Interview: "Damn, it's so much orange!" Rayland Baxter about his new album
Rayland Baxter is a 31- year old singer-songwriter from Nashville, TN who was born and raised in Bon Aqua about half an hour away from Nashville. His father Bucky Baxter is a famous pedal steel guitar player who made himself a name by playing with Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams, Sheryl Crow, R.E.M. and other musicians.
Rayland and his sister Brooke who is two years older than Rayland were raised by their mother Claudia in a suburb of Nashville called Old Hickory (which inspired one of the songs on the new album – “Memories of Old Hickory”).
Despite his father's profession Rayland started his own musical career quite late. He was much more into sports during his teenage years playing soccer (as a goal keeper) and during his college years playing Lacrosse (as a midfielder) at Loyola University in Baltimore.
He only picked up a guitar given to him by his dad after he got seriously injured on both of his knees. When he was kicked out of college after an incident where he and his friends got into a fight with some other guys he lived in a trailer while working four different jobs at the same time in Colorado.
His wish to become a songwriter developed during a time in Ashkelon, Israel (also the name of his 2013 EP) where he stayed after working as a guitar tech on the “Moonshine Sessions” tour by Gotan Project mastermind Philippe Cohen-Solal. His dad who played on the tour recommended a trip to Israel for two weeks. Because nothing was waiting for Rayland back home he decided to stay with his dad’s friend Andre for 6 months.
“Andre is a super huge Singer-Songwriter fan of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Leonard Cohen, Townes van Zandt, Steve Earle and that's where I discovered Rufus Wainwright. I spent every day, all day and all night watching old documentaries.”
In the months to come Rayland would write all day and all night and present his ideas to Andre from time to time to get his feedback.
“I had nothing to write about until I was 25. I had to live through a lot”, he says, “and when I sing I don’t hold back. It’s an emotional release for me and there’s no make up on it. It puts me at ease and that’s what I hope it will do for those who listen”.
One trick Andre told him was to keep room for interpretations in the lyrics so every listener can project something into the songs. Rayland will point out the importance of this fact several times during the track-by-track commentary for the new album.
It seems like the time in Israel living close to Gaza had a tremendous impact on Rayland and a couple of songs on the new album have references to his travels to the Middle East (“Your Love”, “Lady of the desert”).
“I am now a changed person by living in the desert and finding beauty in being in the desert and learning the craft of songwriting and I am still continuing to learn that”, tells Rayland.
Back in the US he released his first EP “Miscalculation of Song” and accepted a personal invitation to go on tour with The Civil Wars, open up for Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and The Head and the Heart among others.
“Lots of musicians have to tour to make a living and especially to get their music out there. If you are going about the way that I have been going it's not a so rare journey that I am on, lots of other songwriters and bands have done the same thing - you tour, you open up for other bands for a couple of years, you continue to open up for other bands and getting in front of their audiences and hopefully surprise people every night. That's how you gain a fan base “, he remembers.
His debut album “Feathers & Fishhooks” has been released in 2012 and gained critical acclaim.
Now Rayland has finished a new album called “Imaginary Man” which will be released August 14th 2015. I had the privilege to listen to an advance copy so I couldn’t wait to ask Rayland some questions about the new songs.
It is Thursday July 2nd 2015 in Berlin.
I pick Rayland up at Berlin’s Tegel airport where he arrives from Copenhagen after ten days in Scandinavia. He has been on tour for the “Rolling Rootsy Revue” - a travelling festival including artists like Justin Townes Earle, Judah & The Lion, etc..
We have been in contact a couple of days in advance of his Berlin trip to discuss the timing and details of our meeting. His mails often came late at night or early in the morning because Scandinavian nights are long during “midsommar” and Rayland was busy to go swimming butt-naked at 4am in the morning with a random Swedish stranger who lent Rayland his bike.
