What would become the jangly, densely layered Sorry Vampire (Vagrant, 10/2), the second full-length from John Ralston, began as just a few basic elements and eventually snowballed into over 50 songs with almost twice as many individual tracks on each song.
The record was built to give the listener the experience of hearing something new with each repeated listen - you'll likely never hear this record the same way twice. The final dozen tracks also speak to the "luxury' Ralston experienced by not having time constraints and being able to home record.
The Florida-based musician began work on Sorry Vampire almost immediately after self-releasing his debut, Needle Bed, in 2005, which was picked up by Vagrant and re-released in 2006. When he arrived in Knoxville to record the album and Needle Bed's producer Michael Seaman, he'd formed his plan: "To make the record sound beautiful, but in a different way than you've heard before." This is when he began experimenting with his songs, tossing out leftovers and writing new parts.
The first song, "Fragile", was one of the first Ralston began crafting with onetime Wilco keyboardist/engineer Jay Bennett and Ralston's then-bandmate David Vandervelde. Even though they recorded "Fragile"'s basic elements three years ago he didn't finish the song until 2007, over the course of three or four sessions. "Oh man, it was something! There are so many tracks and so many songs and so many takes on so many songs," says Seaman, erupting in laughter. Seaman estimates they took a cumulative six months across their sessions in Tennessee and Florida.
The original version of the deceptively bouncy "Beautiful Disarmed" contained about 20 vocal layers and piano, but it wasn't until after he added two separate drum takes, a Stylophone, and an ARP Solina String Ensemble to the mix that it sounded "done." The otherworldly feel of "A Small Clearing," which began with a loop of field recordings (street noises, doors slamming), was only completed during the very last recording session when the band stopped in Knoxville for 10 days after a tour and their collective experimenting gave the song its signature arpeggiated figure complete with steel drum, tongue drum, and even more sampled noise.
With "Ghetto Tested," which was tracked a mere two times, Ralston's orchestra shifts from electric guitar to symphonic strings to mellotron brass. "I can't tell you how I arrived at it or what it means," says Ralston of the track. "But I can tell you it was the most challenging for everyone to figure out." The depth of sounds he used, including instruments like a PortaSound (a $10 Yamaha keyboard that creeps up everywhere on the album), helped make the record sound unique. For as many instruments as he employed, he invited just as many guests.
In addition to his regular band, and whoever else stopped through Knoxville during recording, Miami friends the Postmarks stopped by. Vocalist Tim Yehezkely lent her voice to "I Guess I Wanted My Summer Now" and drummer Jon Wilkins performed on all but two of Sorry Vampire's songs. "Last time I think I played about 80 percent of the instruments and I'm not qualified to play even half of those," says Ralston, "so it was nice to have some professionals in there with me." Wilkins and Ralston got on so well that the drummer took on a co-producer's credit as he helped finish up the sessions.
To mix the record, Ralston teamed with Grammy-winning mixer Charles Dye (Lauryn Hill, Ricky Martin, Aerosmith), as he had done with the comparatively sparse Needle Bed. The pair whittled down Vampire's hundreds of layers per song. "He just said, "I want it to have depth,'" Dye recalls. "I want it to feel three-dimensional." The engineer began ignoring his first instincts, making "unconventional choices" to give it the desired 3-D sound. When they were done, Dye decided that this was the best record he'd ever worked on.
Reflecting, Dye says, "It's an intensely beautiful epic, an amazing collection of songs, brilliant melodies and lyrics, very different sounds and texture. He's really one of the best lyricists I've ever worked with - especially his sense of humor and the way that he plays with phrases. It's not overt. It's sort of this wry sense of humor."
Sorry Vampire and all of its component parts became a monolith of sound. The back of the CD bears a note saying that the record was intentionally mixed quieter than other albums to preserve the original performances' contrast between loud and soft, leaving it up to the listener to crank it. With so many pieces and nuances working together, this album more than deserves the distinction.
"Little things like that take a while," Ralston says, referring to the art of creating such a sonically loaded album. "You can't force them. You just have to wait for them to come to you."
