by: Thomas D. Mooney
“You’re just a songwriter, you ain’t a preacher
We came to mourn you, not to look in the mirror
Sing about those hard times, sing about those women
We love the broken, not the forgiven”
–David Ramirez, “The Forgiven”
Sing about those hard times. Sing about those women. Isn’t that what’s sometimes strange about why we love certain songwriters? Is that what makes Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and David Ramirez? It’s not that we’re just hearing a story, we’re hearing their story.
We want to hear the tragedy and misadventures of others. We want to see the effects on stage and feel the sliver of the dejection without having the full burden. I think in some ways, we try and build our own narrative of where and how a songwriter fits within our life without realizing they’ve sometimes got more to say than your favorite song.
David Ramirez knows that. No matter how talented he is at writing about those hard times and those women, he’s just as much about the other bits and parts of life. He already feels the pressure from others–music business folks, record producers, other musicians, fans–trying to pigeonhole him as an Americana folk Elliott Smith or something of the like. And hell, he could do the easy thing and appease.
It’s probably a good thing that Ramirez is a real songwriter though.
Listen to a couple of his latest–“The Forgiven” and “Stone”–and you’ll see Ramirez is already covering more territory (Much like how Adams, Isbell, Van Zandt, and Earle all have in their careers.) That’s what makes him not just another broken-hearted fool with a pen and guitar. That’s what makes me excited more about his next records than his previous–despite how great they are.
We caught up with Ramirez earlier this week. He’ll be playing at The Cactus Theater alongside Joe Ely tonight (Friday, March 28.) Read our interview below. For information on tickets, click here.
Watch/listen to “The Bad Days” below.
New Slang: You’re one of the few artists I’ve seen who, just by performance, ensures that the room is listening. The performance demands that attention. I’m sure it’s not like that all the time and I’m sure it didn’t start out that way, but when did you start noticing it more often than not?
David Ramirez: I started noticing that whenever I started being convicted about what I was saying. In my earlier years, I was writing songs because it was fun and I was trying to capture a room by how good my voice was or by how catchy this one part of a song was, but it wasn’t until I really believed what I was saying that people started paying attention. I think that was the big switch.
NS: How long ago was that?
DR: It’s been a slow build. Like you said, it’s not every night. But I guess I started noticing it around four years ago or so.
NS: You have this new acoustic and B-sides collection coming out on April 15. Is this a collection in the sense that these songs had been already recorded when working on previous albums and EPs and were just left off or did you just recently record them all at the same time?
DR: Yeah, I had never recorded these songs before. They’re songs that I had written that never really made it to the studio. You know, I like to write, I like to be in the studio, I like to put things out. So this isn’t a proper collection, it’s more of the B-sides thing. There’s a couple new songs that haven’t been heard. I put “Stone” on this. An acoustic version of that tune. There’s “Stick Around” rendition that’s a little different and about three other songs that hadn’t been released. I had these lying around and thought I may as well get to recording them and see what happens.
NS: What’s been your approach with these songs live? Have or are you playing these songs? Sometimes with releases like this, bands don’t really play them. What’s been your take?
DR: Yeah, I’ve played a few of these. There’s probably one or two that I’ll never play live but there’s a couple that I’ve already put in my show list. I had plans to do a full length and put it out, but I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready personally. I don’t think the songs were ready. I still wanted to release something though. That’s why I’ve put these few tunes together.
NS: Yeah. So last year, you were here in Lubbock for a good chunk of time. I think you genuinely had an impact on some of the songwriters here. I know there’s some guys who really started becoming fans of phrasing and lyrics after hearing you. But while here, what did you personally get done? How much did you do in terms of songwriting?
DR: Yeah. I was there six months and when I wasn’t on the road, I was just in my apartment writing. The entire Rooster EP came out there. I consider that a huge win. I’m really proud of those songs. I was just working on those tunes. I was really thankful for my time in Lubbock and just stepping away from Austin for a bit. Just removing myself from a few things, being close to my girl, and just being a little more isolated. It felt really good.
NS: Your songwriting is very personal. I think a lot of songwriters think that’s a great way to write, but only in theory. I don’t think you can just do something like that half way. But I can also see that having consequences on your real life and your relationships with the people close to you. Have you had any “bad” situations sparked by your songwriting?
DR: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think I try and stay guarded with my personal life because my stage life and record life is so personal. I am already putting out so much into the world. I’m kind of a closed off individual on a day-to-day basis. Maybe that’s partly because of how I write, but I don’t know if I see that as a problem. It might be a result of my writing, but I don’t think it’s problematic. I don’t know if friends or family think I might put everything on a song, but there’s nothing to be worried about on that front. I don’t like to put my whole life on paper. I’m really careful about what I choose to release although I may have some personal songs that have been written, it doesn’t mean I’m going to put it on a record.
NS: I had read that you said Apologies was this “real heart on the sleeve record about some of your regrets and remorse” and how The Rooster was this transition into writing more about love. At what point during the writing of those songs did you realize you were going into a different direction?
