Rachel Ries is a singer/songwriter from South Dakota with a homespun style, hand-sewing fabric sleeves for limited edition EPs and selling homemade jam at shows. Her music is an exquisite blend of folk, blues, and jazz, inspired by the sounds of the 1920s and 1930s. Rich with cozy guitar strumming, delicate fingerpicking, and smart, soul-pinching lyrics, her songs are intimate explorations of love, loss, and longing. Recording and mixing primarily on vintage analog equipment, she conjures nostalgia at every turn.
In 2005, Chicago’s Waterbug Records released her first album, For You Only. In 2007, Rachel released her second album, Without a Bird, on her own SoDak Records. She has since released country e.p. in 2008 on Righteous Babe Records, with friend Anaïs Mitchell, and her own Laurel Lake EP in 2012, for which she hand-sewed the fabric sleeves mentioned above. She is in the process of finishing up songs for a new full-length album.
I first became acquainted with Rachel’s music by way of country e.p. in the fall of 2008, and have been hooked ever since. She recently moved from Chicago to Brooklyn, and this past August played at a neighborhood bar, where I had the pleasure of meeting her. Soon after I asked for an interview, and she kindly obliged. In this interview, Rachel discusses her songwriting process, her relationship to music in general, and her diverse influences.
The Rumpus: Is there a common starting point for your songs? Do they begin with a melody, a subject, an image, a feeling—or is it always different?
Rachel Ries: Usually my songs begin with a sort of hunch. That first nugget comes from a place I can’t quite place but most often the words, melody, and accompaniment arrive together, in one piece. Perhaps the chorus, the first half of a verse—it could be anything—but whatever it is, it’s usually intact. The true work then comes of teasing at different strands until a full song is pulled and shaped into place. Which can take an afternoon or, in the case of quite a few songs, years and years, as my brain couldn’t quite let go of them. “Hands to Water” is a good example of one of the most stubborn ones that wouldn’t finish but also wouldn’t let go.
Rumpus: What are the primary themes that inspire you?
Ries: My unrestful nature, the tug of city and the pull of country, love, loss, death, my tense relationship with music, nostalgia and a desire for things to be simpler. Perhaps a harder-to-define theme has something to do with admittance of what we usually try to conceal. Increasingly I feel this need to claim and admit the flaws, the contradictions, the shames. I don’t believe we, as people, do that enough, and I’ve seen time and again that if I put my gnarled self in song, someone’s gonna hear it, recognize themselves, and know that glorious feeling of one little layer of isolation lifting.
Rumpus: Who are your biggest influences, musically and otherwise?
Ries: Lyrically, I have such respect for the humor and humanity of Tom Waits. Lhasa, Joan as Policewoman, and Chopin always make me feel. Imperative. I’m in awe of Christine Fellows’s ability to write short stories into song and deliver it all up in such an off-kilter way. There are more, of course, but those are the first that stand up. I don’t know who I sound like or who I take from. I’m quite deaf to that, but I do at least know who I love.
South Dakota and my upbringing and family are clearly long-standing influences. I’m pretty far away from them all—from that world. Which seems to pull those strings of connection even tighter, and so I begin to feel and write about them all the more.
Music was a strong and potent force long before my memories even begin. And in those first years, music was unequivocally linked with God and church and expressions of faith, prayer, and human sorrow. It’s occurring to me now that I still—that I’ve always—maintained that association somehow. The Divine and Music. There’s no separating those two.
Rumpus: Your songs are incredibly literary. How much does literature influence your songwriting? Who are some of your favorite authors?
Ries: Thank you! Directly, I couldn’t say how literature’s influence upon my writing would map out. But I do suspect, as I’ve been an unrepentant devourer of books from Ferdinand The Bull, up until now, that my care and respect for words is in part thanks to literature. Literature and song have also helped me immensely over the years—both by offering me escapism and respite for/from my mind, but also in helping me feel understood. I seem to try to create that in turn. But please know I devour low and highbrow alike.
As for authors, I started making a list and realized that didn’t feel quite right. I needed to be more specific and say which books I’d never forget. And there’s so much missing from this list still!
Al Kennedy – Everything You Need
Umberto Eco – Foucault’s Pendulum
China Miéville – Perdido Street Station, et. al. (Oh how he plays with and recreates language!)
Tolkien – Everything.
Jeannette Winterson (Quite formative in my early 20’s.)
Dostoevsky – The Idiot
John Steinbeck – East of Eden
Willa Cather – Song of the Lark (This saved the adolescent Midwestern me.)
Diana Gabaldon – Anything Outlander. (I’m forever smitten.)
Neil Gaiman – American Gods
Victor Hugo – Les Miserables
Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
Justin Cronin – The Passage
David Wroblewski – The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Rumpus: As a prose writer, feedback is an essential part of my process. How important is feedback to you when you write songs? Do you share early versions with certain people?
Ries: I don’t share. And I probably should. I’m possessively private when I’m working on a song, and I haven’t yet found how to let anyone into that process and still feel safe. I’ll go so far as to let someone overhear little snippets, quietly, of things I’m working on—but only if I feel particularly good about it myself. And I’ll probably mumble the lyrics, at that. Oh, how vulnerable words make me feel! This is certainly something for me to work on.
Rumpus: You are the daughter of Mennonite missionaries. How has this unique upbringing influenced your values and the way you approach your music career?
