Interview from 2005, by Nancy J Price
He could be easily pegged as just another pretty boy, but you’d be selling yourself short by judging singer/songwriter Johnathan Rice too quickly. As adorable as he may be — with the big puppy dog eyes and nouveau-mod hair — he’s less Teen Beat spread and more Times op-ed. His smoky, weathered voice is another surprise. Though only 22 years old, this Scottish-American sounds at least twice as old when he sings.
But most important of all, Johnathan Rice’s gift for music comes through loud and clear as you listen to his 16-track major label debut, Trouble is Real. And word — for real — is getting around. By way of example, REM’s Peter Buck saw a performance, and was impressed enough to invite Rice to open a few of the band’s European dates. Then there’s his turn as Roy Orbison in the movie, “Walk The Line.”
We recently spoke with the witty and well-informed, chatty and charming Johnathan Rice — and he answered these ten questions just for you.
Nancy J Price: So how did you really first get started singing and performing?
Johnathan Rice: Well, I’m Scottish, and we come from a really big Irish Catholic family, and the thing about that part of the world — in the North, up there in Ireland and Scotland — everyone is kind of expected at these large gatherings of people, where there’s lots of alcohol and a really good atmosphere. Everyone starts singing at some point. So when I was very young, I was content just to watch people sing, and then I kind of eased my way into it by learning how to play guitar. My family mostly had these really sweet and clean voices. I always expected that mine would be really sweet and clean, so I was a little afraid when I finally sang and I sounded like I drank barbed wire or something.
NP: I know that you basically gave yourself a year after you moved to New York to get your music career off the ground…
JR: I didn’t really have a plan at all. I told people that I did! If you looked at the way things have panned out for me, it looks like I had a plan. But it was just a mixture of inexperience and arrogance, I guess, because I was 17 years old and I made this little demo record on a really, really, really tiny Indy label in DC, and took it to New York. And I told people, “Yeah, well, I’m going to go to New York, and then I’ll play clubs, and then, and then I’ll make records for the rest of my life.”
And I guess nobody believed me at the time, and they were probably right not to believe me. I was just incredibly lucky, and after that year, I ran out of money in New York and kind of had completely failed at what I was trying to do, and was back at my parents’ house in Virginia. And about three weeks after kind of throwing in the towel, on some level, Warner Bros. called me and asked me to come out to California.
NP: What were those three weeks like for you? Were you just at rock bottom?
JR: I don’t know if it was rock bottom… I was kind of bewildered, I guess, because I had created this kind of idealized picture of the way things were going to go, and it didn’t go that way. I mean, I loved New York, and that year in New York just living on my own for the first time, and living on my own means. And, you know, being hungry for the first time, and being broke — completely and utterly broke for the first time. I’m really glad that I was able to taste that, that side of life, because I think a lot of musicians that have a lot of middle-class guilt, like they don’t like to talk about their backgrounds.
But I don’t really have any problems saying that I didn’t want for much when I was a kid. My parents did what they could to give me what I needed, and so I’m glad that I was able to know what it’s like for, well, most of the people in the country, who don’t have that much. Life’s kinda tough, you know? So I was glad that I was able to see that, and I don’t think I would’ve written the same songs if everything had gone easy for me.
NP: I’m sure you were very aware of the record company’s demands on you, or their needs from you. How did that impact what you were doing?
JR: Well, it’s not necessarily their demands or needs, because I really, honestly, have never given a second though to their demands or needs, because I think it’s, for the most part, it’s probably unwise to think the way your record company thinks.
>> See his albums at Amazon: Johnathan Rice
And I’m not cynical about it at all — I’m just kinda realistic about it. There are some lovely people at my record label and they’ve allowed me to do whatever I want, and they’ve given me unlimited resources, and I’m so thankful for that. But I did not go into the studio in Nebraska thinking I’d better churn out some hits for Warner Bros. What I was worried about, however, was getting dropped, because I had made the record several times before even going in, and I was very aware that I was giving the impression to the record label that I didn’t know what I was doing. And that’s, for the most part that was true — it took me a long time. I was signed when I was 19 years old, and immediately started jumping into the process of making a record, and it’s a fairly difficult thing The first time I’d ever really done it I’d made these really kind of DIY barebones recordings, but I’d never really had a genuine budget, and studio, and other people’s expectations resting on me and things like that. So I had his grand plan in my mind when I got signed, I was like, “Oh, great, I got signed, I’m gonna make my pop album first, and then after that I’m gonna make my rock album, and after that I’m gonna make this total folk album, and after the folk album I’m gonna make, like, kind of an experimental electronic record…”
I had been taking all these stabs and stuff, and by the time I got to Nebraska, Mike [Mogis, Saddle Creek producer] said to me, “Why don’t we just put all the things that you like on this one record, just in case you never get to make another one.” And that’s kind of the attitude that we went into it with — we’re just gonna do everything that we want, and at least we’ll be able to play it for ourselves when we’re done.
NP: So did you feel especially proud to get this album finished and finally out there?
