If you've had it with singer/songwriters, you’re not alone: John Ralston’s right there with you. Even though his name appears in big print on every one of his releases, Ralston would rather be viewed as a member of his touring band than seem like an artist obsessed with his own creations. He has a similarly uneasy relationship with his hometown of Lake Worth, Fla. He’s not about to distance himself from his state-of-origin, but he knows the Sunshine State has bred more than its share of the nation’s sonic sore spots.
Ralston sits somewhere between neo-folk and straight-laced alt.pop, and while his albums are usually either flooded with guest musicians or almost entirely devoid of them, all of them showcase the guitarist’s commitment to “letting the songs write themselves.” The tracks are never micromanaged and always organic.
His songs get a chance to display their freewill every time Ralston takes the stage. Stripped of electronic loops and keyboard accoutrements, they’re allowed to become something close to rock anthems.
In between sips of coffee, Ralston spoke with us about his nightmarish experience with a major label, “loudness wars” and flattering comparisons.
Before your solo career, your band Legends of Rodeo was signed to a major label. What happened after that?
It was the classic story where once you sign to a big label, you fall into a trap. The expectations that are placed on you kill the reason you started playing music in the first place.
How did you regain your inspiration?
I ended up working with engineer Michael Seaman and we actually recorded [2006’s] Needle Bed in about a week. Then pretty quickly after that I ended up recording 12 other songs with [Wilco’s] Jay Bennett. Recording with them kind of gave me a new life and opened some doors. It was an eye-opening experience and it made music fun again.
Do you think being from Florida can be a disadvantage?
Maybe so. I don't really know what Florida’s known for. We’ve had metal bands come out of here, and of course Miami’s got all the great Latin music. We’ve also got 2 Live Crew. Florida’s produced good, bad and awful bands. Maybe I shouldn’t say I’m from Florida just because it’s too much of a crap shoot.
Your latest full-length release, Sorry Vampire, has a lot of bells and whistles. How do you decide how much instrumentation is enough without going overboard?
Our method with Sorry Vampire was to leave no stone unturned. We didn’t stop with guitar, vocals, bass and drums, we kept going with each song until we felt it was done. We threw the kitchen sink at this record and I think we tried to bring dynamics back.
What do you mean you brought dynamics back?
Me and Charles Dye, who worked with me on the record, are really going against this trend where bands are compressing the fuck out of their albums so that all you hear is solid loudness. There’s like a loudness war going on and it’s unlistenable to me. On our record, the quiet parts are quiet and the loud parts are loud, and if you want to hear something with more volume, just turn it up.
How do you feel about being considered a singer/songwriter?
I don't feel like I’m a part of that whole thing. I have my name on the cover of my records, but I don't feel like I've gotta sit with an acoustic guitar and sing or whatever. Sometimes I wish I would have named it something stupid instead of my name because there are times when people say, Ugh, another singer/songwriter. But once they hear the music, they don’t think that anymore.
You’ve been likened to some pretty prestigious solo artists, most notably Elliott Smith. What’s your reaction to those comparisons?
It’s always nice to hear. I think as far as Elliott Smith and I, we both probably really love The Beatles and that’s where a lot of our similarities come from. It's flattering whenever you’re compared with anybody that writes good songs that aren’t just pop hits.