DR: I think it was intentional from the get-go. If I hadn’t of made that intentional switch, I could have been writing songs that were appropriate for that Apologies record for the rest of my life. I felt like I got those out and it’s the past, and let’s kind of leave it there. Let’s start writing about this new chapter. There’s more hope on The Rooster I believe. Then I started this new thing with the song “The Forgiven.” That’s really the first time I’ve given a commentary on the music business. That was an intentional switch as well. Through that song, I was able to write “Stone” and been working on a few songs like that recently. Social commentary if you will. But yeah, I think those switches need to be intentional otherwise we’ll just get lost in a black hole of recycling and reusing and never looking forward.
NS: Yeah, I was going to bring up “The Forgiven.” I think it’s really overall a clever song. I think the best part of the song is there’s this sense of self-awareness. It’s like in film, the breaking of the fourth wall. I like that. You know, you’re playing these songs and you’re really kind of playing this part, but with “The Forgiven,” it feels like an overhead view and you’re more or less addressing the audience.
DR: Thank you. I’m really proud of it for sure.
NS: One of the things about your songs that I think gets overlooked since you are such a great storyteller and lyricist is the actual music. These studio cuts of these songs aren’t just you and a guitar for the most part. When do you build the rest of the song? Are you going into the studio with an idea of what you want where or is it mainly just figuring it out once you’re there?
DR: It’s mainly figuring it out since I don’t have a band on the road. So the writing process is just me in my room and working on songs alone. The chance for collaboration doesn’t happen until we gear up for studio time. That was how it was for Apologies, Strangetown, and American Soil. For The Rooster it was primarily me and Danny Reisch, the producer. We did bring in a couple of players, but mainly Danny and I built that record from the ground up.
NS: There’s really like two versions of each of your songs. There’s that studio version, more full band, and there’s the live version with you and your guitar. I think it’s really cool to hear these two versions, these two different life’s of a song. I think a great example is “Fires.” There’s three or four versions at least. There’s the American Soil (Full Band), the Birmingham (Piano), the one you did with Serialbox (with violin), and then the live version (acoustic guitar). To me, that shows a songs’ diversity. Specifically for this song, did you have fun creating these different versions?
DR: Yeah. It was fun. I wrote that in 2006. It’s a pretty old song. Coming up on eight years for that tune. When I initially wrote it, I found it very powerful and I was really proud of it. I wrote it more like the Birmingham version. Then when I went into studio for American Soil, that record is so expansive and bold and big. That record is essentially the open road in America. When we laid down that track, we wanted to do something different from the intimate piano thing. The result is what you hear on the record now. But I never felt that it did the song justice. Getting a chance to redo it with Serialbox was fun. I think I finally got it right with that version. I think it came out real well. I try and mimic that version as much as possible.
NS: The Serialbox version is my favorite as well. The violin just puts it over the top for me.
DR: Yeah, that part is great.
NS: So obviously every songwriting experience is different, but typically for you, how long do you wait to play it live?
DR: Once I think it’s complete, I try and play it immediately. I’ll never get a true understanding of a song without the entire context. The entire context is the audience as well as me. How does the song work together with both of us. There’s been a lot of songs cut from that process. I’ve had to rework some entirely to make it work. I don’t like to wait very long. I’m always anxious to get new material on a setlist. It’s nice to change things up from time to time.
NS: What’s the last song you’ve written?
DR: There’s this song I started putting in my setlist that’s called “The Hard Way.” It’s more of a rock and roll tune so it took me a while to figure out how to play it. I wrote it. I loved it. Then just this last tour I started playing it live. Yeah, the first few nights, it just tanked [laughs]. I did not know how to play it. But every night, let’s just do this. Let’s rework it as I’m playing it and read the audience. I think I have it now. I’m excited to get it down recorded for sure.
NS: This isn’t anything about music, but I saw you recently tweet about finishing up True Detective. I was a huge fan. So Rust Cohle, where does he rank on the list of greatest television characters ever for you?
DR: Oh yeah. I loved it. He’s up near the top for sure. I loved his character a lot. He definitely has this mystery about him and intensity that I really admire. He’s not just mysterious and intense like a chain smoker; he’s got a great back story and is able to back it up and deliver. Fun character to watch.
NS: Did you go down the rabbit hole of reading about the show and diving into various theories or did you just watch the show?
DR: I just watched. I’ve never been one to do that. There’s only be a small number of films or shows that I’ve done research on. I just watched it as is. I thought there were a couple of things left unanswered, but for the most part thought it was killer.
NS: Do you ever think you’ll start writing songs as a character other than yourself? You think you’ll ever record an album with songs from a character you created?
DR: Yeah, I think that day will come. It might be fun to explore things from another character. I’ve not hit it yet, but I can see coming down the road at some point.
NS: I’m sure touring around with Joe Ely will help spark ideas about writing like that.
DR: Yeah, I’m really excited about this. For the most part, I’ve only really toured with my peers. Never been on the road with someone who’s been doing it longer. I’m excited to be exposed, to you know, a pro [laughs].