Published Apr 02, 2013Hailing from California, Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale are two singer-songwriters who under the guise of the Milk Carton Kids are among the leading lights of a new generation of folk music artists. Their Anti- Records debut, The Ash & Clay, evokes everyone from Gillian Welch to Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers, but it's their poignant, modern take on classic themes that hits hardest.
Do you and Kenneth consider this album your coming out party?
Joey Ryan: In many ways it is, just in the scope of it reaching a broader audience. There's been this natural growth happening over the past couple of years that feels really rewarding, both creatively and in a career sense. By no means does it feel like a debut, because we've been playing 23 other songs around the U.S. and Canada for the past two years, but it does feel new for a couple of reasons. First of all, the last album we did, Prologue, was recorded after we'd only officially been the Milk Carton Kids for about three weeks. We did 175 shows between that and when we recorded The Ash & Clay, so in a lot ways this feels like the first album that's a product of the intense collaboration that's developed. The first few things felt exploratory, and this feels sort of like we're sinking our teeth into the meat of that space between Kenneth and I.
Yeah, I can see that. On this album it almost sounds like you guys are one person with four arms.
It's good to hear you say that, because it's definitely our goal to have it sound as though neither of us is the lead singer. I like the idea that some third identity takes hold and is actually the narrator of all these stories. I think that's a really alluring aspect of listening to this album.
After all of those shows you played, were you feeling confident with the prospect of recording this album live in the studio?
We used four microphones, and put them all as close together as possible just to try to ignore the fact that they where there and play to each other in the room. Over the four days we spent recording and mixing, it was actually terrifying knowing that we only had a few shots at capturing each song, and one of those versions was going to stand for eternity as the definitive one. You would think that we would have been confident, but we really weren't. We deliberately limited ourselves from doing overdubs or doing editing or anything like that, mainly because there was so much bleed in all the microphones. Our hands were tied on a lot of those fronts, which forces you into a more performance-based mindset, which is good for us. It's not good for everybody, and it's not done out of a sense of being a purist in any way, it's just our songs don't work if we perform them separately. They only exist in the space between us. So whether we're terrified or confident, that's just the way it has to be.
You two did start out as individual singer-songwriters. Can you describe the moment when you realized there was something special happening when you played together?
It was a different moment for both of us actually. The first time we played together, it was at Kenneth's house at his invitation to trade songs. We'd only met once or twice before, and I think we'd expressed that we were fans of each other. He had a nice little studio at his place, and he put up some microphones just to document our first attempts. I think the first thing we tried was a song of mine called "Permanent" and I thought it was terrible. The way that he and I approached time and tempo was so different, I thought there was this interminable push and pull between us that just wasn't musical at all. It sounded to me like we were just fighting with each other. But when we finished the song, Kenneth was beaming from ear to ear. He thought it was great, and I told him he was crazy. He said, trust me, and when he played it back, those ways that we each approached the song somehow made the song beautiful and exciting. I swear now that that's a metaphor for every single thing about the way we interact on both a musical and personal level. There's an incredible tension and push and pull, and somehow out of it comes this thing that's a little bit risky and a little bit exciting. And sometimes you can only realize the beauty of it when you look back.
One of the other things I love about The Ash & Clay is the vision of America that comes across, where the past is merging with the present. When you talk about the differences between you and Kenneth, would you say you share that vision of American culture?
Absolutely. It's a very interesting time we're living in, and someone actually called me on this the other day; when we were writing this record, we'd both just turned 30 and there's this funny thing that happens when, for your entire life up until when you feel you've come of age, the entire world is in front of you. You're kind of making things up as you go and there's this feeling of youthful immortality that casts a beautiful glow on everything. At the same time, you're kind of lost because you maybe haven't had any of those life-altering experiences or have had to face your own mortality. I think around the time when Kenneth and I turned 30, we both started to understand that and feel that level of wisdom that comes with experience. It was the very beginning stages of it, but for the first time we had a lot to look back on, without having lost the sense that there was an infinite future ahead. It felt like we were standing on a precipice, and I feel like there's a similar thing occurring right now with our national identity. For the first time, we're in a position where there's a full chapter in our national history that's been played out. We've reached the end of our coming of age, which was marked by an inevitable growth and incline. Now we're in a position to learn something from it try to use that wisdom to shape our future. I think the album contains a lot of those ideas. Even the title, The Ash & Clay, deals with the remains of something gone and the material to build something new.
Would you say that notion might explain the resurgence in popularity of acoustic-based music?
That's an interesting question, and a deep question. One part of the answer is that the term "folk revival," which gets tossed around a lot, is a bit of a misnomer. The folk music tradition has gone on unbroken. It's not possible to revive something that's not dead or dying. I think there's a more interesting parallel to be drawn with the music business, actually, in the way we were able to take the lessons that people learned throughout the century of recorded music becoming commercialized, up until when that world ended very rapidly. That was luckily before Kenneth and I became musicians. We were able to make two records on our own and give them away for free — I believe we've given away 175,000 copies now — and completely invent our own future. Again, it feels like we're in a business that's on a precipice with a full chapter behind it and an infinite future ahead.
Getting to see you guys live before hearing the album, I was really struck by the song "Memphis," and the story Kenneth told to introduce it. Would you say your writing has been influenced by being on the road a lot now?
Yeah, I think so. A lot of our songs have overt references to places we've been, and influences we've soaked up being there, whether positive or negative. Travel gives you an interesting perspective because the world changes around you every single day, and it starts to feel like one's own perspective is the only constant. It helps you zero in on your own identity. That song in particular goes to great lengths to make overt references to other specific songs. The second verse is a riff on Paul Simon's "Graceland," and there are several direct lyrical homages to one of my favourite Gillian Welch songs, "Elvis Presley Blues." There are also references to Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. There was an effort to draw on this persistent mythology that's ingrained in our national psyche, but isn't really true anymore once you see the place with your own eyes. Memphis was the centre of so many cultural movements, from rock 'n roll and soul music, to being the place where Martin Luther King was killed. It seemed like all of that stuff was in the past once we got there.