Tia McGraff Tells A Story in The Bookshop
Where better to tell a story than a bookshop? That’s how Canadian singer songwriter Tia McGraff and co-writer, fellow musician, producer and husband Tommy Parham closed their UK tour on Thursday night. The venue was The Bookshop in the Sussex town of East Grinstead. The Bookshop dates back to the mid-16th century, its black and white timber beams bear many carvings, one thought to be the head of Anne Boleyn. The place is packed with titles new and second hand run by a group of people passionate about reading. They have branched out into live music, having teamed up with an equally enthusiastic local promoter. After shifting a few bookshelves to create an intimate venue, they sold out their tickets then welcomed storytellers McGraff and Parham.
These two are no strangers to the UK, this being their thirteenth tour. They also like a variety of venues having played in a castle, library, pubs and town halls. McGraff has just released her eighth studio album Stubborn In My Blood, so they had some new stories to tell. And that is what she and Parham do; each of her songs tells a tale of some sort. She sings with a voice as varied as the venues she plays. Her husband’s accompaniment, both musically and vocally, adds the perfect complement.
As well as her singing, McGraff is expert in engaging an audience. Most were newcomers and all were made very welcome. From the new album she started with the relaxed pace of ‘Own Your Sunshine’. It was well selected in that the song sets out the McGraff philosophy of determination, optimism and kindness. The song is an urge to do as you believe, ringing with strength in “no-one can own your sunshine anyway”.
McGraff admitted she doesn’t do many love songs but she did dip into her previous album Crazy Beautiful for ‘The One I’ve Waited For’ dedicated, of course, to Parham. Returning to the new album McGraff showed how she modulates her voice so expertly by adapting one of its more rousing numbers, ‘Travelling By Guitar’ to this cosier audience. This is the story of her way of life, “I’ve been down the road/to the corner bar/Playing for crowds/And tips in a jar”. But it’s worth doing if she is “stealing hearts and setting them free/ with a few chords and a melody”. East Grinstead certainly thought so.
McGraff does not fit a specific musical genre, that’s part of her attraction, going through her albums she’s drawn mainly on country and folk, but each with either a rock or almost pop tinge. The common denominator is the story she tells. Stubborn In My Blood seems to emphasise all that in a single record. From it she played the title track which is pure storytelling as McGraff revealed the strength in her Transylvanian and Scottish ancestry. The title means “I know who I am”. “I got stubborn in my blood running through my veins/ it’s not in me to turn away”.
There is another story behind ‘One Tin Soldier’. McGraff played in a Devon village with strong WW1 ties with Canada. Eight villagers were killed in the trenches so to mark the centenary of the war’s end they added eight extra chairs, each with a single poppy.
McGraff let her textured voice properly free on ‘Pilot of Change’, soaring away from the daily trials and tribulations to “try listening to the sound of corn growing/and your heart got the answers anyway”.
Parham has some stories of his own. Drawing on his Native North American roots he took this group from the south of England far away to his homeland with the ‘Two Wolves’ that lives inside everyone. The haunting intro/chorus gave this story about good and evil several further layers of authenticity. The globes on the shelf behind him only added to this vivd imagery.
On a lighter note McGraff told how she met Johnny Cash and June Carter when, as a young singer, she performed with them on a CBC TV show. There could be only one song after that. Those walking past The Bookshop looking in the window must have wondered what sort of book club involved singing ‘Ring of Fire’ with such zest.
This was an evening as far from the digital age as could be imagined. A building nearly four hundred years old, filled with books then packed with people listening intently to two singers telling stories accompanied by one or two acoustic guitars. This isn’t a swipe at technology, just a timely reminder that the power of word, song and attention isn’t diminished. Hopefully the ghost thought to inhabit The Bookshop had a good evening too.