Los Angeles-based duo The Milk Carton Kids have just released their much anticipated Anti- debut The Ash & Clay. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan have been building a devoted following with the their live performances, while also offering free downloads of their two previous albums, Retrospect and Prologue to visitors of their website. The Milk Carton Kids have toured with an impressive roster of established acts such as Old Crow Medicine Show and Punch Brothers, and have appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series and Daytrotter.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Joey Ryan to discuss the duo's collaborative spirit, their philosophy behind offering music for free, and the making of their new album The Ash & Clay.
When and how did you connect and decide to begin working together? What drew you together musically and personally?
Joey Ryan: We were drawn together by Kenneth's song about a dead dog. From the perspective of the dead dog, really, entitled "Memoirs of an Owned Dog", that Kenneth was performing with his band when I walked in the room. I was so moved by it, and taken with the approach, that I felt compelled to introduce myself after the show.
When and how did you begin writing songs?
Joey: Some weeks later, Kenneth revealed he'd been listening to my album since we'd met, and invited me over to trade songs on his porch in Eagle Rock. That was the first time we sang together, and heard the sound our two guitars made together. It wasn't long before the key was turned on the songwriting front, which came as naturally as the rest of it.
Did you have any preconceived ideas of what kind of record(s) you wanted to make?
Joey: Retrospect was a concept of sorts in that it consists entirely of songs we'd written and released in our solo careers now arranged for the burgeoning duo. Prologue was the result of excited and fevered discovery of each other's processes, and of being at the beginning of something we felt was important.
For The Ash & Clay, we gave ourselves a bit of guidance: nothing that makes it a concept album (though there are themes that emerge), to focus outward as much as inward, to comment on our surroundings as much as our relationships, to say something of the world in which we find ourselves, as much as of our own emotions.
Which tunes came first and how did they set the course for you- both as a duo and for your record(s)?
Joey: One of the early songs to show up for this record was the title track, "The Ash & Clay". It seemed to capture a powerful duality, the right amount of hope and despair, of nostalgia, and of contradiction. One way or another, the themes throughout the record are referenced in "The Ash & Clay".
The Retrospect and Prologue albums were released a matter of months apart from each other (March/ July 2011). Was this material all written during the same span of time?
Joey: Retrospect is appropriately titled in that it serves as a look back, a retiring, more dramatically - a burial, of the "careers" we'd built separately before finding our voices together. The songs are from the 10 years prior to our meeting, and are the material with which we learned to play and sing together. Prologue was written during the times we were supposed to be rehearsing for the concerts that became Retrospect (which is a live album).
You gave (and are still giving) these albums away for free on your website. Can you discuss your philosophy about offering your music for free (both initially, and why have you continued to do so)?
Joey: First, from the very beginning, we considered ourselves a live band. We started touring immediately and haven't stopped. Making Retrospect and Prologue available for free was a part of that declaration, and in a practical sense made it possible for our audiences to grow quickly as people shared the albums with each other and their friends much more enthusiastically than we could have imagined.
More ideologically, we learned that giving the albums away and asking nothing in return represents a powerful promise: that our offering here is art for its own sake and that as much as possible we'll keep the process of marketing and commercializing it out of the relationship.
In fans' reaction to our promise we saw that ethos resonate deeply, and people supported us without our asking by buying concert tickets, CDs, vinyl, even digital copies of the very albums they could have taken for free. As we work now with Anti- and release The Ash & Clay without a free option, we're diligent to keep honoring that promise we've made implicitly from the beginning.
How have these experiences (writing, recording, releasing albums, and touring since 2011) influenced your work on new material?
Joey: The amount of time that we've spent in the past two years with less than three feet of physical space between the two of us has influenced us deeply, for better and worse. We've become best friends, more akin to brothers really, and the intensity of the collaboration that results can be heard in every aspect of The Ash & Clay, from the writing and arrangements, to the performance and dynamics. We recorded Prologue after our first 3 weeks of touring. We performed 175 more shows before recording The Ash & Clay and you can hear it.
What were you listening to and/ or influenced by during your writing & recording of The Ash & Clay?
Joey: Not a lot of listening went on during that time, to be honest. Not a lot of listening goes on with us in general. More common are books, books on tape, lectures, films. We do both have a habit of becoming obsessed with a particular recording and listening exclusively to it until it runs its course. For me most recently that has been Nina Simone's Nina Simone And Piano! and a three-song pre-release from a duo from Saskatoon called Kacy & Clayton whom we met at Folk Alliance recently.
On The Ash & Clay you can hear the great influence of our coming of age, getting older even - both the two of us, individually, and our entire country. This period in our lives allows a unique perspective, for the first time, of having a lot to look back on - to miss - both fondly and with regret, and at the same time of having a seemingly endless world of possibility still before us to approach eagerly with hope and uncertainty and fear.
Did you have a set vision for the new record? When did you begin working on material?
Joey: The material came consistently throughout the year and a half spent touring since Prologue, and the vision unfolded over that time guided by our desire mentioned earlier to look outside ourselves in the processes. We rarely sit down to write songs, and never with a blank page between the two of us. The material comes when it comes, for the most part, which is frustrating and incredibly exciting.
Can you share your songwriting process?
Joey: Songs seem to come to us in every way possible, whether the lyrical idea or a melody or progression sets us down a path. The most rewarding thing about writing in our duo has been the commitment by each of us to let the other in on our process as early as possible. When a song reveals itself to you it can feel like a very personal revelation, one that needs nurturing and protection. Having the trust between us to share that as early on as possible has made us both better writers, to be sure.
What would you say are the biggest similarities between The Ash & Clay with your previous records?
Joey: The commitment to our limited instrumentation (two guitars, two voices) and to recording live ties all our albums together with each other and with our live show as well. It has been supremely important to us to commit to a form and explore the emotional, dynamic, and topical range within it, rather than pursue the vast sonic options available to us in studios.
What aspects would you say sets it most apart?
Joey: Hopefully we've taken another step toward achieving an expansive, colorful record within our limited framework. We're often referred to as "minimalist" and enjoy the label most of the time. Really, though, in every aspect beyond instrumentation we're striving for the opposite experience.
What are your plans for 2013?
Joey: Touring. A couple laps around North America and our first international tours are among the current plans. There's no end in sight on that front, thankfully.