It’s clear after ten seconds of Paul Simon’s new single, “The Afterlife,” that the American songmaster is back in his best form, making So Beautiful or So What, his upcoming spring release, all the more difficult to wait for.
For all of you who are too young to understand why Simon is a legend of American songwriting, think for a moment about whose albums Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints inspired the complete sound of popular indie act Vampire Weekend. But when the man’s at peak form, he puts all the imitators to shame … “The Afterlife” is one of those perfectly “Simonesque” songs that sucks you in from the first hints of bluegrass-meets-zydeco bliss, and it’s distinctly him. Very few artists today can lay claim to such a solid blueprint.
If you haven’t already heard the Lonely Forest’s new EP, you’re really missing out. Hell, the band’s entire back catalog is worth checking out if you’re into challenging indie music from a band willing to take their sound in whatever direction the music leads them. I got the chance to sit down with Tony Ruland, the band’s guitarist, right before the band’s recent show at the Bishop in Bloomington, Ind., touching on their EP, their upcoming full-length album, and their fascination with putting on a great live show for fans of all ages.
I was interested to see you guys are playing with Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s tonight. Have you gotten the chance to hear their new album Buzzard yet?
Actually, this is the last night of a month-long tour with them. I think it’s actually the 25th show in the last 30 days with them, and yeah, I like Buzzard a lot. What’s good about spending that much time on the road with the same bands is you get to know people. You figure out what they like and don’t like and become friends. But it’s weird, because you spend a couple months becoming friends with someone and then you part ways and don’t see them for another year or two.
You’ve mentioned the strong “all ages” scene in Eastern Washington, and I knew you guys won the Experience Music Project’s “Sound Off” competition there. I remember finding it really hard to experience good live music as a teenager, and I wondered if you’ve been seeing more support for giving younger music fans and bands access to that world?
When I was a kid growing up in that area there were next to no all ages shows. They were few and far between. And it always devastated me, because I was an obsessive music listener, so it sucked that all my favorite bands like Mudhoney and all these old-school Seattle bands were always playing 21-and-up. So I would stand outside these venues to hear the band through the doors, and just hope to catch some glimpse of it. So that’s something we’ve been careful to be mindful of, playing all-ages shows whenever it’s possible.
Are there more venues like that out there?
There are a lot more in Washington, yeah.
It seems like a lot of college towns ignore that whole aspect, since most college students are under 21, but all you have are over-21 clubs.
Yeah, I think most people are more concerned about making money off alcohol sales, they don’t really care about who comes to the shows. I’m glad that, at least in the northwest, there’s a whole lot more support for the all-ages scene. It’s something that will always be important to us. There have been plenty of times where we’ve taken less [payment up front] for a show because it was going to be all ages. Even that, keeping ticket prices down, is an issue. Some of the bigger venues want to charge $20 for a show, and I feel kids shouldn’t have to pay that much.
Have you tried doing any online-streaming concerts? I’ve noticed that’s been getting easier to do.
No, actually we haven’t. But that’s not a bad idea. That’s pretty cool that you can do that, but it’s something I’ll definitely look into.
When I first heard your band, I did a search on You-Tube and found the videos from your acoustic show at the Woods. I really liked what you did with the rearrangements of songs like “We Sing In Time,” and the other songs from your earlier albums. Do you enjoy rearranging your songs in that kind of acoustic setting?
We try to be accommodating. For that show we really didn’t know what would be going on. It depends on the setup. Sometimes it’s just an acoustic guitar, other times there’ll be a floor tom, maybe an electric bass, but we always find a way to make it work somehow.
So are you supportive of your fans videotaping you and putting the music up on the web?
Actually I think it’s really fun to see what ends up on the Internet. Sometimes you’re like “ooh … I wish they hadn’t caught that moment,” but other times it’s more “that was cool!” I always joke with the guys and tell them it’s like we’re a football team, and it ends up being like watching the play-by-play after the game in the locker-room. “See, look, you’re leaving a gap right here …”
Do you ever feel you get more out of a live performance than you can in a studio setting?
Honestly, live is my favorite part of it. I like recording and all that, but the energy of a live show is hard to top, really.
