Ryan Bingham has an unmistakable voice. It’s grungy and raw like truck tires on a gravel road and at the same time airy and crackling like a wise man telling stories on his back porch. He has a quiet way about him. His eyes are deep and caring and when he smiles, his entire face lights up. Bingham was born in New Mexico, but spent his formative years bouncing around West Texas. His upbringing was rough. Alcoholic parents left him alone and to his own devices. He was perpetually the outsider, never spending more than a year or two in a one place. At 16, he received a guitar as a gift and while traveling the rodeo circuit, began playing. To his surprise he started getting asked to play in bars. It was in these rough and tumble, smoke filled bars that Bingham found his voice, both literally and figuratively. He credits his grizzly voice to having to compete against the noise of bar brawls between cowboys. The songwriting gave him the outlet he needed to process difficult emotions. What resulted are songs that are gritty and born out of real life struggle. Now, with five albums under his belt (two of which were released on his wife’s and his label), a solid career and a new baby, Ryan Bingham has found the stability and home that he always craved.
Recently I got to sit down and talk to him about being a dad, relationships, and what it’s like to be a cowboy in LA.
Interview feature by Anne-Marie Schiefer
It’s been a massive year for you — your new album, Fear and Saturday Night, a solo tour, now a tour with the band and of course the biggest news–you became a dad!
It’s been great. It’s the best thing I’ve ever experienced. She is five and half months old now. Definitely harder to walk out the door and go on tour, but it is really so great. I can’t imagine life without her now.
How has Boo been with her? (Boo, is Ryan’s dog and a popular subject on his Instagram account.)
Boo is crazy protective of her. He’s still a little bit wary of her though. He likes to be close to her but not close enough where she can grab his hair really hard. [He laughs.] He stays within arms reach, but he never goes too far away. He always stays between her and the front door of the house so he can watch who’s coming in. If we lay her down for a nap downstairs, he goes down there by her crib and hangs out with her. It’s pretty amazing. He’s her protector.
You’ve been in L.A. awhile now, right?
Almost nine years now.
Now I heard you lived with Uncle Rico, Jon Gries, when you first moved out to LA, is that right?
Yeah! [laughs] He’s a really great musician and songwriter and he has a studio in the back of his house. We basically crashed on his couch for a long time. He is one of those souls that saved us in a way. We had nowhere to go and saw that we were sleeping in a suburban and said, “Come over to the house and hangout.”
Did he ever go on the road with you guys?
Oh yeah! The first time, we hadn’t totally moved out to L.A. yet. We were still coming back and forth between Texas and L.A. and playing shows. So we’d stay at his house for about a month or so and then head back to Texas. We were packing up the suburban and he was standing out in his front yard and kinda had this, you know, sad lonesome look on his face. I said, “Dude, do you want to go with us?” He said, “Really?” And I said, “Fucking go pack your bags and let’s go.” So he did and rode with us all the way to Texas and spent about a month with us traveling around and fucking off. He’s amazing. He’s come out to our shows and played harmonica with us. We’ve even recorded a bunch of stuff at his house, just messing around.
How is it that you’ve stayed grounded and kept the cowboy attitude and not get caught up in the craziness of the city?
Pretty much the whole time I’ve lived in L.A. I have lived up in Topanga Canyon. When you’re up there you don’t feel like you’re in the city at all. It’s a bit of an escape. And, since I spend most of my time out on the road when I get home I don’t really like to go anywhere so I kind of hide out up there. Or sometimes go to the beach. Every now and then I go to Hollywood to watch shows and such or maybe my wife and I will go see a film. I’m really not out in the scene very much or in clubs and bars. When I get home from the road the last place I want to go is a bar [laughs]. I just need a break and somewhere quiet. I try not to get too caught up in the scene. But, at the same time there are so many great bands that come through and play and there’s so many wonderful parts to the city too. I love to go to downtown L.A. and to Olvera Street. There’s some really cool parts to the city. I am trying to get out and see other parts of the city besides just the touristy destinations. Like, I’m really looking forward to playing the Regent because I haven’t been there yet.
Did you take up surfing when you moved to California?
