June 24, 2008

Ryan Auffenberg and the burnished glimmer of Marigolds

There’s a desolate ache to the brand of dusty Americana that Ryan Auffenberg creates from his outpost in the busy heart of San Francisco. As the SF Weekly wrote, “sweet, rough, singer-songwriter kids like Ryan Auffenberg have a powerful animating force — they like to fuck around with folk, and they’ve got love songs to sing.”

I called Ryan an artist to watch a few years ago after first hearing the gorgeously melancholy harmonies of “Under All The Bright Lights” and seeing him perform at Noise Pop 2007. Now signed to independent San Francisco label Evangeline Records (home of Chuck Prophet), Ryan is releasing his newest album Marigolds today. It was produced and mixed by former American Music Clubber Tim Mooney, and mastered by Matt Pence of Centro-matic.

There’s a bittersweet molasses smoothness to Ryan’s voice as it crests and burrows through his songs with a streak of the romantic west gleaming through. Whether plumbing the cold depths of loneliness in songs like “Deep Water” or driving a highway with the windows down amidst the bright Midwest jangle on the closing track “Alright, Okay,” he urges us all to have some faith.

Alright, Okay – Ryan Auffenberg

Lay off the novocaine
’cause you’ve been asleep for days

it hurts but it’ll go away

Almost the first of May
the San Francisco Bay’s
all swollen up from last night’s rain

So if you just come down
we’ll get out of town

take a breath and drive all day . . .

Ryan took a few minutes to answer some questions for Fuel/Friends, since this is one artist whom I tend to get a lot of questions about, and who’s been flying under the radar lately.

Q: You’re from the Midwest but live in San Francisco. How does location and the mood of the city affect your songwriting, in contrast with the twang of your roots?

A: Some of the initial press about the album has played up my Midwestern “country” roots, which I think my St. Louis friends and family find amusing. While I never really considered St. Louis to be much of an epicenter for roots or “country” music, I did grow up 20 minutes away from Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar’s hometown, so I guess there is a bit of that scene in my lineage. I remember listening to Uncle Tupelo when I was 11 or 12 years old and they were just a local band. They had a poster that said something like “Fourth best country band in St. Louis!”

While St. Louis does have a pretty auspicious musical heritage, especially in regards to blues and early rock ‘n’ roll, I would say that I identify much more with San Francisco as a place that has shaped my sensibilities as an artist. Cultural influences aside, I think my music is definitely affected by the atmosphere and climate of San Francisco. I live in a particularly foggy neighborhood, which I know has had a big effect on the mood of music I often write.

If you sit down to play some music and it’s foggy outside, that’s going to have an effect on what type of music you play. “Missouri in the Morning” is actually a song I wrote on a particularly foggy day when I was missing home and the blazing heat of the summer time. There’s something really sensual about that kind of weather. I miss that out here.

What can you tell me about your songwriting process on Marigolds?

My songs usually seem to start out with chords and a melody. Once some sort of melody starts to take shape, I’ll sing a bit of free-form nonsense along with the melody until an image pops out that I feel like I can run with. Once I’ve got those images then I’ll start trying to weave some sort of narrative through lines into the song, and piece it all together.

What I find really fascinating about this process is that when I’m nearing completion of a song and take a step back, I often find that what I’d thought was simply some sort of free-association exercise has really turned into a means of expressing emotions or ideas that had been percolating for a while, but I hadn’t quite figured out how to articulate them. Many of what I feel to be my most emotionally honest songs have come out of this process. Also, the writing always happens at different rates of speed. For instance, I wrote “Deep Water” and “Under All the Bright Lights” in about a half hour each respectively, whereas the song “Marigolds” took me six months to finish.

After your self-released first album Climb, your second album Golden Gate Park was never released and seems shelved for the time being. That seems to me to be a bit like the second part in a trilogy being missing. Any plans to revisit the songs on that album?

I would eventually like to release Golden Gate Park in its originally-intended album form. After recording it, I was looking for a label to help put some resources behind the release. So in the interim period, I took four of the songs off of the album, released them as The Bright Lights EP and held off on putting out the rest of that material.

When I was eventually approached by Evangeline, their original intention in making an album with me was to go back in a re-record those songs with a slightly different production approach. However, by that point in time I had already written a new album and expressed to them that I’d much rather make a new album than go back and revisit material I’d emotionally and creatively moved on from. I sent them demos for the songs on Marigolds and they signed off on the idea of making an album of all new material.

I am proud of Golden Gate Park though, and I would eventually like all of those songs to see the light of day, but for now it’s currently locked in the vault (“the vault” being my bedroom closet).

You’ve played shows with quite a variety of musicians, from Mark Kozelek to Laura Veirs to the Watson Twins. What other music has been influencing or astounding you lately?

I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Neil Young. Tim Mooney (Marigolds producer) and I, aside from being musicians, are also pretty big music fans and would spend a lot of time in the studio just talking about records we loved. After the Goldrush was a recurring topic of conversation. We’ve actually been tooling around with a cover of “Tell Me Why” and may include that as a bonus track in some form or another sometime.

As far as new stuff, I’ve been enjoying the Bon Iver album a good bit lately. Flume, Skinny Love and Re: Stacks are all really beautiful tunes. Sun Kil Moon‘s “Lost Verses” off the new April album is the first song in a long time to give me that “lump in your throat” feeling.

Other newer stuff: Spoon‘s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a badass album. Britt Daniel crafts these incredibly lean and mean pop songs, and then they’ll do these wild production things like making one tune sound like The Supremes, which seems like a pretty unique choice for a rock band to be making these days. Another thing about Britt that I love is his solo-ing style. Often times during solos, he intentionally plays all these wrong chords or notes and creates this really messy, dissonant, incredible sounding noise.

There’s a moment at the end of “Interstate” (on Marigolds) that’s sort of a mini-musical nod to Britt. I was overdubbing piano on the song and in the outro I just started banging on the piano, playing wrong notes while Tim messed with that fucked-up signal generator noise. Good fun indeed.


Auffenberg’s record release party is tonight at San Francisco’s Cafe Du Nord. Head on out to support this talented artist; Willow Willow and Robert Francis open. Ryan also heads out on the road in July & August.

Marigolds is available today.

[portrait of Ryan credit Peter Ellenby]

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  • Ryan makes me proud to be from St. Louis…. and I think I bought a car from his uncle. This is a small, strange world.

    Ruralgurl — June 24, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

  • cheers heather! I’ve been waiting for an update on this artist for a good while. i’m now off to buy, thanks to you for keeping us posted on him.

    Chris — June 24, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

  • OK the music for this song was stolen directly from Counting Crows’ Have you Seen Me Lately from Across a Wire Live in New York. Wow..

    wuzen — June 25, 2008 @ 7:46 am

  • Thanks Heather, one of your great finds over the years and one I’ve anxiously awaited new material from for over a year.

    Kevin — June 25, 2008 @ 8:08 am

  • YES!! You’ve answered my burning questions and captured the essence of what draws me to this artist and his music. Thanks, Friend! You are Fuel that I can gladly afford.

    jocooper8 — June 25, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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