INERVIEW: JAY VAN RAALTE
Jay Van Raalte's debut album "Something More and Kind Of Less," marks the culmination of a long-awaited journey. The album unfolds as a testament to his musical range, offering a diverse landscape of sonic experiences; from the blistering, chaotic guitar solos of "Cautionary Tale" to the gentle folk textures of "Passing Through,". The Smashing Pumpkins-inspired "Piece by Piece" to the hypnotic drum loop of "Achtung," this album presents an unapologetically diverse tapestry.
Each song becomes a canvas for Jay's curiosity and sincere desire to allow the music to take its authentic form. The result is an album both playful and stubborn, vulnerable and ambitious, and we sat down with Jay to learn more about the record, her processes and much, much more, exclusively for FLEX!
Describe your songwriting process, what inspires you to create?
My songwriting process has changed a lot through the years. I started as a kid who just wanted to play guitar, with no particular interest in songwriting. It quickly became apparent that if I wanted to be in a “real” band, we’d need original material, so I started working at it. I stayed involved with production and songwriting in all the bands I was in through high school and college, and kept writing on my own as well. Eventually, it became something I really enjoyed and, at the risk of sounding immodest, got to be fairly good at. Sometimes I’m writing just because we need another song to finish out an album, or because an artist I’m producing needs help pulling a track together. But over time it’s also become a way to process my own life. I think most songwriters probably go at it the other way around- writing emotionally, and then developing the craft- but I’ve only recently started to reach for a notebook when I’m going through something myself. The songs that have come from that are some of my favorites I’ve ever written- I feel like I’m finally settling into the right balance of channeled vs constructed.
Who are your biggest influences? We see you’re a fan of Jack White!
Jack White is the coolest. His ability to reinvent himself (I love so many of his eras, but The Raconteurs are my favorite of his projects), his relentless creativity, and his unwavering dedication to his own vision are constant inspirations for me. U2, REM, The Killers, Placebo, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Drivin n Cryin, Tom Petty, and The Cure are all HUGE influences as well. I also grew up listening to all those 2000s pop punk/emo bands: My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, The Academy Is… and I’m only now realizing how much that sound influenced me- it wasn’t something I consciously channeled, but anything you listen to that much will find a way into your ears. There are also a lot of artists who I’ve gotten to know through the Charleston music community or through playing shows together that are just absolutely phenomenal- She Returns From War, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Elise Testone, SUSTO, Tayls, Atlas Road Crew, The Travelin' Kine, Stop Light Observations, Mightmare, Sadler Vaden, and probably a gazillion other people I’m forgetting- getting to hang around that much talent has certainly influenced me, both creatively and as far as the standard of work that I’m shooting for.
You are about to release your debut album, a landmark for any artist, how are you feeling about it?
I’m ecstatic for it to come out. It’s been done for a while, just waiting for the stars to align for a release, so in my mind it’s already part of my catalog. But occasionally I’m reminded that even though I know I have this whole collection of songs under my belt, all these skills and ideas that didn’t show up on Linearity or anything from my old bands, no one else does yet. I’m stoked for people’s perceptions to catch up with where I’m at now, and ready to get working on the next round of songs!
If you could sum up ‘Something More and Kind Of Less’ in three words, what would it be?
Open, Varied, Direct? This is hard. Alternatively, I might choose "a musical journey" (which is a reference to U2's widely disparaged 1988 rockumentary Rattle and Hum, which I grew up with and still love dearly.)
Tell us about the recording and writing process for the album?
This album started as an “orphans” project- I had a lot of songs I liked but never fit whatever project I was in at the time. The idea was to record them all at once and clear out the cache, so to speak. But between the exciting energy of the studio and everything I was going through (everything everyone was going through) during 2020, I started writing new songs while we were busy recording the old ones. The finished album ended up being about half and half new vs old, which makes it an interesting survey of moments of my life over the course of the last seven or eight years.