Ries: I grew up in a household fully informed by faith. My parents weren’t in Africa to preach and convert; they were there to provide medical and practical assistance. This service-focused life—this way of living out faith in direct action—was a potent example of living a life beyond yourself. I grew up raised by people who deeply believed in the necessity of doing good in the world, even to the discomfort of themselves. And I think I apply this in my quest to connect through music. I’m still trying to do good, like my parents before me. I’m trying to speak some truth as I feel it, as I need it, and as I perceive others need it.
As for my love of making jam to sell at shows and my painstaking determination to sew hundreds of fabric sleeves to package limited edition recordings… Well, my childhood was lacking in many modern conveniences and perhaps I gravitate toward the charmingly antiquated as a result? I grew up with a mom who, out of love and practicality, preserved what she grew and sewed the clothes us kids wore. In my way I’m doing precisely the same—love and practicality ever a driving force.
Rumpus: You grew up in South Dakota, and you’ve lived in Chicago and now Brooklyn. A common theme in your music is longing for the country while living in the city. What do you love most about the country?
Ries: Space: the feel of the air and the stillest of sounds that rise up when you’re in that quiet. The sound of weather or, more specifically, how distinctly sound travels on an icy cold day at dawn, versus the sounds of summer dusk. I miss storms and watching them rise and rise to finally fill the sky above you. I miss the powerlessness, the smallness, of being a little human scurrying about on this wild earth. We forever try to tame it but there’s something about home and the prairie that always reminds me of its impossibility.
In my experience, it’s also easier to live a life less cluttered in the country. The work is hard and limited, small communities are exhausting, but somehow I think it’s easier to live a distilled and inward life there.
Rumpus: What is your favorite part about living in Brooklyn?
Ries: I do appreciate the variance of people and how easy it is to do, see, be, eat, love anything here. I find it incredibly easy to just be here. My life is busy—far too busy—but all in all pretty simple and neighborhood-focused, and I’m finding ways to appease my more rural side while she’s here, being dragged around by my city side.
Rumpus: In another interview, you mention your interest in multiple creative pursuits but you state that sharing songs with people is what makes you the happiest. What do you love most about sharing your songs? What other creative pursuits speak to you?
Ries: What I love most, unquestionably, is when my music finds its mark. When someone is listening—really listening—and truly hears the layers of honesty, sly humor, determination, faith, passion… At its finest, it’s that moment when writer and audience connect and both sense, “We are known and we are not alone.”
My non-musical creative pursuits run between knitting, sewing, baking, preserving, and simply taking aesthetic care in my home surroundings. While music always brings up a slurry of hard emotion in me, these other pursuits are my respite. I find such a peace in the arts of homemaking!
Rumpus: You spent a month alone in rural Tennessee working on the 2012 Laurel Lake EP. Do you find isolation to be an essential part of your creative process or are you also able to slip in and out of it while engaged in city life?
Ries: Yes, I do find isolation imperative for writing. I don’t necessarily need to duck out of the world for a month and hide myself away, but I do need emotional and physical distance. I’ll shut down in a moment if anyone steps into that sacred creating space. It feels like a big boot stomp onto my tongue, and whatever in me is responsible for this song-making snaps shut and scurries back into hiding. Unsurprisingly, NYC living holds some real challenges for me! Finding this space, this distance, takes daily diligence.
Rumpus: Why did you take a break from touring and recording from 2008 to 2010? What was your primary focus during this time and how has your relationship to music-making and performing changed since your return?
Ries: I quit because I was miserable. Tired—emotionally and physically coming apart in strange and scary ways. Scared that it would never get easier or at least easier to understand. I was also embarking on a relationship—the most real I’d ever known—and I hadn’t the faintest clue how to keep both loves fueled and tended to. So I quit. I wanted to keep music at a distance; keep my eye on it but just out of reach. It felt as though I’d then be able to determine if I really wanted and needed it still in my life.
Those two years were miserable—I just mourned and got by. I became a much better knitter! I think I became a kinder person. I learned how to be in a relationship (and am still learning today, every day).
Now that I’m playing again, I’m intentional about having a more sustainable, varied life. I can’t live on the road anymore, hunting nightly for the spotlight. Certainly, I want some of that! But I’m also filled and fueled by being a sideman for other musicians and playing in other projects, much different from my own.
I’m sure my perspective and voice have shifted as well. My themes have moved away from love and closer to living. I do know that playing and performing is more precious to me now, as is the writing. Writing is harder these days and the songs are, of course, all the more dear for it.
Rumpus: Do you ever work at jobs besides performing and recording?
Ries: I do. It goes in cycles and thus far I’ve found that each phase encourages the next. When I’m home for a stretch, I work in a local cafe and look after an assortment of sweet children. Both of which I sincerely enjoy and they bring out different strengths in me. But that work is also a persistent reminder that I have other work to do—my work.
Rumpus: What are you currently working on?
Ries: Currently, I’m working on finishing a few more songs for a new record and solidifying said record’s direction. The where, the when, the how of recording. There are so many little bits and bobbles to consider! But it will come together and it will be a beautiful, conflicted thing to behold!
First photograph of Rachel Ries © Miriam Doan.
Second photograph © Sara D. Davis.
Third photograph © Carli Davidson.