Rayland is an easy going dude with a relaxed, friendly and humble personality. I am sure he is making tons of new friends everywhere he goes. No wonder his personal Facebook page (not his artist page) has reached a Facebook internal threshold because the company thinks that it is kind of suspicious if a real life person has more than 5.000 friends. Mark Zuckerberg probably does not know Rayland Baxter. So I am waiting at the airport gate, holding a sign with his name on and imitating a professional driver. It is only the second time in my life that I am picking somebody up at the airport. The first time was when my sister returned from an ill-fated trip to New Zealand only to find out that her long-distance relationship with a ski loving Rastafarian from Auckland was over. Shockingly he broke up with her straight away when she arrived after a 25h flight. On the way back to Germany she messed up time zones, missed connection flights and had to take a detour via China and Russia. Once she came out of the gate in Berlin, heartbroken and exhausted tears were rolling down her cheeks but that’s a different story.
Rayland arrives with Air Berlin flight 8035 from Copenhagen and it seems like the machine is full of musicians - heavy metal bands all dressed in black, sunglasses, patches and instrument cases. Rayland is almost the last one coming out of the gate.
Carrying a backpack, his electric Gibson guitar and a small equipment case, he is grinning broadly when he discovers my classic Grateful Dead skull shirt and we welcome each other. My prepared sign with his name on is completely needless. Like most of the time he is wearing a cap because he is losing his hair on top of his head. It is an extremely sticky summer day in Berlin and the traffic at this time of the day sucks so it takes almost one hour to my place where we record a "track-by-track" interview for the new album, a "musical blind date" and have dinner before his German label PIAS picks him up for a radio session and interview at “Radio Eins” in Potsdam later in the evening. The next two days will be busy ones for Rayland - more interviews, radio sessions, photo shoots and a gig at “Monarch” club in Kreuzberg. Rayland seems to be motivated to promote the new record as much as he can.
"Put me to work" he tells Anne (his local PIAS product manager) and it not only sounds like an offer but also as a reminder that they better support the new record as much as they can. Having studied marketing and advertising at college he knows how the game works so no matter how easy-going he appears to be (“I am going with the wind on this trip”), he and his team for the new album - a management he shares with the Alabama Shakes, ATO Records in the US and PIAS in Europe, producer Adam Landry (Diamond Rugs, Deer Tick, T. Hardy Morris, Hollis Brown, etc.), producer and engineer Eric Masse (Andrew Combs, Mikky Ekko, Robert Ellis, Caitlin Rose, etc.), photographer Eric Ryan Anderson (Sharon Van Etten, Jukebox The Ghost, The Lone Bellow, Owl City, etc.), guest musicians like Luke Reynolds (Guster), Mikky Ekko and Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit), his dad and slide guitar legend Bucky Baxter, etc. are all master of their craft.
He loves to work and hang out with his friends. One week earlier ATO Records gave me Rayland's new record so I had some time to intensely listen to the new songs. Obviously the dreamy single "Yellow Eyes" has been out for a while so I am extremely surprised when Rayland tells me that he had not seen the finished product of his own album. It's the first thing he asks me for when we arrive at my place. The album comes out as a digipack in the US and as a jewel case in Europe. My copy is the US version with an ugly promotional "not for sale” sticker on the cover which shows Rayland wearing a big hat and half of his face hidden in the shadow. The artwork is all levels of orange, yellow and sunburst. Rayland comments his first impression with
"Ok. Alright (turning the digipack), alright (opening the digipack). Nice, they did it flat, a flat color." Waits for a while, breathes in and out. "Damn, it's so much orange! This is incredible (smiles). Wow!"
The color scheme was set by the picture on the back of the album taken by his friend Will Holland which shows Rayland holding a firework in his house. The cover was shot in black and white by Brooklyn based photographer Eric Ryan Anderson as part of a 500 pictures session in different locations in New York and only colored later.
"You know, I had a beard for about two years and my dad got married in December the weekend before the Monday when I went up to New York for the photo shoot. He was like - Rayland, can you shave your beard because these are wedding photos and they gonna be around forever. And I was like - Yeah, of course man. I'm gonna shave it! So I shaved it completely off and then I realized, oh shit, I gotta go to the photo shoot for the album cover which is also forever and so it worked out great because the album is titled Imaginary Man and in my mind it makes sense. Plus, who needs a beard anyway?"
