Everything is connected and improbable, right? If I didn’t live in a small apartment and run out of room to keep LPs, I wouldn’t have become a seeker of interesting 7″s, I wouldn’t have bothered asking record store clerks to drag out long unwieldy boxes of singles, I wouldn’t have found the stunningly packaged Country EP by Anais Mitchell and Rachel Ries, I wouldn’t have brought it home and loved it and followed the trail to Ries’ bandcamp where a few free albums awaited me, I wouldn’t have been looking forward so excitedly to the release of her latest album Ghost of a Gardener this past February. I certainly wouldn’t have reviewed it and gotten the chance to interview the artist! Last week, Rachel Ries was generous enough to take some time out of touring Europe to call us and discuss some of the improbable connections fundamental to her life in music.
NineBullets: So you guys are in Europe?
Rachel Ries: I’m in London right now. I’ve been driving through the insane city for an hour and pulled over to give you a call.
Are you there with a band or is it just you?
I have a player over here I’m working with. I didn’t bring my band from the States over. Keeping things interesting.
How many times have you been to Europe before?
It’s been about four times in Europe. I toured over here ages ago, another life ago, with another band. And then I came here with my friend Anais Mitchell. And last year I came on my own–this is my second year coming over as Me.
What’s been your experience touring in Europe compared to America?
There’s a respect for the arts that’s greater in Europe, especially in mainland Europe, arguably. It seems like even the most modest pub gig would never dream of not feeding you and giving you a place to stay. Just like basic decency treatment–I don’t think that necessarily happens at a club in the States all the time.
Maybe in the Ireland and the UK, because of their history of ballads and storytelling…my theory is that that kind history of lends the people here a kind of attention span that works with my songs. I write songs where language matters and stories matter, you kind of have to listen or it will mean nothing to you. They seem to listen over here.
That approach to your songs–being dependent on language–what led you to that kind of writing? Do you have a history with British folk music or Irish ballads?
I’ve never really had a history with the ballads–I’ll probably dig into them in my future. But I guess I was always just a nerdy bookworm. So, from then on, words and storytelling always mattered. Lyrically, and maybe it’s cliche, but Joni Mitchell–she’s kinda awesome. I’m a sucker for specificity. I want to hear stories that could only come out of that person’s experiences. I don’t like vague metaphors and washy songs that I can’t bite into. Christine Fellows, she’s amazing, too.
What books were you into growing up?
Anything I could find. For a minute in junior high I was super precocious and picking up Sartre and Plato and thinking that I could understand them all, and I didn’t. I probably still wouldn’t. Anything from Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jane Eyre and all of Jane Austen’s stuff. I kinda want to re-read all of her books, seems like a good summertime project.
Especially if you’re over in England.
I’ve been on tour for four months now, and I’ll be home June 4, so home sounds pretty good right now.
Where’s home for you?
As of recently, Vermont. I was in New York City for a while and Chicago a long time before that. I come from a quiet rural place, so that’s always in my skin, and I just wanted to be someplace kind of chill and a bit more affordable before heading out on tour more. Vermont it was.
Where did you grow up?
South Dakota. My uncle still farms the family land up there and we all go to help.
What does he farm?
Very standard and boring for that part of the country–corns and soy beans, hogs and cattle, sometimes chickens. That’s what’s subsidized right now, so that’s how that falls into place.
Is that where you grew up, on the farm itself?
Initially, my family lived in Zaire for ten years and then came back to the states to live on the farm for a year. Then we moved into “town.” Town is a thousand people, it’s a square mile, one of those prairie towns that only exists to support the farming infrastructure. My dad is a family physician, so we moved into town to be closer to the hospital. So, we were city kids. Tiny, tiny city kids. There’s still not even a single stoplight in my town.
Wow. Did you grow up with Joni Mitchell in your house, what would your parents listen to?
Growing up, there was a lot of church music, hymns. We weren’t singing hymns at home, but at church they were pretty formative. That’s how I learned to sing and to harmonize and interact with people. In the house, there was quite a bit of Classical. As a kid I had a lot of classical training. I remember one album after we came back from Africa, Graceland by Paul Simon came out and that got heavy play at home. It was sort of familiar and helped bridge the gap of us coming back from Africa and eased the culture shock, in a way. Being back in a totally white world was kind of weird for everybody.
How old were you when you came back from Africa?
