His stage name, Gravely James, says a lot about what to expect when listening to his new album, From Steve’s Shed.
But according to singer-songwriter Chris Madronich, that’s more of a happy accident than anything else.
Released on July 31, the collection of 10 stripped-down songs could pass for a modern version of an old Alan Lomax Folkways field recording. His nom de guerre conjures the image of an aging blues singer discovered by a wandering professor with an ancient tape recorder. It’s pronounced ‘Grave-Lee’, not ‘Gravel-Lee’, though on many of the songs his voice does have a lived-in, gravelly quality.
Hit the play button, and that voice, accompanied by his spare but emotional guitar-playing and his foot-stomping, might lead one to believe a long-lost blues musician from the cotton fields of the deep south has finally been discovered.
But no. Chris Madronich is a 27-year-old who grew up in Port Colborne. He holds a communications degree with a minor in music from the University of Ottawa, and spent many years playing trumpet in jazz combos while teaching himself to play guitar. Along the way, he also played in rock bands and began to write songs. This collection showcases the fruits of his recent labour.
The choice of the stage name comes from the combination of his mother’s maiden and his father’s first names. The fact that he and his family did live near Gravelly Bay in the south Niagara town has caused a bit of confusion for some. But now that he’s decided to be known by that moniker, he feels the persona is both influencing and solidifying his choice of musical direction.
Speaking of names, nine of the 10 songs were actually recorded in Steve’s shed. That’s Steve Goldberger’s Shed Studio, in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Well-known Niagara Rhythm Section and Old Wino bandleader Goldberger produced the album, and lends his talents on stand-up bass, an instrument he’s only recently taken up, on some of the tracks.
Goldberger met Madronich a few years ago in Toronto. The younger musician was enrolled in a songwriting workshop, while Goldberger was the bass player for the house band for the Thursday night student showcase at Hugh’ Room. They connected over music, discovered they were both from Niagara, and kept in touch.
Fast-forward to 2020. “When he approached me about possibly doing some recording,” says Goldberger, “I really had no idea what he sounded like, but from the first song, he blew me away. He’s really got it together.”
Madronich was insistent that the record be “live, off the floor,” with him just playing and singing. Goldberger was skeptical at first, but a four-hour session this past Valentine’s Day resulted in the bones of what can be heard on the 10 songs. Most of them are from first takes and indeed, live off the floor.
Madronich reciprocates the admiration for Goldberger’s process. “It was awesome,” he enthuses. “He really got the vibe of it. He mic’d my foot to pick up the stomping. He had a direct line for my guitar, another mic over my guitar, a vocal mic, and one more to get the surrounding sound. We laid it all down in one day.”
After stepping back, though, Madronich realized a couple of songs needed back-up vocals. He and Goldberger returned to the shed to record the harmonies and some spoons for the first track, a bluesy love song called 103. He also begged Goldberger to play stand-up bass for another song, Atlantis on my Lips. That led to Goldberger adding bass on a few other tracks. Ji Sharp Yehia of local band Road Waves is the only other musician on the album, with a guitar solo that wraps up Shoot ’em Down.
Thematically, that song is the outlier of the collection, the only time Gravely James dips his foot into political waters, taking on the Republican party and the National Rifle Association. “I almost left it off,” says Madronich. “I wrote it the day after the 2017 Vegas shootings, and it really was from an emotional, angry place. But I consulted with friends in the music business about what tunes I should put on the album, and right off the bat they said it has to be on it.”
Another outlier might be the final song, Beers, with Joe Lapinski. Originally titled Rooster in the Barn, it’s the only song not recorded in NOTL. The new title refers to the fact that Madronich laid this one down at St. Catharines musician Joe Lapinski’s WOW Recording Studio during a night of sharing beers and tunes in another informal mutual admiration society. But it anchors the collection with a rootsy, frantic pace and fits in well sonically with the other tracks.
Goldberger is flattered that Madronich decided to name-check his studio in the album’s title. For Gravely James, it was a no-brainer. “Calling it From Steve’s Shed, it really sounds simple, it’s something that you can remember, and it fits the ambience of the album.”
As far as influences, Madronich admits that Robert Johnson is on the list, as well as Bruce Springsteen from his Nebraska period. When he plays with a full band, Gravely James often fleshes out his set list with covers of Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. But he’s most enthusiastic about obscure Canadian singer-songwriter Roy Forbes, who, as BIM, had a hit with his song Can’t Catch Me in 1975.
“I have a cassette tape in my truck of BIM performing live,” he explains. “His reaction to an audience, he does a lot of open-tuning stuff, his guitar playing is story-telling, his craft is something else. It’s super stripped-down and it’s a big influence on my album.”
Conveniently, his Gravely James solo persona is perfect for these COVID times, when finding a gig for a full rock band is next to impossible. And Madronich is a bit of an old soul, who still loves the tactile experience of holding a CD, cassette or vinyl record in his hands. Though From Steve’s Shed is currently available only through the requisite streaming and download services (Spotify, Bandcamp, Apple Music, etc.) he is hoping to do some form of physical release in the near future, accompanied, of course, by a foot-stomping, blues-wailing live solo performance.