With a virtuosic ability that is comfortable in many different shoes, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Dustin Ransom has laid down his own voice on Thread on Fire, a brand-new solo album. Unlike most debut efforts, Ransom’s project emerges with the unique perspective of a veteran. It comes from years of producing and performing with other artists, and combines those experiences into a work that is already planted on solid footing.
Thread on Fire is song-driven. From the gorgeously orchestrated “The Way We Say Goodbye”, to the funk-infused “Our American Way”, it demonstrates Ransom’s versatility and agility. Although the songs may differ in tone and style, they are unmistakably tied together by Ransom’s voice and soul. Thread on Fire celebrates the idea of good music beyond the constraints of a particular genre.
NYMM: You’ve worked with a lot of artists as a producer and performer. What made you decide to record your own work?
DR: I’ve had a lot of people close to me suggest that I do it. I’ve been writing songs since I was about nine or ten. There was always that part of me, in the back of my mind, that dreamed about getting out in front of an audience by myself. One big impetus was about a year and a half ago when I got to play keys with Jon Mclaughlin, opening up for Billy Joel. After that, it just made sense to try. I told myself at the beginning that I would pursue it as hard as I could, but if it doesn’t work out, then I’d be ok with that, but I’m not going to let myself do it halfway.
NYMM: Has working with others given you a unique insight into what it takes?
DR: I’ve seen people do it the right way and people do it the wrong way. From my experience being a side man, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot. There have been a lot of times as a session musician where I’ve seen an artist get treated poorly because they weren’t able to make certain decisions for themselves, either creatively or business-wise. There was a time when I wanted to do production and engineering, but then I got tired of giving away all of my good ideas. [laughs]
NYMM: How long have these songs been around?
DR: Some of them are only a few months old and some of them had their genesis in other songs that I wrote four or five years ago. “Dig”, for example, came from a goofy idea I had three years ago. I’m always inspired by songwriters that take advantage of recycled ideas and create a better version of a song. I really enjoy listening to studio outtakes from bands. I have a lot of Beatles outtakes, and I like to hear the demos and how the songs develop over time. It shows that they went through the same process that I have to go through, that they really worked hard at it as well.
NYMM: Then the studio was already a comfortable place for you.
DR: When I was a kid, I used to take two tape recorders and do a cheap version of multi-track recording. I would record myself playing keys on one tape and then play it back while playing something else and recording that on another tape. So basically I was building tracks.
When I was younger, I would get obsessed with one record and everything I wrote sounded like a sad facsimiles of that record. With every artist I produce, I ask them to sit down and make a list of their ten favorite records so I don’t have to second-guess what moves them. I’ve seen a lot of situations where a producer tries to bring their own creative vision through another artist rather than being a servant to the artist.
NYMM: So you have some experience with working on good songs.
DR: A good song is a good song, no matter how it gets there. There’s a lot of talk from people like Dave Grohl, who I respect a lot, about the detrimental effects of modern technology on the music-making process. I think that like anything else, technology can be used for good or bad. To say that ProTools is the death-knell of the music industry is crap. There were crappy records made on tape and there are amazing records made in ProTools. I’ve read about engineers correcting Michael Jackson’s vocals back in the ’80s with harmonizers. We revered those recordings, but they were doing similar things even then. Even the Beatles were splicing together different takes.
NYMM: Tell me about one of the songs on the album.
NYMM: “Thread on Fire” is a really somber song. I’m very influenced by artists like Sun Kil Moon and Nick Drake. Each verse is intended to represent something that two people in an argument could be saying to the other person. It was influenced by conflicts I’ve had with my wife, and how they can be healthy conflicts. It relates to the idea that there are very similar emotions going on in an argument, but at the end of the day there can be a bigger picture of commonality.
I was a little insecure about pursuing a solo career years ago, partly because there were things I wanted to express lyrically that I was just afraid to saying. Having someone like my wife, who is my biggest sounding board, helps me be more honest. This album feels like the most cohesive picture of what I’ve learned and what I’ve always wanted to do.
You can find more Dustin Ransom here:
Images by Jon Karr
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