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Interview: Tyler Ramsey

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Tyler Ramsey
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Previewing his forthcoming album, "For The Morning," the North Carolina multi-instrumentalist will share the stage with My Morning Jacket's Carl Broemel on Monday night at Rumba Café

One of the indisputable joys of being a music writer is discovering new artists and their recorded works, and I have many publicists and managers to thank for the growing list of phenomenal albums, EPs, and singles that now play in heavy rotation through my headphones.

Hearing the stories behind their songs is an even greater reward, and when Cincinnati-born singer-songwriter Tyler Ramsey’s “A Dream of Home” came across my desk a few weeks ago, I knew immediately I wanted to talk with him about the creation of such an enchantingly idyllic ballad. With each passing verse, it effortlessly evokes a portrait of the environs that inspired such a loving, longing ode to his serene North Carolina abode at the foot of the mountains outside of Asheville.

Ramsey wrote “A Dream…” and a handful of other tracks that comprise his forthcoming album, For The Morning (due April 5th via Fantasy Records), while at a personal and professional crossroads near the end of his decade-long stint as lead guitarist for renowned indie-rock outfit Band of Horses.

“This album came about in the midst of a lot of change,” he explains in a recent press release. “The birth of my daughter, a move to the country, and the steady realization that I needed to switch the road I was on in my life as a musician and songwriter. I tried to express and balance images of life as a constantly traveling and touring musician with the more connected life I live at home and the time I spend hiking in the mountains where I live.”

When we interviewed last week, Ramsey articulated how the change of pace has specifically impacted his craft as a songwriter.

“I do gather inspiration from all the traveling and all the places I see, and conversations and the things I come across,” he reflects. “But, I don’t really process it into a really creative thing until I can get super grounded and back to myself. And that does happen here. There’s more quiet here. If I can get my feet on the ground, I can start to remember things that were inspiring, or writing them down and using them for songs.

It’s getting my feet back in the dirt rather than running around and trying to finish things when you’re on the go, because there’s so much coming at you all the time. When you get done with that and you start walking in the woods, then your mind can slow down and translate that into something, hopefully.”

Although he’s back on the road for the foreseeable future to support For The Morning, Ramsey’s taking advantage of the connections he’s made over the years to bring music to his audiences on his own terms. On Monday night, he’ll share the stage with My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel for an intimate performance at Rumba Café.

When do you remember first making a profound, meaningful connection to music?

“Oh, man. So, the profound meaning came sort of when I found out I could pick songs out on the keyboard by ear at a pretty early age. I could pick up little songs and peck them out. I started taking jazz piano lessons when I was…I think I was around nine, or something. The teacher that I had – his name was Bob Zahn – was a really, really good jazz piano player, but he also knew that I could hear music well. He did a lot to encourage that, and he did a lot to teach me about improvisation and playing music that way. It was just such a cool way to be introduced to formal music by having [that] freedom.

Being so young and knowing ‘oh, I can play any note I want in this scale,’ and try to figure out solos and pick things out by ear – it was the beginning of what would continue into what keeps my inspired about music. There’s a lot of freedom of expression, and I learned that from early on.”

You’re well regarded for your guitar work, so how did that sense of free expression and experimentation eventually translate from keys to strings?

“When I first picked up the guitar, I was doing the pretty regular thing of taking lessons at the local music store. It was, ‘what songs do you want to learn?’ And I was, like, ‘well, I don’t know…’ I remember working on…they’d kind of throw things at you, like, ‘here’s a Beatles song. Here’s a Led Zeppelin riff…’ I had an Ibanez Roadstar II electric guitar, and I was learning riffs. And at some point, I got an acoustic guitar in high school, and I think I broke string and didn’t have another one, and my friend helped me tune it to this weird open tuning. And then I just started messing around with that, and I remember that feeling of, like, ‘oh, this thing’s a total mystery now.’ Standard tuning guitar was also a mystery at that point because it wasn’t like I’d mastered any Led Zeppelin songs or even knew how to solo or anything like that.

But all of a sudden, it turned the guitar into something I was inventing myself and exploring, and I began making up little instrumental songs and trying to write instrumental things. I had started listening to a lot of instrumental guitar – even back in high school, I was the weirdo that would listen to Leo Kottke or Michael Hedges. A lot of that fingerstyle guitar got me excited back then. That’s how that transition happened, and everything that came after that was based on it. I still use a lot of alternate tuning and still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing [laughs], and that I’m learning and figuring things out all the time.”

I’m curious how guitarists skill build. I can articulate how I do that in my job when I sit down with a new piece of technology or resource and muck around with it until I figure it out and become comfortable. Since you’ve learned so much by ear, how does that manifest in extending your concrete musical abilities?