He is totally aware of the power of a good picture ("They tell a story with no words") and feels happy to finally hold the fruits of his work in his hand. It is the end of a journey and also the beginning of a new phase.
I ask Rayland what he wants to drink something and we open a bottle of “2014 Quietus” - a Spanish white wine from the Rueda region made out of Verdejo grapes. The new album which is only his second full length album besides two EPs and a feature on a Caitlin Rose single is a huge step forward for Rayland and I am sure it will be received well by both critics and fans.
His music exactly transports the feeling I am looking for. It is almost timeless with a 70s vibe, catchy vocal harmonies, bouncy keys, “spaghetti noodle guitar lines” (quoting Rayland from a recent Rolling Stone Magazine interview) and great story telling. You could call it “Hippie” music and I mean that in a totally positive way.
The list of guest musicians is long:
Chip Kilpatrick who was born on the same day in the same year than Rayland plays drums.
Eli Beard plays bass (Rayland calls him a "future legendary bass player, Nashville cat and friend of all of us in the up and coming music scene”).
Nick Bennett, Adam Landry and Luke Reynolds from Guster ("he is this incredible light of a human being and he brought a lot of energy to the studio") play guitar besides Rayland.
His dad Bucky Baxter contributes his very flavorful and cinematic pedal steel tone on “Mother Mother” and “Your Love”. Rayland remembers: "We made sure everything was ready, the bread was buttered before he came in”.
All keys are played by “touring companion, old soul, non-blood brother” Matt Rowland called "Mr. Jimmy".
Talented engineer and co-producer Eric Masse (producer of Rayland’s debut album "Feathers & Fishhooks" and EP "Ashkelon" and owner of a Nashville studio called “Casino” because the music industry is a gamble in his mind) plays "Box-O-Rox" which simply is a shoe box filled with gravel used as percussion instrument on "Young Man".
Background vocals are sung by Matt Vasquez (front man of Delta Spirit) who is “an awesome energy in the studio” and came up from Austin for the session. Rayland and Matt never met before. Producer Adam Landry suggested inviting Matt because “he can sing well with people and has cool ideas”. Also on background was Nashville Singer-Songwriter Jessie Baylin who is a good friends with Rayland and his sister, Jordan Lehning who also did all string arrangements, Isaaca Byrd and Mikky Ekko who is a rising songwriter and reached a wider pop audience with his Rihanna collaboration on “Stay”.
All people on the album are friends of Rayland and are all friends with each other which is typical for the seriously talented Nashville music scene. They make music but also hang out together ("I know who to call if I want to get drunk").
The album is recorded and mixed by Eric Masse, mastered by John Baldwin and produced by Adam Landry and Eric Masse. The opening song “Mr. Rodriguez” (premiered on rollingstone.com July 10th 2015) was originally titled "Me and Mr. Rodriguez" and is influenced by four off days in Detroit, Michigan. At the time Rayland had just discovered Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez and was walking around Detroit on a freezing winter day. Seeing the destruction and the empty buildings which were ugly but at the same time really beautiful inspired him.
“Just like the big beautiful structure of the Titanic sinks to the buttom of the ocean and then you get all these coral reefs and beautiful fish growing and making a home out of it so that's what's happening in Detroit. You know there is a new scene happening there, there's cheap real estate, a cool coffee shop pops up on the corner of your block next to a cool record store that's been there for ages and then a little burger joint and some underground skate parks I was hearing about while I was up there. When I got back home I started writing and really the song makes no sense to me.”
