Chuck Ragan

In addition to fronting legendary Gainesville, Florida outift Hot Water Music and orchestrating the travelling Revival Tour, songwriter Chuck Ragan has maintained an impressive solo career. This month, he’ll put out fourth solo album ‘Till Midnight’. talked to Ragan ahead of its release to chat about songwriting, the album’s recording process and plans to head back to Australia.

‘Till’ Midnight is out soon. When you were writing the album were there any focal points? You’ve mentioned there’s quite a few ‘love songs’ on it.

A lot of the songs I write are usually just kind of spontaneous, off-the-cuff, whatever is happening, and whatever’s affecting me at that moment. It was never intended for it to end up being this way or that way. There weren’t necessarily themes that I was shooting for. A lot of my stuff is what’s happening right then and there, and honestly, I’ve just been in a really comfortable, inspiring place in my life right now. With how things are at home, with the players and the songwriters, there’s just positive, inspiring people around me, so I think that had a lot to do with the songs, how they came together and what they ended up being about.

You’ve talked about writing as being a therapeutic process for you, was that the case on this album?

Absolutely, it always is, in a lot of different ways. I feel really lucky to have met people early on in my life that showed me and taught me that writing music, playing music, there was so much more to it than just something that was cool, you know? They showed me that it could be used as a tool, and a way to better yourself, reflect and understand your position, see obstacles from a different perspective and how to overcome them. That was ingrained in me at an early age and that’s how songwriting has been and is and hopefully always will be with me. I really enjoy doing it, but it’s also something that I feel like I just have to do, I need to do it. I write often, and I document stuff all the time, and set it aside sometimes depending on where I’m at or what it is at the moment. Sometimes I just stay on it until it’s finished, but the majority of the time I just start things and put them aside, and sometimes they end up making it in a song and sometimes they make it to the fire pit (laughs).

When you first start to put together the songs, is the approach for your solo stuff any different to say, writing for Hot Water Music? Are they intertwined to a degree?

They’re definitely intertwined. I rarely write with an amp plugged in, turned up to 11. Everything that I write I write acoustically, even Hot Water Music material. I would say that when I write, there are times where I’ll write something and immediately push it off to a different pile and think “that would be a great Hot Water Music song” or “this would be something that is not Hot Water Music at all”. There’s differences there, but it’s rare that I sit down and consciously go, “Okay, I’m going to write this kind of song”, you know? I write, and what comes out comes out.

How was the recording process for the album?

Fantastic, it was a really cool way that we had it going on. Even before we went into Fonogenic Studios, we did a bit of pre-production where I flew all the guys up to where I live and we spent a week up here after they’d heard all the songs I was planning on taking a shot at. They all came prepared knowing the songs and we just came together to just get the feel of them, playing as a group. We spent a week here just living it up. We’d wake up early in the morning, go out on the boat and go fishing for a while, then come back and start playing music. We’d cook food and sit around the fire, and just keep plugging away at these songs, and just spending time with each other you know? That was the important thing for me. All these guys are so professional and really know their instruments inside and out, so it was one of those things where I wasn’t so much worried about working out little kinks, I knew that those were just going to work out naturally. It was more about just bonding, and coming together and getting to know each other better. To me, when it comes to playing music with someone, sometimes the better you know them and the closer you are, the more you just naturally gel.

So we’d started it that way, which was a blast, and I’d booked a European tour before the recording session. I chose that timeframe because I wanted to take this group over to Europe, get out on tour and – same thing – just gel on stage. To me, it didn’t even matter if we were just beating the new songs to death, it was just a matter of playing together, and it made a huge difference. When we began the session at Fonogenic, everything just kind of locked in immediately. Everybody was solid, we had a good idea of what we wanted and we just went after it. We spent about four days at Fonogenic, got the drums, all the pedal steel and majority of the bass down, then we moved over to Chris Thorn’s place, Fireside Sound and just finished everything else. It was great recording that way. When we were laying down the foundation of everything at Fonogenic, we were set up in a way where we playing it live, together. Dave Hidalgo, Todd Beene and Joe Ginsberg were all in one room, Jon Gaunt was on the other side of that room, and I was on the opposite side of that room, but we all had sight lines so we were looking through glass, so we were able to connect and feed off one another. We played those songs until they felt good and as soon as the tempo was right and everyone looked around and gave a nod, we moved onto the next.

When you talk about having the band bond together that way, it seems like even though it’s a solo record it’s important for you to have that process be something that has that kind of camaraderie about it, which is something that I get from stuff like The Revival Tour as well, where obviously the shared experience is quite an important thing.

Yeah. I mean, creating something out of nothing is kind of what music really is to me, and doing it with people that you admire and look up to, that’s a huge part. I can’t say that the next record will be like this at all and I don’t ever want to do the same record twice. I’d be honoured to play with these guys for as long as I possibly can, but who knows? They could very well do their own thing or move on to something else and it may end up just me and a guitar again, but I cherish the moments that I get to spend with them and share this music with them.

You’re about to kick off the album’s touring cycle, are you at a place now where you’re able to kind of balance your solo stuff, your commitments with Hot Water Music and your own personal life? Is that still tough?

I think it’s always tough, for anybody that has anything to do with an independent livelihood. Anything where you’re doing something that isn’t just walking in and punching a clock, I think it’s always tough to find the balance. In my life, when I’m home, we work out of the house. We do a lot of preparing for the tours, whether it’s my stuff or Revival Tour or even Hot Water music. So much goes into it, there’s so many moving pieces, and it’s always difficult to draw the line of when to work, when not to work, especially if you’re just around it all the time. Especially now that we all have phones – emails show up, calls come in, and it seems like we’re always attached to those things. It’s kind of been a struggle to get to this point. I have a tendency to get a lot of plates spinning. I want my friends to be stoked and my supporters to be stoked, but at the same I need my family to be happy and comfortable. Finding the balance between the two without running myself in the dirt has always has been a challenge. You learn, you make mistakes here and there. There’s been plenty of times, especially in the past few years where I’ve just taken on way too much. The ideas always sound good and you throw it out there, but when it ends up on the calendar and you find yourself away from home running hard for 250 days out of the year it can weigh a little heavy.

Just to wrap up, the last time you were in Australia was in 2010 with Revival. Do you have any plans to head back or is that kind of up in the air at the moment?

Absolutely, I can’t wait to come back. I don’t know what happened – it seemed like the past couple times we’ve tried to come over, something has sent us in a different direction or it just hadn’t worked out. We’re talking about it right now and trying to work out the next time we’ll be able to come over and we plan to stick to it for sure. It’s a wonderful place to be, I’ve never met so many incredible, genuine people in one place in my life and it’s just a great place to tour. I can’t wait to come back, especially with this new record and the group of guys we’re travelling with right now.

‘Till Midnight’ is due for release in Australia March 28 via Ten to Two Records.

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