If you go to the Venice Café on Tuesday nights, you have a 50% chance of walking in on an evening with Bryan Ranney. In fact, Bryan is a busy working musician in St. Louis between teaching lessons, raising a toddler, gigging solo and playing multiple bands. One of those bands, Following the Water, the joint brain child of Bryan (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Sean Bennight (guitar, vocals) will be releasing their debut album in roughly 12 hours from this very post. This past Wednesday, May 30th, Bryan and I met at Hartford Coffee to talk a little bit about his music and influences, the album and its creation, the St. Louis music scene and his personal creative philosophy.
A St. Louis Sound
LB- We’ll get started with the most inane question an artist can possibly answer. Who would you say that Following the Water sounds like? If you had to compare yourself to something what would it be?
Bryan Ranney- Well that’s a pretty awful question. Way to get the interview flowing with that one.
I like to start things off by completely derailing things.
Bryan- (Laughs) I don’t know what we sound like. I know what I like to listen to and I know what I like to play. I don’t know that that makes us sound like anybody in particular. I think an interesting thing about being a musician in St. Louis is that you have an opportunity to be around so much fantastic blues and jazz and alt-country and hip hop and the genre list goes on and on—the great folk music here. And everyone listens to each other if you’re out and about playing and you can’t help but to have that sort of creep into your sound. I think more so than I expected I sound like some of my compatriots about town. They brought me in… they lured me. Something about that blues thing creeps on in.
I don’t know if you guys do this in your set, but I’ve seen you do ‘The Thrill is Gone’ a couple of times. So it’s like you were talking about—the blues creeping in.
Bryan- That one is because Sean totally digs that tune. I don’t even know if he’s mimicking someone’s version of that in particular because I don’t think we do it like BB King particularly…
It’s pretty unique. In fact, I do a cover of that now and yours influenced mine.
Bryan- Oh did it? Awesome. Yeah, I just like jamming to A-minor blues tunes. That’s all there is to that.
A Brief History
So I know you play a lot of music. You have your thing you do on Tuesday at the Venice and you have Elemental Shakedown. I just wanted to hear a little bit about your musical back story before Following the Water.
Bryan- My dad is a singer songwriter who plays around town. My mom is a singer songwriter. My aunt is a singer songwriter. My uncle plays the mandolin with a bunch of impressive bluegrass people out west. My other uncle plays the piano around town. And they all had friends who would come over to my parents’ house and sit around in big circles and play guitar, sing songs and harmonize. So there’d be 13 guitars in the living room. That’s pretty much the image I get when I think of my childhood. And that’s sort of like the event based big deal thing of it but even on a daily basis my immediate family—my parents, my brothers and I—communicated with music in a big way. It’s our point of reference for one another’s lives. It’s the medium for our conversation. For me it’s not about having made a choice to play music. It’s something that was always present and then it was just an artistic choice to present my career in that way.
How did Following the Water come about? How long have you been together? How did it start up?
Bryan- Funny you should ask me. We’ve been together 4 years today. Our first gig ago was 4 years ago, 2008, May 30th. We opened for Brewer and Shipley at the Focal Point, which is why we came up with the name. We knew we needed a name cause we had that gig. So Sean had written this song called Drifting. We went over it to spruce up the chorus a little, fiddled around in the verses. We just changed the chorus very slightly. I remember it having a really powerful hook and wanting to work on it right away. We wanted this concrete image to come in and I wanted it to be related to water because the song was about drifting. I was picturing floating down the stream or floating through the ocean waves. Came up with following the lake, following the stream, following the water. I was like we need something like following the water, so somebody said, ”How about following the water.” Then we needed a band name the next week. That was kind of the first line we wrote together—our first co-creation—so that became the name of the band. Seemed appropriate. And whenever we say the name of the band to people they go “Oh.” I don’t know what they’re thinking when they say that but that’s what they do.
It’s very profound.
Bryan- Oh, is it? I guess. I like it. Other people seem to like thinking about it. So that’s good enough for me.
That’s the most important thing—that other people like it!
Bryan- That’s the number one thing. If I’ve learned anything about being an artist it’s that you should make sure that everybody always likes what you’re doing.
So you guys, in the last four years have played a lot around town. Just rattle off some of the places you’ve played.
Bryan- We play the Venice Café, the Shanti, Beatniks out in New Town, St. Charles, Off Broadway, El Lenador. That’s the bulk of it I’d say. There’ve been some other spots too. We’ve played in Belleville here and there. We’ve played at the New Ground Floor. Gone out of town a little bit. We play at the TOCO Festival every year, which is a big event for us. We played at the Festival in the Clouds out in Alma, Colorado last summer. We’ve done a few dates with the Bottoms Up Blues Gang. I can definitely tell you we’ve spent at least 90% of our time in 63118. Just can’t get out of that zip code.
Is there any venue that you’re partial to—that you really love to play?
