After earning his living as a sideman in New York City for most of his twenties, Graham Norwood decided to leave music behind, at least in the professional sense.
“I fell in love with a painter, and it seemed like if we wanted to have any kind of a stable life with a house and kids someday, we couldn’t both be allergic to money,” he laughs. “I decided I should get a ‘real’ job and just let music be my hobby.”
So Norwood got married, enrolled in grad school, and moved to Italy for a year before settling down in DC. When his marriage started to fall apart, though, he returned to New York for a trial separation, and he instinctively found himself gravitating back towards music as a survival mechanism, as a way to work through the heartbreak and loneliness and confusion of it all. Reconnecting with his true identity as an artist, Norwood began performing regularly for the first time in years and penned a torrent of new songs that embraced the authentic self he’d nearly forgotten.
“That was the time when music meant the most to me,” he reflects. “When I got back to New York, I started writing my own songs for the first time in probably a decade, and that’s what kept me going that whole first year as the divorce went through.”
Recorded with acclaimed producer/engineer Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Phish) and mixed by John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth), Norwood’s gorgeous and heart-wrenching debut, ‘Out of the Sea,’ represents just a fraction of the music he wrote during that tumultuous period. Blending gentle, understated arrangements with virtuosic musicianship, the collection hints at everything from Leonard Cohen and Richard Thompson to Elliott Smith and Harry Nilsson as it showcases both Norwood’s remarkable three-and-a-half octave vocal range and his deft, unassuming fretwork. While the performances on ‘Out Of The Sea’ are often delivered with a tender touch, the record’s dreamy atmosphere belies its intense emotional punch. Norwood writes with a raw, unflinching honesty here, grappling with isolation, doubt, and depression as he artfully documents the long and winding journey to self-discovery and acceptance. It’s a journey that Norwood, who’s legally blind, has been charting for much of his life.
“Growing up, I didn’t want to deal with the vision stuff,” he reflects. “My greatest fear was that I would be known as ‘The Blind Kid,’ and I didn’t want to carry that label with me my whole life. As I got older and fell in love with music, I realized that performing was an opportunity to transcend my disability, to not have that be the first thing people noticed about me. If you can play, you can play, and that’s what counts. After all, nobody says, ‘Hey, Stevie Wonder’s pretty good for a blind guy.’”
As a youngster growing up in the Bay Area, Norwood wasn’t thinking in such philosophical terms, though. All he knew was that he loved to play music, and he spent nearly every free moment with a guitar in his hands. Primarily self-taught, he developed his technique by ear, ravenously devouring every style he could get a hold of: 90’s alternative, 80’s college radio, old-school soul, funky R&B, twangy country, classic rock. By the time he finished high school, he’d begun cultivating his own distinctive vocal style, synthesizing aspects of each of his favorite singers into a whole that was at once warm and wistful, light and longing, buoyant and weary.
“I always had a good ear,” says Norwood, “so I’d just sit by the radio and learn to play and sing whatever came along. I could hear what was happening in the music and sort of instinctively tap into the physicality of it on my own.”
Norwood relied heavily on that ability when it came time to record ‘Out of the Sea,’ which features an all-star band including bassist Dan Edinberg (The Stepkids, Anderson .Paak), pedal steel player Dan Iead (Norah Jones, Valerie June), vibraphone wizard Brittany Anjou (Okkervil River, Elysian Fields), and drummer Bill Campbell (Andrew Bird, Cass McCombs). The musicians all met each other for the first time in the studio, and over the course of just two days, they cut the entire album raw and fast, capturing nearly everything, including Norwood’s vocals, live.
“There’s a strong steak of spontaneity running through these songs,” says Norwood, who played a rare 1924 Martin 0-28 acoustic guitar he inherited from his mother on the sessions. “Almost all of the tracks were brand new at the time and had never been performed live, so this album really embodies all the magic and the discovery of the music coming to life for the first time.”
‘Out Of The Sea’ opens with the gorgeous “Hard Times,” a sprawling, seven-minute, country-tinged waltz that faces down depression with both heart and humor. Chock full of sophisticated harmonic twists and literate lyrical turns, it’s an ideal entry point into Norwood’s unique blend of vintage and modern, and it sets the stage perfectly for a deeply questioning album he playfully describes as “a 3AM comedown from the hallucinatory heights of ‘Astral Weeks.’” The swirling “Collapses to Zero,” for instance, turns a wordless falsetto into an existential exploration, while the sweeping “Ago” tries to make sense of the ways time can change us, and the elegant single “Greenfield” wrestles with choosing between the easy path and the right one.
“Sometimes you realize you can’t be or provide everything that someone else wants from you,” reflects Norwood. “When that feeling comes along, the only emotionally honest thing to do is to move on, but it’s often the most difficult choice to make.”
Feeling trapped between two worlds is nothing new for Norwood. For much of his life, he was unsure where he fit in, considering himself too sighted to be blind and too blind to be sighted. In recent years, though, his sight deteriorated well past the point of any question, and as painful as it’s been to lose those last vestiges of his vision, there’s a peace that’s come with the certainty of it all. It’s that same kind of peace that informs tracks like the classically-influenced “Kate’s Song,” which sees Norwood reconciling with his past, and the dreamy album closer “Out on the Shore,” which finds closure as its narrator emerges from a grueling journey across the ocean floor.
“That song is really an extended metaphor about getting through a difficult time in your life,” Norwood explains. “It might have been a real slog for a while, and maybe you still don’t have all the answers yet, but at least you’re through the paralysis of it and you’re finally moving forward. To me, it feels like the key to the whole album.”
More than that, it’s the key to life itself. Things may get dark, and the road may get rough, but there’s always a brighter tomorrow to strive towards. Graham Norwood is finally ‘Out of the Sea,’ and he’s ready to bring us with him.