Emily Reo: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Sam Ray: Absolutely, without any doubt, but considering how long it’s taken me in my own life to realize fully what privilege even means and what my own is and let go of any pretensions/defensiveness about that, I’m very hesitant to be outspoken in a way that feels like it’s either: 1) trying to speak for anyone else, or 2) yelling over voices less heard because people like me traditionally yell over them. The most important thing to my own approach, I guess, is making sure I am above everything else listening and taking a passive role, in the sense only that I have so, so much to learn (always) and so much that I’ll never fully understand or at least never live through. Like if someone around me is saying something dumb/awful, I will speak up (though in hopes of having a conversation instead of an altercation, if at all possible), but if I’m around other people talking about their experiences, I’ll shut up and take note/listen/learn instead of needing to chime in with my own.
This actually creeps its way heavily into my own music not in that it becomes socially/politically charged as much as it makes me question constantly what my purpose is really in releasing/writing music (beyond the mere act of writing it for my own enjoyment in creation—it’s bringing an audience into it that raises questions). What am I doing that hasn’t been done before by people just like me, and why do I feel the need to raise my voice in a field crowded with people who have had very similar experiences to me and are also trying to sing/talk/shout/whatever about them? Why am I unique (my conclusion is I’m not), and is it selfish to suppose other people need to hear anything I have to say? (My conclusion is they don’t, but it’s more complicated than that.)
Not to mention the former part of my answer has influenced the latter part immeasurably. Like, growing up I was used to everyone using a certain kind of language in songs—both traditionalist indie rock lifers and people I knew my age emulating them. Now I find that language and style really off-putting, not to mention kind of dumb, and I know for sure I’ve played into it before purely out of emulation too. Something as simple as writing a song about someone you like in terms of possession (hearing the phrase “That girl is/isn’t mine/yours” repeatedly in music, bleh) or using very one-dimensional stand-in characters (almost always female) to project broad (and kind of self-serving/narcissistic) emotions or ideas. Manic-pixie-dream-girl music. And I’ve basically got this pseudo-Bechdel test list of things that I wrote up when I started my last album and kept watch of during.
Being a feminist for me is more about actively trying to not do something harmful, even unintentionally, and learning better and better how to do that (including learning from innumerable past mistakes of my own), and that’s a constant and unending process. It’s been about realizing how wrong I was taught in a lot of ways, and how many things that I never questioned or that were just kind of ingrained in me growing up are a lot more harmful than I realized, and how to unlearn that and change.
It’s about listening to other people when they talk to me or each other and learning from that, rather than needing to raise my voice too and add to a din that (nine times out of ten) probably doesn’t need me to add to it, but rather subtract from it where I can.
ER: I think what you said is spot on and super important—not being open-minded or really listening to someone sharing an experience of struggle is extremely detrimental towards any progress or change being made. It’s so common to see or hear a woman share an experience of sexism and have a man argue the validity of her personal and painful experience. I think it’s great that you’re conscious of the content in your music. I was having a talk with my friend Liz last year about how music should say something, like how it would be great if artists with a following used their lyrics as a platform to provide an actual message. On the other hand, I think a big part of that is being conscious of what you do say. I mostly listen to R&B and hip-hop because sonically it’s the most pleasing to me, but the lyrical content can be so frustrating, and I wish people would just choose not to say certain words or phrases to avoid perpetuating problems.
SR: I don’t think someone in music (at a big or small level) needs to be saying something ~important~ for the whole world (most of my favorite songs are about literally nothing), but I think being conscious of what you are saying and how it could be interpreted is so important to anyone in any field obviously, but especially music, where things go unchecked way too frequently, by artist and audience alike. So I guess I’m very in line with what you’re saying about being smart/conscious of what you do say. It’s really not so hard, it just takes caring enough to pay attention.
What is the most beautiful or memorable place you’ve ever seen in North America on your travels and why?
ER: Okay, this is probably going to sound super sentimental so watch out. I went on my first tour in 2010 down the East Coast from NYC back to Orlando while I was still living there. I had just visited Noah for the first time since we met in Florida a couple months earlier and I was feeling all of the feelings in the whole world. When we got to Asheville I remember waking up in the van and Ratatat was playing in my headphones. Right as the song “Everest” started we passed the first huge lookout on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had lived in Florida most of my life and couldn’t remember ever seeing a mountain before this. Think about the first time you saw mountains or the ocean or anything, but imagine if you were old enough to remember and really take in the significance. Then add a ton of emotions from falling in luv and not being 100% sure if you’re awake or still asleep and your best friend is sleeping next to you and this beautiful song about a mountain just came on like a personal soundtrack to your life. Sometimes I get scared that the more I see new things, the less I’ll be able to feel or care when I see those things the next time. I’ve never been able to get that feeling again when looking at mountains.