Bryan- I’ve got to say the Venice Café. It’s just a beautiful place to make music—just a wonderful, inspirational place just to hang out. The people are just so open—your audience is so naturally receptive there. The room itself does something to the people there. And that’s not even any sonic quality in particular, not that there’s a bad sound to the room, but it’s really more about the visual experience. It’s like playing in a sculpture. But, there are a lot of great spots around town. We’ve enjoyed our time at the Shanti very much. I’m doing so many solo gigs at the Venice right now, that really is what comes to mind right away.
When I first met you, you were gearing up to go to Colorado. Where else have you guys been expanding your footprint beyond St. Louis?
Bryan- We went down to that Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Winfield, Kansas one year and passed through Kansas City. We’ve played a little bit here and there. We haven’t toured extensively because we haven’t had a record. So now that we have that and can be more focused on having that additional revenue stream it’s a little more feasible to be out and about and have something to hand to people.
So before it was more just playing wherever I go. I play whenever I go somewhere, and whenever I go somewhere, I play there. And whenever Sean and I have traveled together, we’ve played together.
I went to Milwaukee and auditioned for American Idol maybe two summers ago. I was about to be too old and my wife was like “You gotta do it.” It was the most fun I ever had standing in line. But I was up there so I played a show. I just like to do that. Whenever I know I’m gonna go somewhere I like to go be among the people and sing a little bit. And Sean has a very similar attitude.
Creating a Sound
Following the Water is officially just you and Sean. So, unofficially who else are you working with to fill out the live sound? Who appears on the album?
Bryan- We made the record with Billy Engle who has got a great studio, and more importantly is just a very skilled engineer with a lot of experience and a great personality. It’s just easy to be very comfortable with him. I’ve spent a little bit of time with him when he did my family's records. And just the quality that he gets is pretty astounding. He plays pedal steel on the record. He’s a really prolific player at large; he blows me away. He plays some bass for us too on there. Alyssa Avery from Elemental Shakedown plays violin on a couple of tracks. Adam Andrews who plays around town with Bryan Currann and the Bottoms Up Blues Gang played some harmonica. Matt Reyland who plays with Stank Nasty and Ellen the Felon. Miles Long from the Venice Café open mic. And my brother Stephen plays the bass on a couple tracks. It was sort of an organic process. We did a few sessions with Matt and Stephen and then we worked on it a bunch without anybody and then we did one session with Miles, rounded out the rhythm tracks, and then added in some nice lead players at the end there with Alyssa and Adam.
Who are you using live?
Bryan- At the CD release party on Sunday all of those people will be playing. Live it could be anybody. We change the line up based on the nature of the gig. We base it off of the duo and then we play with it from there.
What do you draw inspiration from? This could be musical influences or it could be what inspires you to write music and lyrics as you write them.
Bryan- I don’t know, ultimately. I have a fairly spiritual outlook on it. I have a process that I do on a daily basis to make art in general. I write in a journal and I try to do creative thing on a daily basis, sometimes that’s writing a song, sometimes that painting a picture, sometimes that’s playing with my son. He’s just one big ball of creative energy of course. I don’t know where the songs start really. Sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes it’s a rhythm, sometimes it’s an idea. You start with one or the other and the other elements just show up as I start to work.
That’s sort of like the epic question. Everyone’s trying to figure out where they get inspiration from and how to make it kick in when they want it to…But I really think that inspiration is mostly something that you should not worry about so much as try to just encourage generally. I think if we have everything flowing it’ll work itself out. It’s just like getting your groceries when it comes down to it…certainly there’s a miraculous element but you really have to engage in the mundane to make it work too.
I want to shift to talking more specifically about the album. You’ve already talked a lot about the instrumentation and who has appeared on the album. What should people expect from the album? Is it like what you do live? More grand? More minimalist?
Bryan- It’s pretty similar to what we do live. It sounds like us. Tonally it’s very similar to what we’ve been doing live lately. If someone’s reading this a year or two from now, that might be out the window. But we’ve been working with these particular tones and sounds and used them to make the record too.
I hope that people can view it as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. We tried to really construct it in a conceptual way—to make a little emotional story. It starts off with ‘Already and Ever After.’ The first line is “Déjà vu, I think I’ve been here before,” which is really fun after you get to the end of the record if you’re listening to it on a CD player that starts over from the beginning.
There are a lot of songs about fighting, drunken fighting especially. There’s a little motif called ‘Stick in the Mud’. Then ‘This Town’ is about fighting. And then after that comes ‘Drifting’ which is also about fighting. There’s a lot of that conflict element in it. And a lot of it is coming of age tunes we’ve been writing since we were teenagers.
The record is called ‘Confluence Blue’, Confluence is the flowing together of water, the coming together of ideas and people. And then Blue is a color… a very moody color. When you combine these ideas and people in this place you get this feeling.
How many tracks are on the album?
Bryan- Eleven. Comes in at about 42 minutes 20 seconds.
Talk to me about the album release party.
