Words by David C. Obenour
While you may not immediately recognize Ryan Jewell’s name, it’s highly likely that you will know the names of those littering his list of collaborators, including Neil Hagerty, Steve Gunn, Ryley Walker and more.
Having composed release before under his own name, Jewell also has an ongoing project as Mosses with his main collaborator, Danette Bordenkicher . What the two unearth together is a timeless array of sound and influences. Twang, experimental forays, rhythms that feel like they could fall apart at any moment and just solid rock dynamics, create an experience like no other for T.V. Sun.
Off Shelf: I’ve been starting out all of my interviews with this, but how are you holding up these days?
Ryan Jewell: Doing ok, considering. The world is obviously a mess and it’s easy to lose hope. Pandemic, racism, climate change. It’s crazy. But, I also see so many wonderful people doing wonderful things at the same time. Hopefully this can be a time of positive growth, and love and change for the world.
OS: Have you been working on any new music during this time? Any other creative outlets you’re exploring?
RJ: Yeah, definitely. I’ve been getting deeper into experimenting with being a home recording engineer, especially for interesting drum sounds. I’ve been writing music, practicing guitar and drums, and contributing to folks’ recordings remotely.
OS: The world is a much different place from when you recorded T.V. Sun, listening to the album now do you hear it any differently?
RJ: The record was recorded very gradually over several years, and some of the songs are the very first things I ever wrote when I first got a guitar, so some of it feels like an old record to me in a way. But we were also changing and adding things right up until it was released. Plus, we play all of these songs pretty regularly so it also feels very current. I’m really happy with the way the record came together and I still enjoy hearing it from time to time. It’s interesting because T.V. Sun was released on March 6th, which I think is the same day that SXSW was officially cancelled, which was kind of the first major music gathering to cancel due to the Covid pandemic, so in a way the entire public life of the record has been for people in quarantine, and I feel good about that in a weird way. Music is far from the most important thing in this time, but it’s all I really know how to do and if it helps even one person get through a difficult day, hopefully that’s something.
OS: Mosses is you and Danette Bordenkircher, can you talk about how the two of you met?
RJ: We had some mutual friends and met at a jazz gig I was playing several years ago and she really had such a beautiful light about her. Just the most beautiful, most sincere and kind human I’ve ever met. Now we’re engaged and have a lot of “projects” together, most of them just living life as a team, life partners. We started playing music together after already being together for several years and kind of started just as another fun and creative thing to share with each other.
OS: What do you think she brings out in you as a musician that might otherwise lay dormant?
RJ: I’m kind of an obsessive music nerd and could spend days just dorking around on instruments and talking about musicians, records, sounds, grooves, approaches, theory, history, and a lot of the musicians I know are similar in that we become kind of one-dimensional. Just music, music, music. Danette is incredibly intelligent, incredibly creative, incredibly musical, and she also actually has a much wider range of skills and interests. As a musician, she’s super dynamic, super melodic, and wide open to experimentation. But she’s not thinking about music 24/7, which is actually very important. She thinks about life and people. She thinks about the planet. Sure, we’ll play music together, but then we’ll go for a walk in nature, then she’ll paint, then garden, then create crafts from cloth and wood, then research climate science, she’s a sustainability expert. Every day she teaches me something about life as a whole. All of these things bring a much wider perspective and she helps me to open up out of my little myopic music world, which ironically makes me a better musician. In many ways, her breadth brings an honesty and kind of depth to things that would not be the same without her.
OS: You also brought in Meg Baird and John Allen for T.V. Sun, can you talk about their contributions?
RJ: I first met Meg a several years ago in San Francisco when I was playing drums for Cian Nugent on a tour, but I already really loved her music. I think it was the following year there was a Heron Oblivion and Chris Forsyth tour that I played on and we really became good friends then. She has a unique ear and voice for harmony vocals that I thought would be perfect for a couple of the songs and also has a really positive energy as a human.
