The Abrams, a brother country duo from Kingston, Ontario, are the first to point out that social media often portrays the “highlights” of peoples’ lives – and because of this, it has become increasingly easy to compare ourselves to others. In a filtered world, the honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability of John and James Abrams no doubt stand out. However, The Abrams’s ability to connect deeply with their audiences through skilful storytelling and their distinct country sound did not happen overnight and instead has been honed over two decades of performing together. As fourth-generation musicians, the brothers find it difficult to recall a time when they weren’t creating music, and now only in their mid-twenties with the experience of seasoned touring veterans, they have reached considerable success as some of the youngest performers to ever play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and their recent signing to Warner Music Canada.
For the first instalment of our “Backstage” series, we sat down with The Abrams to talk about their unique approach to music, storytelling, and the circle of family and friends that have encouraged them throughout their career.
You grew up as fourth-generation musicians – what were your earliest memories of music and how does the music you grew up around influence your unique sound today?
James and I first started playing classical violin when our mother asked us if it was something we would like to try. At that time our family was playing in a bluegrass, country, gospel band, performing mostly around Ontario. They would practice on Wednesday nights at our grandparents’ place, while James and I would sit at the kitchen table and draw pictures. We both sort of decided that it would be more fun to join in with our family playing music, and with their guidance, we learned our first few songs to perform as a one or two-song moment in the middle of their set. The first songs we ever learned for the stage were from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, and that got us hooked.
Who in your family has inspired your music the most?
It would be difficult to recognize any one member, given that each of them played a very specific role in fostering our creativity. On the day-to-day, naturally, our mother and father certainly had the most interaction with us in our early years on the stage. Our dad was the musical parent, who would practice with us and help us learn new songs. Mom isn’t musical herself, but she worked on every other aspect of our career, whether she was designing t-shirts and album art, or simply listening to new music we had learned to offer encouraging words of affirmation. They both guided us in performance etiquette and how to be professional both on and off stage. Ultimately, it really was a joint effort between the two of them, and I don’t think it would have worked otherwise.
When did you decide to start performing together and take your “family business” to the next level?
Funny enough, we were performing right away. I think it is what allowed us to improve as musicians so quickly. There is a healthy pressure you put on yourself by performing almost immediately after you learn. It incentivized us to get better sooner because we saw how crowds reacted when we played or sang well together. That’s one of the consistent pieces of advice we give parents of children learning an instrument: 1) start playing for people, and 2) start playing with people. Jamming on songs with people we didn’t know was another reason we soaked up the music like little sponges.
Country music is infectious, and it’s meant to be shared among people in an accessible and relatable way. It’s why country music has always been such an incredible story-telling medium.
You’ve achieved a lot in your career, from performing at the Grand Ole Opry to being signed to Warner Music Canada. What does it mean for you to share this success with your brother?
We both have become best friends because of our music. Not only is it such a fundamental part of our individual identities, but performing together is really the only way we understand how to be professional musicians. We’re intrinsically tied in the creative sense, and it’s because we formed The Abrams so young. We were 9 and 11 years old when we started touring together, so we had the advantage of growing together and learning our places in the world as a team, rather than as individuals who formed a band later. Also, it doesn’t hurt that James Abrams is probably the most talented person I have ever met. It’s an absolute joy getting to stand next to him onstage and see what he can do as a singer and instrumentalist.
How do you stay so grounded, authentic, and honest through all of this success?
We’ve always maintained that we need to be doing this for something bigger than ourselves. It’s easy to start believing your own press. For James and I, we want to serve the greater good by attempting to spread a message of hope to our fans.
Country music is a tonic for many people who are looking for a way to escape from difficulty, stress and unhappiness in their lives. It’s why so many country lyrics place value on the simple things, the important things in life, and the things that last.
For James and I, we try and write songs that celebrate the eternal things: love, living for the moment, and doing life with the people that matter to you the most. At the end of the day, we’re out there on the road just trying to be servants of the music, not the other way around.
As siblings, you must have your fair share of disagreements. What is the silliest “fight” you’ve had?
Fully knowing that “Pocahontas” had just been released in theatres, a very smart two-year-old James told me he saw the VHS of Pocahontas in our movie drawer at home. I told him it wasn’t possible, as it wasn’t out on home video yet. With a twinkle in his eye, he kept insisting that we owned it. He knew we didn’t, but he also knew how to push every button in my older brother “I-know-better-than-you” mind.
What is your favourite childhood memory together?
One Saturday, at about 10 and 12 years old we were hanging out at our dad’s law office in Kingston while he worked over the weekend. He took a break late-morning and we went to Reg Webber’s music store. My dad ended up getting me an old violin since I had grown out of my 3/4 size student model. With an entire afternoon to kill, James and I went out and busked on the street to see if we could make some money. We only had one violin between us, so one guy would play fiddle tunes while the other guy fake step-danced. We made over $300 in a couple hours. That violin was eventually passed down to James, and it’s the same one he still plays today. That instrument is like an extension of himself.
Apart from encouraging one another, you mention that your wife and girlfriend have supported you through all of the ups and downs. How have your respective partners encouraged you throughout your longstanding career?
For starters, Kyla and Alex have never balked at the idea of us having to leave for tour, even if it takes us away for months. Beyond that, they have never once considered our music to be an unrealistic pursuit, even at a time before we were signed to a major label, driving around as a duo in an SUV playing gigs in small towns. It helps that they are both so creative. Kyla is a fashion designer and has started her own successful business. Alex is a teacher specializing in music and drama and is a singer-songwriter on her own as well.
Creativity is a powerful part of our respective relationships with them, and they continue to inspire us every day.
I love that you say you make “honest” music. What does the songwriting process look like for you and where do you find inspiration?
Usually, James and I get inspired by ideas and stories we pick up from the road. We entire lists of song ideas that come to us at random, often when chatting with people after shows, talking to friends and family back home, or just watching life pass us by as we’re driving down the highway. We’re so fortunate to have travelled as much as we have, and met so many people over the years. It would be impossible not to bring these stories into our songs, even in the cases where the songs aren’t exactly “story” songs.
How do you hope being honest and vulnerable will influence your listeners?
I think people are always looking for ways to connect with something hopeful. When people hear songs that reflect their own joys, struggles, highs and lows back to them, they feel like someone is listening. Ironically, as songwriters, we try to be the listeners.
The hope is that we can always create an honest portrayal of the real feelings people experience and deliver them back.
In the world of “highlight reels” where everything is carefully curated for social media, how does your music challenge that?
It seems that social media often portrays the best moments, as you say “highlights” of a person’s life. For people who engage with it, it can sometimes feel isolating. I think we’ve all been online, seen someones else’s curated life and started to have doubts about the way we look, the job we have, the house we live in, and so on.
We try not to just present the “highs” in our lyrics, but we also try to explore the journey from the lows to the highs.
Now, a lot of people show these personal journeys on social media too, but the difference is that social media presents a carefully crafted and filtered image of someones own specific experiences out to the world. Alternatively, we’re simply putting words and melodies out there; the audience puts themselves in the songs. In their mind, they likely imagine themselves in the lyrics, not us, and it’s inherently less isolating for the listener. That’s where songs on an album differ from photos in a social feed, in my opinion.