The recording experience was totally different than anything I’d done before. Like a lot of people, I took the shutdown as an opportunity to upgrade my studio (the VRSL or “Van Raalte Sonic Laboratory," which was the joking catch-all name I used for all my demos and stuff as a kid but is now an actual functioning space). It was the first project I bit off tracking and mixing everything myself (I handed off the mastering to Chris Griffin, who is an absolute wizard). That was daunting, but I went in with the theory that I had unlimited time to learn any skill I needed to find my way around whatever roadblocks arose, and it worked out better than I could have hoped.
I pulled in my friend Matt Megrue to co-produce, in addition to my constant studio partner (and dad) Derk Van Raalte. Matt released an amazing album called The Mourner's Manual in early 2020 and brought me in as his guitar player for those shows. I really like bringing in a third person to VRSL projects, just to get a totally different perspective and an outside set of ears. We had a great working relationship playing live, and I absolutely love the music he's been putting out, so he was an obvious choice and immediately proved to be an indispensable member of the team.
This was the first time I backed off a little during the recording process (on my last EP, Linearity, I played every instrument except the drums) and just let Matt and Derk do their thing. Sometimes I’d just hand Derk a guitar and say, “do something here.” Sometimes I’d send Matt a track and it would come back drenched in keys or pedal steel that I never could have imagined. Getting to see the songs go beyond what I could dream up and turn into something even cooler was a real highlight.
Stream 'Something More and Kind of Less' here:
Any challenges faced when approaching particular songs?
Too many to count, haha. Every challenge feels insurmountable until it’s conquered, or at least it does for me. The biggest sticking points were probably Bend or Break and Love Is A Choice. Bend or Break started life as a sad, slow acoustic folk song that was dreadfully boring. No matter what we did, we couldn’t find an arrangement that any of us wanted to listen to. I was ready to send it to the dumpster, but Matt and Derk kept telling me it was too good a song to throw out. In a last-ditch effort, I grabbed a twelve-string guitar and a capo, invented some totally random chord fragments, and rewrote the entire song. New key, new chords, new melody, new structure. It ended up being a super fun track that sounded nothing like anything I’d done before, and I’m so glad the guys pushed me to keep working at it.
Love Is A Choice was tricky because before this, I didn’t really play drums. I had a specific vision for the structure- I wanted it to be really restrained for most of the song and then to swell into this huge swirling vortex of slide guitars and emotion at the end. Kind of like Tom Petty’s Room At The Top meets Jason Isbell’s Anxiety. I didn’t want to call a drummer to play for less than a minute, so I decided I’d teach myself how to play what I wanted to hear. It was way more ambitious than any of the other drums I played on this record, but I’m proud of how it turned out.
How did it feel going from those acoustic demos, to now this fully fledged body of work?
It was unbelievably exciting. A lot of the older songs on this record had very strong identities in my head before they were recorded, but for years no one had ever been able to hear what I was hearing. I’d play someone an acoustic demo and they’d say “nice folk song” and I’d say “no, you don’t understand- this is going to be like SUSTO’s Gay In The South smashed together with The Killer’s Andy You’re A Star!” They’d look at me like I was crazy. Part of the drive to record this album myself was because I was determined to turn those sounds into reality, to make someone else hear what I was hearing. I'd say, for the most part, we achieved that, so mission accomplished!
Current favourite track on the album?
Definitely “Achtung”. That song came together so fast- I wrote the initial draft all at once, but when I brought it to the studio, I thought it would be something chill and probably acoustic. Jamming around with some delay got me thinking in another direction, and a few days later I threw together a quick demo at home to try to sketch out what I was imagining. That demo ended up being about 85% of the finished track! It felt so fresh and exciting that we just added some finishing touches and decided not to mess with what was already working. It was the quickest I’ve ever produced a song, and it still sounds just as good to me as when we first made it.
And lastly, so you plan to take this on tour in 2023?
Absolutely. Bands at our level are pretty much always on the road these days, so our touring schedule won’t be much different in one sense. But we have some exciting shows lined up- an album release party at The East Room in Nashville 7/28, followed by a homecoming release celebration at the Pour House in Charleston and then some dates with our good friends Lynx Deluxe. Making a record is a labor of love, and it can be a pretty isolated process- you hole up with your little team and don’t come out til you have something amazing. Getting to share it with the world is part of the fun, so we’re very excited to play the songs for an audience.