I’m the baby of the family, so I was only there until I was four. My brother and sister were a little older. I got the short-end of the stick memory-wise. I think when a family spends ten years in an extremely different culture–it’s definitely part of my family’s story, very shaping of who we are. Definitely some cultural gaps growing up. When you’re in a tiny village in Africa, you’re not up on all the American trends, so when we got back we kind of awkward misfits in that way. But we survived. Look at us now. My brother is also a family physician and my sister does a number of things, but she mostly gets shit done.
Did you go from South Dakota to Chicago, yourself?
No, I took a very meandering path. After South Dakota, I lived in an intentional community, I lived in Denver, went to college, dropped out, went back to the community. I lived in Scotland. I wandered around for quite a while, until a friend in Chicago was being pushy and she needed a roommate–she’s one of my best friends, so I said yes. That lasted eight years, in Chicago.
What were some of your first experiences being part of a musical community or trying out your own music–was it when you got to Chicago, were you working on it as you traveled around?
I had started writing and being intensive about songwriting before I went to the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville Texas. I went when I was twenty-two or twenty-three. I moved to Chicago right after that. Kerrville was where I found people who cared about a lot of the same things that I cared about in songs, and it was one of the first times I found a real community, or one of my communities. In a way I come from the folk school of things, because of my care of craft, but I also, instrumentally and personally, come from a rock background. I play electric guitar and drums are the most important thing for me. So it was that moment of going to Kerrville and then moving to Chicago and hanging out with indie rock, country, weird glam pop bands.
What brought you to Kerrville?
A boy. But I was also into John Prine and John Hartford.
Chicago and New York are big theater towns, and your music seems kind of theatrical to me, at least your last album is very lush and the storytelling is so vivid–did you find yourself involved in those scenes at all while you were there?
Thank you. I did find my way into a little bit of theater in Chicago. I’m terrified of acting and being on stage in that capacity. But I ended up being involved with a company called the House Theater, they do really great, weird work. Another interesting thing I did, was playing in an orchestra pit of sorts for Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It was a condensed, six-hour-long presentation of the Ring Cycle, so all four operas were given an hour-and-a-half each, and the music done by a four-piece rock band. I played guitar. It was nuts, a lot of fun.
You played guitar for six hours?
Well, yes. But the performance was done more like a play than an opera, so the actors weren’t singing the whole time and we weren’t playing the whole time. But we were playing a lot of riffs, transitional, and background music. I didn’t know quite what I was getting into when I said Yes, but I’m glad I did it.
You played every instrument on your Laurel Lake EP, but your new LP Ghost of a Gardener is very collaborative. How were those experiences different for you and what was it like expanding the songs with your band?
It was always the intention of the Laurel Lake stuff to make it with a band eventually. I had stopped playing music for a while, then I went on this retreat to the lake in Tennessee, alone, and tried to force myself to retrain myself to write songs again. It’s a part of the brain that atrophies, you get out of the habit of thinking in those ways and hearing in those ways. So I went there to write and gather material to put into a record. I did that right before I went on tour in Anais Mitchell’s band for a year, which was amazing. I decided it would be healthy to go on this retreat before my gig as a sidewoman to sort of remind myself that I am my own musician, to gather up songs that I could pick up after that touring was done and turn it into a new record. And that is exactly what I did.
I played every instrument on the EP because I was alone and that was the most important part, to sequester myself. But I never envisioned those songs being that way on the full album. There are amazing people in the world, I want to play with them. My dear friends have skills that I want to utilize.
I think you can tell that the record is very welcoming of everybody’s voices and skills.
It was so much fun making that record. I went back to Chicago to make it, so it was like coming home. And also I was just a lot braver than I had been in the past. I knew what I wanted to make and I trusted myself to make the right decision and if I didn’t know the right answer, I asked. It took forever, though. By the time that year of touring was over, I felt totally ready to jump out into my own album. Taking that break from music also helped me change in ways that served the music.
What was the reasoning behind taking that break and what did you do in the meantime?
I quit because I was really unhappy. Playing and touring can be a really awesome blessing, an incredible way to live your life, but it can also be really emotionally draining and utterly exhausting. Especially if you feel like things aren’t moving forward and things aren’t working. I was getting run down in all manner of ways and I didn’t love it anymore. It’s an awful feeling to be doing something every day that you don’t love. All my identity had ever been was through playing music, that’s all I had ever been, so I didn’t know who I was without the music. That struck me as a rather unsustainable, unsafe ground–where your identity is solely what you do. So I needed figure out who I was without that, deeper than that.
So, what I did? I was really sad most of the time. I really missed it. I missed my community. In doing that, I had estranged myself. Since I was quitting, I was giving up, it didn’t feel awesome to be around my musician friends. During that time, I looked after kids, I made really nice espresso drinks with latte art and stuff like that. I got by. Also, I spent more time with my family, had a relationship, that kind of stuff.
