I met Rayland Baxter before his show at Auster Club in Berlin (16th October 2018). As one of the hardest-touring artists on the road today, Baxter’s spent most of his professional life in transit, but ever since he was a kid, he dreamed of creative seclusion someplace lonely and isolated, somewhere he could sit still and devote his every waking hour to writing without interruption or distraction.
When the opportunity finally presented itself in late 2016, the Nashville native pounced. Baxter entered Thunder Sound, the abandoned rubber band factory-turned-studio in the cornfields of Kentucky that would become his home for three months of intensive soul searching and songwriting. Baxter crafted a detailed blueprint for his spectacular new album, ‘Wide Awake.’
The record infuses Baxter’s easygoing, soulful sound with British Invasion melodies and rock and roll swagger, marrying lean, muscular songwriting with adventurous, inventive arrangements. It’s a cutting, insightful collection, one that takes a sardonic view the violence, greed, and division that seem to define the modern American landscape. Rather than point a finger, though, the music holds up a mirror, offering a sober reflection of the times thoughtfully bundled in bright, infectious hooks.
Here's a transcript of our conversation...
Tell us a little bit about your new record.
"The new record is called „Wide Awake“. It’s a ten song record, front to back a solid listen - I think - people are really enjoying it. I wrote a bunch of songs in Kentucky in the winter of 2016 and 2017 and just got into a nice, kind of magical, creative place. I lived up there for three months and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And then I left with about 50 songs, we recorded 15. We went out to Santa Monica, CA and recorded it with Butch Walker, the producer and borrowed Dr. Dog´s drummer Eric Slick, borrowed Cage the Elephant´s guitar player Nick Bockrath, borrowed a genius musician and friend of mine from Hollywood named Aaron Embry (Elliot Smith, Brian Eno). He has an amazing record named „Tiny Prayers“, it’s been out for a few years. We made the record in Santa Monica, I picked 15 songs, recorded all 15 in 10 days and picked 10 of them for the record and put it out on ATO just like every other one."
Why is it called „wide awake“?
"Wide awake is what I am, as much as I have ever been, way more than I have ever been. I feel like lots of my friends are that way too. I think the world is like that. Everyone is paying attention to everything. It’s that simple and goes off the tongue well. I am wide awake thinking about humanity, wide awake thinking about love, wide awake thinking about my own existence and everything under that umbrella."
Your producer Butch Walker has worked with Weezer and Fallout Boy before. Did you want a more „Rock“ sound on that album?
"Yeah! But also Butch was the only producer who showed interest in the demos, the interest I wanted to feel. He was really excited about them, he understood them as demos and he said „Let’s make it happen“. Looking at his discography, people have asked me „Why Butch?“. Butch has a sensibility as a musician and he can make any kind of record. The ones released so far are not necessarily in my wheelhouse which is great. I didn’t want somebody in my wheelhouse. But on the other hand, he is in my wheelhouse. He‘s a Singer–Songwriter and he understands the song form and what I was going for. Eric Slick from Dr. Dog, he‘s a Singer–Songwriter as well. He understood what I was going for. Aaron Embry he‘s a Singer–Songwriter. So there’s four of us and then Nick Bockrath he‘s not a Singer–Songwriter but he gets it, he understands a lot about songs and a lot about taking chances in the studio."
I think the song which really stands out on the album is „Casanova“. It has this memorable The Kinks guitar riff and you just made a brilliant and very funny video for it. How was it shooting a “MTV–style“ video?
"I‘m a comedian too. I like to mix my sense of humor with songwriting or performing or walking down the street. I was part of a music video of friends in Texas back in March and I met these two sisters, Arden (Grier) and Roxanna (Dunlop) who are Canadian born but live in LA. They have done production work on videos and movies but never directed. This was their first time directing a music video and they knocked it out of the park! It was a lot of fun. We spent two days in Hollywood and running around LA doing it. I ran all over the place. I was so beat after that week because I was running all the time."
Some scenes in the video reminded me a lot of the 80s movie „Ferris Bueller’s day off“.
"Totally! That was a nod. When I ran by the girls, that’s Arden and Roxanna (the directors)."
There are some scenes, e.g. when you jump into the pool, I imagine them as an animated GIF of you falling into and out of the pool in an endless loop.
"Oh, I have a bunch of them on my phone. I got like 20 of them. I should show them to you. I haven’t posted any because I have been too busy, you know."
Is „Casanova“ becoming a hit, being played on radio?
"Yeah, Yeah! In the states it is number nine in the AAA radio so that’s good."
Is that your biggest hit to date?
"Most definitely. Which is cool. I didn’t really think about writing a hit. I don’t know what I was thinking about. ATO Records have done a really good job, doing their thing with this song. I think we are about to put another single out soon, people are loving the record. Thumbs up!"
When you started, you were a little bit more Singer–Songwriter and Americana, now it is getting a little bit more into Indie Rock.
"I wanna write good songs and then put all kinds of different colors on them. I made one record which was more acoustic guitar driven, then I made a second one which was a little bit less and more sonic, had more sounds and on this one, I took the songs and trimmed the fat. It’s just the third album. Hopefully there will be twenty of them."
It feels like a gradual evolution. Can you imagine to do a Pop record a couple of albums ahead or is that too far off?
"This album is a Pop record. Wide awake is a Pop record. I am not sure. I have no idea. I am not a Pop kinda shiny, gilttery guy. I am just me."
Are there any political songs on the new record, e.g. „Strange American Dream“?
"No. That’s just a viewpoint song. That’s a song about humanity and my neighbors. It was inspired by me being wide awake or waking up. Politics is under humanity. There is humanity and then everything else. Politics, drug use, love, hate, good and evil."
But it seems like more artists are now talking a political standpoint. Are you staying out of these discussions?
"Yes. „79 Shiny Revolvers“ for example is a song that is as simple as any conversation I‘ve ever been in, where a side–joke is made about „Why don’t we just blow them up?“, you know. I am not saying this is wrong or this is right. It is just my wiseguy, like crack addict „Ey, we can blow them away, the American way“. Have a smirk."
Because everybody has weapons in America?
"Yeah. It’s a weird thing. That’s it. But it’s about the decision. at the crossroads somebody decided to be evil or do bad instead of do good. There are thousands and thousands of those decisions been made everyday. And instincts kick in and you decide to drive the van off the cliff or you don’t decide to buy a gun and shoot somebody or you don’t decide to eat shitty food all week or you don’t decide to let your inner anger come out or you decide to be sweet. The album overall is about me as a human being making decisions and where I decide to go with it. And also looking back on my life in hindsight and wondering what I thought about it when I was a kid as opposed to comparing it to what it actually is."
The last time we talked, we spoke about the secret of good songwriting and you explained to me that it is to be not too specific and leave room for interpretation.
"That’s the mission."
Before we part ways, how did you end up playing the Grateful Dead tribute show, presented by Relix at SXSW back in March?
"I know the Texas Gentlemen. Every once in awhile when they do something like this, they call me and say „Hey Ray, do you wanna join in?“ and I‘m like „Yeah, I wanna join in“ and that’s it. I love playing with those guys. They are so talented, so incredibly talented."
I love them! One of my favorite live bands. One quick last thing: You recently did a podcast with a guy named Andy Frasco. Funnily, he was the only artist besides you, I did a musical blind date with back in 2015.
"He‘s a character! His show is amazing – „The world saving podcast“! He talks about whatever comes up in the conversation."
Thank you very much for your time.
"Nice to see you, man."
Rayland Baxter's current album "Wide Awake" is out via ATO Records / PIAS. You can listen to it here.