Ryan Bingham is one of those artists who, because they tour in Europe on a frequent basis, has been regularly featured in Lonesome Highway. Ryan was touring his new album in a solo capacity so we took the opportunity to catch up with him and ask a number of questions prior to his Whelan’s performance on 31st January 2015.
Your new release, Fear and Saturday Night, has been well received. Are you happy with the media reaction to date?
Yea I am. You never really know what is going to happen when you put a record out. It’s always great to see that when you put a lot of work into something and you release it, that people are enjoying the music. That’s really the only reason why I tour and play so people come out to hear the songs. I really appreciate it.
On this album you secluded yourself away to write the songs. Was that an unusual way for you to work or did you feel the specific need to be alone with your thoughts?
I usually always need to be alone when I am writing songs and try to find some place where there are not a lot of distractions; no phones ringing and things like that. This time my wife found a guy in California who was living in the hills and had this old airstream trailer from the 50’s that he had refurbished, so he could rent it out to people for holidays and things. I went up there for a couple of days just to check it out and it was an amazing place to hide out and just write songs, so I ended up going there for a few weeks at a time. I pretty much wrote the whole record up there.
You start your writing process with the music rather than a lyrical idea?
It’s pretty much always the music first, playing around with a melody or a chord progression. It always seems that the music evokes the emotion. Speaking random words out almost spontaneously then brings the lyrics into play
You made several changes this time out, working with producer Jim Scott and a set of new players. How much did that change the musical landscape?
Quite a bit. I just feel like I had a better idea of what I wanted to do on this record with sounds and other things. I really took a lot more time in just writing the songs and then I took ‘em back home and started recording demo versions that I would overdub with electric guitars and things. I was just trying to get the songs as close to how I heard them in my head before I sent them to the guys in the band and to Jim. These days we don’t have as big a budget as you do with the big record labels so we don’t have much money to really spend on a lot of time in the studio. So I was trying to get everything prepared before we went into the studio with everybody on the same page and having the same direction.
Five major releases in 8 years is very prolific by any standards. When you look back to 2007 and the Mescalito release on Lost Highway Records, how do you think your song-writing has evolved?
I hope it’s gotten better and matured a bit. I definitely feel like I have learned a lot with each record and with each song. The way I have written songs, they can tend to be pretty personal and autobiographical, just chapters of my life as I’ve grown older. Learning how to write and how to sing, how to perform, play the guitar and just get better. I think that is the biggest thing, that you try to get better every time.
Do you ever revisit the early songs from your two self-releases Wishbone Saloon and Dead Horses?
Yes, a lot of the songs on Dead Horses ended up becoming the songs on the Mescalito album but I definitely revisit a lot of those songs. A few of them are captured in their time and I can see that I was definitely 18 when I wrote some of them. Just seeing in the past 10 years how your horizons and perspective broaden from getting out in the world and thinking about the world differently. In those early days when I was writing songs I had hardly been outside of Texas or New Mexico, so my landscape for material that I could write about was pretty regional and just what I could see and what I was around. Then the more I could travel and see things, that was what I went home and wrote about; those adventures on the road.
Growing up in Texas gave you exposure to Mariachi music and playing the bar circuit honed your impressive guitar skills. How much is your creative muse influenced by those days?
Very much I have to say. Every time I start writing a handful of songs I always go back to that place from where it all started and then skip through the years up till the present time. I always seem to go back to those places, even visualising a lot of the images and those memories, some of those desolate landscapes. Those early memories still play an important role in writing for me.
The song Weary Kind featured in the movie Crazy Heart won a Grammy Award and a flurry of media attention and exposure. As a pivotal moment in your career, has that placed unwanted expectations on your shoulders?
It did, because for me, I think if I had recorded that song and just put it on a regular album without it being attached to that film then probably nobody would have gave it much attention. Just to the fact that it had so much attached to it with the film and with Jeff Bridges and T-Bone Burnett. I didn’t want that song to define my career and everything that I had done up to that point and the thought that I couldn’t keep growing and trying new things or experimenting with music. I didn’t want it to inhibit my chances of learning new things. It can put you in this spot where you are not expected to try anything outside of those walls.
Tomorrowland had a song dedicated to your parents, Never Far Behind. The passing of your parents is something you have previously talked about. How much do you think that the influence of childhood colours your work, especially on this album?
A lot, I think. It has influenced it from the very beginning, growing up the way that I did and being out on my own from a young age. Music and song-writing was always my voice and the way that I could process the world around me. I could write stuff in songs that I couldn’t say in conversations with people around me. It was never about wanting to be like the Beatles. I had this guitar and found a way to get things off my chest and it was very personal to me. The rest of it came later.
On the latest release there is a trio of songs - Nobody Knows My Trouble, Broken Heart Tattoos and the title track Fear & Saturday Night - that seem to address what marks us in life and how we navigate a path through to renewed hope. How hard is it to balance the autobiographical exposure in your songs with the desire for personal privacy?