"Needle Bed" Bio
Accidents do happen. Just ask Florida-based singer-songwriter John Ralston. Or better yet, listen to Needle Bed, his debut album for Vagrant Records, and a stark collection of 11 honest, deeply personal songs, that-to hear Ralston tell it-came about almost entirely by accident. The unlikely story begins with a chance meeting between the artist and Needle Bed collaborator Michael Seaman in Ralston's hometown of Lake Worth, Florida. "I met him completely randomly," remembers Ralston. "I don't think I have ever met such a good friend just out of the blue." Over the next few weeks, the two would record some rough demos together.
The coming months would find Ralston increasingly stifled musically and emotionally, so when Seaman, who had since moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, suggested another impromptu recording session, Ralston jumped at the offer, enlisting the help of drummer and friend, Jeff Snow. As the sessions began, Ralston could sense that something was different. "As soon as Jeff and I drove up there and started recording, we knew we weren't just doing demos. We knew that we were making an album." Over the next five days, the trio would do exactly that, forgoing sleep in favor of all-night recording sessions, running back and forth between two Knoxville studios, frantically tracking pianos, drums, horns and anything else that seemed appropriate. "We probably slept for two hours a day," recalls Ralston. "We never got stuck. Things happened really naturally."
When asked how he arrived at the title, Ralston says, "I was listening to the album on the drive back home from the studio and thought that the music sounded so inviting and easy, like the comfort of your own bed, but a lot of the lyrical content is sharp and at times painful. That combination, for me sums up Needle Bed." The album opens with "No Catcher in the Rye," which Ralston purposely wrote as an intro. "It really just sets the tone for the rest of the album. It's the setting before the dialogue begins in a play." And that dialogue begins in earnest on "It's Not Your Fault" with Ralston singing "Dear whoever finds this note first/it's not like it's a blessing or a curse/It's just life and it's spinning around/ it's just life and spins you around/but it's not your fault." The steady acoustic strum of "When We Are Cats" again brings Ralston's lyrics to the forefront. "Well that's our love: stronger than blood" he sings on the bridge, words which to him beg the ultimate question, "What happens to those we love when they die? Is there anything after the grave?" The proven crowd favorite on Needle Bed is "Gone Gone Gone." "This song is so strange to me," says Ralston. "At the last couple of shows there were just hundreds of people singing along. It's a great opportunity to say fuck you to an ex I guess. Maybe like John Lennon and primal scream therapy combined?" Ralston has a couple favorites of his own on the record, including the more uptempo "I Believe in Ghosts," on which he played everything but the drums, and the orchestrated moodiness of "Avalanche." Just as with the album's intro, Needle Bed closes with a song specifically written for that purpose. "'Our Favorite Records Skips' begins with a glockenspiel recorded and then tweaked by Michael. This is the song I wrote to close the record - it's a lullaby for the needle bed."
The foundation for Needle Bed was laid many years ago, with a teenaged Ralston poring over records by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, The Band, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, and in turn, penning songs of his own. "My mom was a folksinger, and she taught me to play guitar," says Ralston about his early years. Even then, he was prolific. "From the first time I learned 3 chords I wrote a song. I'm sure it was a really horrible song, but I always kept writing and writing." Ralston pays homage to one of his earliest influences on the song "No One Said It Was Easy." I wrote this song after hearing an old Townes van Zandt interview where he says "I never got along with life.' It was one of the most moving interviews with one of the songwriters who influenced me the most."
In the months following the recording of Needle Bed, Ralston put together a band and after only one rehearsal, ventured northward to open a string of shows for another longtime musical cohort, Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional. "I think the first night we sold close to 300 CDs," remembers Ralston about the initial reaction to the early, limited pressing of Needle Bed. This prompted Ralston to look into giving Needle Bed a proper release, and again, Ralston needed look no further than his friends, in this case Vagrant Records, with whom Ralston had fostered something of an informal relationship. "That's the way I'd always like to do business," says Ralston of his old fashioned approach to the music business. "First you work with somebody and develop a relationship and then you enter into the agreement. You feel each other out and if you know it's going work, then you work together."
John Ralston is as surprised as anybody by his accidental success story. But he by no means plans to rest on his laurels. Even while rehearsing with his live band to take Needle Bed on the road, Ralston is nevertheless hard at work on his next round of songs. "I write all the time," says Ralston admitting to having written "probably over 200 songs" in the time since the Needle Bed sessions. "I thought it was commonplace to just write all the time, but I'm realizing that a lot of artists don't. But that's the only thing that I can do. I'm not suited for anything else."