We started in Chicago with the blues and Motown,” Doug says, “and we ended in L.A. listening to the Beach Boys. And all of it found its way into the record.”
The other thing that found its way into the record, inevitably, was the surreal election of 2016 – and Kids Like Us evokes the modern American condition in remarkably empathetic ways. “We stopped along the way to talk to other artists and all kinds of people about how they were experiencing America during this tumultuous time,” Alyssa recalls. “So while it was our journey, it was also about the experiences of the people we met.”
“We’ve definitely written a very political record,” Doug says. “These aren’t protest songs, but some of them are certainly a reaction to the big pile of shit America has stepped in, and our personal fear for the future.”
That future has a name: Georgette Ida Graham, the couple’s first child, who was born while they were still mixing Kids Like Us. “We set out to write songs and deliver messages that have meaning,” Doug says, “so that our daughter one day can listen to it and say, ‘Wow. They actually had something to say.’”