The closest I can ever get to that is karaoke. We music fans have to live vicariously through you bands.
I’m terrified of karaoke! That always seems like the scariest thing ever.
You just need to record instrumentals of your own songs, so you can sing them karaoke-style.
Well, one time we got totally tipsy at one of the only bars in the little town we lived in, and there was an open mic night and they always have a bunch of acoustics. So we got, I don’t know, a little “intoxicated,” and played some of our own songs.
Did the crowd buy into it?
Well, everyone in town knows who we are, but they all thought it was hilarious. And hey, we got free beer out of the situation.
Getting back to your EP a little bit … “Live There” really stood out for me. What impressed me is that the instrumentation is so complex, but yet musically it’s easy to digest. The hooks don’t beat you over the head, but they’re there. How do you strike a balance between the creative and commercial aspects of your music?
I don’t think it’s something we really think about. It might sound stupid, but we just play what comes naturally, trying to roll with the punches. That song started out completely different. It didn’t really gel until we had Braden play drums for about twenty minutes until he found the right percussion groove, and then we added instruments until we suddenly had the right feel.
Do you do it differently live in order to build up that layered sound?
We do it a little differently, but we had to learn how to play it to sound like the way it was recorded. That was one of the only songs that was really undecided as to how we’d stage it live versus the way it was done in the studio, so it was fun to flesh that out.
At least you don’t have to take an IPod on stage with you to accomplish that.
Yeah, we like to keep it where we’re actually up there playing the guitars and the drums. Watching bands play with an IPod or a computer just isn’t fun. I’ve seen some bands I really love, and when they’re playing live it’s just a guy at a rack of computer keyboards, hitting a button that says “play.”
I wonder about groups like Owl City … you know the guy recorded all the music alone in his parents’ basement. But how would you ever do that live? You’d have to hire an entire band and start from scratch.
That, or you’d have to play the whole thing on stage by computer. I don’t know, I’m willing to bet that’s the way he has to do it.
I know your band got signed by Chris Walla, and I’m sure that’s all you ever hear about. Do you ever feel pressure to conform to a more “pop” aspect of indie music, or do you have the range to control your sound?
No, Chris really encourages us to just do what we want. Chris loves everything. He honestly has the widest-ranging musical tastes of anyone I’ve ever met. He would literally be showcasing metal bands for us, while we were in the middle of recording. So he encourages us to be as heavy as we want, or as pop-oriented as we want to be. It just happens to be that we like some things that are heavier and loud, while also enjoying three-minute pop songs. There’s something about a pop song that’s catchy, a verse a chorus and a verse. In my mind, Nirvana’s the greatest band of all time, and they also just happen to be the loudest pop band of all time.
That was the thing that freaked Kurt Cobain out the most, realizing that he was actually “becoming” pop.
Yeah, totally … but there shouldn’t be anything wrong with making “pop” music or enjoying it. If you like it, you like it, even if it’s not cool. Hell, what’s “cool” anyway?
Your EP plays out rather quickly, so that makes the wait for Arrows in January a bit tense for fans. I was wondering what we can or should expect from the new album?
I think it’s by far the most diverse record we’ve made. I still love the last record, but I think this new album is going to show a lot more of our influences. On some songs you’ll maybe say we’ve been listening to a lot of R.E.M., but the idea is that as a whole it’s going to be a lot more eclectic. We at least try not to be too obvious with the influences, but we’re putting what comes naturally onto the records, so sometimes you hear what’s coming through our listening filters.
At least you’re not denying that you listen to music. I always hate when bands say they don’t listen to anyone else’s music while they’re recording.
Yeah, I think that’s such a crock of shit when bands say stuff like that, because you know they’re lying. They’re totally lying. The whole point of rock and roll is that you can hear what you like and steal little snippets of it. There’s nothing “original” about pop-rock. It’s all about respecting the music that came before, while finding ways to take from it and build on it.
Reckless Kelly formed more than a decade ago in Bend, Oregon, and since 1997 the band has been rocking Austin, Texas with its blend of country and rock. Led by brothers Willy and Cody Braun, the band has crafted five albums of original songs, two solid live albums, and, in 2010, a studio album paying tribute to their musical hero, relatively unknown Idaho-based country songwriter Pinto Bennett.