SR: I had a very similar mountain experience (even having grown up being in and out of Appalachia) in Italy, and it was the first (and only so far) time I’d been out of the country, and I was on a bus, except I was listening to Third Eye Blind’s “Graduate,” but it stuck with me in almost the exact same way. That rules.
ER: Speaking of environments, so many of your songs have titles describing a fleeting moment, like “Driving alone past roadwork at night” or “In rural virginia; watching glowing lights crawl from the dark corners of the room.” These are experiences that a lot of people can probably relate to or imagine, but we don’t always realize that those specific memories will stick with us until later. Do you draw your inspiration from little moments like these that creep back up in your thoughts? Or do you make something first and attach it as a sonic pairing to a fitting memory? I’m also curious if environment makes a difference in your process, like if you feel more or less inspired being in certain conditions like a city, on the road or somewhere reclusive.
SR: I think all of the things described in Three Love Songs existed as ideas first that I had to fit songs or sounds to. “Driving alone past roadwork at night” was an idea for a song (with no melody or tone or actual music in mind) for over a year before I got it to work, so to speak. I don’t know why it works or what makes something work or not, it’s just completely intuitive or even like a guessing game. “In rural virginia; watching glowing lights crawl from the dark corners of the room” was something that happened and I remembered (and actually had that recording of the AM radio preacher from the time I was there) and wanted to put music to also. So was “Big man’s last trip outside,” which I wrote the day my (titular) cat died—and the day after he went outside for the last time. We couldn’t find him after like 30 minutes and had to look around until he was under some bushes, and we brought him back, and he was very content then and just tired. We knew he was going to die. So we knew (and he knew) it was his last trip outside. A very literal song, but meant to represent both his view and mine. So I guess at least 90% of that record existed as moments first, songs later. Same with seeing little ghosts everywhere, from 2011, where I kept trying to put music to different memories, dreams, etc. I just tried to draw from a much more recent and less ‘nostalgic’ pool for Three Love Songs.
But yeah, environment affects everything heavily. Everything manic and jarring and almost noise-oriented I’ve been making is almost without a doubt from living in cities finally after years of avoiding them. Or a lifetime of avoiding them, really. I don’t feel more or less inspired by a place (though I guess there are exceptions for particularly beautiful/comfortable places, but those are so rare to actually get to work in), but I get really different kinds of inspiration. There’s a lot more urgency in an urgent place. Environment affects everything you do as a producer and songwriter, beyond just ‘headphones vs. monitors’ or the sound of a guitar/piano in a specific room. What I’m writing and how I’m making it sound changes just as much based on where I am, but I don’t think I feel like I want to write/record more or less no matter what.
I guess I’m really curious to ask if you feel the same way, or how you think different environments affect your songwriting/recording process and if you feel more or less inspired by anything in particular. I know you’ve lived in a whole lot more places than I have.
ER: That’s super interesting that you wrote the songs to fit around ideas, especially for “seeing little ghosts everywhere.” I feel like those songs sound so nostalgic and fit perfectly with the titles, and it’s probably much harder to compose music to fit than it is to title something fittingly. So beautiful. :’)
As far as the environments go, I definitely feel like where I’m making music is crucial to how it’s going to come out. I know this probably isn’t true of everyone—Noah can make music that sounds equally awesome whether he’s in his room, a park, the backseat of a car, and really at any time of the day or night. But I find it difficult to get into the right headspace until I feel comfortable and settled somewhere. That might just be because I overthink everything and have mild anxiety about how things will turn out before I even start them. I want everything to be perfect (I’m a Virgo), and I feel like that takes away the fun of creating or just fucking around. I guess what I’m trying to say is I think environment and state of mind both affect the quality and process of music making for me. I probably had the most fun when I first started making music six years ago in Florida and didn’t think anyone would ever hear it or care. I didn’t feel any pressure to create something marketable within a certain timeframe or any of those ideas stemming from “the music industry,” which at the time I barely knew existed. I kind of wish I could go back to being completely oblivious to that side of music making.
Anyway, besides my increasingly anxious headspace, my environments have changed a lot. Living in Florida is really interesting and special, and I’ve talked about this a lot, but being almost separated from the rest of the country creates these incredibly supportive and insular communities where I felt safe when I started writing. Also rent is hella cheap and I had space for so many instruments that I could pretty much record or practice with at any time. That all changed when I moved to New York, and besides being generally worn out from working 2+ jobs to afford being alive, space and privacy became scarce. Because of this I wrote less but learned more about recording and production because all that fit within my computer, and those are useful things to know. I also started making more electronically inclined music and condensed my six Casios into two Casios and a microKORG. After New York I lived in Boston for about eight months. Five of those were deep winter, and I felt really numb emotionally while being there. So the only song I wrote in that environment was about feeling nothing. Then when I moved to LA for about nine months I only wanted to listen to R&B for some reason. I just immediately became obsessed with it and still am. I definitely feel like it coincided with a huge change in environment. That’s when I started adding elements of Auto-Tune to my music and spent a lot of time making beats as well as producing a few tracks for my pal Yohuna. I feel like the combination of all of these places I’ve lived recently are majorly influential in the direction my new stuff has been going in.
