Though the cover of Tyler Ramsey's third solo album features a single deer on a lonely outcropping (the image was taken by Band of Horses' photographer Christopher Wilson in a park in Montana), birds are the fauna that most inhabit this collection of songs.
"I kept seeing crows in my backyard," says local singer/songwriter Ramsey, who spends much of his time these days touring as the guitarist for Band of Horses. Originally he intended to draw them (Ramsey did the cover art for his self-titled debut record). Instead, he wrote the song "1000 Black Birds" in his basement "with that imagery in mind." So much for that old picture vs. words adage.
Opening this new album, The Valley Wind (out on Fat Possom Records) is instrumental track "Raven Shadow" which, Ramsey says, is an abstract version of "1000 Blackbirds." At nine tracks, the moody and atmospheric record is rich in nuance and doleful beauty. Fans of Ramsey's previous release, A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea, won't find exactly the same tone. Gone are the raucous moments of "Once in Your Life" and "Chinese New Year." Instead, Valley is Ramsey's most thematically consistent work to date, settling into sweeping melodies and gorgeously somber soundscapes.
According to Ramsey, where the songs were written mattered: Much of the album was conceived in a Hot Springs cabin. Other songs actually found their genesis while Ramsey was on the road with Band of Horses. Touring, he says, "is what I've always wanted to be doing," but it's also changed his creative approach. Gone are the days when he was "a hermit, not leaving home much." Now, "I try to make sure downtime is used in a creative way rather than going out and running around whatever city we're in. All the people in the band have moved in that direction. On a day off people will disappear and then the next day they might play you a new song that they wrote."
Ramsey has also learned to hang onto song ideas. "It used to be I had to write the whole song right there," he says. "As my everyday life changed into constantly traveling and staying in hotels, I've learned it's OK to write part of a song and pick it back up again when there's opportunity to do so."
If travel with Band of Horses has taught Ramsey a thing or two about time management, it's also given him an arsenal of tools to use on his solo recordings. Valley is sparse and tinged with melancholy, but it's also resonant with reverb and cathedral acoustics that recall Band of Horses’ Infinite Arms. (In fact, Valley was not recorded at Echo Mountain, or any church-turned-recording studio, but at Alex The Great studio in Nashville, Tenn.)
"I've figured out more about the electric guitar and effects," says Ramsey. Before, most of his solo work was acoustic. Now, "there's a whole new range of stuff I can use to give the songs whatever they need." Ramsey has also expanded his vocal range, garnering comparisons to Neil Young in early reviews. His wistful tenor and lofty harmonies attest a newfound ease.
But there's much to Valley that's familiar, too. The fingerstyle guitar is still there, a carryover from the instrumentals on Ramsey's debut. "That's just what guitar is for me," he says. With Band of Horses, he says, he still plays fingerstyle about half of the time, "even if it's a more rock song."
"All the people who got me into guitar in the first place played with their fingers," Ramsey adds. "It opens that instrument up to a lot more possibilities."
For Valley, he also brought longtime collaborators Seth Kauffman and Bill Reynolds into the recording process. (Kauffman and Ramsey have played in bands together, Reynolds is the bassist for Band of Horses and mixed Kauffman's latest Floating Action album, etc., etc.) An early and grand vision of the album involved a full band and "an awesome old pedal steel player from Nashville," but it also included Kauffman and Reynolds from the start. "We ended up doing it with just the three of us in the studio, and it really captured what needed to happen for those songs," says Ramsey.
For the album release at Grey Eagle this week, Ramsey will have a backing band — and then it's out on the road again, solo. Though, despite sharing close quarters with the Band of Horses brotherhood for much of the past several years, Ramsey doesn't seem to mind striking out on his own. "I like just showing up and walking into a place with a couple of guitars," he says.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Tyler Ramsey
what: CD release for The Valley Wind
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, Oct. 6 (8:30 p.m. $12 advance or $15 day of show. http://www.thegreyeagle.com)