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It took spending time in California for Brandon Grafius to realize how much Michigan felt like home. The Holt resident is celebrating the release of his album “Highways and Backroads” with a show at the Robin Theatre Thursday.
Grafius grew up in a musical family, with his parents playing in the Michigan State Symphony. He began taking piano lessons in elementary school, picked up an electric bass in high school, and then switched to acoustic during college.
“I’ve always felt drawn to music, and wanted to be a part of creating it,” he said. The MSU alum played shows at former music hotspots, including Wherehouse Records, Café Venezia and the Cappuccino Café. Four years ago, the finger-picking guitarist was drawn to return to the live performance scene.
“For reasons I can’t quite explain, my songwriting took a major step forward a few years ago,” Grafius said, “then another for this most recent batch of songs. “ Grafius spoke about the thematic elements behind the release, many of which slipped into the lyrics organically.
“It didn’t start off as an intentional idea,” Grafius said. “As I was writing these songs and putting them together into an album, I gradually realized how many of them had to do with places in Michigan, and connecting those places to emotional spaces.”
The first single, “Things Get Right,” is about things falling into place, while Grafius was visiting one of Pure Michigan’s picturesque towns, Traverse City.
Another track from the record, “Two Hundred Miles,” recalls the long drive from Chicago to Lansing. “Midwestern Sky” was conceived on I-96 East driving from Lansing to Detroit. Even the booklet within the CD sleeve features an ode to many Michigan destinations and familiar spots. The photos are made to look like old Polaroid pictures, and link each song to a specific place.
“A lot of the songs use the idea of journey and destination as a central metaphor,” Grafius said. ‘Two Hundred Miles’ is about driving toward the better version of yourself that you still hope you can be. ‘Sacramento’ is about leaving a place that doesn’t feel like home to come back to where you belong. At their core, a lot of these songs are about trying to find the place that’s right for us, about finding the place we can call home.”
For the husband and father, Grafius is happy to call Michigan home, and to be working with many talented, diverse musicians within the Great Lakes state.
“I’m really proud of the great musicians who played on “Highways and Backroads,” and just thrilled that most of them will be joining me at the Robin,” Grafius said. “Monte Pride will be with me on second guitar, Pat Hudson is on bass, Dave Ludington on drums, and Battle Creek area musician Tom Ryberg on piano.”
Other Michigan musicians make sonic appearances on the record, too. MSU student Jessica Yen plays the cello, The Ragbirds’ Erin Zindle plays the fiddle, and East Lansing native and Willie Nelson collaborator Matt Hubbard plays the harmonica.
No matter where the modern-day folk singer goes, traces of the ‘60s and 70s singer-songwriters and his Michigan roots cannot escape him. He’s happy to bring the rich, full-band sound to the Lansing community, especially in the close-knit setting of the Robin Theatre.
Despite being able to hold about 100 people, Grafius said every seat in the house feels as if it’s right next to the stage.
“Sometimes when I play I feel like my words are being swallowed up by the room, but in the Robin you can hear every consonant,” he said. “It’s a perfect space for the kind of thoughtful, intricate music I try to write.”
The show will include songs from the record, a few solo tracks, old tunes and the debut of a new song.
“It will be one of those shows where the audience comes away from it feeling like they’ve shared something deep and meaningful,” Grafius said, “both together, and with the musicians.”
Brandon Grafius Album Release
$15 Thursday, May 31 7 p.m. The Robin Theatre 1105 S. Washington Ave., Lansing (989) 878-1810 www.therobintheatre.com