By Brian Tucker
Ryan Gustafson’s music is life lived and executed as poetry, songwriting that traverses between ragged folk and soulful country rock. The popular Triangle Area musician will perform this Saturday as a solo artist, delivering a mix of material from his excellent 2009 solo album Donkey and sparer versions of songs from his latest album Desert recorded under the moniker The Dead Tongues.
Gustafson has plenty of material to choose from, keeping busy between those two albums working with a handful of other bands (Max Indian, The Light Pines) and even making electronic music. And there’s that singing voice, one whose rustic elegance from a young man that easily helps sell picturesque songs born from travelling and meeting new people.
“Traveling is exciting,” Gustafson said. “It’s interesting, throwing yourself onto the side of the road or into another country and seeing what you can pull off, especially if you don’t have any money.”
Not long ago he converted a Ford E350 van into a home and demo recording studio. The idea afforded picking up and leaving at a moment’s notice, a necessary amenity given Gustafson’s penchant for wanting to get out of town. Transient affinities often lead to a lot of writing along with knowledge of new people, new areas, and especially himself.
“I think it builds self confidence as well as confidence in others. I start to feel pretty off kilter if I haven’t gotten out of town in a while.”
Gustafson took time between the gently titled Donkey and Desert but his experiences working with other musicians was fruitful, helping him to become a better guitar player and songwriter (“If you keep at it and keep digging deeper you’ll get better”). The improvement almost seems secondary to the enjoyment of interacting with other musicians and helping projects come together.
“It can be hard to find the balance between focusing on my own music and other people’s, but I feel like I’m getting a better hang of that.” Gustafson said. “It’s always good to get out of your own muscle memory and habits. But mostly playing with others has always been out of support for a project I believe in, wanting to help it be able to exist or get started with the few things I can offer. Also, it just keeps music more communal and interactive which can lead to more exciting things happening.”
Living in a twelve-by-seven foot bus helps, where life and making music intertwine and where a sleeping bed and music gear share much of the same space. Regardless, Gustafson says he will go through phases of not writing and focus on reading or growing as a musician, whether alone or working with others.
“I think what I can create when I write is pretty dependent on my life experiences and thought processes, a reaction to each other.”
It’s why Donkey is an intimate album and where Desert is an extension of that album’s atmosphere and a larger expression. Gustafson recorded Desert with James Wallace, over-dubbing all the parts. The material still sounds immediate because they recorded those parts live to an 8-track for each song, not cutting and pasting them.
“Desert is to some extent a continuation of Donkey as it was a return to a similar genre of writing for me, but I feel pretty different about them. To me Desert is a much more realized album. A lot of time had gone by so I had grown as a writer and player, so there were more places for Desert to go, and sonic aesthetics to touch on.”
Moods are rampant on it, from the Stonesy rock feel of “Depression” to the haziness of “Sliver Dove.” “Exit Song” is striking, an emotionally rich song that moves along like a country stroll. He says it came from his life and from recurring dreams he had while making Desert.
“At the time I wrote it I felt it was about escape, from anxieties of life and eventually death, a longing for contentment within the world I’m in that I often don’t feel. So it was about the exit. I’ve actually never been asked about that song. Possibly because it seems borderline suicidal so people might have avoided it. Now though when I read over the song, I see it as a song about re-birth and the search to free ourselves.”
Ryan Gustafson performs at Bourgie Nights Saturday, February 15th with The Love Language
Additional Q&A with Ryan Gustafson
Much of the new album has a gentle quality, sounding both intimate and immediate.
Gustafson: James Wallace and I performed and recorded the entire album ourselves so most of it is over-dubbed, though a few songs have live rhythm guitar and drum takes, or live acoustic and vocal takes. We’ll generally be playing with the other while they are tracking but it’s not always being recorded. Also, we recorded close to all the takes on an 8-track, so there wasn’t any punching in mid-take or cut and pasting going on. We just played through the entire song which really helps to keep a live feel within the over dubbing world.
Do you think a musician is ever comfortable making music, putting songs out others grasp onto?
Gustafson: I’m at a place where I don’t even think about it anymore. We can all only do our best at explaining ourselves in a way that makes sense to us. But that doesn’t mean it will convey the same idea to someone else. Especially when speaking in metaphor.
Also, sometimes I’m not trying to “say” anything specific in my songs as much as give myself something to grasp onto as well. But, it seems if you choose to do anything creative and then put it out there in the public, its then in a place where anyone can project them selves onto it, or within it – make it their own story. I guess you have to be comfortable with that, or just keep it to yourself.
In between making your albums, is there a band you worked with that bore an influence on Desert, either making it or how songs sounded by the end?
Gustafson: I met most people I collaborate with now through other bands I play or played with. So in that sense it’s had a big effect on the live shows. James Wallace, who I make The Dead Tongues records with, I met from Max Indian. He played drums. He’s played a major roll in the development of my sound.
Did working with Max Indian reinforce writing leaner songs, or crafting them perhaps with stronger melodies?
Gustafson: Not necessarily. It made me a much better guitar player, and certainly enhanced my knowledge of song craft. But, that’s also just a part of playing a bunch and writing more. If you keep at it and keep digging deeper you’ll get better.
“Exit Song” is a great song, like a country stroll. Can you share how you came to write it?
Gustafson: Everything in “Exit Song” is either from reoccurring dreams I was having when I was finishing the writing for Desert or from my life. At the time I wrote it, I felt it was about escape, from the anxieties of life and eventually death. A longing for contentment with in the world I’m in that I often don’t feel. So it was about the exit. I’ve actually never been asked about that song. Possibly because it seems borderline suicidal so people might have avoided it. Now though when I read over the song, I see it as a song about re-birth and the search to free ourselves.
Is there a separation of day to day life and making music for you? Do they inform each other?
Gustafson: There’s not a big separation. Right now I live in a 12×7 bus with all my music gear and a demo studio in it. So I practically sleep with it in my bed. But I tend to go through writing phases. So when I’m not writing songs, I’ll try and read a lot, travel, or expand myself as a musician. Just keep my brain active. I also think what I can create when I do write is pretty dependent on my life experiences and though processes. So they are a reaction to each other.
A musician friend spent a year in his car playing in 47 states. He really liked the solitude and meeting new people. Can you share what you appreciate about moving around?
Gustafson: Well, traveling is exciting. It’s interesting throwing yourself onto the side of the road or into another country and seeing what you can pull off especially if you don’t have any money. I always write a bunch, meet really interesting people. It’s the best way for me to learn about people, myself and society. I think it builds self confidence as well as confidence in others. I start to feel pretty off kilter if I haven’t gotten out of town in a while.
Writing songs do you make a point to be truthful or is it important to “grey things up” to keep it mysterious?
Gustafson: That varies. Some songs are all true, some half, some I don’t even know are true yet. Some are true for people I’ve met or know but not myself. Sometimes they all blur together, which it’s not necessarily the anonymity I like with that but it makes for more to write about and express through myself.