He explains that it was two different songs mashed into one. “Before we recorded it, it was one verse about me and Mr. Rodriguez walking around Detroit and then two verses about a couple but when it's tied together with You Are The Only One - you know, to me it now makes sense”. The second song "Oh my Captain" is Rayland’s letter asking for forgiveness and apology to “our creator who is responsible for our existence on the planet and the existence of this planet”. According to Rayland the song is about “We are all doing a little bit of abusive power, we are given this gift of life but at the same time we are being (thinks for a moment) - rude, you can call it being sinners, not necessarily sinning just an abusive power pretty much and so Oh My Captain is What's going on, man? Give me a sign, tell me something. We're sorry!" “Mother Mother” which is the third song is the shortest song on the record. It's got the chorus "Ladidadidadida, Ladidadidadida" but the line before the second chorus is "where do we go when we die, maybe heaven, maybe hell, maybe even somewhere else" and then "nothing matters in the end", "Ladidadidadida". According to Rayland’s explanation “the juxtaposition of lyrics and happy melody to the question that I'm asking is where the power comes from in this song” which he himself calls a “simple song”. “Yellow Eyes” has been released as an advance single in May (premiered on npr.org on May 19th 2015) and deals with a past relationship. The first line of this song is "There's a paper clip resting on my countertop" and Rayland remembers his breakup conversation at the kitchen table "I love you and I wanna be your friend but let's just go separate ways". That happened and the whole time his divorcee, the girl he was breaking up with had a paper clip in her hand which she had bended into a little teepee figure.
Rayland remembers, “It sat on the countertop for a couple of weeks and it became a symbol of resilience that this little paper clip was much more resilient than our love for each other. I was not trying to knock it over and wasn't trying to keep it up either but I've been throwing dishes on the counter, rolling an apple over to a friend and then I started paying attention to it. That thing is still there!”
He took his guitar and just sung "There's a paper clip resting on my counter top, Sunday morning I forgot what it's like to lose a friend". The song framework was written in fifteen minutes and the bridge was later added during the recording session. Before we talk about “Rugged Lovers”, song number five on the album, Rayland asks me to play the song for him because he forgot how the lyrics start. The next day at his Berlin show he will again forget the lyrics and need help from the audience. Happily his German product manager Anne from PIAS remembers to first couple of words to refresh Rayland's memory. “Rugged Lovers” is the quintessential hopeless romantic song.
“You know, these moments when you are so over bearing with the feeling of wanting to love but not being able to or not finding success at it.”
The song has some pretty tangible lines of poetry that anyone can grab a hold of. It gets kind of dreamy with Mikky Ekko doing some vocal tricks along with the string melodies and it gets pretty big in the middle. Rayland envisions a man on a boat in the middle of the ocean, all alone, surrounded by fog, fishing by himself.
"Let the feather fall into the hook, cast it out and take look around, the sky is falling down".
Track six “Young Man” (premiered on GQ.com on July 16th after New York's fashion week where Rayland played at Billy Reid's show) is inspired by “The purple wizard that lives deep within all of our hearts. The part of your soul that keeps you wandering and gets you packing your car up and driving across country with your dog or keeps you breaking up with your girlfriend, running out to the mountains, living in Mexico for a month and stuff like that. It's like a psychopath in your soul, some people harness it, some people let it go crazy. It's like the wandering young man running from everything but loving everything at the same time”, explains Rayland.
Once more he stresses out that all of these explanations are just his explanations of the songs and that everybody is left up to their own interpretation. “If you want to keep your slate clean and your canvas painted only by you then I suggest you just keep listening to the album.” On the album the song gets really quiet and then raging full of screaming guitars and organs.
“All in my head” was the track that helped pushing "Imaginary Man" as the final title of the album out of a list of 180 album title ideas collected over the course of a year.
Rayland is constantly making up characters in his mind and he is not taking credit for being the person in his songs.
”There is the guy you make up, this unobtainable lover in your mind and then you always hold everyone up to that. Whether it is with your friendship or with a romantic friendship and this is just one of those songs where I wanted to get across the point where it’s nice to stay in a dream.”
It is definitely the dreamiest sounding song on the album which is full of dreamy songs. Rayland considers himself being a dreamer:
“I don't ever want to wake up, I wanna keep on dreaming, I wanna keep on dreaming - I am totally that guy all the time. And when I have to break down the reality usually I still treating it like this is just a dream.”
Track number eight “Freaking me out” is about gaining and losing friends and about learning how to love and not necessarily having a bible of love to read from.
“You might find yourself diving off into a tunnel of thought that may not be so positive and all of a sudden you thinking about things in a whole different way, you are seeing the world through a whole different lens. That thought of losing your mind is terrifying.”
That’s the chorus.
