FRONTRUNNER Meets Tyler Ramsey

Tyler Ramsey’s solo album For The Morning is his first in eight years, but it’s far from his first rodeo as a solo artist. He released his debut eponymous album in 2004, and then put out two more solo albums (A Long Dream About Swimming Across The Sea, 2010; The Valley Wind, 2011) while also playing guitar as a member of Band of Horses. Tyler lives and has his studio several miles outside of Asheville, NC, so it’s no surprise that his new album mirrors the calming country landscape of the area. For The Morning is a well-named, reflective collection of folk songs that sound like early morning or possibly late evening–the solitary, meditative times of day when you really have space to think.

FRONTRUNNER speaks with Tyler about the new album and the important relationship between quiet and creativity. In the process he also told us about his favorite guitars, the satisfying flexibility of solo touring, and his friendship with Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket.

Photo credit: Jameykay and Arlie Huffman

Can you talk about some of the major themes you grapple with on For The Morning?

It’s kind of a document of a certain period of my life. It covers a lot of ground. A lot of the songs were written and completed around the time my daughter was born, and a little bit after that, but I can’t really pick out any certain theme.

Is it fair to say there is a really strong influence of folk and country in your music? Where does that come from?

Of course, yeah. There’s a lot of both of those, coming from the music that I listen to and the things that I admire. A lot of the guitar styles that I’ve absorbed over the years are based in a folk world–or more like “country blues,” that kind of thing–just a finger-style guitar technique that encompasses a whole world of music that I am really into. I think it’s bled into the music that I write.

Photo credit: William Aubrey Reynolds

Is there a particular track on For The Morning that you learned the most from while writing or recording it? Or any particular tracks that otherwise stand out for you?

There’s two extremes on this record as far as production, and I could talk about both of those. “Bottom of the Sea” is a song that I wrote on the piano and ended up having more movement and chords than I’ve had in a song. It’s got more going on than most of the songs on the album: there’s some strings and lots of different keyboards on there. So for that song, I incorporated the skills that I had [learned] from the studio, from before, and I demoed it out to where it sounded the way I wanted. We really worked on fleshing it out and making it really full-sounding. I really love the way that song turned out.

On the other side of the coin is the title track “For the Morning,” which I also wrote on piano, but the version on the album is on guitar. What I like to do on an album is have at least one piece that is really bare-bones, like you would see if you came to see me play a show. So I tried to capture that song, as close as I could, to the feeling that I had when I wrote it. What you hear on the album is just a performance of the song. It’s not pieced together, there’s not fixes, we didn’t comp the vocals or do any of that stuff. That is just me singing this song and really capturing the emotion. We had a guitar mic and a vocal mic, and I think something had gone wrong with one of the mics, so it ended up being just one microphone. I think we added a couple of tiny little overdubs after we got the basic version of it. It’s super intimate. It was the last thing that I recorded for the album, and we ended up getting it at two in the morning or something. Most of the sessions weren’t going that late, but I think on this one I intentionally wanted to capture a little bit of rawness in the performance. 

Your music actually brings me into a mindset of music like Hall & Oates, or Seals & Crofts, or [David] Crosby — music that was made to be played by one or two people and was made to be listened to in a non-frantic environment.

Right. I appreciate those comparisons, and I’ve never heard a couple of those, but I grew up on that type of music as well with my parents, hearing songwriters, and hearing songs that were just songs. I’m trying to do that as well, trying to write songs that can carry themselves and be performed in different ways. There are times when I’m just playing a guitar and singing, and then all of a sudden the entire band is playing really loud electric guitars. It moves all over the place, and that’s kind of what I’m going for. But at the root of it is trying to become a better songwriter, and trying to write songs that are meaningful to me, and in turn hopefully meaningful to people that are taking the time to listen. 

What’s your favorite guitar right now? What makes it a good fit for you?

Right now in my life there are two guitars that I would say are my favorite ones. The first one is a late 60’s Guild Starfire V electric guitar. I bought it years ago on the way to record [For The Morning]. The first [recording] session, I was on my way to Louisville with my friend Seth, and we stopped by a friend of mine’s place in Knoxville. He had a guitar shop at the time, and I was just stopping by to say hello, but on the wall was this gorgeous, sunburst, really worn-in and played guitar, and I picked it up and just fell in love with it right away. It’s definitely my favorite electric guitar that I’ve ever owned. It’s got flatwound strings on it, and it works for finger-style guitar really well. It’s a beautiful instrument.

Then recently, I also picked up an old Harmony acoustic guitar that I want to say is either late 50s or maybe 60s. I found out about this guy down in Athens, GA, named Scott Baxendale. He has a shop where he takes these old Harmonies and old Kay guitars that are made out of beautiful old wood, and he takes them apart and reengineers or rebuilds them so they sound good. A lot of those guitars–although they were made out of fantastic wood–were not really made very well and would probably would just sit on a pawn shop hook on the wall or something. But he rebuilds them, and they sound amazing. I picked up one of those after playing with my friend Carl Broemel, who is the guitar player for My Morning Jacket. I did a tour with him, and he had [a guitar] that he had purchased from Scott, and I got to play it on that tour and fell in love with it. Then when I drove through Athens the next time, I stopped by the shop and grabbed this gorgeous little acoustic guitar. It’s the kind of guitar that just makes you want to play guitar all the time. And that’s a pretty special thing, sometimes.

