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John Ralston has just shaved off his beard, which makes more room for a toothy smile. Now 33, the married Lake Worth alt-country artist must groom himself to keep his infant daughter from tugging at his neck — much the way a need for cross-country touring used to gnaw at his insides. Ralston's facial expression is neutral on the pale-yellow cover of his new album, Shadows of the Summertime, but songs within are downright jubilant.
Over the course of a warm Saturday evening — first in the garage studio where he perfected the vocals for the album and later sipping a Guinness behind O'Shea's in West Palm Beach — his lit-up eyes hold many happy memories of two five-day recording sessions with fellow Neil Young fan David Vandervelde in a New Orleans strip-mall church. Only Ralston's third solo album — and first recording in three years — the tunes emanate a warmth much like the Traveling Wilburys records.
Shadows of the Summertime is the first of several projects in the works for the rejuvenated Ralston. His local Wilburys-like supergroup, Invisible Music — featuring members of his old band, Legends of Rodeo — is expected to release an album later this year; another secret band is in the works; and a collection of demos, titled Wildlands, cap a burst of productivity for the New Times Stage performer.
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New Times: Do you feel like there's a break in the action since you released the White Spiders EP in 2008?
John Ralston: Yeah, I talked to a couple of other "road dogs" who toured constantly, and it took like two years to get over the cease of motion. You feel like you've lived at sea and came home and you miss that movement of the ocean. I dealt with crazy anxiety that I had never dealt with before. I spent two years working in construction, walking into Home Depot feeling my lungs constrict, going "Oh my God, how am I going to make it in Home Depot without vomiting?" I really had to do some self-evaluation and adjusting to being home, and I guess that's part of why I didn't do anything for a couple of years...
How self-critical are you of your early recordings?
My [old bandmates] and I have different feelings on the Legends of Rodeo catalog. I can't listen to it. It's not as horrible as I'm making it out — but to me, I hear my voice. I can't stand it. I think that's why it's taken me a long time to make the records I've actually ended up releasing. I really wanted to make sure I didn't feel bad about it. I wanted to make sure I could be proud of going forward with the catalog. Like Needle Bed, Sorry Vampire, White Spiders EP, "Marigny Christmas," the "Jesus Christ" single I did — these are all things that I did that I can stand by. If they did put it out here after Incubus or whatever, I wouldn't feel awkward about it.
Where was Shadows of the Summertime created, in New Orleans?
An old strip-mall church that had gone under right off the streetcar line, right near Rendon Street — kind of in the hood. Producer Michael Seaman was going to build a big studio, like a place where strings could be scored for films and with the clouds that come up and down, but his investor kind of flaked on him. So he has this giant open building that's still got the pulpit and carpet. There's nothing aesthetically pleasing about it at all. We set up the console right where the pulpit would be, amps all around the room, and next door through these double swinging doors is a giant, open concrete room the size of a gymnasium. It's its own echo chamber.
Where does the album's positivity come from?
It's almost like a feel-good record, but definitely not what I set out to make. It definitely wasn't the best time in my personal life or anybody's life that was recording. Maybe it was the fun we had in the studio — or me not picking the songs — is why we had a positive vibe throughout. It would be a good record to listen to if you were a skater or a surfer. In that gymnasium room, we were skateboarding while listening to the record. I'm not a skateboarder, and I almost busted my ass.
So there's another 40 demoed songs lying around?
Easily. Maybe at the end, there'll be four volumes of Wildlands recordings. That's kind of the idea, because those three years I feel like I wasted a lot of time. I let the "you gave up, you quit" get to me. That's the music business. They don't give a shit about you. I follow what's going on locally with all this great music coming out of here, and I wish them all the success in the world, these bands, but I really hope they can keep their mindset and be aware of watching their back. You'd hope the people you're in bed with aren't going to fuck you over.
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