An Intimate Talk With John Ralston, Lake Worth's Most Prolific Indie-Folk Songwriter
Photo by Monica McGivern
John Ralston is a quiet guy. Not quiet in the sense that he doesn't speak — he's actually a rather chatty and engaging man. He's just not very loud. Even in the noisy, happy-hour bustle of the bar where we're meeting, Ralston keeps his voice soft and conversational, barely raising it above the tremors of the guys laughing behind us or the one-man cover band sound-checking sporadically in the corner.
Considering his low-key nature, you could be forgiven for perhaps not noticing Ralston or the fact that Lake Worth is home to one of the most gifted singer/songwriters not currently tearing up the music industry. What might surprise you is that Ralston keeps under the radar mostly by choice.
Just over a decade ago, after the dissolution of his band Legends of Rodeo and a split with his label MCA, Ralston embarked on a solo career that saw him release a flurry of records. Between 2006 and 2012, Ralston produced three LPs and six EPs. His 2007 record, the colorful and dynamic Sorry Vampire, arrived to critical acclaim, and it's a record Ralston calls his “headphone masterpiece,” because it was such a difficult baby to birth. With more than a hundred tracks per song, many producers (including former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla) turned down the project before Grammy Award-winning mixer Charles Dye took on the challenge. And after all that, when Ralston should have been appearing at festivals such as Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza alongside similarly folk-minded indie-rockers like Jenny Lewis or Kurt Vile, he wasn't.
"I'm not cut out for this industry, to be perfectly frank with you," Ralston says over drinks. "I definitely never liked touring; I always liked the studio aspect.” By 2011, he explains he was over the tight squeezes in vans, the paltry audiences at small clubs, and being away from friends and family. “I decided I was done touring. I didn't want to tour anymore."
For Ralston, writing and recording music is the chief pleasure of songcraft. From the Beatles-esque bedroom pop of his debut, Needle Bed (recorded on a “low budget — no budget”), to the “huge sonic leap forward” that was Sorry Vampire, to the Americana-tinged music Ralston has worked on since his last proper album, Shadows of the Summertime, he's always been the studio geek. With a sound influenced heavily by Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, Ralston is South Florida's answer to Ryan Adams (albeit without the epic onstage temper tantrums).
During his time away from the limelight, Ralston focused on being a husband and a father. He moved his family to Virginia for work and spent two years up north. Although he and his wife made friends there, he had trouble establishing any connections with fellow musicians. But Ralston has always been a prolific artist, and that didn't stop his desire to write and record. It was what to do with it all that that he struggled with. “I didn't know anybody. I had my wife and my kids with me, but nobody musical. So I basically started, again, bedroom recording. I did that, and I came back, and I had all these songs. Dozens of songs. I realized I was really terrible at finishing albums. In between each of those [released albums], there's another album or two, or at least an EP... I recorded two full albums before Sorry Vampire.”
Ralston attributes his tendency to abandon projects to his hardwired mindset when approaching music.
“I hate singles," he says. "If you're my favorite band and you put out a single, I'd be hard-pressed to listen to it, and I'd be really hard-pressed to go buy it. I love albums. Because I like that long-play format, in my mind, if I couldn't finish the record, bah! You know what I mean? It wasn't right.”
Perhaps that should have been the end of Ralston's career — chronically dissatisfied with incomplete projects, unable to finish what he's started, like so many failed novelists with half-told adventures, heroes left stranded midjourney.
But then a funny thing happened. Whether it was restlessness, inspiration, or a spontaneous fire lit under his ass to do something with his expansive digital catalog of abandoned melodies, Ralston got back to work, and judging from the results, we're all better off because of it.
Over the past year, Ralston has released two new songs each month (give or take a few weeks) on his Bandcamp page. The Golden Greats series finds Ralston delving into the realms of folksy, experimental pop-rock in a format his brain can accept: not singles, but not full-blown records either. “If I wanted to work on it, if I felt an impulse, if I had an idea, then I would work on it," he says. "Sometimes, that idea wouldn't lead to anything else, and I would work on the next one. But it was so freeing in terms of, it's no big deal if I don't finish it; I don't owe anyone a record, and nobody really cares, so I can make whatever I want to make. I could make art for art's sake.
"It took me a long time to get back around to the idea of finishing something just to finish it, but once I got there, I was like, this is the best part. This is the part I've always enjoyed the most anyways.”
This past week, Ralston released Vol. 12 with his final pair of tracks for 2015, “Lucky Guy” and “Red Ribbons.” Each mini-album comes with a theme, distinct cover art by photographer Monica McGivern and artist/Full Sail instructor Jacob Kaplan, and unique backstories accompanying each song. For example, “Lucky Guy” was an instrumental piece that found its voice only after a friend commented that it sounded like Cyndi Lauper's “Time After Time.”“Red Ribbons” is a group effort between bassist Dan Bonedrake, drummer Steve Copeletti, and Dashboard Confessional frontman Chris Carrabba, all of whom contributed something essential to the end product.
Near the end of our chat, the one thing Ralston was perhaps the most effusive and emphatic about was what made the creative process all the more fulfilling: collaborating with others. Throughout our interview, Ralston praised all the help and encouragement bestowed upon him by colleagues and close friends. Several times, in addition to the musicians listed above, he called out Steev Rullman of Pure Honey Magazine, Sweet Bronco lead vocalist Chris Horgan, his former Legends of Rodeo bandmate and drummer Jeff Snow, and producer David Vandervelde, who worked on his early albums. He's enthusiastic about the debt he owes them all, not only acknowledging their input but embracing moments when he stepped back and allowed any number of guest musicians to take over. Simply put, each song's personality was shaped by both Ralston and his collaborators in equal parts.
“I was not gonna finish them," Ralston insists as we wind down for the evening. "They were just sitting there. Essentially they took these things, they gave them life, they made them fully realized. I can think of a million examples. Nathan [Jezek] and his fuzz guitar on 'Living's for the Wicked'; at the time, I was hearing trumpets, a brass section. He comes in and goes, 'I hear fuzz guitar on this.' I said, 'Let's try it,' and it sounded great. There's no trumpets on that song, just awesome fuzz guitar.”
After years of inactivity and dead ends, Ralston is on a roll. If all goes according to plan, Golden Greats will be pared down from 24 tracks to 12 in preparation for the full vinyl treatment. Additionally, he has another full-length, Four, already recorded and currently being mastered in New Orleans. He eyes early 2016 for a possible release date, depending on what he decides to do with Golden Greats. Either way, fans will have plenty of new material to sift through over the next few months.
John Ralston may never suffer the traumas of life on the road again. Still, even if he grows to be a reclusive hermit of a musician with a Rick Rubin beard, yoga pants, and stacks of recorded material littering his house (which he promises will never happen because he's so orderly), his music will always be welcome. As long as he's jamming with close friends and dropping a couple of singles a month or even two albums per year, he'll be happy. And we'll be grateful.
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