Ratboys Interview: “Touch the huge humanity that’s everywhere.”

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New album GN out June 30 via Topshelf Records.

It should hardly be a surprise at this stage, but Boston independent label Topshelf Records sure know how to unearth a gem. GN will be the second album on Topshelf from post country group Ratboys. An album of endearingly idiosyncratic subject matter and a knack for the most delicate and heartfelt melodies, it is a record that channels the best country rock of the 70’s but resettles it within an extremely 21st Century context.

Led by the lilting vocals and tender lyrics of Julia Steiner, their music is just beyond perfect. It is dripping with melancholic humanity and brimming with heart and nuance and honesty.

We had a chance to have a chat with Julia about the themes of the album, her fascination with unusual characters, and what she had for breakfast.

Pre-order GN via Bandcamp.

Overblown: You’ve stated that the new album has a lot to do with ‘saying goodbye’. I find it excruciatingly difficult to say goodbye and can’t leave people go for years and years. How did the process of ‘saying goodbye’ inform the music on the record?

Julia Steiner: I find it so difficult to say goodbye too, but with the choices I’ve made as a young person I’ve had to do it a lot. Not in a heavy sense necessarily, but in going off to college, in then graduating and having friends move all over the country, in living far away from my my immediate family, in playing shows in different cities and saying goodbye to people we meet and folks we love in each place – I find myself ‘saying goodbye’ all the time.

I wrote each of the songs on ‘GN at very disparate points over the past 5 years (starting with ‘Elvis is in the Freezer’ and ‘Westside’ in 2012 & leading up to ‘Wandered’ and ‘Crying about the Planets’ in 2016), so the new record, for me at least, is almost a kind of personal tapestry or road map of all these relationships I’ve had and the ways they stop and start. I feel like the songs kind of document various points of isolation and connection in my life – crystallizing certain memories in amber.

O: Another theme is ‘finding your way home’. Do you think that is what people are doing for their whole lives anyway? Trying to find where they belong?

JS: I absolutely think that all of us are united by a common urge to find our own way home. And by home I don’t mean a certain shelter or even a physical place necessarily. I feel like I find home, a place where I belong and can fully realize the person I am & want to be, in my relationships with my bandmate/partner Dave and with my family. It’s a pretty novel concept maybe, but like I said before, the life of a touring musician is transitory, and when we’re constantly going from one place to the next it’s hugely helpful – and a pure comfort really – to have a home in just being with your companions.

That being said, I definitely will always consider Louisville, Kentucky my home, and my current apartment in Chicago is listed in Google Maps as ‘home,’ and when I visit Dublin, Ireland and even South Bend, Indiana I still feel like I have a home there, so you know it’s not quite that simple (and nothing ever is).

O: I love the title ‘Elvis Is In The Freezer’. Where did that come from?

JS: That title refers to my family’s former (and sadly now-deceased) pet cat who was named Elvis. We already had two Boston Terriers named Jazz and Blues, so when my parents let us get a cat, we named it Elvis to keep the music theme going. He was a really weird grey and white cat who didn’t have a tail, which screwed up his balance and caused him to constantly knock stuff over. He was also kind of mean and only really liked me and my mom because we weren’t scared of him.

Anyway, he got sick quite young – he was six I believe – and my family had to put him down while I was away at college. It was November and it rained a lot in Louisville that November so the ground was all muddy. Because of the mud, my folks couldn’t (or didn’t want to) bury Elvis right then, so they kept him in our basement freezer for a while, wrapped in a blanket. I remember coming home for Thanksgiving break and my mom warning me right when I walked through the door, ‘Elvis is in the freezer downstairs, just so you know.’ That made me laugh and immediately stuck out to me, and a few weeks later the song came to be.

O: ‘Crying’ tells the story of Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson. What drew you to him?

JS: Pure chance actually. A lot of the time when I have downtime at home or on the road I like to go on Wikipedia and hit ‘random article’ over and over and just read about random stuff that pops up. So I was doing that at home laying in my bed one night, and an article pops up for ‘Far Eastern Party’ which was the name of Sir Douglas Mawson’s three-man expedition team.

I was immediately sucked in. The story is just unbelievable. It has so many layers and twists and so much sadness but so much honor and bravery too. I honestly felt lucky to stumble upon it. And then I sent the article to Dave and a couple other friends, which felt satisfying. But I knew that the ultimate satisfaction and connection would come from writing a song about the story, so that’s what I did.

O: Another interesting character explored on the record is a feral child in Germany who was eventually adopted by the King of England. Again, what is the attraction to this character?

JS: My friend Liz and I had always been fascinated by the idea of feral children and we would study them together and just talk about them together, and Peter the Wild Boy is one that we found one day, on Wikipedia as well. His story is one of such extremes – of living naked in the woods and then living in the Royal palace; a literal nobody running into the King of England. It was so vivid, and I just felt compelled to write about it right away. The song ‘Peter the Wild Boy’ is probably the oldest song on ‘GN’ I think I wrote it in 2011. We weren’t originally going to include it on the album, but we made a last second decision to scrub the intended final track and sub in Peter, with some nice strings added on (courtesy of Adam Gorcowski and Mallory Linehan). I’m so happy we made that choice.

O: You have said that writing from unusual perspectives helps her empathise with people. Do you find that by exploring these unusual characters, you learn more about yourself too?

JS: Absolutely. Engaging with the experiences of other people just contextualizes my own memories and relationships. It’s also a way for me to pay respect to the fact that the world is so much bigger than me. To leave my life for a bit and touch the huge humanity that’s everywhere. It’s as much about escape as it is about connection I think, but the two really go hand in hand.

O: You call yourselves ‘post-country’. How is that different from ‘alt-country’?

JS: Post-country is a funny little genre I thought up in college that plays off of what I see as our generation’s impulse to put ‘post’ in front of every genre and call it a new thing. Thinking specifically of ‘post-hardcore’ and ‘post-punk’ and all this weird stuff I was introduced to then that I still don’t really understand. Growing up in the 90s and 00s, it seemed like mainstream country music and pop music were kind of becoming the same thing. Like God knows how much I loved Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill as a kid, but I also adored them in the same breath as Britney Spears or Kelly Clarkson.

Now these days I feel like what people call ‘alt-country’ music is the truest country music out there. People like Sarah Jarosz, Gillian Welch, Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, Kacey Musgraves, who are using a lot of the same traditional instrumentation and singing country melodies and focusing on narrative story-telling – but they’re not necessarily performing on the CMA stage or singing commercially-minded songs about beer and trucks.

To me, ‘post-country’ is one step further removed and tags artists who make indie music that pays homage to the traditional sounds and story-telling impulses of country music. The new Alex G record is a great example. I feel like the term refers to music or bands whose core fans might not even consider themselves country fans. It’s something new drawing upon the past.

It’s definitely a goofy term, and I’m not trying to ruffle any feathers by using it to describe our music, but I think it holds some merit that I’m still workin’ through and learning about in writing songs and listening.

O: What did you have for breakfast?

JS: I actually just woke up now that you mention it. I’m in New Orleans right now, and we’re about to go to a place called Betsy’s Diner, where I think I’m gonna get some… pancakes!

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