Talking about getting back. I always wanted to go back further. I heard Dylan and then I read that he liked Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, so I had to get those records. Alan Lomax and his field recordings, that's about as far back as I could go. My dad took me to see U2 at Celtic Park Stadium in Glasgow when I was nine and Bono brought this girl up on stage and sang "I Can't Help Falling In Love," so I had to find out about Elvis Presley. The Eagles were a fixture at family gatherings, but I never got it. I heard Gram Parsons and the Flying Burritos at an uncles' house and knew that was the real deal. Then I had to find Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. There were also some surprises along the way like Tom Waits and Otis Redding. I stumbled into Booker T. and the MG's, The Ramones and The Clash. I was looking for the new stuff too, Elliott Smith and Neutral Milk Hotel. Each song, each record had it's own kind of flash. Nick Drake would make me see sad grey England. The Byrds were blinding sunshine.
School was fine, I liked it as much as you can like it at that age but learning about music and then attempting to play it was always far more important. There were some bands I was peripherally involved in, terrible DIY punk rock and other things that were just plain awful. Even though I had absorbed all of that music and desperately wanted to make my own mark, it was hard for me to know where to come from in my own spirit. I was sixteen when I first opened my mouth to sing and was quite surprised to find that I sounded all hoarse and hurting. That's when I began to write what I consider to be my first proper songs. Before that, I was just rewriting what others had already done better. Songs came in fragments and in full sweeps, at dawn or in the early evening.
When I was seventeen, I returned to America from Glasgow to finish high school in DC. Towards the end of the year, I met Chris Keup. He was something of an idol to me and all my friends. He had his own indie label, Grantham Dispatch Records, and used it to put out his own records. We became very fast friends and I suppose I was like some sort of apprentice songwriter, learning from someone who I considered to be the real deal. I made some recordings in my basement bathroom and sent them to him. We began talking about making a proper recording.
Now, this was the time of year where prep-school kids and their parents are graduating and packing up for the pristine college-campus lawns of East Coast. The prospect of four years of that kind of life didn't really appeal to me. Chris and I began to plot out a half-baked path for my newly chosen profession. I announced to my parents one morning in the late spring of 2001 that I wasn't going to college and that I was going to New York City to play clubs and try and get a record deal. This was met with a mixture of panic and outrage. They said I had one year to do it, and if I couldn't fulfill my prophecy, I'd be heading to college. I agreed. I graduated in May, turned eighteen, and went to Richmond, VA to record my first and only EP for Grantham Dispatch Records, Heart And Mind. We recorded it in our friend Stewart Myers' two-bedroom house. I left for New York shortly afterward in early September 2001.
My roommates in my shoebox apartment on the Upper West Side included a gay-porn star and his escort/coke-dealing boyfriend. They rarely left the apartment, they could turn tricks in their bedrooms and the cocaine rendered them completely paranoid. I would get up in the morning for one of the eleven jobs I had over the course of the year (I found very quickly that I'm quite unemployable) and they would have been up all night and give me four-hundred dollars in twenties to buy milk, beer, sandwiches, and smokes. I got to keep the change, and that' helped make the rent. My jobs included dog-walking, icing cupcakes, Greenpeace, and telemarketing in the darkest heart of Brooklyn.
I was playing clubs in the Lower East Side, mainly at the Living Room on the corner of Stanton and Allen. The way Steve and Jen had it set up, anyone at all could call up and ask to play. It didn't matter if you drew five people of seventy-five, everyone could get their thirty-minute slot and you were only as good as the tip jar indicated at the end of the show. New York was everything it promised to be. I walked and walked and walked and the soul of the city just came pouring out of the concrete. I could take the subway to Harlem or walk through empty Midtown at three am on a Tuesday night. My place was ten minutes from Strawberry Fields in Central Park, which was the first place my father and I went to on my first ever visit to the city when I was fifteen. Some bars would even serve me alcohol. I walked down Houston one day and saw Patti Smith buy a newspaper.
I was also writing more and more songs in my tiny little room at night. Living that way in those close quarters changed the way I wrote songs. I had to be quiet enough not to disturb my roommates but loud enough to drown out whatever they were doing in their own rooms. I would write on my own and sometimes Chris Keup would let me write with him. Songs were piling up. However, my bold experiment was failing, and no one was paying any attention. I had no more money and had to go back to my folks' house in defeat. In May of 2002, I played the 14th St. tunnel every night until I had enough money for a Greyhound home. By the end of the month, I was waiting tables again in Northern Virginia.
In July of that same summer, some people in LA got a hold of my indie EP. Three weeks later, Warner Bros./Reprise Records flew me out to California and offered me a deal. I thought about it for a good long while and then I took it.
I began a long process of recording the tunes I had been writing over the past year or so. I knew very little about recording and had an inherent distrust of anyone who I had never worked with. This was gonna be my first full-length record, and I wasn't gonna just spit it out and have to hate myself ten years down the line. I recorded hours of music in Nashville, Montana, Virginia, LA, and New York, and hated it all. I had sounds in my head and could not articulate them to complete strangers in dark studios. I scrapped everything and began to regroup. At the time, I was listening to a lot of the records coming out of Omaha, Nebraska. Kids from there would come through New York and we became friends through other friends. I told them about the trouble I was having with my record. I realized that every record that I loved coming from that part of the country was produced, engineered, and mixed by Mike Mogis. I asked the kids that knew him if they could give him some of my demos. Shortly after he heard some stuff, Mike and I began to record at Presto! Studio in Lincoln, NE.
When I got there, I had the feeling that it was my last chance. The record company wasn't just gonna let me record and record as much as I wanted. Sooner or later, an artist that doesn't come up with the goods gets dropped. I was hyper-aware of this fact. Mike and I discussed it at length and decided that we had to make a record that explored as many different ideas as possible. If this thing was gonna get me dropped or never come out, I had better make sure I had better put a bunch of stuff into it so I can at least have it to listen to myself.
Over the next eight weeks, we recorded fifteen tracks and called it Trouble Is Real. I wanted to make a record that had very few moments of pause and existed kind of like an uninterrupted idea. I wanted to create songs between songs, flowing smoothly into each other and crashing into each other as well. Luckily, Mike with his ability to play about a hundred instruments and a small group of some of my favorite musicians were able to match every sound I had in my head without ever using words like note, chord, or key. Mike and those kids from Nebraska (and some from LA, NYC, and Chicago) saved my songs and helped me make the record I wanted and needed to make.
I toured around the country for about a year after the recording, all the time writing new songs. I'm real glad I had all that time to work on new stuff, because it led to songs like “Behind The Frontlines” and “I Wouldn't Miss It For The World.” There's plenty of real innocent wide-eyed pop on this record, so it's good to have those two on there to demonstrate where I want to go with this whole thing. The recording of this record lasted from fall 2003 till fall 2004. The songs came from Virginia to New York to Omaha to Lincoln to Brooklyn to North Hollywood. So much has happened to me in all this time and that's the only thing I'm trying to get across with this record. I just want to try and get better at this thing all the time and be in it for the longest haul.
-Johnathan Rice, 1/05