They’ve been around the block more than a few times, and they’ve proved consistently that well-written songs coupled with addictive, melodic alternative-country instrumentation and incessant touring is what really builds a band’s reputation. They’ve got big names on their side, from Joe Ely (who joined in on the Pinto Bennett tribute, Somewhere In Time), and they’ll spend most of the month of November touring with Robert Earl Keen and the Randy Rogers Band.
I spoke with lead singer Willy Braun as the band prepared for their October 7th show at Baton Rouge’s Varsity Theater, and he had a lot to say about the trials of songwriting and the ongoing struggle to keep the band’s music, above all, original.
It’s a battle they seem to be winning.
Can you give us some insight into your songwriting process? What makes a song successful in your mind?
I still haven’t written any hits, so I may be the wrong guy to ask. But I just like to write songs that have something to say, while being a little less predictable than the normal tune, I guess. I try to write things that are a little less common, to think outside the box. It gets harder every year coming up with new ideas and different approaches, but I want to write something you don’t hear all the time.
What would you say is your role as a songwriter?
I think it’s all about getting the song written in as few words as possible. You’re telling a story and you have to figure out what to say, and I like to get it done with a couple verses and a chorus and get out of there … but sometimes it takes longer. Just trying to get the most out of a tune, I think, is the tough part of the job description. A lot of times you’ll have a great idea but you’ll end up with a mediocre song, but then sometimes you start with a mediocre idea and end up with a great song. It all depends on how much work you put into it, and the shape that a song takes. It’s strange, because you never know … I’ve worked on songs for years I thought were pretty awesome, and when I finally finish them up they’re just okay. Or they’re terrible. I think just getting the most out of the tune is probably the biggest challenge.
Do you feel working from the fringes of both the country and the rock world makes your music, in the end, better for the trouble?
It’s a lot easier on us, because we don’t have to pander to any one format or the other. Not having a lot of success on radio makes it easier too, because nobody’s expecting us to come out with another hit. They’re more likely to expect us to push the envelope and keep things a little more outside the box, so that makes it easier on us to be able to do what we want to do.
You didn’t write any of the songs on Somewhere In Time, but you did stamp Reckless Kelly all over the arrangements. Was it difficult to rearrange these songs you knew so well and make them accessible to your fans?
Well, it wasn’t really that hard for us because we’d been listening to those songs for so long, and we’d been talking about doing something like this for a long time. So we had a lot of ideas that we’d been working on or just thinking about, and we had Pinto come in while we were recording. So he and a couple of the guys from his band were there working on it with us. We kept them there to make sure they’d tell us if we got too far out of line. I think that might have helped.
Steve Earle honored Townes Van Zandt a decade after his death with Townes. Did you feel it was important to honor Pinto Bennett while he was still around to appreciate it?
Yeah, that was something we’d talked about a little bit. He’s getting up there a bit in age, and we definitely wanted to do it while he was around. I think it was cool for him to be able to check that out and experience it.
Is there a lot of other Idaho-based country music you think people should be hearing but they’re not?
Well, there’s a pretty good music scene up there, and there’s a couple good writers and singers working in the area, but Pinto, he’s the one who we’ve always really looked up to, so that’ll probably be the last one [we make a tribute for.]
You got to work with Joe Ely on this record. Are there any other artists you’d really enjoy the chance to work with?
I still want to do a duet with Emmylou Harris.
Is there a new album of Reckless Kelly originals in the works?
Yeah, I’m actually writing right now and we’re hopefully going to be getting into the studio sometime next year. We’re not sure exactly when, but we like to record in the winter or the spring, and try to get the record out by summer. You can have the record ready in time for summer touring, and that’s always a good thing to have. So that’s the loose plan as it stands right now.
You guys have said you came to Austin expecting to stay a couple years and you’ve yet to leave. Is Austin a more nurturing place for songwriters than the insular world of Nashville?