SR: Your production for Yohuna’s stuff is so wonderful! I hope y’all make way more music together.
When you first started making music, did you envision yourself more as a performer or a songwriter/producer? Did you start doing one and expand to include the other, or was it just 50/50 from the start? I really love watching you play live, and I really love your music, and both parts seem really natural, so I’m curious if you had any specific goal in the beginning, or if one grew because of the other. I didn’t start even attempting to play Ricky Eat Acid stuff live until this year (and had only thought about it as a far-off idea before this), and as soon as I started performing I noticed it influenced my writing process and my goals in general very heavily.
ER: When I first started making music, I don’t think I had anything envisioned, it was all an experiment and something that I never thought I’d be good at. I didn’t play my first show until almost a year after I began writing, and I didn’t even consider the production (or learn what EQ-ing was) until maybe a year after that, as I’m sure you can tell by the production of my earliest stuff. I feel like lo-fi would be a generous description. O:)
I don’t feel like I figured it out or had a system until I moved to New York and stopped playing with a band, because I had to start recreating the sounds of three people myself. From there my live set ended up taking a completely different direction and became the foundation of some of the demos that were reworked for Olive Juice. For a while my live set was where I came up with ideas that I would incorporate into recordings, but since I’ve started focusing more on the recording process as well as making beats and using MIDI, I think it’s going back in the opposite direction. Like currently I’ll record something and figure out every element of the song before translating it into something I can play live. I’m trying to learn Ableton and switch everything over before Basilica and I’m terrified!
SR: That pretty much mirrors where I’ve been at in a lot of ways, minus Florida. Maryland doesn’t really have communities like that (in my mind) musically, and I know some people would argue that, but I don’t want to be part of their forced community anyway. But I have friends here, and most people I know here just make stuff for the fun of it and do more menial stuff to survive, whether that’s commission work for music/studio engineer stuff, or just like waiting tables/doing other jobs. I was a delivery boy for a while, for instance. I grew up in a weird way with music where I was simultaneously trying to learn how to write songs/sing/play instruments (before I ever thought about writing real ~pop~ songs I wanted to be a composer strictly) and also learning how to produce/make music primarily without instruments/with sampling (originally doing this as a joke but becoming more serious as time went on). It’s always been a push/pull between those two and having a space where I can create things without any sense of self-doubt (like away from people/in a house/not in an apartment/not in a city/where I can have instruments and drums), I tend to gravitate towards doing more physical work with music regularly. I recorded that whole Starry Cat album in like a week because of that, even though it was originally just supposed to be all demos. I had a drum set then, and all these instruments and little things, and I just worked with what I could. Now I’m usually in apartments/small spaces and trying to do things way more exclusively on a computer. There isn’t one way I like more or less, but it’s definitely influenced by that in the same way. Also I didn’t learn about EQ/compression/etc. until I’d been making music for like six years, lol.
But yeah, even just creating things on monitors/speakers vs. headphones or something influences what I’m doing, the same way I’ll subconsciously (or consciously) write things more attuned to whatever recording medium I’m working with when I’m recording with a band/more traditionally. If i know I’m working with a 4-track or reel-to-reel, I’ll not only mix more intuitively with that in mind, but also it’ll influence the types of songs I’m actually writing.
It’s only this year that those things are starting to bleed into each other, like producing my own stuff with my own songs or writing my own songs with my own production in mind. I’ve always loved R&B so much (and have also had a similar but growing discomfort with certain R&B tropes, though that’s a whole other discussion with no clear answer and not one I really feel entitled to have either), but this year more than ever it’s seeping into my own music, from production to vocals/songwriting too. But I’m always trying to draw on all kinds of styles if I can—without being a grab-baggy, kitschy producer who uses musical signifiers in place of actually making original/unique music (no shots, no shade).
ER: Also I’m so sorry about your cat. :”( Do you consider yourself a cat or dog person?
SR: I am definitely a cat person, though I like dogs too. I just grew up with cats and don’t really know how to take care of dogs or have the energy to keep them happy. Cats are fine just sleeping on you. That’s all my cats ever wanted (and all the one I’ve got left wants to do, besides be fed), so I can do that.
I also raised a turtle once as a kid, which was cool, but I let it go once it got to be an adult because I’m not a monster. How about you?
ER: I used to be a dog person because the cat that I grew up with was evil, but then I met some angel cats and realized how much more I vibe with their personalities than dogs. Now I definitely identify as both a cat person and a cat. I’m going to adopt the kitty luv of my life next month and carry him everywhere in a Baby Bjorn so we never have to be apart. Chauncey, are you reading this? I’M COMING 4U.