Ralston Talks Making Babies While Making Music
The musical career of Lake Worth's irrepressible troubadour John Ralston has had as many twists and turns as the tail of the dragon. Much like the Tail of the Dragon, a notoriously windy 11-mile stretch of U.S. Route 129 on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. It's just a stone's throw from Johnson City, Tennessee, the mountainside town where Ralston will relocate a couple of days after he leads local Americana ensemble Invisible Music on its debut album release show at the Bamboo Room.
The soft-spoken, engaging Ralston has certainly experienced his share of highs and lows. He first tasted success with emotive rock group Legends of Rodeo, soon experiencing disappointment when their record contract fell through. Then, he remarkably landed on national label, Vagrant Records, with his solo work, only to find himself working construction a few years later. The move to the Volunteer State is just another bend in Ralston's musical path. When New Times caught up with Lake Worth's native son via cell phone -- while he was taking a break from his current job in the electronic medical records industry -- we found the reflective rocker completely at peace with it all.
The main impetus behind Ralston's serenity is his year-and-half-old daughter, Frankie. "She's the happiest thing in my life, bringing me way better joys than touring ever did," Ralston says. He candidly admits he has reached a point in his career where he is tired of touring. "To be honest, I toured for ten years. I'm done with it." The birth of Frankie was what brought Ralston's life on the road to an end, however. "I hate being away from [Frankie] during the workday,"
he says. "I couldn't imagine being away from her for months at a time."
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Musical fulfillment for Ralston comes in the form of recording nowadays, and he couldn't be more content with the outcome of his supergroup Invisible Music's self-titled debut album.
About one of the album standout tracks, "You Could Be Loved," Ralston states, "It is one of the best recordings I've ever been a part of, period." The musician says he loves the entire feel of the song, calling it "ripe," with a remarkable groove that "sucks you in."
Ralston gives grand kudos to Invisible Music's rhythm section -- Jeff Snow on drums and Dan Bonebrake on bass. "They are phenomenal. If you focus just on the rhythms on all these tracks, you'd think you're listening to an old soul record."
Another highlight for Ralston was guitarist Andy McAusland's solo on a song titled "Dead End," which Ralston describes as having a mid-'70s Neil Young sound. "It's amazing. I can listen to that solo over and over again."
Because of all the inconceivably talented players involved in the Invisible Music project -- which also includes Nathan Jezek on guitar; his wife, Tiffany Jezek, on bells and percussion; Jeff Snow's wife, Susan, on violin; and last but not least, Greg Lovell on keyboard, guitar, and vocals -- Ralston says he takes great pleasure in just sitting back and enjoying the solos. "Perhaps my favorite part of Invisible Music is that I get to be a fan," said Ralston.
He also shares a profound kinship with each member of the Invisible Music collective. Going back two years, when the recording process began, an astonishing six members of the group were becoming or just had become first-time parents. "There always was a family vibe with us, but when we actually began having families together, we really started becoming a family band." Invisible Music certainly took the family element to a completely new level. "It was a unique experience to go through with your best friends. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Adding another element to the family atmosphere, Ralston and company recorded this record entirely in Lovell's vacated house. Lovell had emptied out his one-acre property off Ranches Road in order to sell it, but in the meantime, the Invisible Music crew built a makeshift studio in the vacant abode. "I wish we could have kept that studio setup -- it had such a great sound to it," Ralston explains. Each musician arranged his or her camp at a different section of the house, with Snow's drum kit occupying the kitchen, Susan Snow down the hallway, and Lovell sitting on the living room couch with his keyboard on the coffee table. Unimaginably cozy recording confines.
What makes the Invisible Music story so endearing is that not only did these gifted musicians go through the extraordinary life experience of new parenting together while recording in an empty house but all eight of them are also the best of friends. Ralston feels this close relationship added to the relaxed ambiance that permeates the album. "When we got together to record, it was just like hanging out. A good hang with some dear friends."
As for how much of an influence newfound parenthood had on themes within the album, Ralston says not much. "Of course parenthood leaves an impression you can't shake, but I wouldn't say it had a direct influence on our lyrics." If anything, Ralston does admit that all the frequent visits from the stork delayed the process.
Overall, the record took two years to complete. Ralston is quick to point out that the actual recording of the album took only about two weeks. And it wasn't just time spent in maternity wards that hindered this effort; everyone in Invisible Music also plays in other projects, so conflicting schedules also took a part.
In the two years that passed, Lovell and McAusland put out an album with their folk-rock outfit Black Finger, Lovell joined Bonebrake in recording with their own power-pop trio Grey & Orange, and Ralston released his third album, Shadows of the Summertime.
"This was always a fun band for us all, and we got together when we could," said Ralston about the unhurried pace of the album release. "We let the album make itself; we never push it."
Ralston is not finished with his solo career either. He shares with us that he has completed several tracks on what will become his fourth album -- tentatively called Four (In "Zeppelin fashion"). We asked if Four would be a simpler affair in the vein of Shadows of the Summertime (versus his denser 2007 effort, Sorry, Vampire). "Yeah, but picture Shadows of the Summertime recorded by just one guy, in his bedroom, with a four-track." That is honestly how Ralston is putting this record together. "It's actually slower in certain parts and more punk in others than Shadows. You have some droners and some bangers," Ralston adds.
There is good news for old-school fans too. Ralston says Legends of Rodeo, which will also be performing along with Black Finger at Bamboo Room, has one new song it plans to unveil for fans. "We are thrilled to be playing a new song after all these years," said Ralston about the unnamed new track. When pressed for some details on what Legends of Rodeo 2012 edition will sound like, Ralston responds simply, "Jangly and powerful."
There is no debating the infallible mark Ralston will leave on Lake Worth's music scene. His place in the pantheon of local musicians is secure, indeed. No need to mourn the departure of Ralston to the land of Elvis; he assures us that he will be making frequent trips back to his home state. In the meantime, join him and his family band for one last hurrah at the Bamboo Room, quite a classy place for a sendoff. Ralston, don't be a stranger now!
Invisible Music with Legends of Rodeo and Black Finger at 9 p.m. Saturday, May, 26, at Bamboo Room, 25 S. J St., Lake Worth. More info here.
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