The Milk Carton Kids' Joey Ryan Talks the Genesis of 'The Ash & Clay'

The Milk Carton Kids' Joey Ryan Talks the Genesis of 'The Ash & Clay'
It was just two years ago that California singer-songwriters Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale teamed up to form the Milk Carton Kids, and now with the release of their Anti- Records debut, The Ash & Clay, the duo is poised to live up to the hype surrounding them in folk and alt-country circles, and potentially cross over into the wider pop sphere.

Relying on only two acoustic guitars and their shared voices, the Milk Carton Kids have drawn obvious comparisons to Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, as well as Simon & Garfunkel. But the near-flawless collection of songs on The Ash & Clay shows the pair firmly establishing their own style, something Ryan tells Exclaim! is the result of two solid years of touring and writing.

"This by no means feels like a debut, but there are a couple things that feel new about it," he says. "When we made the previous album we released, Prologue, we'd only officially been the Milk Carton Kids for about three weeks. We did 175 shows between then and when we made The Ash & Clay, so in a lot of ways this album feels like the first product of the intensity of the collaboration that's developed."

The pair recently previewed their new material with some intimate performances at the International Folk Alliance conference in Toronto, which left many attendees picking their jaws up off the floor. Their onstage practice of singing into a single microphone is an extension of how they work in the studio, something that gives The Ash & Clay its unique feel.

"We actually used four microphones on this album, but we put them as close together as humanly possible in order to try to ignore that they were there," Ryan explains. "We recorded and mixed everything in four days, but I wouldn't say that that was a reflection of us being confident going into it. It was actually terrifying knowing the limitations we'd put on ourselves as far as being able to correct things. We knew we only had a few attempts to record each song, and one of those versions would stand for all time."

Working within those limitations is what Ryan says fuels the chemistry between him and Pattengale, although he is hesitant to describe what they do as being part of some sort of "folk revival."

"I think that term is a bit of a misnomer," he maintains. "The folk music tradition has gone on unbroken, so there's no need to revive something that's not dead or dying. There's a better parallel to be drawn with the music business, in that we were able to take the lessons learned from the previous century up until all of that collapsed. We made two records prior to this one, and gave them both away for free — I think it's something like 170,000 copies now. I do feel a real sense that the way things were done in the past are firmly behind us, and there's an infinite future ahead where you can make your own rules."

The Milk Carton Kids are now preparing for a North American spring tour that brings them to Montreal and Toronto in late April. Full dates are below, where you can also find the band's recent Exclaim! TV session. And check out more of Exclaim!'s Milk Carton Kids interview here.

Tour dates:

4/17 Nashville, TN - The High Watt *
4/18 Atlanta, GA - Eddie's Attic *
4/19 Durham, NC - Casbah *
4/20 Richmond, VA - Capital Ale House *
4/22 Philadelphia, PA - World Cafe Live *
4/23 Alexandria, VA - The Birchmere *
4/25 Boston, MA - Brighton Music Hall &
4/26 Montreal, QC - Il Motore ^
4/27 Toronto, ON - The Drake ^
4/29 Ann Arbor, MI - The Ark ^
4/30 Chicago, IL - Lincoln Hall ^
5/2 Denver, CO - Bluebird Theater ^
5/6 Salt Lake City, UT - The State Room ^
5/8 Los Angeles, CA - Largo ^
5/9 Los Angeles, CA - Largo ^
5/10 Phoenix, AZ - Crescent Ballroom ^
5/12 Solana Beach, CA - Belly Up ^
5/13 San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall ^
5/15 Portland, OR - Aladdin Theater ^
5/16 Seattle, WA - Tractor Tavern ^
5/17 Vancouver, BC - Media Club ^
5/19 New York, NY - Bowery Ballroom ^

* with Aoife O'Donovan
% with Molly Tuttle
^ with the Barefoot Movement