There is a simple beauty in the relationship between life and art. In music, traditionally people have undeniably been drawn to a landscape of sound and lyrics that present their emotions, dreams and fears on a silver platter. If we study the trajectory of popular music, it becomes clear that as life becomes more complicated, the music that represents the times follows suit.
Still, the authenticity of art can get lost in the shuffle, as musicians and artists struggle against mass-produced culture to make their mark and be heard. In the face of this, the hope is that as people begin to normalize the sensory overload that is ingrained in the tapestry of our media rich society, art and culture scream louder—trying to communicate with a demographic of people too easily distracted and made complacent.
For modern musicians, this effort often comes through in deep, raw beats and repetitive electronic riffs. And as enjoyable as this can be, too often these sounds seem to mimic society without making any true commentary on it, or allowing for some sort of shared meaning to grasp hold its listener.
And that’s why artists like Rayland Baxter present such a breath of fresh air.
His songs remind us that whether backed by a ten-piece band or created with a simple voice and a guitar, authenticity dictates the success of a musicians’ exploration of sound and melody.
Baxter’s deep love affair with the purity of the world around him radiates from his music. “I have faith in my instinct, in my intuition, and that’s about it,” he declares. And as with any passionate relationship, his love manifests in the beautiful, the ugly and everything in between.
As a listener, the appeal of the singer-songwriter’s music doesn’t lie in swirling, repetitive ambient sounds, or in the way the bass resonates throughout a given track. It is in his lyrics and his melody. The words he writes ring true for all of us, as they are rooted in the most basic of human experiences.
In “Bad Things,” Baxter sings: “I was standing by the river, watching my bridge burn down / Cuz I’ve done a bad thing and I’m paying for it all right now.” With his lyrics, the singer paints a picture of the most common modern dilemma: living life from the outside in, and realizing the weight of our decisions after they have already destroyed the things we love or need.
And as for the honesty his sentiments are delivered with, well that—one assumes—can at least partially be attributed to his Nashville upbringing. One listen to his most recent album and it makes sense that Baxter—who was born and raised in the country music capital of the world—owes a little something of his raw lyricism to his hometown.
With the musician’s latest release, an EP entitled Soho—out earlier this year—Baxter declared a new phase. Where his debut album feathers & fishHooks (2012) featured one of the singer’s major inspirations, his father (Bucky Baxter, a multi-instrumentalist for artists including Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams Steve Earle), as support throughout, the new EP, following last year’s Imaginary Man, sees Baxter branching out even further.
On Soho—as with his second full-length album—Baxter changes up his overall approach to his craft, and with this comes an evolution in his bandmates and musical arrangements. Through this shifting of composition, the singer takes previously recorded work and strips it down to its bare bones i.e., a man and his guitar. The result is a collection of songs that dig deeper into the rock and roll cannon, drawing on a diverse range of sounds and instrumentation.
Gearing up to start touring come the end of June, we caught up with the artist to discuss his pure and honest approach to music, art and life, and the bigger picture as envisioned by this authentic musician’s distinct point of view.
Let’s start by talking about your sound. It’s pure, simple and beautiful. How do you stick with that purity when there are so many options musically?
My approach to life beyond music is to just do what feels right…always. Do what you want to do, always. And, it just happens to be that what I want to do with music is whatever comes naturally, and usually it seems to involve natural instruments… less is more.
What about songwriting, how do you approach that?
There is no rhyme or reason to how these songs are created. I have a guitar around all the time, and ninety percent of the time, I will just go up to a guitar and start strumming on it.
Just like that?
Just mumbling syllables… and if I like the melody and if I have time to finish it—usually on the road—I will pick up a guitar and blurt something out. Half the time, it sounds pretty cool.
Do you have a few songs on the go at once?
Usually I have about 20 songs going on in my head at once, and then I get to a point where I can start to pick them apart, add lyrics and finish the melody and cord structure. It’s an ongoing process.
What inspires your music? Who and what would you list as your influences?
My influences are everywhere… from Mother Nature to heartache to true love to Leonard Cohen to Bob Dylan to Scott Weiland to Green Day to Everclear to The Beatles and The Beach Boys to the way the wind blows and how beautiful flowers are to insects to the trials of life and heartbreak to a gorgeous sunset and sunrise to the silence of the morning… how humans interact with each other, existence, space, heaven and hell, religion, god, spirituality… I can go on forever.
Take us inside your latest EP. Now, your dad was featured on your first album… what made you move in a different direction?
My dad was my meter when I first started writing songs and playing music. He was kind of a security blanket to have him around… with the writing process or bouncing ideas off of him.
The first album, my instincts were to make an album that sounds as it does. But when it came to the second album, I had grown a lot as a musician, my taste had evolved a bit more, and I knew more about the sound that I wanted to make and how to carve out my own sound and make sure that I leave my mark when I die as somebody who put out a bunch of albums, and created his own unique sound.
I definitely think you’ve done that with this latest record.
Obviously it is influenced by a bunch of other people, but I want people to say “this is Rayland, that is what he does”.
Make a statement, right?
I look at my musical career kind of like a big wooden block, and with each album I chip away at this big wooden block, to hopefully reveal a masterpiece of a sculpture by the end of it.
Just talking about your latest release, is there a song that means more to you or that you enjoy playing live more than the others?
It’s an evolving process. The live show is really important. The live show grows. You make an album and it is done. You can’t go back and twist it, but you can take all types of liberties with the live show.
It makes it a little more special that way, I imagine.
Some people may come to the show who have only heard “Yellow Eyes”, or only seen videos on YouTube, and they are like “woah man, the live show is so much better than the album, and we love the album.” So, I am pleased to hear that response from the audience.
The new album is a stripped down version of many songs we have heard before, culminating in a beautiful My Morning Jacket cover. These are some pretty deliberate choices, what was the inspiration behind this?
People hear the album versions of the songs, and they hear them live, but I also wanted to go back to how the songs actually were written: in my bedroom or my music room at my house… it’s just me singing with the guitar.
And how did it all come together?
So, I was in Europe last summer doing a tour, and we ended the tour in London. I had been playing these songs solo, and I felt like I had a good grip on them. My buddy works at a great studio in London and suggested we record some songs with no intention of releasing them… we just did it.
Did you know you were onto something right away?
When I heard the final mixes of them, I knew that night we were tapping into something… and then ATO [Records] got a hold of them and said “let’s put these out.”
What about the My Morning Jacket cover?
I had recorded that version of “Bermuda Highway” sometime last year, in the middle of us recording the album. And we kind of just sat on it. When it came time to put out another release, there was no question about mixing it up. I love My Morning Jacket. They are one of my favourite bands. They rock out, and Jim James can sing a song and bring you to your knees. “Bermuda Highway” is a beautiful song.