JR: Yeah, I do feel proud to get it out, but there are moments on the record where I’m prouder than others. There are some songs on this record — songs like “Kiss Me Goodbye,” “Leave the Light On” — they’re not supposed to change your life or your world with their lyrics. The purpose of those songs is you can put ’em on and you could do whatever you want. They’re not supposed to change the force of gravity or anything. But songs like “Behind the Frontlines” and “I Wouldn’t Miss It for the World” — the only thing that’s important about those songs is what I’m saying lyrically. And songs like “Behind the Frontlines” — that’s where I feel most musically at home. I guess my focus has shifted since I’ve made this record, from widescreen pop — you know, this heavily-produced record that I’ve made — to a very sparse, very stark lyrical focus. And pretty much the only thing that’s important to me now is the words. The words will come first most of the time, and I’ll find the music to catch up with the words, rather than the other way around.
I’ve never met anyone — I mean, I’m sure there are people out there that arrive fully-formed — but I’m certainly not one of those people. I can’t even listen to my first recordings and my first songs anymore — I can’t do that. I’m so thoroughly ashamed of them. I don’t listen to [my newer stuff] either, but I feel better about it. I mean the newer something is, the more exciting it is. I don’t dwell too much on what I’ve done. I just try to change, change, change.
NP: It sounds pretty intense. Are you a workaholic?
JR: I definitely have to work — I’m compelled to work all the time, and I just want to get better at what I do, but.. Since I enjoy what I do so much, it’s hard to — I mean, I can’t compare it to being just a member of the regular workforce, because most people are doing things that they don’t like, and are working real hard at that. And I’m doing something that I really, truly enjoy, and I’m very lucky to do, so I’m a little nervous about calling it “work.”
NP: Why did you choose to be a solo artist, versus forming a band?
JR: Well, it’s weird, you know, I don’t have a nifty name to call myself. I wish that I did — it seems more fashionable now anyway. But I am forming a band right now — my backing band’s called Death Valley, and so on this tour it’s gonna say “Johnathan Rice and Death Valley.” But I guess I think forming a band means that you’re forming a creative alliance with someone else, and therefore they’re gonna get to tell you what to do — and I don’t do well with that at all, I don’t do well with someone telling me what to do. I was in a band in high school and I’ve been in several bands over the course of my life, and I don’t take kindly to people telling me what to do and how to do it. So I guess what you could say is sometimes — unless I’m in charge — I don’t play well with others.
I know what I want, and they’re my songs. I write them, and I have pretty specific ideas. I surround myself with really talented musicians who can do things that I could never do, and so most of the time I just trust them to do what it is they’re gonna do. I don’t hire a guitar player and say, “Hey, man, play these parts that I wrote for you!” I hire the guitar player ’cause I like the way he plays guitar, and whatever he adds is gonna be the right thing.
>> Check out Johnathan’s work with Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis! Jenny And Johnny
NP: Do you consider yourself at all competitive?
JR: In a friendly way. I mean, I’m friends with a lot of fellow songwriters — I guess I mainly only associate with them. Most of my friends are musicians, and we’re always bouncing songs off each other. We’re always oing over to each other’s houses to play songs. So I guess that there’s some competition involved there. But it’s mostly like a mutual admiration society, I guess.
NP: Speaking of admiring other artists, you made an appearance in the Johnny Cash movie, “Walk the Line.” Are you happy with how that worked out?
JR: I feel pretty good about it. It was so much fun, you wouldn’t believe it — it was incredible. I didn’t think I would ever be in a movie when I was a kid. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash, Reese Witherspoon plays June Carter, and I play Roy Orbison.
I’ve been offered to do a lot more [acting], but I think it’s unwise for me at this point to be putting different eggs in different baskets. I’m kinda throwing in my lot with the music, and I did that film because I love that music so much. There’s a whole generation of kids who never hear Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Carl Perkins — they never hear that music. I’m so close to that music — it was part of the fabric of my life — so I’m proud to be in a film that at least documents that music in some way. Hopefully the kids will get back to the real records.
So I kind of just pretended that I was a movie star for the summer. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It’s more glamorous than playing clubs in Manchester and Birmingham and London. [laughs] It’s slightly more glamorous.
NP: So what kind of things would you say are your goals going ahead — where do you want to be in five years, ten years…
JR: It’s hard for me to think in those terms. I love the way I live — it’s beautiful, it’s so lucky — but it’s so disruptive to everything else. It’s disruptive to your health and happiness. It’s hard to not have a home. I haven’t lived anywhere longer than eight months in four years, and that’s a choice that I’ve made, and I certainly don’t want anyone to feel bad for me about it, because that’s the way I’ve chosen to live. But it is a lonely life, I suppose. And I don’t know many people who can keep a relationship together, or their families together, their marriages — whatever it is. It’s such a unique way of life, not many people can truly get their heads around it until they do it.
So it’s hard for me to think in terms of five years, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the next two weeks. At a certain point, I just started living from song to song rather from day to day. That’s the only thing that really matters to me at the moment. And everything else… I have to kind of relegate it to being peripheral.