How does your family feel about your career and how did they respond to your break from music?
They’ve always been really supportive. And, I wonder, I never really asked them directly what they thought when I stopped. I think I was really hiding myself away at that time and they might not have realized what I was going through. They’re definitely supportive of whatever I choose to do.
It’s hard to be that honest with yourself and step away when you admit you’re not happy.
It was brutal. My partner said it was like being with a woman in mourning. It was really drastic. I hope I don’t have to do other drastic things like that.
In your ideal vision, how would music fit into the rest of your life?
I think I’m trying to figure that out right now. Touring is awesome and I’m glad to be doing it, but I’m sort of sick of looking incredulously at the music industry and wondering how it actually works. I know I want to keep on making music, it matters so dearly to me. I hope I can find a balance that allows me to be an actual human who has a home and people around her, but also still makes music. I don’t think I should have to give up one for the other. I just want to be happy, right? Done and done.
Who would you tour with on a dream tour?
I’m so smitten by John Grant.
John Grant? I’ve never heard of him.
You should…I’m not going to tell you what you should do…but have you ever heard of the band The Czars?
Well, he’s amazing. Right now I’d tour with him over anybody. I want to be PJ Harvey’s friend, I think that could happen.
PJ Harvey. How do you think you found your way from hymns and folk music to your rock and roll influences?
I was obsessed with R.E.M. from age twelve onwards. When I was a teenager it was all about R.E.M. and Blind Melon and Weezer. Counting Crows–that era of stuff. I never really had a problem stretching myself between genres. There’s room for everything.
Who did the artwork for Ghost of a Gardener? It’s beautiful.
Her name is Erica Williams. She lives in Minneapolis and she is amazing.
Did you give her any instructions or did she hear the album before she made it?
Yes, actually, I knew very clearly what I wanted for the cover and it was a matter of finding an artist who could do it. I think I definitely found the right person, but it was tough. Needle in a haystack.
What does that image mean to you?
Because it’s a very strange album and it’s about what I’ve been going through, I wanted to it to be a picture of me, or a version of me, laying down in a lush bed of something, flowers, but have it be ambiguous whether I was asleep or dead. And I wanted there to be bones and bugs and dark matter in addition to the flowers. It was just a powerful image to me and it carries tones of potential resurrection. That kind of stuff is all throughout the album.
How has the reception been on the road?
It’s been great. Playing is so much fun and rewarding. It’s a weird trick getting people out and getting media attention when not a lot of people know who you are. A lot of people just assume–Girl with a guitar? Oh she’s sensitive, singing about boys, we’ve heard that before. Next. But that’s not what this record is and that’s not who I am so it can be frustrating. But I love it once you can grab people. I feel a lot more grown up this time around than I was touring the last album. I’m here because I want to be, not because I don’t know what else to do.
What are you most proud of about the album? Or what is a choice you made or something you figured out while making the album that impressed you?
There’s like all these little moments. I kept on having these moments of–not to sound to ego-y–but where I just trusted myself and my instincts and it came out so right. I couldn’t have said why or how, but it just worked. On the song “Ghost,” the third track: I had the guitar part, and I came in early one day in the studio to find a piano or something to go over it. I don’t know where it came from, but I came up with that weird disjointed countermelody. And I put tape on the strings to make this funky sound. It’s a weird part and it came out of nowhere, but it worked. I was like, well, I don’t understand why this works or what it means to be a musician, but this is what’s coming out and this is what is right. Going with those moments was a lot of fun.
Where do you feel more at home, on stage or in the studio? Do you feel like you’re the same performer in both places?
Yeah, it’s like a totally different part of my brain, my heart. But they’re related. So much of performing live is communing with the people sharing the stage with you, but the studio is more like a laboratory. “Laboratory” sounds cold, but it’s not, it’s more like a playground. But there’s nothing like that rush of being on stage.
Rachel Ries will be on stage in the UK for the rest of May:
19 Mon – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham – Guest to The Young Folk
20 Tue – The Maze – Nottingham – Guest to Amanda Shires
24 Sat – Old Cinema Launderette, Durham
27 Tue – The Greystones, Sheffield
28 Wed – Fox Lane Sports and Social Club, Leyland, Guest to Aoife O’Donovan
30 Fri – The Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh, Guest to Aoife O’Donovan
Check out her website to find out what she’ll do after that.
Read our original review of Ghost of a Gardener.
Find all of Rachel’s music on her bandcamp.
Thanks to Rachel for her time!