After being a part of Band of Horses for almost a decade, what’s the most rewarding part about playing solo now?

I feel satisfied that, first of all, I found a team of people that are helping me with this record. I found Fantasy Records, and I have a good management company, and [there are] a lot of people who are doing a really good job of helping me get this music out there and working with me. I feel really lucky that I’m able to go out and play shows to people, and support this album, and spread this music around. 

It really is deeply satisfying to have written this material. I feel really strongly about it. It’s satisfying to be able to play these songs live for people, in different situations. I’ve done a lot of tours this year already, and some of them have been with my band–I have a pedal steel guitar player who also plays guitar and sings harmonies, and I’ve got a bass player who sings harmonies, and a fantastic drummer–and I’ve also done a lot of shows where it’s just me on acoustic guitar, and there’s something really satisfying about a night like that, for me. I think it comes across to the audience too, to have a show that’s not super flashy or anything–it’s just a cool experience. It’s like taking a deep breath or something, having a night like that where you can communicate with a crowd of people. It’s an intimate kind of thing; I’m really “in the crowd.” After the shows I’m hanging out and meeting people that have listened to my songs over the years. It’s been really cool to connect with a lot of people on these tours. 

You live outside of town near Asheville, NC. I was reading a little bit about how you feel that not being immersed in an urban environment, or even being decidedly removed from it, spurs your creative process. What is the most comfortable environment for you? 

That kind of varies, really. Creativity–or sparks of ideas–can come from any direction. The thing about living out here is the quiet. You can get grounded really easily, and I think it works for me as a person to have some space and quiet to reflect on all of the things that feed into creative ideas. I need to have that [groundedness] to be able to process those things and turn them into songs, normally. And this place is that place for me right now. 

Photo credit: Jameykay and Arlie Huffman

When you come home to the quiet after touring, do you feel energized? Do you feel drained?

It’s always a shock. It’s wild to go from here, and hop, and go out on tour, and be traveling to all the different cities and seeing the different things, and come back here. It’s very quiet and gorgeous. You’re kind of alone. I mean, I’m not alone, because I have my family here. But I can be alone if I want to go to my studio, or if I want to sit by the river. 

It provides that opportunity to connect with yourself. The times I’ve been most happy are when I have that opportunity. Even if it was like when I was younger and I lived alone in an apartment somewhere, when I knew I had hit the wall with social interaction or sensory input then I could go be alone. Most of the places that I’ve lived have a little elbow room or are surrounded by nature, and those are the places that I’ve loved the most. When we were thinking about moving out to the country and found this house, I knew it was the right place.

On the song “A Dream of Home,” you sing about being on the road and being at home, saying that you’ve been at “both extremes.” Where are you with that now?

You know, I’m still there. It’s still a struggle. It’s part of life as a musician. Not even just as a musician, actually! Anybody could have that same existence. Even if you’re working nine-to-five and you’re gone all day, there’s just a certain part of existence where you’re not necessarily sure that what you’re doing is the right thing to be doing. That’s what the idea started from. But then it developed into explaining a little bit about my personal experiences of traveling and missing home.

When you feel like you’re missing out, do you ever think that the music itself acts as the bridge to what you’re missing out on?

I mean, it’s what I’ve chosen to do with my time and most of my life so far, is to play music. I can’t do everything and be at all the places I want to be at the same time, so it’s just part of the decision that I made to do this thing. It ultimately is the satisfying route to take, but it also involves sacrifice. I think any creative pursuit, or any aspiration in your life, has to at some point involve some sort of sacrifice. So that’s what that is for me.

What’s coming up next for you?

Well, I have a tour with Carl Broemel. He’s a friend of mine, and we did a tour back in February. It turned out to be such a cool musical connection for me to meet him and realize we were musical kindred spirits. We do this thing where it’s like a duo tour. He brings a pedal steel and all his guitars and pedals, and I bring a Wurlitzer and my guitars, and we’re both on stage at the same time, and we play each others’ songs together. There’s only two people on stage, so we can do all different kinds of things. We’re gonna be doing that [in July 2019]. I’m picking him up in Nashville, and then we’re gonna rehearse and head all the way out to the West Coast and do about three weeks’ worth of shows together. 

Then the Europe tour should be coming up in the fall. I was over there not too long ago, just solo acoustic shows, but I think I’m coming back with my band this time, which will be really cool. Then things will slow down in the winter. I’m sure I’ll do a little bit of writing and have a little bit of downtime. Then I’ll head back out and play more shows, and eventually… another record at some point.

And the cycle continues.

Yeah! But for now I’m just really enjoying what I’m doing, getting to play for people.

This interview with Tyler Ramsey will appear in FRONTRUNNER’s Winter Edition, coming out in January 2020.

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