It’s true that Austin and Nashville are totally separate. Nashville’s more of the industry-driven town, and there are a lot of talented songwriters and musicians working out there. But I feel Austin’s more geared toward live music. People down in Austin seem to be playing the music they’re interested in; not just playing the music they think will make them a bunch of money. There’s nothing wrong with playing songs that make money, but that’s the big thing that sets Austin apart, there’s not so much “industry” here. It’s more about the music.
That hasn’t started changing with the growth of the South by Southwest festival?
Well, they come in for the parties and then leave in the end. They don’t get any business done in Austin; they’re too busy drinking margaritas.
When Sugar Hill put out their “Best of the Sugar Hills Years” collection, your album and James McMurtry’s stuck out as the most sonically adventurous. Yet both of you are now on new labels. Have you been able to better push the sonic envelope now that you’re on Yep Roc?
We have a little more control with Yep Roc, but Sugar Hill was pretty great – we got to make the records we wanted to with them, though we did have an A&R guy when we were with Sugar Hill. So we had to jump through a few more hoops, push a little harder to do the stuff we wanted.
Was this the same A&R guy you sang about on “Break My Heart Tonight”?
Yeah, that’s him. But ultimately we ended up making the records we wanted to with Sugar Hill, but we may have had to fight a little harder. When we went into Yep Roc we were aware of that, and we made it clear up front that we wanted to make our records, we didn’t want to have to send in the songs for approval. If anything, we wanted to deliver a record to them, and since we talked that way going in, they seemed fine with it. So that’s been cool, we’ve been able to produce our own records, and they’ve gone to the trouble of helping deliver a good product.
They didn’t think you were crazy to bring a Pinto Bennett album to them after starting to crack the charts with Bulletproof?
They thought we were crazy for a little while, but once we played them the tunes – we sent them a little “best of” thing to get them hooked on the Pinto stuff – and once they heard the songs they were totally on board.
The Dixie Chicks almost ruined their careers when they spoke out against Bush in Texas. But your song “American Blood” seems to have found a way to reach listeners without offending them, even though the message within is just as scathing. How important was it for you to get that message out to your listeners?
Well, I wrote that song while we were working on the Bulletproof album, and when I wrote that tune and played it for the guys, we knew this was going to turn some heads. People were going to be talking about it. We just wanted to put it on the album because it was such a strong song, and we all had pretty strong opinions about the war at that point – and we still do. We definitely thought about it, and we knew what we were getting into, but I think the difference between us and the Dixie Chicks is that they had this enormous national and worldwide following. So we didn’t have as much to risk as they did.
But I think it’s all about how you handle questions about it and the way you deal with negative feedback. We had a little bit of negative feedback on the tune from people who didn’t quite understand it, or who outright didn’t agree with it, and that’s fine. But we take those individual situations and try to explain to those who disagree that we’re not trying to slap anybody in the face here. It’s worth it, because most people who heard it came back and said they really liked it. In fact, several soldiers who have been over there, or who still are over there, tell us they really think it’s great that we’re saying what we did. That means a lot, and at the end of the day most of the people who heard it understood where we were coming from.
What impressed me about it was that I heard the song several times before it fully clicked, but it’s so rhetorically well constructed. You’ve got Johnny, the American soldier archetype, and then you’ve got George W. Bush, and you keep going back and forth between the two to see where both ended up after all that time. I don’t know a lot of songwriters who could get that across and still have the song sound catchy.
Yeah, it was a tough subject to tackle. Like you said, it’s sensitive and everybody’s got a different opinion on it. It took me quite a while to write that song, actually. I was writing it for several years and went through several different versions of it. And when I finally wrote the one that actually came out, it came together pretty quick. So I think I finally stumbled upon the formula I was looking for. I had to abandon all the other ideas I’d had for so long and just went with it.
Andrew Ripp may be better known for the songs he’s written for others than for the one album he released under his own name in 2008. He co-wrote half of Ryan Cabrera’s 2005 album You Stand Watching, including “You Shine On,” which actually made Billboard’s Hot 100.
But on his own, Ripp has made enough of an impact for fans of the Palatine, Illinois, songwriter to realize he’s got the pop music chops to craft meaningful lyrics around mind-bending hooks that demand repeating. His live shows are eclectic enough, whether he’s solo or with his full backing band, to siphon audiences away from the headliners they’ve come to see. Fans of Stephen Kellogg, Fiction Family and even Robert Randolph have been won over by his distinctive pop-rock performances.