It used to be a fine line but as I’m getting older, I’m becoming a little less insecure. I think a lot of that has to do with my parents passing away. Back when they were still alive, a lot of those issues were what I was writing about and some of that stuff was still on the table. So, even doing interviews, it was hard to talk about family stuff, even just thinking that my parents or my grandmother could hear it and be upset. I don’t feel that anymore now that they have passed away and everything is out in the open. I feel that I don’t have anything to hide and I don’t have anyone to protect anymore with it.
Do you ever write songs in character or a third party perspective?
I have tried to experiment with that a lot. Sometimes people can take things out of context and think that every song is personal and that is probably my fault because of the way that I have written in the past. That is something that I have had to learn as a song-writer, to revisit songs and make sure that I am saying stuff in the way that I want to say it and that it is not taken out of context or referred to in a certain way. Even if I don’t want to write about something that has affected me in my life, subconsciously it can sneak its’ way in there and a year down the road I will listen to that song and what I was really trying to get at in the song becomes clear.
Rugged outlaw or earnest, intimate artist?
That outlaw cliché comes around really easily. The rodeo and ranching is what I grew up with. My great grandfather came out west in a covered wagon and staked a claim on the land. I grew up in a ranching family and all I ever wanted was to be the same as them. I started playing guitar on the rodeo trips and the places in which I learned how to play were really rough, where people came to pick up girls, get drunk and fight. It was not an environment that was tailored to listening to singer songwriters. They just wanted noise in the corner and the cash registers ringing. Chicken wire to catch the bottles. The first time I encountered a listening audience was in Europe when I came to Dublin and London. Whelan’s and the Borderline in London had audiences that were quiet and listening to us. I remember turning to the band and saying “fuck”, we better get our stuff together, they’re actually paying attention to what we’re doing. It was a completely different environment.
You often write from the perspective of the outsider and the underdog. The comparisons with Dylan and Springsteen have been made and songs like Direction of the Wind show a socio-political side to your writing. How much do you relate to an image of modern protest song writer?
Not that much to the image of being seen as a protest singer. Just meeting people with different cultures and views on life has really woken me up and made me realise that things were not always as I was taught growing up in a West Texas town. Dylan, Springsteen and Woody Guthrie were influences to me growing up and I remember thinking that I had never heard anybody say those kinds of things in a song before. I just started digging into it a little bit more and realising that they were relating to what I was experiencing in my own life.
This tour is as a solo artist. How much do you enjoy the intimacy of a small acoustic setting with stripped down songs to the dynamic of having the band out with you?
I really enjoy it and this is like a brand new experience where I have really gotten back to playing for an appreciative audience who just want to hear the songs as they were originally written. It’s really easy to just grab my guitar and a bag and go on the road.
With a number of dates in different European cities how different are audiences in Europe and America?
A lot of it is different. Different cultures within America exist so it really varies. Certain places are more rowdy, boozed up and pretty wild. Then I can play in a city where everybody wants to just hear the songs. In Europe it can be less of a party and more for an artistic experience.
With the distribution changes in the music industry, as an independent artist, do you have concerns over the move towards free music and the apparent indifference towards the artist and his survival?
In the big picture I probably would. It would be great to get compensated as an artist for your recorded work. For as long as I have been playing I never relied on that and I have been used to singing for my supper and playing live on the road. I learned a lot from touring with Willie Nelson in America and how to tour ‘bare bones’ and guerrilla style. Take a couple of guitars and a small crew and leave the big production at home. Just let the music speak for itself. We would play these big shows with Willie and they would keep it so simple. Selling merchandise and t-shirts is important and keeps you alive on the road, especially since we started our own label.
The case with Axter Bingham Records and the creative freedom it brings?
Well t brings more control and having somebody that really cares about what you are doing out there. Unless you are a big band that is making a lot of money, the big labels do not have the same element of care for artists and the staff move around a lot in the careers without any artist loyalty. With my wife doing the organizing, I know that the details are going to be taken care of.
You have been working on a film with your wife. What will be your involvement with that?
The film is now done and edited. My wife, Anna, shot it last September and October and I am writing the score and the soundtrack for it. It’s a project and story that she co-wrote and directed. It’s her first feature film and all her idea. I do some acting in it.
On your website you have a series of songs under the heading Bootleg. What attracts you to these or any other songs?
A lot of them are songs that I have been a fan of myself or that inspired me. Others are songs that fans asked for. On social media, people say to do certain songs and it has been fun for me sitting down and learning those songs.
Finally, how do you measure your success?
Success is a funny word for me. I feel really lucky that I can play music for a living and have it put a roof over my head, have some food on the table at the end of the day. It is more than I could ever ask for and way more than I ever expected. I never expected that I would have the opportunity to play music for a living and travel all over the world and experience all the things that I have experienced. It has been a hell of a trip…!
Interview by Paul McGee