“You might stay up all night just doing bad things and paying for that the next day, you might decide to take a left when you should have taken a right, you might decide to associate yourself with certain people that you shouldn't or miss an opportunity”.
The song taps into a lot of different things. The song starts off with a really psychotic intro and it ends with the most peaceful piano tunes.
It’s Rayland’ musical way of saying "It's all good, it’s all good." One of my personal favorites on the album “Memories of Old Hickory” almost didn’t make it on the record because Rayland didn't think that it would fit. Jon Baldwin, the guy who mastered the album was like "You are crazy, man!" so Rayland agreed to include the song and now it's a bright light on the album. He thinks that this song out of all songs matches the color scheme of the album art.
It is about the town Old Hickory where he lived as a kid.
“I have amazing memories of walking to school there, I have amazing memories of my mother being really busy but really happy raising us, driving off go-karts in the neighborhood, getting chased by dogs and then some other darker memories that we are not tap into but some weird shit went down in that neighborhood.”
Mikky Ekko once again is singing backing vocals on the chorus. There’s a reference to his first ever girlfriend named Miranda who he dated in 5th grade for two weeks and who broke up with him over the phone. It was actually her best friend calling Rayland at his house saying, "Miranda doesn't want to date you any more".
Now she is part of his musical legacy forever.
The song “Your Love” is going back to his time in Israel. He gets thoughtful:
“There are lots of major decisions that affect our future as human beings but specifically when it comes to the kind of crusades, the religious wars, how hypocritical it seems to me and to a lot of people - I am not the only person who believes this. Living there, seen what's going on, I don't wanna tap too much into politics of it all, just seen some hypocrisy happening and the thousands of years that people have been fighting over who's god is better.”
His solution to the crisis in the Middle East reveals an adorable Hippie mindset.
“I just wished that we could snap our fingers (snaps) and see beyond all of that and see that we are all creatures of love and that's where we feel the most happy, when we are loving, when we are in love, we are giving love, when we are selfless and it seems to be quite the opposite but that seems to be the most important thing that governs all of us, not war - just give everybody a hug once in a while (making a knick-knack sound with his mouth)”. “Lady of the desert” is the farewell song on the album with every chorus starting with “Bye, Bye”. It takes place in the imaginary world once again. It's not a reference to anything that he has done in his life other than he is making up movie scenes in his mind while he’s on tour or while he’s travelling. Rayland has collected ideas, images and mental snap pictures all his life. The song ends with a couple of notes and drifts off into the dreamy desert.
Later in the afternoon we sit on my terrace, eat some lamb, chicken and pasta salad, drink more white wine until the bottle is empty and listen to a playlist that I have prepared for his visit. It includes 19 songs from his alltime favorite artists, friends, new and old influences, currently hot artists. It is a “music blind date” because he does not know what I will play next. I keep the audio recorder rolling to tape our conversation.
You can hear it on Soundcloud in full length. The recording perfectly captures the casual vibe if the situation. You even hear birds sing in the background.
The conversation ended kind of abrupt because my phone was ringing and PIAS reminded us that Rayland has an appointment at “Radio Eins” where he is supposed to give an interview and play two songs live around 9.15pm. The cab ride to Potsdam takes almost 1h. The radio show is a bit lengthy because the host is translating everything and Rayland does not cut his stories short. But when he speaks about his music his eyes are shining and he is getting excited.
At Radio Eins he played “Yellow Eyes” and “Oh My Captain” and we were back in Berlin around 11.30pm. He stayed with a couple from Chicago who live in Berlin and who he met in Scandinavia because they are friends with the band “Judah & The Lion”. The day ended around 1am in a bar in Prenzlauer Berg.
On the next day his label did put him to work as he demanded. A visit to the German office of Rolling Stone Magazine, an interview and live performance at alternative radio station FluxFM, a photo shoot in Kreuzberg and the gig at Monarch were on the program. Rayland stay the whole weekend in Berlin before he headed to Cologne to open for Alabama Shakes on Monday, continued to London and flew back to Nashville mid of the week. One week later Rolling Stone premiered "Mr. Rodriguez", he performed at Billy Reid's New York fashion week show and GQ premiered "Young Man".
Busy times for an imaginary man.