Now, with his sophomore album She Remains The Same set for release on September 21st, Ripp gets the chance to expand his audience while experimenting with deeper explorations of the blues idiom, merging the sounds of New Orleans with contemporary Christian-tinged lyrics which dare to be introspective without becoming overtly preachy.
Ripp took the time to sit down and speak with me this week about the new album, his songwriting process, and his take on the value of pop music.
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You’ve said the new album’s about “truth, faith and finding a way to find hope in what’s painful.” Do you think you were successful in that?
I really hope so. That’s what we were going for. I call it “speaking life,” and what I mean by that is speaking truth as much as I can. My relationship with God is very important to me and I’ve matured in that relationship over the last couple years. And that’s been the timeframe during which I wrote much of this new record. That’s been a main focus for me. Through my story and my life experience, that’s where my songwriting inspiration comes from.
It must have been interesting working with Dave Barnes, if that was the mindset you were coming from. I know he’s worked with Ed Cash, and Ed Cash has worked with Caedmon’s Call and Bebo Norman. I’ve spent time talking to Bebo in the past, and these all seem like guys who know what they’re trying to say and why they feel compelled to share it without feeling like they’re beating you over the head with their Christianity.
Yeah, you have to be careful about how you present it . . . but I think if you’re being honest, it doesn’t matter because it’s one thing to just talk about things you’ve gone through and it’s another to get preachy. I think that’s where those guys do really well. They just talk about their own experiences, rather than telling someone what they should personally be doing. You know?
Well, I really enjoyed the preview of “Savior,” off your new album. It reminded me a lot of Marc Broussard. But I loved the line: “I found my Jesus on a city street / He gave me freedom through a trash-can beat / Some kind of symphony . . . Don’t worry ‘bout me, ‘cause I know where I’m going.” I just found it really refreshing to hear a Christian message coming across without sounding forced.
I’m glad you picked up on that. A lot of people have asked me what that tune is about, and it’s just about seeing that you can find God in people who don’t even know who God is, or who don’t even claim that there is one. From my viewpoint, we’re all created by Him, and I think depending on the way we look at people, we can find God in anyone, even in the guy who’s standing on the street corner, playing the drums. That chorus is just making the statement: “I know where I’m going when I’m gone.”
I know you’re from Chicago, and your last album was called Fifty Miles From Chicago, but the new material on She Remains The Same sounds more like Fifty Miles From New Orleans. Have you been focusing more on the blues sound within your music?
It’s more of a Southern deal, which makes sense, as I’m living in Nashville now. So that had a lot to do with it, and a lot of the players on the record who make up my backing band are from the South. Dave [Barnes] is from the South. And I just love country music, but my voice has more of a “soulful thing,” so when you put all that together that’s the sound we wound up with.
A lot of the last album sounded like what we were hearing on the radio, the Jason Mraz sound, or Ryan Cabrera. This album sounds more down home, like you’re finally singing what’s comfortable to you.
That’s definitely what’s going on. If there is a single on this record, it’s this song called “Star,” which is geared toward that kind of “modern radio” sound. But it wasn’t about that with me, spreading my music around, because I’m not in that position. I’m not with a label, I’m totally on my own. So even if I do have a smash, break-out single potentially on this album, what am I going to do with it? What I’m trying to do right now is build a solid following of people who like good music.
I’d talked to Hanson a couple weeks ago and they’re going through the same thing. They’re completely independent, they know they’re not going to have a hit, they just want to make music that says what they want to say.
Yeah, and they’re in a great position because they’ve got like a million fans who still actually buy their records! Which is amazing that they’ve been able to do that. Have you been to their shows?
Man, they’re so awesome. I say that, and I’ve done a writing thing with them, in this writing group called “Fool’s Banquet,” which they put on once a year. And they definitely know how to write a song. And even if they never have another hit, it’s okay.
