Grateful Web Interview with Ricky Stein (@ SXSW)
GW: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions, you’ve had a whirlwind SXSW week and GW appreciates your time. To get started, give us a little history into the evolution of you as an artist. You’ve been playing for almost a decade, not to mention that music is in your blood because your dad is also a musician. What was the impetus to become one yourself? Did you begin, in the days of those solo hole-in-wall gigs, with a clear image of yourself as an Americana artist?
RS: I caught the music bug in high-school and started playing bass and writing songs for a rock band. I fell in love with playing shows and the musician lifestyle and have been hooked ever since. Eventually our band broke up and I developed an act as a solo musician. I’d always loved Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt, so the transition into the roots-rock genre came pretty naturally.
GW: Do you see yourself ever venturing outside of the Indie Americana realm of your last album Crazy Days or is that who you are as an artist?
RS: My two favorite musical genres are classic Americana and modern indie rock. I seem to go back and forth between these genres -- Crazy Days was more of an Americana album while the Warm Guns record Something in the Night leaned more towards indie-alternative. My ultimate goal would be to write music that appeals to fans of both kinds of music without alienating either, similar to artists such as Old Crow Medicine Show, Gary Clark, Jr., Shakey Graves, etc. It’s tough to do, and you have to be really careful during the songwriting process.
GW: Generally speaking, do you think it is limiting or clarifying that we so quickly lump artists together or under a specific genre or classification?
RS: I don’t think it’s limiting. People are gonna listen to whatever speaks to them, no matter the style of music. A great song can be interpreted by a jazz band, a rock band, a country band -- it’s still just the right combination of lyrics and melody. Classifying music into genres just makes it easier for people to talk and write and read about.
At the same time, no artist wants to feel limited as to what they can or can’t do or who they’re supposed to be. I think the key is to somehow carve a niche that appeals to a cross-section of music fans, and then continually develop and expand upon that sound.
GW: You’re a history buff and a musician, and you’ve blended the two passions to write a book about the evolution of the local music scene—how do you balance the two creative outlets? Which writing (books or songs) gives you the most satisfaction?tell
RS: They’re both extremely satisfying and I’m really glad that I’ve been able to do both. Writing song lyrics and writing history or journalism are obviously different disciplines, but they often can play off of and inspire one another. The key for me is just to sit down and try to write something interesting every day. One aspect of songwriting that stands out, however, is the live performance. Being able to sing words that you’ve written to people every night is pretty hard to top.
GW: Your last tour was in 2011, when do you predict you’ll hit the road again?
RS: Well, it’s hard to say. Touring is so much fun, but it’s incredibly hard to make money if you don’t have a strong media presence. Right now I’m trying to write the very best set of songs that I possibly can and make a really strong record out of it. If it’s on the level, everything else will work out.
GW: I understand you play both solo acoustic sets and with your band The Warm Guns—what are the joys and woes of each? Which do you prefer?
RS: There’s no better feeling than playing with the raw power and energy of a rock n’ roll band. Unfortunately it’s also really hard to find a group of people who are all on the same page, both artistically and professionally. Especially here in Austin, where many musicians are by necessity in multiple bands. It gets really hard to coordinate gigs and rehearsals, and if one band member cancels, it affects the entire show. Playing as a solo can be limiting in terms of what you can do on stage, but it also gives you complete autonomy as a performer. Plus, it serves as a really good litmus test for your original material.
GW: Your slick southern sound and catchy melody lines don’t distract from the integrity of the lyrics themselves. As we know, songwriters are poets with better rhythm. Where do you draw inspiration for your work? And follow-up, what’s your process?
RS: Lyrics are tough. Anyone can write down a set of words, but it’s really difficult to put them together in a way that makes them meaningful. I think songs usually begin with an observation, some kind of pattern you notice in life. It can come from watching a movie or reading a book or driving your car or just walking around the block. Or it can just come out of thin air! But I think there are ways to coax out inspiration. Working on it every day is good, and experiencing things that fit the mood of whatever song you’re trying to write can help as well.
GW: Austin is home to not only SXSW, ACL, but also thousands of young, budding, hopeful, starry-eyed musicians. What advice would you give them? What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
RS: I think the best thing you can do is just work hard at it and keep trying different things. Don’t settle for anything less than the best songwriting, the best recordings, the best live shows you have to offer. If you do you’ll just get swallowed up--there are too many talented musicians in this town, and having friends will only get you so far. The best advice I ever got came from Gurf Morlix. He told me to just keep writing songs and keep trying to improve. When you write something that really moves someone they will let you know.
GW: We at GW really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us—now for some well-deserved R&R! Take care, we can’t wait to see what’s next for you.