Timothy Robert Graham is one of the most effortlessly cool people you’ll ever see: his slightly beat-up white denim jacket is only buttoned at the top, revealing a black button-up underneath; his jeans are cuffed, showcasing some colorful socks; and he’s rocking a pseudo-bowl-cut that only the most confident of humans could pull off.
Graham, 31, releases his first studio album (but second album overall), Speak, on May 5. Produced by Steve Aguilar — who has worked with artists such as The Head and The Heart, Dave Matthews, Moby, and David Bazan — Speak is one of the best-produced albums I have heard in years. The production centers around creating a sound that is truly human, as opposed to the unrealistic autotune standards so common in modern pop music. Listening to Speak, I can tell exactly what Graham will sound like live.
Clearly influenced by the sounds of the 60s, the production is clean and the tracks are mostly under three minutes, mimicking The Beatles’ condensed song structure.
Graham cited The Beatles, Weezer, Elliott Smith, The Zombies, Portugal. The Man, and The Kinks as major influencers on Speak. He said he has great regard for The Beatles in particular.
“The number of songs [The Beatles] wrote that were wildly popular…to write a great song is hard, to write two great songs is amazing, to write 25 number one songs, or whatever it is, is painful,” said Graham. “Highly unlikely I’ll ever do that, but if you’re not trying to compete with the greats — well maybe you’re just normal — but I have this weird sickness where I’m like, ‘no, I want to write a song that’s as good or better than the best song I’ve ever heard.’ ”
Graham also noted The Kinks’ three tracks in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited as inspiration. When he originally watched the film, he thought the tracks were three different bands, but they’re all Kinks tracks from the same album, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One.
“If you watch the progression of Wes Anderson films, the editing gets tighter and the story moves quicker. I wanted a record that played like a really good movie,” he said. “Before you get tired of something, the next thing has started.”
And it shows. As opposed to his first album, The Hidden Rose, which he produced and wrote completely on his own, Graham champions Speak as a collaboration between himself and Aguilar, who first suggested cutting the songs down to under three minutes.
“In creating anything, there’s not a lot of right and wrongs, but there’s a lot of aesthetic questions. Blue or orange? Well, neither of those are better, but do you like one? So, if I’m indifferent about something or not quite sure, I wanted to have somebody that I could actually trust,” Graham said of Aguilar.
If we go blue, maybe we end up with The Hidden Rose, which was tracked in Graham’s garage — “I sort of had this punk-rock ethos of: I have four mics, and that’s all I’m gonna need. I have no extra gear, and I’m gonna do everything myself.”
If we go orange, maybe we end up with Speak, where Graham went out of his way to make sure he had the best collaborators possible: “[Steve and I] left that meeting, and I didn’t call him again because I wanted to make sure that somebody was working with me because they wanted to instead of ‘this is just a job for you.’ So, i tried to play it cool even though I was freaking out,” said Graham. “It’s sort of like dating.”
But, even if we go purple, we still end up with a sound that is undeniably Graham. The nod to 60s production combined with the commercial pop construction of his tunes combined with the almost 2000s pop-punk timbre in Graham’s voice makes for a truly remarkable listening experience, all the way down to the last (almost) title track: “Speak From the Heart.”
Graham wrote the track after calling his best friend during a pivotal moment in his life: he was burned out from his job, and he and his wife, Kelli Jo, were moving for the first time in seven years. As he was rifling through his old things, he had an overwhelming wave of nostalgia, and he called his best friend, who immediately calmed him down. Graham said he felt all barriers — all fear of being judged — slide away.
“I just find that in my relationships, I have the tendency to detach so that I’m just not present…so Speak is this reminder that it’s better to share how you’re feeling, whether that’s a positive or a negative thing. It’s better to just make that connection,” he said.
Overall, Speak is an album about relationships and connection. Per Aguilar’s suggestion, Graham elected to remove all gender pronouns from his songs so listeners can relate to either side without feeling like he’s not talking about them.
“[Speak] is a reminder to share your story,” said Graham. “We’re missing your voice from the conversation if you don’t show up and say something.”
He’ll be sharing his story at his album release show on May 5 at Barboza, and, with any luck, he’ll wear some more cool socks.