John Allen’s upright bass part was probably close to the last thing put on the album. A couple of months before the album was finished I decided to rework an old song but give it a different swing feel, more spacious and light acoustic instrument arrangement. John plays bass in my weird chamber jazz group, Ryan Jewell Quintet and had played a few shows with one live line up of Mosses. I knew that his groove and tone on upright would elevate the song and it absolutely did.
OS: As a multi-instrumentalist how do you channel your songwriting? It feels like having so many options could be challenging to know where to start or where songs could go.
RJ: I’m always playing around with different instruments and sounds. Some I can play ok in a traditional sense, and others it’s a more intuitive approach for improvisation or for inspiration. Playing an instrument that you’re not used to and being out of your comfort zone to can definitely bring out new ideas. That being said, for Mosses songs, I usually write on guitar, or occasionally on piano.
OS: There’s also so much going on with each song from T.V. Sun, was it hard knowing when a song was completed? I’d be interested to know what it was like in the studio and mixing.
RJ: The T.V. Sun record is basically, for the most part, a very layered home recording, but just recorded DIY in a lot of different rooms all over the place. For example the acoustic guitars, tabla and dulcimer are in my friend Matt Horseshit’s living room with wood floors. Then, some drums were recorded in a bar with brick walls, some drums were recorded in a small dead practice space and some drums were recorded in a living room / kitchen with a very high A-frame ceiling. So, no real studios, but the tracking was very organic over a few years whenever I’d have time to work on it.
Lisa Bella Donna did most of the mixing, and they were attended mix sessions, so we were able to communicate and fine tune things together. Lisa finished a very very good rough mix of the record, then we didn’t touch it for about a year. When I came back with fresh ears, I had a few things I wanted to add. Danette and I recorded a few new parts and also took some things out to make space. Listening back, we felt like it was finally ready for a final mix. We were living in the Catskills at the time and I had been playing drums on a lot of projects recorded at nearby Black Dirt Studio in Westtown, NY, so after that last finish-line run of home recording for the T.V. Sun record, we took it to Jason Meagher at Black Dirt to finish the final mix. Patrick Klem did the mastering. I’m really happy with how it all sounds, thanks to all of the creative, talented people involved. It’s the inches that add up to a mile.
OS: With each listen, I feel like I’m able to hear these songs from a different angle – catching a new part. Are there any particular sounds or parts on T.V. Sun that stand out to you?
RJ: I don’t think I could pick out a favorite if that’s what you mean, but there’s definitely a lot going on and it’s all there for a reason, I think. And I’m happy with the flow of the entire record from song to song and so on. It’s an interesting listening experience for me personally because I remember the writing process, the recording process, the mixing, etc of almost every part and it was spread out over several years recorded in a lot of different locations. So it’s almost like a non-linear space-time experience where it’s all happening all at once here and now. [laughs] The magic of recording! Very sci-fi. I love recording so much.
OS: Have you thought about how this music translates to a live performance? How much would be replication as opposed to improvisation?
RJ: Yeah, definitely. We had a release tour scheduled for early May, but cancelled everything due to the Covid pandemic. Live Danette and I play as a duo, mostly on keys, guitar and vocals but sometimes Danette will play 12 string acoustic guitar, or her “space machine” ribbon synth, and I’ll play drums or tabla for different songs or improvisations. When we can, we just set it all up and play around live. The record is obviously very layered and dense, so in some ways the live sound is more spacious and stripped down since there are only ever two instruments at a time, but it’s also much more flexible and open for lots of improvising to let something unexpected happen.
OS: Do you think there are more Mosses albums on the horizon?
RJ: Oh, yeah, for sure. I don’t know what it will look like, but music is just a part of day to day life. We have a bunch of new stuff that we’re working on that hasn’t been recorded yet. Some will probably be more “song” oriented records and some more improv or experimental records, or a combination of both.