Bryan- It’s at Off Broadway, this Sunday, June the 3rd, at 2:00pm. The show will be opened by Pierce Crask of The Falling Martins. He’ll just be performing solo, doing a bunch of his original tunes. He’ll play for about an hour. Then after that, we’ll have a rendition of what the record sounds like with all the players who played on it including Billy Engle, Alyssa Avery, Adam Andrews, Stephen Ranney, Miles Long, Matt Reyland, Sean Bennight and myself. We are collecting canned food at the door. You can get half off your ticket price if you bring three cans of food. Or if you just want to donate too, that’s great. That’ll be going to St. Louis Area food bank. We’ll have a bunch of merchandise for sale—fun, new Following the Water stuff no one has ever seen before. We’ve got a print maker on board named Stepjen Kuppinger. I’m just a huge fan of his work. We’ve been friends for a long time and he’s making the CD cases himself. He’s printing them each individually so they’ll be a unique piece of art and numbering them by edition.
Did he design each cover?
|The mentioned emblem. Following the Water's first sticker design.|
Did he also do your emblem?
Bryan- No that was Julie Burge back when we were doing that El Lenador show last year. She came up with a poster design for us and we based that theme off of that poster.
You guys have been together four years. Why release the album now? Why not earlier or later for that matter?
Bryan- If I had an answer for that, it’d be a different world. It just took us a while to figure out how to do it. We’ve been recording over the course of the last four years. We did a demoing process. We continued to develop the songs live. At a certain point it became the highest priority so we got in the studio and made the record. We’ve spent about the last year on it in the studio recording. I guess that gives us three years of pre-production. Yeah, it was just time. Time to get the ideas down so we can move on. And part of it was just to allow ourselves to finish it. You know, it’s so easy to become a perfectionist. Ultimately, perfectionism is just an excuse not to do any work.
What’s your favorite track on the album?
Bryan- It keeps changing as I listen to it more and more. I can tell you the moment that I’m enjoying the most on the album right now is the end of “There was a Time”. There’s a certain dramatic swell of violin, chaos, and drums, vocals. I’m pretty happy with that right now. It makes me feel good when I listen to it because it’s so dark and depressing. I like it.
The St. Louis Scene
As I understand it, you’re a life-long St. Louisan, correct?
Bryan- Yeah, I was born at Forest Park Hospital there when it was Deaconess right off of Highway 40 and I live a mile from there now, less than a mile probably. Which is also 5 blocks from where my great grandfather lived. So, we haven’t made it very far generationally on my little line of the family tree. Yeah, but, I lived in Chicago for a few years and I spent some time in Columbia, MO, but, yeah, St. Louis!
As a person who’s lived here most of your life, and who’s been involved in music here a lot of your life—I’m hearing a lot now about this being a special time, that something’s happening in the music scene—do you feel like that’s accurate? If so, what’s happening and why?
Bryan- Having never existed in any other time, it’s difficult for me to make that judgment, but yes I hear that buzz as well. I wonder if everybody in every scene—that isn’t already Austin or New Orleans or New York, Chicago, LA—doesn’t feel something similar to that. I’m almost hesitant to discuss that. I feel like this might be an underground conversation not ready for the public forum yet. I’d hate to show our cards too early.
But there are a lot of people in town who do really good work. I mean you can wander into a corner pub and have your face melted off by some of the most amazing players I’ve ever seen in St. Louis. If you don’t know to look for it, you won’t see it. But if you keep your ear to the ground…I mean there are some incognito people who are super stars… literally rock stars who live right here. And the people who are working the pubs and playing the bar scene and playing the club scene and the people who tour from here are of the highest caliber that I have run into any other place.
Do you feel like the scene has changed much at all since you first started playing around town?
Bryan- It’s hard for me to say. I just sort of immerged somewhat. I only just now kind of know my way around. I don’t know that I have enough perspective to make that call. It’s nice to see Pokey [LaFarge] doing well. And it’s nice to have run into so many people who are working so hard and playing so hard and who really get it. It’s something that as a teenager you feel isolated and you don’t ever expect to run into anybody who thinks just how you do and wants to do just what you do, but I’ve had that experience over and over again here. And I learn so much for the people who are working here, who’ve been doing it longer than I have, who have different ideas than I have. Everybody does it just a little differently.
It’s a confluence.
Bryan- It is a confluence. You’re on to me.
I don’t like to stay too deep for too long, so let’s get back to something just a little bit silly. Who are you listening to right now?
Bryan- My students have me listening to ‘You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful’ by One Direction. So that’s probably the most horrible answer I can give. It’s a much better song than that other one…let’s not talk about that. I’m still really digging on that Wood Brothers record that came out a year or two now. I listen to a lot of Jack White. I think he’s just on top of his game. Pretty much anything he’s touched I’m now going back and trying to listen to all of it—exploring him in reverse just because he blows me away every time. I’m finding out songs that I love are written by him and I’m like “Oh, of course.”
I wanted to ask you about local musicians?
Bryan- I’m a big fan of the Bottoms Up Blues Gang record “Handle It”. I love that record. Tony Esterly engineered it and Jeremy Carry and Adam and the whole gang—so many great people on that record, Benny Smith, the late, great. Fred Friction’s record that came out last year, “Jesus Drank Wine”, I absolutely love. Aaron Kamm and the One Drops keep putting out good records.
It’s so cool to know people and to really like their record. I’m not listening to it just because I know you, but because I like your record.
Last question—this is the promotional question—where can people find out more about Following the Water?