“Yeah, I never really was the kind of person who would just sit down and learn note-for-note songs the way someone else would play it. I still don’t really do that – I mean, I can do that, but my approach is more ‘okay, these are the tools I have, and this is my vocabulary on the instrument. But here’s this song that I have to play on, or that I want to play on – so, how am I going to take the way I speak and basically tell the story of this other song?’ Kind of what I’m doing with Carl Broemel right now and working on his music and learning all his songs is approaching it like ‘this is what I do, and I’m going to interpret these – and we’re going to play them together.’

It’s almost always that way if I have a cover song that I’m working on – I think the last one I did was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘I Wish I Could Hide Away.’ But I just did it in a weird tuning and I got the gist…I got the chord progressions on the song, and then I just played it the way I was going to play it. And that turned out to be really fun. It’s kind of the way I approach other people’s music – I interpret it using the skill set I’ve developed over the years.”

You started as a solo artist before you joined Band of Horses, and now you’re back to being on your own again. How has flexing inward and outward along your career path affected you creatively?

“I’m still learning a lot. I kind of had a feeling when I joined that band that I might lose track of that path I was already on as a songwriter. I tried to stay on it, but it certainly got pushed a little bit to the side because of the schedule. The timing of things had to be perfect if I was going to put a record out – I had to find the perfect window of time, and I wasn’t necessarily going to be able to tour on it enough or make sure it was supported and things like that. It became that it was fading out too far in the background of what I felt strongly about doing.”

Of course. And I’m sure it’s vastly different releasing solo records when you’re your own entity as opposed to doing so when you’re a member of a well-known band and it’s more of a sidestep. 

“Right, right. I mean the process for this record was the same as it always was – I tried to just represent my songs the best I could and make them sound the way they needed to sound. But, now the cool thing about this record is that I have an absolutely amazing team of people, and I have the full ability to go out and support it as much as I need to and can. I’ll be able to put a lot of time into playing shows, connecting with people, going into radio stations, and traveling around.

It’s really exciting because I feel like that last record Valley Wind that I put out – which was a long time back – it kind of got lost. And I was super proud of that record and I loved some of those songs, and the way we captured them was so…it was a really cool, emotional time. We did a really good job of just documenting that time. But, then all of a sudden, it was, like, ‘well, I’m back on the road and I can’t do the work it takes.’ I had a talk with Fat Possum at the time who put out the record, and I said, ‘how do we make it come back from a disappearing act? [laughs] It just disappeared really quick!’ And they said, ‘well, you really can’t do anything if you can’t get out there and play shows.’ The way everything’s working out in music nowadays, you have to play shows. But, I wasn’t able to, and I felt like that record was done a disservice by letting it just kind of disappear.

So, now I have Fantasy Records, and I’ve got a really cool management company, and Virgin Records in the UK – just a lot of really cool things happening that are blowing my mind, first of all. And the fact that I’m going to have the energy and the time to do my part and play these songs to as many people as I can and support them that way – it’s a really amazing opportunity that I’m lucky to have.”

As you’ve been talking to the press about For The Morning, you’ve discussed how you intentionally recruited expert musicians to infuse their strengths into different parts of the album instead of filling in gaps yourself. You said they created some really special moments across the record. What are some specific examples?

“Man, there’s a lot of them that happened on this record. The first one was…I’ve always wanted really good pedal steel on a record, and Seth Kauffman, who’s a friend of mine from the band Floating Action, was in the studio with me. He was in the studio with me when I was up in Louisville with Kevin Ratterman at La La Land, and I’m talking to both of them saying, ‘I’ve got to get to get the perfect pedal steel on these two songs.’ And Seth had luckily done some session where he’d gotten to work with Russ Pahl, who lives in Nashville and is a big pedal steel player there and has done a lot of session work. I’ve never met him in person, but he’s apparently the sweetest and a great person to work with. So, we sent the tracks to Russ, and he worked on them and sent back, like, the perfect pedal steel part. When we heard it the first time, I was jumping up and down in the studio in the control room. It just blew me away. I said, ‘that’s exactly what I would’ve hoped for,’ and he did it with an ease, you know?

And it happened again when I said, ‘I need a really good harmony on these songs,’ and Kevin was, like, ‘I’ll see if Joan Shelley’s in town, because she’s unbelievable.’ And I said, ‘well, that would be amazing.’ I’d just finished reading an article, maybe it was in Uncut, about her, and had listened to her music a bit. And she came in and sang on some songs, and – again – goosebumps. It was the perfect fit in the songs and it just elevated them, which is such a cool thing for someone to do for you – to lift them to a place where there’s more emotion and more things to listen to. Then Nathan Salsburg came in and played this mind-blowing acoustic guitar part on an instrumental. Things like that just kept happening – there’s a whole list. There were all kinds of fun and surprising things that made this record better.”

Tyler Ramsey will be on stage with My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel on Monday, February 25, 8:00 p.m. (doors at 7:00 p.m.) at Rumba Café in SoHud, 2507 Summit St. General admission tickets (all ages) are $15.00, plus applicable taxes and fees. Learn more about Tyler via his official website. Follow Tyler on Facebook and Instagram.

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