I don’t know if you read Bob Lefsetz’s stuff, he’s a blogger in LA who’s really savvy and smart about where the music industry is headed these days. But Lefsetz is talking about how the “new radio” is just pumping great video out, constantly putting out great new material. It’s not even about radio anymore. How many people actually listen to radio anymore anyway? It’s a weird thing, but it’s exciting, for people like me, because you don’t actually have to have that big single anymore. It’s more about writing great music and just continuing to get it out there. The internet makes it accessible to the entire world from your bedroom, and great stuff spreads . . . it takes time, but it spreads.
Tell us a little about your songwriting process. What makes a song meaningful to you, and how do you go about getting that feeling out on paper?
It comes in all sorts of ways. For me, a lot of great ideas come while I’m driving. There’s really no secret to it though, you just have to recognize when you have a great idea and make sure you document it so you don’t forget it. Sometimes a title for a song comes first, but other times it’s just some really cool chords or a groove that you think of. You’ll be messing around with chords on the guitar and there’s really no right or wrong way to do it.
For me, in order for me to connect with a song, it just really has to be “truth,” coming from something I’ve experienced. It’s hard for me to write just a fun song about something that hasn’t happened, just telling a fictional story about something. I’ve tried to do that, it just doesn’t work for me. But the more I dig into what I’ve gone through and what those emotions bring out, the better the song.
What would you say makes a strong pop album?
Pop music, to me, is just “popular” music; it doesn’t have to be cheesy. All pop music isn’t cheese. I consider my music to be pop-rock, but a lot of people think of pop and it’s just Katy Perry all day long and that’s just not the case. Although I don’t know if you’ve heard her record, but it’s awesome.
You can have the guilty-pleasure pop, but if you malign the entire scope of pop music because you don’t like one kind, you’re going to miss a lot.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely . . . and I’m not afraid of it! I used to be afraid to call my music pop, but whatever. I love a good strong pop song. I love a Katy Perry song. I don’t necessarily see my career going in that same direction, but that’s okay. I’m glad somebody’s doing that.
What do you hope your fans will take from the new album?
I hope my voice comes through. On the first record, I don’t think my voice came through a hundred percent, so I hope my voice shines on this one. There’s a lot you can take from hearing the raw passion from somebody’s voice, and that’s something I felt like I needed to take to the next level on this record.
I was impressed seeing you open for Stephen Kellogg, it was just you and a guitar, and yet you drew the crowd in! And I know, Stephen Kellogg’s fans are about as rabid as anybody. You knew they were there to see him. Is it hard to be there playing as an opening act when you know the audience is there waiting for the “main event”?
Honestly, I don’t really know much other than being the opener at this point in my career. I could headline in maybe five different markets. But my main thing the last two years has been to really focus on the act of touring. I was living in LA for a long time, and LA was all writing. There was no touring scene out there.
But the second I finished working on that first record, I knew I needed to move away. So me and the band moved back to Chicago, where I was from, to start touring. Out in California everything’s so far-flung; you can play LA, and maybe San Diego, but where are you going to go from there? You’ve got so much driving. But the midwest is laid out to where every two hours you’ve got another city, which is great for building an audience.
And it’s a different music scene. In LA, my kind of music really didn’t make sense, nobody really understood it. Everybody in LA is trying to reinvent the wheel, and that’s not how I was made.
And it’s been a long time since the Bakersfield Country sound was big out there.
Exactly. So we moved back to Chicago and started touring, and that was really my first time on stage, actively working to build my fan-base. I had no fans. The only people who knew my music were the people who knew me. So we needed to get out of that world and start the journey.
So I’m excited. This is our second record, and finally we do have legitimate fans out there . . . the base isn’t huge, but it exists now and it’s cool to have something now to build on. That first record it was a matter of just putting it online, we didn’t have an official “street date,” it just became available.
What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
I don’t know. At some point in every music career you end up with a few situations where you have fans who you’ve let get a little too close, to where it starts getting weird. They are fans, but they also want to be friends. So sometimes, and I’m not there yet since I haven’t been doing this long enough, but I can imagine guys like Hanson who must have some freaky fans. I just wish people would ask questions because they care about your music, and not just because of the guy you are on stage.
You’re not into the whole “cult of celebrity” then?
Right, I don’t want people showing up because they think I’m cool. I want them to show up because they believe in what I’m doing and because the music moved them.