Food and beverage professionals often talk about “terroir” and the role that soil plays in a product’s flavor profile.
Similarly, music projects can embody somewhat of a “sonic terroir” based on where they were made and the particular conditions present. Such is the case for Tyler Ramsey’s two most recent albums.
His 2019 release, For the Morning, emits an earthy, Appalachian feel. Kevin Ratterman (My Morning Jacket) served as the album’s engineer at La La Land studios in Louisville, Ky. Meanwhile, there’s frequently a West Coast vibe to New Lost Ages, which will be released on Friday, Feb. 9. A week later, he’ll partake in an in-store performance and signing at Records in the RAD.
That sense is especially evident on the masterful “Where Were You,” which echoes the Laurel Canyon harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash as well as the Pacific Northwest vocal layers of Fleet Foxes.
It therefore makes sense that the album was tracked at Avast! Recording Co. in Seattle with producer Phil Ek, who’s produced records for such iconic Pacific Northwest bands as the aforementioned Fleet Foxes, The Shins, Father John Misty, Modest Mouse and Ramsey’s former group, Band of Horses. Ek also has a strong track record of helping outsiders — such as New England-based Guster (Evermotion) and New York City’s The Walkmen (Heaven) — achieve a semblance of that Seattle sound. And he accomplishes those ends with trusted allies.
“I had some musicians in mind, but when [Phil and I] started talking about recording, he’s like, ‘I want to use these guys that I know really well. They’re great and they live right here in town, so let’s do that,’” Ramsey says.
Those hand-picked studio players wound up being Fleet Foxes bassist Morgan Henderson, with whom Ramsey had crossed paths a few times, and drummer Sean T. Lane (Heart; Pedro the Lion). Ramsey spoke with each artist individually over the phone and sent them his fairly bare-bones demos, curious at how they’d want to flesh out the tracks.
“I’m always open to people interpreting what I do,” Ramsey says. “First off, I’m not a drummer at all, so I’m not going to tell a drummer what to do. I want people to bring what they have to the song rather than me steering the ship all the time. But if there’s something totally off, I’ll be like, ‘All right, maybe not that.’”
Despite Ramsey’s inherent trust in collaborators, the prospect of walking into a studio with two musicians he didn’t know well was nevertheless nerve-wracking. But his fears were soon quelled, particularly in hearing what Lane brought to the sessions.
“I’ve never gotten to play with a drummer like that who’s just so rock solid and steady and even-keeled throughout the whole thing,” Ramsey says. “It was really cool to sit with those two guys and review the basic tracks and build things up under Phil’s guidance.”
Tribute to a friend
In a perfect world, guitarist Neal Casal of Circles Around the Sun also would have played a key role on Ramsey’s past two albums.
Shortly after leaving Band of Horses in 2017, Ramsey met Casal and his bandmates at Heyday Musical Instruments & Repair when they were coming through Asheville. They hit it off, and Casal invited Ramsey to fill in as their opener on a handful of shows the following week.
Though Ramsey says the musical styles of his solo work and Circles Around the Sun made for an odd pairing, it worked well together, and he quickly bonded with the group — particularly Casal.
“He just was a total dear, and I started having these thoughts of reaching out to him and getting him to at least play guitar on something. Or maybe be more heavily involved in the process — maybe even see if he wanted to produce [For the Morning],” Ramsey says.
“I had some ideas, the very least — or greatest of which, maybe — was that we would just be friends. We were a similar age, and I felt like we kind of clicked in a way that I could reach out to him in a month and be like, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’ Or send him a song and run it by him or whatever — just those kind of thoughts you have when you meet someone cool.”
Though they wound up only communicating a few times after that tour, Ramsey was nevertheless shocked in late August 2019 when he heard that Casal had committed suicide at the age of 50. At the time, he was working on songs in a cheap beach condo in Gulf Shores, Ala. Inspired by their brief but powerful bond, he picked up his guitar and wrote the New Lost Ages track “Flare” in Casal’s memory.
“I was way up on a high floor of one of those giant beachfront condos and the sun had just set, and I thought I saw a flare go off way out in the dark ocean. After I called to report what I thought I’d seen to the local cops, I sat and watched the dark horizon for a long time,” Ramsey says in a tribute penned for the Neal Casal Music Foundation, a mental health support service for musicians, established after Casal’s death.
“Sometimes people need help, and they never ask for it — sometimes people send signals out, but those of us that might see them don’t know what to do to help. I barely knew Neal but somehow I think of him often and miss what was only a potential future. Look out for each other out there.”
While Ramsey is encouraged by the Casal Foundation, Backline and other mental health services geared toward helping musicians, he notes that many recording artists don’t have the wherewithal to reach out to anybody when they’re struggling. He stresses that being a touring musician takes significant extra work to feel healthy and grounded, and that the frequent financial challenges within the industry make persevering even more difficult.
“There are people that put their heart into something like that and don’t see maybe the return that they would expect. I’ve struggled with a lot of that myself,” Ramsey says. “I’m glad [mental health is] something that’s being discussed more and I think that’s true for society in general. I think it’s important that people know that they’re not alone in situations that are hard like that.”
To learn more, visit avl.mx/d9y.
WHO: Tyler Ramsey
WHERE: Records in the RAD, 37 Paynes Way #003, recordsintherad.com
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 16, 6 p.m. Free