Rachel Ries - the practical approach to touring
If anything breaks down during the UK tour that brings Rachel Ries to Scotland this week, the singer-songwriter from South Dakota won’t be stuck. As someone who once had the floor of her New York studio apartment covered with parts of a Wurlitzer electric piano, all neatly labelled, so that she could see how it worked before putting it back together in better shape than it was when she bought it, it’s fair to say that Ries is practical.
“I’m not so much mechanically minded as determined that I can understand anything if I’m given enough time,” says Ries down the line from her rural retreat in currently chilly Vermont. “The thing about Wurlitzers is, there aren’t many people who maintain them professionally, so they can charge very dearly for their services. So my interest in its workings was born out of necessity and frugality but at the same time, I can fix my car, too. Things can seem much less daunting when you’ve taken them apart and put them back together.”
Ries bought her Wurlitzer to accompany fellow singer-songwriter and BBC Folk Award winner Anaïs Mitchell, with whom she has an ongoing musical relationship. The music she remembers hearing first had no instruments, blocks of wood aside, however. Her parents were Mennonite missionaries in Zaire and although they returned to the U.S. in time for Ries to start school, she has clear memories of people “singing at the top of their lungs and making a joyful noise.”
Back in South Dakota, her parents, she says, were somewhere in the middle of the Mennonite spectrum where one extreme leant towards the Amish people’s very conservative, isolated lifestyle and the other fostered much more liberal, activist views. Faith was very important and church wasn’t just for Sunday in the Ries household where participation in music was also very much encouraged. She took classical violin and piano lessons and can remember thinking about making music for a living when she was still very young. At fifteen, when she wanted to rebel against her classical music upbringing, she started to write songs.
“I became tired with classical music mostly because I couldn’t make it my own,” she says. “I couldn’t seem to stamp my own personality on what I was playing and I wanted to say something, to be understood. I’d always liked words and I gravitated to songwriters who also obviously liked words too, people like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Tori Amos, and I also loved the way Jeff Buckley used the guitar so dynamically. But it’s one thing being a front room performer; how do you get from there to the stage? It’s quite a leap. I played a few small scale gigs in my teens but it wasn’t until I became a college drop-out and had travelled the world that I took music seriously in terms of career prospects.”
Working in theatre in Chicago gave her an insight into how she might turn performing into something sustainable and she released her first album, For You Only, in 2005, using analogue equipment to capture the sound she was after.
“My first two albums were completely analogue because I wanted them to sound real and have that warm quality that used to come as standard, I suppose,” she says. “But with my third album, Ghost of a Gardener, I realised that analogue is a luxury that you need a lot of time and money to work with to get exactly the sound you’re looking for. All the instruments were real but with digital editing you can play around so much more after the fact, so I’m an old-fashioned person by inclination but a modernist by necessity.”
As well as touring and recording with Anaïs Mitchell, Ries has worked with Minneapolis indie pop musician Jeremy Messersmith and Philadelphia-raised South African singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov, who has established a loyal cult following in Glasgow in recent years. She’s learned from all of these people and continues to develop from album to album, tour to tour of her own.
“There’s so much music out there, so many alternatives for people to choose from,” she says. “But for me it’s all about making a true, emotional connection with the audience through my songs. Life is beautiful but it can also be challenging and isolating. I see it as my job to add some levity to the human condition, help people to escape from their daily lives. Yet at the same time, I’d also love it if someone was to come along to one of my gigs and hear something in my lyrics that made them think, I’m not alone.”
From The Herald, April 15, 2015.