Words by Andrew R. Fetter
I’ve had the privilege of writing about both of Erik “Ripley” Johnson’s prolific psych rock outlets, the poppier yet droney Moon Duo, and the more light jam-based Wooden Shjips. However, this is the first time I’ve actually interviewed Ripley himself. And while there are obvious similarities to the songwriting for both bands, he has a way of making each song its own entity. For his solo project Rose City Band’s latest full length Earth Trip, he’s taken it to new heights. The blending of country and psychedelic music is easy to get lost in, which for him is the point. An album that isn’t pandemic-based but does touch on themes appropriate during a pandemic. We got the chance to talk about the record and also the relationship between psychedelics and music, something that is apparent with all of his musical outlets.
Off Shelf: In contrast to Summerlong, which had a real blues/rock feel to it, Earth Trip is more laid back, with much more of that country sound you had been doing with Rose City Band. And yet, unlike a lot of country music, it’s not sad in the sense you might associate with that genre. This record has a very peaceful feel to it that hits every time I listen to it. I can’t help but smile with each song. What kind of effect did the songs have on you as you were writing them and what do you hope they’ll have on listeners?
Ripley Johnson: When I write I’m just looking for a certain vibe. Or, I should say, the way I write is I just play my guitar and when something interesting happens I take note of it. When I’m working on an album, I go back through the little demos and ideas I’ve accumulated and see what’s worth developing further. This album was written and created during that first pandemic summer, 2020, so the vibe is a bit complicated. There is melancholy, some optimism, some sadness. I think I was hoping it would act as a bit of a balm for listeners.
OS: There’s a very introspective vibe to this record, which is kind of difficult not to view in context of the pandemic. Do you think that it translates well, and will in the future outside of recent events?
RJ: I never know how anything will translate. I originally imagined that the record would be released this past winter, so I thought it would be experienced in the midst of the lockdown and winter darkness. I am curious how it will be perceived as a summer release, if it will make sense to people. But ultimately it doesn’t matter, because winter always comes around again! I do think about how to frame a release, because it sets an expectation. But it really doesn’t matter too much once it’s out in the wild.
OS: I’ve always noticed that songwriters are more productive – or at least a lot of them claim to be – in some kind of solitude, but usually it’s a self-imposed solitude. More recently, it was obviously more urgently needed for safety so you almost didn’t have another option. Did that have an effect on the way you wrote?
RJ: It didn’t affect my process. I entered the shutdown with a lot of creative energy but that waxed and waned throughout the year. I feel lucky that I had that initial motivation, at least for long enough to get the record rolling. I’ve had stretches since then that I couldn’t get any inspiration flowing. I like solitude for writing and getting things done, but I really need the other side of that also, the interacting with people, nature, culture.
OS: The song “Lonely Places” really stood out to me. It has an almost melancholy title, probably because as people we often associate loneliness as being a bad thing or something we try to avoid. But the lyrics contradict that a little, particularly the line “Feel love for the lonely places”. It almost sounds like you’re seeing loneliness as something that can just as easily be a good thing. Do you think that’s accurate?
RJ: Absolutely. Especially in these modern times, loneliness, boredom, getting lost, disconnecting — all of those things are healthy and necessary. And lonely places tend to be lovely places. It usually means you’re out in the wild somewhere. Back to your previous question, I think the shutdown made it hard for a lot of people to have real solitude, unless you lived alone. I was lucky to be able to get out into the woods, the mountains, and get a sense of solitude, connect with nature, and it was very nourishing.
OS: The combination of country and psychedelic music is an interesting pairing. Not one that I would have necessarily imagined before hearing this record, but at the same time it works perfectly. Did those two music styles intertwine for you naturally? What was it about mixing those styles that appealed to you?
RJ: To me it’s not mixing styles as much as existing in a certain zone. It’s often called Cosmic Country, or Cosmic American Music. I think Gram Parsons is credited with coining that term. I grew up listening to things in that vein, Gram, Flying Burrito Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds. And you can throw in Relatively Clean Rivers, Mountain Bus, Gene Clark, New Riders, Doug Sahm, Neil Young, The Basement Tapes, etc… so yeah, it’s something that I’ve always been into.
OS: You mentioned this music wanting to capture the moment right as psychedelics take hold. The correlation between the two has been explored for a long time. In your mind where does that connection happen with music, either what you write or just what you listen to in your down time? And how do you think that has evolved over time?
RJ: Well, that’s the ineffable quality of music. It can take you somewhere, bring you to a mind state that otherwise might not be accessible, in the same way that drugs or meditation or nature can. It’s just a different way to access those places in your mind. I’m always looking for that in music. That’s what makes it a psychedelic experience.