May 10, 2004


Johnathan Rice.jpg

Newcomer Johnathan Rice readying first album

There are a few things about Johnathan Rice that jump to the foreground right away.

First of all, despite being born in Virginia and having lived most of his life in America, the singer-songwriter has an accent that suggests he spent every single one of his days in Glasgow, Scotland, where he did live at times during his youth. Second, he sings with a husky weariness of a seasoned 40-year-old, yet he's only 20. And while he enjoys plenty of music that was made during his lifetime, Rice has studied a great deal of material from the past, listening to his share of songs by Robert Johnson, Gram Parsons, Patsy Cline and other now-legendary figures.

It remains to be seen whether Rice's upcoming debut album, the accomplished and ambitious Trouble Is Real (Reprise), catapults him to the front of rock's current pack of tousled troubadours. A taste of what's ahead can be found on the EP Extended Player -- 24:26, which is due May 25. Prior to starting a tour opening for The Cardigans, Rice, who currently resides in the musician-rich Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., recounted his move to the big city and the making of his album. In spring 2001, while a senior in high school, you surprised your parents by informing them that instead of attending college after graduation, you were going to New York with the goal of landing a record deal within a year. Looking back, and knowing now that the music business is filled with obstacles and broken dreams, are you surprised by how bold and naïve you were then?
Johnathan Rice: I definitely am -- I think that's all it was. I didn't know what I was saying back then at all. When I said it, I just said it because I was a cocky little kid, you know. I didn't actually know what it meant to get a recording contract . . . I had no knowledge of the music industry at all. It kind of looks like I was right, but really, it was just dumb luck. It looks like I knew a lot more than everyone else, but I don't think that's the case at all.

Is it true that you arrived in New York, with copies of your indie EP Heart and Mind in hand, on Sept. 10, 2001?
Rice: That is true.

How did the terrorist attacks on the city the following day affect you personally and professionally?
Rice: Well, it certainly didn't make me think of leaving or anything like that. On an entirely personal level, it made it very clear there was a new part of my life beginning. It was a bookend, I guess, of two different parts of my life -- maybe [marking] the end of my teenage years, even though my teenage years weren't actually over. I think that might have been the end of them -- living on my own, in a city that was just devastated.

I think when something like that does happen, it is going to affect the way you sing and the way you write. I can't tell you specifically how it inspired me or influenced me or changed me. If you're present in the world, those kinds of things are going to have their effects.

You recorded your Trouble Is Real album in Lincoln, Neb. -- what's your assessment of that part of the country, and how did the atmosphere influence the making of the album?
Rice: I'm so happy that I was able to do it there because I was so impressed by what those kids are doing out there in Nebraska . . . to do what they were doing without any corporate help whatsoever, without much money -- just a bunch of really good, young friends making really good records together. I was lucky enough that they wanted to make one with me as well because I'm not part of that scene at all -- I'm just kind of a friend and well-wisher of what they're doing out there.

I asked them to come play, and they did. I got to make my record with Mike [Mogis], who is this kind of unparalleled talent. And I think in the next few years, he'll be recognized as that, but right now, we're all just thrilled to work with him because nobody knows about him yet.

That part of the country . . . I always knew that it existed, and it was really nice to finally live somewhere and spend so much time in someplace that was really part of the old, weird America you read about -- the America that hasn't changed in years and years. It was a very comforting place to be, someplace where time hadn't really touched all that much. There are generally very kind people out there, and there's something out there [musically] that's going on, more so in Omaha than in Lincoln. The studio itself [where I recorded] is in Lincoln, but all of my friends and the bands that I like are in Omaha. There's something going on there that's just a beautiful, pure, unadulterated thing, and I'm just happy that I got to see it.

Why do you think there is such a plethora of music and artists and a scene in, of all places, Nebraska -- in Omaha, particularly?
Rice: I'm not really sure why these things spring up where they do. The only thing I can guess is that it's a group of friends who happen to be very talented and have always helped each other out and had an interest in making music together and creating things together. I think wherever you don't think it's going to spring up, it springs up. I don't think there's anything weird behind it. It's just good people doing good things together.

Earlier this year, you posted an entry on your Web site about riding to Detroit and coming across an overturned SUV. You describe how you and fellow musician Neal Casal assisted in freeing the passengers, then explain how you were told that they were traveling home from the funeral of a relative who was killed in an auto accident. This experience seems like it has tremendous potential to be the subject of a song -- has that crossed your mind?
Rice: I don't usually think of things in terms like that. When I see something, I don't think, "Maybe that could go in a song." I think songs approach you. I've never written a song the same way twice; I'm still learning how to write songs.

[The accident] was something to see -- it was a very chilling thing . . . maybe it will make its way into [a song] at some time.

Is there any subject or experience you wouldn't put into one of your songs?
Rice: No, not at all . . . if you write something that comes from something uncomfortable, if there's a tangible emotion in it, as long as it's a pure feeling, you should do your best to express it.

What song or songs sum up your album?
Rice: There's a song on the album called "My Mother's Son." Me and Mike had big ideas for this record. We wanted it to be big and diverse and [have it touch upon] all the kinds of music that we like. I think "My Mother's Son" is the marriage of what I wanted to do with my songwriter and what Mike wanted to do with production.

Your song "So Sweet" was featured last month in an episode of Fox's The O.C., and in the season premiere of HBO's Six Feet Under, airing June 13, viewers can expect to hear "Break So Easy." How soon before you appear on-screen in a TV series?
Rice: I don't know, man. It would depend on the role, I guess. I'm not much of an actor. If I didn't have any lines, I'd be happy to stand there, for sure.

So, acting isn't a future goal?
Rice: Certainly not at the moment, no. What's that saying -- actors always want to be musicians? Well, I'm already a musician, so I think I'm all right.

-- Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Official Johnathan Rice site:

Johnathan Rice on tour (all dates with The Cardigans; schedule subject to change):

May 10: The Bowery Ballroom -- New York

May 11: T.T. the Bear's -- Cambridge, Mass.

May 13: Lee's Palace -- Toronto

May 16: The Double Door -- Chicago

May 17: Fine Line Music Café -- Minneapolis

May 20: Neumo's -- Seattle

May 21: Roseland Theater -- Portland, Ore.

May 22: 330 Ritch Street -- San Francisco

May 25: The Troubadour -- West Hollywood, Calif.

Posted by medleyville at May 10, 2004 06:28 AM