Rachel Ries, an Americana singer from South Dakota, talks to our interviewer about Twitter scandals, home made jam and the elusive question of genre.
What have you been doing since your gig in Durham (on the 22nd of May)?
A BBC radio thing came together so I ran down the next day to do for a last-minute show, which was a lot of fun, and then I came back up to Sheffield. I was really impressed by all the green spaces there, and it’s just so hilly.
I’ve read comparisons between Regina Spektor and yourself; are you a big fan of hers?
When we were writing the press release we were kinda thinking who to compare me to: some people say Regina Spektor, or … well, that’s the problem; I don’t get a whole lot of comparisons. People are sort of confused: who do you sound like? Where do you come from? (she laughs)
Regina Spektor has a really gorgeous voice. I love people who really use their voice in expansive ways, who just go all over the place. I guess I find that to be a lot of fun: to really stretch the limits of my range.
In terms of genre, your last EP was country, wasn’t it?
It was a split EP of country duets with my friend Anaïs Mitchell. It was five songs, a little vinyl cute thing that we did in 2008. My other albums, the long players, definitely wouldn’t be considered country. My first record was more folksy, a bit more acoustic. I mean, there’s a banjo on it! And then my second album gets a bit more orchestrated. It’s kinda dark, and weird. Jazz sort of leeches in. It does in both albums, really.
Which makes you quite hard to categorise in terms of genre.
I met a music writer a few years ago who said that basically I’m a music writer’s nightmare. He meant it as a compliment, too… I was finding my voice. I think it’s pretty common, when you’re learning how to craft a song and how to figure out what kind of songs are in you, I think a lot of us pick and choose from different genres; I would try to write a country song, I would try to write twenties, thirties swing, I would try to write a jazz song. I wasn’t writing them straight, but having something I would try to channel, and trying to find out what my voice was. I don’t do that any more.
In my older record, there’s some blues, there’s some jazz, there’s some whatever, but all along, I was just trying to get down the path far enough to figure out what sound was mine. I hope my sound keeps on changing, but I feel like with this new record, there’s really none of that, it’s just the songs that come out of me now. I’ve kind of filtered through it; I think it’s more cohesive this way. It’s less experimental in a genre sort of way, and more experimental in a production way.
The other thing I’ve never seen before is your preserves; I’ve never seen anyone bring something so personal to sell at a performance. Have you been doing that for a long time?
Yeah. Not for every gig, because it is rather time consuming. I think I started seven years ago. A friend was visiting and I was moving into Chicago. I remember being at the kitchen table and racking my brain because I wanted something to sell at shows that was interesting. Everybody sells their music and their t-shirts, stickers and what not. I was trying to think of anything that would feel genuine, like me, and not just “well, this is what I’m supposed to do, so this is what I’m gonna do”. Authenticity is really important to me. There aren’t a whole lot of artists who do what I do, it’s totally me, take it or leave it I guess. I mean I’ll be hurt if you leave it, but that’s being an artist. So in that brainstorming it occurred to me that jam would be the perfect solution because I’m very domestic. I love the domestic arts. I dunno, there are so many other things that I love that get shoved to the side which doesn’t feel good and by making preserves whenever I can it’s sort of a way to tend to that part of me, the part of me that is a homebody and just wants to have everybody over to a dinner party and bake some bread, and I can sit up all day in the kitchen making preserves. Having friends over, having them help if they want, and still having the music. It can feed another part of me in the meantime. It works … I still feel that I’m not going to have preserves at every show; it’s so much work.
How many instruments do you play?
I play three instruments well: my voice, piano and guitar. But I also play the drums, violin and viola, banjo if I need to, accordion if I need to. There’s various things I’ll dabble in, and I will do, if needs be, but really, on stage these days, only guitar and piano. For a while, I toured with my friend Anais Mitchell; I kind of played drums for her – ‘kind of’, let’s put that bit in quotes. I played drums with the right half of my body and played a few keys with the left half of my body. I was playing both at the same time and then singing, that’s how we toured for a bit, so that was a fun challenge. My brain! I felt like I was tearing myself apart and sticking different parts of my brain back together.
How long have you been writing your own songs?
I’ve been playing music forever. Apart from the odd little ditty I wrote as a kid, only one of which I remember now, I began writing when I was fifteen or so. That’s around the time I started rebelling, and wanted to quit the violin, and teach myself guitar. I’m self-taught on guitar. There was no question, when I started learning guitar. It was never because I wanted to cover songs, or be some bad-ass lead guitar player. I wanted to write songs. I wanted to say something. I wanted somebody to listen. I think it’s pretty common as a young woman, to feel like you don’t have a voice, and that no-one cares what you have to say. Probably most of that was in my own head, but I didn’t feel like I was heard in some way, or understood. I definitely think there was a part of my childish reasoning that said if I wanted to say something, if I made it sound pretty, it would be listened to. I was an angsty, morose, antisocial child, just trying to find purpose. That combined with being a girl.
