The Grahams make only a brief, blink-and-you-miss-it appearance in their new “Painted Desert” video, premiering exclusively on Billboard today (Jan. 16), for the latest track from their upcoming third album, Kids Like Us. And that’s just the way Alyssa and Doug Graham prefer it.
“We’re artists who like to write a song and have ideas for it, but when we work with a producer or a filmmaker we really just tell them our concept and we want them to their own artist,” Alyssa tells Billboard.
For “Painted Desert” the Nashville/New York couple gave director Louis Browne free reign to create a cinematic story about a young couple (actors Wyatt Day and Makayla Dodge) making their way through an average day. “We didn’t even want to be in it,” Alyssa adds, “but they told us we needed to do a cameo, so we’re just schlubs at the liquor store, busking on the side.”
The “Painted Desert” video does contain a bit of a psychological twist, hinting that the events in the clip may be imagined and not real. That, according to the Grahams, connects with what they’re getting at in the song. “One of the things we were playing with is the idea of perception,” Alyssa explains. “We tell ourselves about what’s real and what’s not real. There are so many forces beyond our understanding at work in the universe, but we tell ourselves a perception in order to get through our world. But once you’re in places like Painted Desert, you just accept the magic or those forces of the universe beyond what we can understand.”
The Grahams went through Arizona’s Painted Desert as part of a cross-country motorcycle trip along Route 66 to get inspiration for the songs that became Kids Like Us, which is due out in the spring.
“We wanted to get the f–k out of Nashville because we were just really miserable about what was going on in the country, the state of political affairs,” Alyssa recalls. “We were sitting home, writing, and finding ourselves yelling at these programs, being really upset and anxious about what was going on.”
The Grahams had done a similar expedition, by car for 2016’s Glory Bound, but Alyssa notes, “this time we wanted to do something a little more dangerous and exciting, so we decided to ride a motorcycle across the country.” Along the way they came up not only with new songs but a new sound — a lush pop exercise co-produced by the late Richard Swift, in his last project, and Dan Molad (Lucious, Elizabeth & the Catapult).
“We had started writing some Americana-ish songs,” Alyssa says, “and during the trip I started listening to a lot of girl groups from the ’60s — the Shirelles and Ronettes and Shangri-Las, and ended up listening to a lot of Beach Boys and Brian Wilson stuff, and Nancy Sinatra and people like that.” Doug adds, “It wasn’t a super intellectualized approach to it. We’re always scared of listening too closely to something. We did a lot of, ‘OK, that’s a really cool sound. What’s that like?’ and listened to a little of it until ‘OK, I get it,’ and then take a more reactionary more emotional journey rather than an academic one.”
The Grahams were already a couple of songs into Kids Like Us when “Painted Desert” became the first song Swift shined towards. “That’s when the album came alive,” Doug says. “He started playing mellotron on it and it became this otherworldly song.” “Then we went back and re-recorded the two songs we did before,” Alyssa adds. “‘Painted Desert’ was the song that got the album going.”
Swift — who recruited members of Nathaniel Rateliff’s Night Sweats to play on the album — passed away July 3, 2018 at the age of 41 from multiple health issues, while the Grahams were still working on Kids Like Us. “Richard was a magic man,” Alyssa says. “We did the basic tracks [in Los Angeles] in about three weeks. He was supposed to come to Nashville and finish it. We booked time twice and both times he called and said he couldn’t come. We were in communication with [Swift] the whole time while working with Danny. Everybody likes to talk about Richard Swift, of course, but Danny’s fingerprints are all over this, too. He expanded on Richard’s intentions.”
The Grahams will be selling their new sound heavily on the road this year, with young daughter Georgette in tow. The duo is a bit apprehensive, but also undaunted about their changes. “That anxiety comes for every artist, I think,” Doug says. “Whatever we put our heart and soul into I figure they’re probably not gonna like it, but we’ll put it out there anyway.”
Adds Alyssa, “One of the things we say to each other is the best part of a new record is the making of it, in the studio creating these new little worlds and the bubble hasn’t burst yet — ‘This is gonna be great! People are gonna love it!’ And then your dreams get crushed.
“I think we’re at a place in our lives — maybe it’s our age, maybe it’s the third record, maybe it’s the birth of our daughter — where just don’t care. We’re not those artists that are really good at one sound and are gonna do it over and over and over. We are adventurous.”
The video for “Painted Desert” is below.