Every week we will be showcasing installments from a special artist discovery series for bands playing the Austin City Limits Music Festival this October from local websites hand-picked by the ACL Festival faithful. This exclusive interview comes from Austin Sound talking with Ryan Bingham.
Several years ago, Ryan Bingham was kicking around Texas and the Southwest, a former rodeo rider beginning to garner attention for the rough-hewn songwriting of his official debut on Lost Highway, 2007’s Mescalito. Three years and two albums later, including last year’s Roadhouse Sun and newly released Junky Star, and Bingham has shot into the national spotlight, in no small part due to his co-writing (with T Bone Burnett) the Oscar-winning theme song to the movie Crazy Heart.
Junky Star capitalizes on Bingham’s screen success with his best album to date, a collection of weary and worn tunes wrought from the road and the dire desperation of hard times. Bingham’s songwriting has matured to the kind of raw and emotional storytelling of early Steve Earle or Bruce Springsteen to establish him as one of the best emerging talents in the broad spectrum of Americana. Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses will be playing the Austin Ventures Stage at the ACL Festival on Friday, Oct. 8 at 7:15pm. They will also be doing an Official Aftershow that night at Momo’s.
Austin Sound: You’re living out in L.A. now – how long have you been living out there?
Ryan Bingham: Probably about 2 and half, 3 years. I was in and around Austin and New Breunfels area, back and forth around there for probably about 4 or 5 years before I moved out to LA.
AS: So how has living out in LA these past few years influenced your songwriting, if you’d say it has at all?
RB: I don’t think so much. I really cut my teeth around Austin and around there, and I think where I’m from – mainly around west Texas and all – it seems like every time I get to writing songs, I kinda always go back to those places. But definitely traveling around and going coast to coast, and the places that I go do have an effect and things like that. The best thing is just traveling all over the place, which has a big impact.
AS: Well, the past year has been pretty crazy for you, between the last album and the movie, and touring. Was it difficult finding time to write new material during all that, or did you already have most of the songs for Junky Star ready.
RB: Other than all that stuff that was going on with movie, I always kind of like to stick to myself and stay at home. I’m not really out on the town and the scene. Mostly I’m just trying to find time to chill out and get away from it all. And I always take a little guitar on the van and have it when we’re traveling on the road, and always trying to come up with tunes and little melodies and stuff, and writing little things down, so when I get home, I’ll start putting stuff together. So I always have something going on. But most of the songs I already had done by the time the movie stuff started coming along, so it really didn’t matter kind of sitting down and getting it all together.
AS: One of the things that strikes me the most about the album is how desperate and dark the circumstances or at least the environment of the songs are, even if the songs aren’t necessarily that way. They can be pretty persistent and determined. Could you tell me just kind of the general inspiration behind the songs for this album, is this stuff that you’ve encountered, or seen folks dealing with?
RB: I think it is kind of dark, but ultimately I try to have a really positive outlook on everything and try to be as hopeful as I can. But at the same time, traveling around the country in these times, it is kind of dark and desperate out there. A lot of people are in dark and desperate places. And I think I just relate to people kind of on those terms a little bit, and I think when you’re writing you really have to take that into consideration and look at where people are and what everybody’s going through, and say something about it.
AS: Well, do you feel when you’re writing these songs that you’re telling a story that needs to be told and giving voice to something, or do you see it more as something proactive to the situation?
RB: I’d like it to be more than just about me, and something that is being positive, but it’s not really something that I’m trying to do to make any kind of statement or anything. It’s more just me trying to describe what’s been going on around me, and just seeing these people and trying to have a positive outlook, but at the same time tell a story about just what’s going on these days.
AS: How was it being able to get in the studio with T Bone Burnett for an extended period, and what do you feel that he brought to the album for you?
RB: Oh, he’s great. We had such a good time in the studio for the stuff with Crazy Heart, and I had a bunch of new songs written and was ready to do a record, so to have that opportunity to kind of continue on in the studio and do this record was just awesome. I think more than anything, he just kind of brings out the best in you. Working with somebody like that, you really have this sense of just wanting to get your stuff together and really doing the best with what you have. And he can just put you in a really comfortable environment to work in, as well, where you don’t have to worry about all the technical stuff and all the other stuff that goes on – you can just concentrate on the art and the music part of it and don’t have to worry about all the other stuff on the side. I think that one of the best things is just that he creates a really positive environment for you to be able to create and record the songs in the best possible way.
AS: Coming off of the success that you had with Crazy Heart, do you feel that there was any kind of instinct to not be pigeon-holed and try to break about from that to a certain degree.
RB: Yeah, I mean you definitely have people pulling at your strings because they want to try to capitalize on all the stuff that you’re really not. [Laughs] But you just got to turn your head and step away from it and just go back to where it started with the band and the songs, kind of just pick back up from there and just keep trucking along. For me, you just got to really watch out and distance yourself from all that and decide on what you want to do and where you want to be, and kind of stay true to yourself.
AS: Sure, but I’d have to imagine that at the same time the past year has been pretty interesting and exciting in ways you wouldn’t have anticipated. So what has been kind of a highlight for you, or something that two or three years ago you never would have imagined?
RB: Oh man, we’re getting to go on tour with Willie Nelson here in a month, and that is something we never would have thought would be possible, traveling down the road with those guys. The opportunity to get with the band and get on the road and be able to play these gigs and have the record coming out, and just having people enjoy the songs and like the tunes, that’s all we were ever really working for in the first place. So just to have all that stuff be able to happen has just been great.
AS: So you have the album out, and you’re out touring for that, but do you have any sense yet of comes after that, or what you have in the works?
RB: Actually my wife has just written a feature film that she’s planning on directing next fall, so I’m going to start working on some music for that. But really it’s just the tour, and I’ll probably start working on some new songs for record, and ultimately concentrating on writing some songs for that as well. So we’re kind of home-teaming it with that.
Interview & Feature by Doug Freeman