Do you think that being a girl caused some of that worry about not being heard?
Now I don’t really think much about being a woman who plays music, or if I have a voice, or how I compare to men – it just doesn’t really matter at all. The whole ‘woman in music’ thing, or ‘female singer songwriter’ – at the minute I’m gendered in the context of what I do. It’s gross, it’s pointless: I’m a musician. It’s utterly pointless to ‘sex’ the artist in that way.
But it does happen, which is a shame.
Did you see the Neko Case thing lately? (Ries is referring to the Twitter scandal involving Playboy labelling artist Neko Case a ‘female artist’ and her justified and angry response.) A great moment in Twitter!
That’s not a sentence I’ve heard before. How would you describe your relationship with Twitter?
Oh boy…. That’s not a question I’ve ever been asked. I know I’m supposed to use it to spread the word about the show, to use it as a kind of business tool, but frankly that’s kinda boring and I don’t wanna inundate people with that. I don’t want them to feel like they have no choice. Part of the time I feel kinda gross for using it in that utilitarian kind of way, so I just try to find a good balance of just being myself, just communicating, sharing things that I think are funny, but it’s hard, ‘cause there’s certainly a part of me that’s reclusive and just wants to talk to two people, not leave the house. It’s weird; its all so strange.
And it’s only recently become such an important marketing tool…
Yeah, I feel like if I don’t show all of myself – if I’m not completely accessible – then I’ll be forgotten. It’s kind of that feeling: if I don’t tell everybody what I had for breakfast, they’ll forget me. I’m always like ‘is that too much information?’; I’m never sure.
I really enjoyed your song ‘Words’ when I was at your gig in Durham; to what extent does it accurately describe your song writing process?
(She laughs) I’m quickly scanning the lyrics of the song in my head. I think it fairly accurately describes the beginning of the song writing process. I feel like song writing is maybe in two or three stages for me. The beginning stage is what I address in that song, describing the words coming and going and you, the writer, not having terribly much control over it. The words are just coming in to land and you catch them if you can, or if it’s a bad time you try to shoo them away. I think that’s pretty accurate for me when I write a song. It appears, a sort of nugget of the music and lyrics, both together. They’re already married; they’re working together. I just have to recognise and catch it. After that I have to tease it out and pull at the different strands and strains and see how I can beat the rest of the song together. That’s just labour, and that’s not really an aspect of it that’s in that song. The time you have to consider sitting with a nugget and trying to figure out what direction it wants to go.
Do you find that hard?
I dunno… Yes, but that’s probably not the right word for it. I’m not sure what the right word for it is. I guess there are different kinds of hard. It takes an effort. It takes an intention. It’s labour, but it’s a really weird elusive labour. It’s challenging.
How long does it normally take from the initial idea to feeling comfortable with the finished song?
It can differ so greatly. I would say it could be anywhere from an inspired single day. With Ghost, which for me is the centrepiece of my new album, I was hashing it out for maybe two or three years. Even then, when I was in the studio, there was one turn of phrase that was still not restful. There’s a line that goes “and the willow bent for weeping” and I ended up calling some friends and going like “should it be a willow bent to weeping” or “a willow bent for weeping”. I think I had three different versions of it so there are little things that will nag at me for a while, and honestly I’ll even live-change certain lyrics here and there, depending on my whim, just little tiny things that most people wouldn’t even notice, just for fun, so I can play with my voice. I’ll never sing the same song the same twice. That’s the way I sing; it’s fun to phrase things differently. I weave around, and play with the lyrics.
It must be hard to record albums when you know that will be the definitive version as far as most people are concerned.
If the listeners are the kind who want to sing along and need it to be exactly how it is on the album they’re not going to like me very much. I’ll stay quite true, but there is definite playfulness, and it’s important for me to be in the present, in the moment, and to continue to create.
Finally, what made you want to do a tour in the UK?
Well, I did a month-long ‘hello’ tour last year around this time, so it was just a question of coming back to see all my audiences. As an American singer-songwriter – I hate that term, I hate the term Americana, but I don’t know what else to call myself – there’s just that scene, the potential for the kind of music I do here. And as an American, if you’re gonna make the effort of crossing the ocean to play shows, there is kinda this exotic element; people are slightly more excited because I’m American, and I think that helps. Anything that helps to get people into a room; I feel that audiences here have more of an attention span for song writing, and craft.