I did! Uncle Rico was the one that got me into surfing. He’s a big surfer and had a couple of boards laying around. I have always been a fairly active person and like to be outdoors and in nature. So, when I first went to L.A. it was a really great thing for me to start surfing because it gave me that escape. I could just get out there and take my mind off everything. I got healthy and in shape. It was a good lifestyle for me after spending so much time on the road and in smoky bars and partying every night. It’s amazing because after riding bulls in the rodeo and once I started surfing and getting the hang of it and getting into bigger waves it was the only other thing that felt really close to that. It gave me the same kind of feeling. You don’t have time to think about it, you just have to go and react. I love the dance.
You’ve been pretty open about the hardships of growing up with alcoholic parents and how moving around so much and not having a home made it difficult to lay down roots and connect with people. When was it that you finally felt settled and at home?
When my wife and I got our first place in Topanga. Before that I had been living on couches at peoples houses and then being on the road in-between for 10 or more years. So when we got all our stuff moved in to our own place and shut the door and locked it we both sat on the couch and I felt this overwhelming feeling of safety. It was my own fucking place. I could really relax and I wasn’t a guest at somebody’s house, you know? Locking that door and knowing my name was on the mailbox and that the mail was going to come there, it was definitely the first time I felt something like that.
Each of your albums seem to really represent a chapter in your life. What chapter is this latest release, Fear and Saturday Night?
You know, I think it’s just growing up and living in the world that we live in and seeing all the stuff that goes on. Being on the road traveling all the time you’re exposed to so much every day. And, not to get too off track it just seems like in our society and in the world there’s this sense of fear in everybody. People are scared to walk out their door and they’re scared someone is going to get ‘em. How do you live through life with that attitude everyday? I mean, there’s fear, yes, but there’s also Saturday night! I’m going to go out and have a fucking beer! And, the stuff that happened in Paris, what are you going to do? Are you going to cancel your whole tour because you are scared that somebody might come out to our next gig? No, fuck those mother fuckers, lets go play every night for the people. Just like that picture from Paris of thousands of people in the streets holding a sign that says, “we’re not afraid.” That’s exactly it! That’s this record – going through your hard times and facing all those demons and all that stuff out there in the world, but not being afraid to walk out the front door. Facing it all head on!
In your song “My Diamond is Too Rough,” it seems like you say all that on a more personal level. A cry against a society that puts so much emphasis on the exterior and material things. How did the song come about for you?
I’ve never really sought after being a pop star or anything like that. It’s not why I started making music or writing songs. I did it to deal with my own personal shit and never really planned on performing them for people. Then one thing lead to another and I got lucky and ended up being able to do this for a living. I’ve always felt like I’ve been on the rougher side of the line. And, I’m a fan of a lot of music and have friends that are a little rougher around the edges and grittier. Seeing the contrast between the two and how that’s not as accepted as the “polished slicked-up formatted for sale buy me” kind of thing.
You say you’re rough around the edges but then you lay down a song like “Snow Falls in June,” which is an amazing love song, it captures the ups and downs of life and how that is reflected in a relationship — how you can support a person through the roller coaster of life. What was your wife’s reactions the first time you played it for her?
She smiled. [He grins from ear to ear and laughs.]
Do you share every step of the songwriting process with her or just the final?
I try and get it as close to done as possible so I can make sure to get my point across without it getting taken out of context before I let anybody hear it. I like to make sure that I even understand what the fuck I am saying. Sometimes you write stuff down and you understand it, but just because you understand it doesn’t mean someone else will relate to it or get what you’re trying to say. So a lot of times I go back and make sure I am getting my point across and saying what I want to say. Maybe I don’t really want it to be that exposed. But, I try to get it to that point before I get her take on it. But, I really like to get her opinion on it because I really appreciate her taste on music and art.
Have you played the baby “Broken Heart Tattoos” yet?
I have! Anna (his wife) started playing it when she was still pregnant. Every time the baby hears it she calms down immediately. When I was trying to put her down for a nap the other day she was just not having it and throwing a fit. I played some other music and then finally I put on the song and she just stopped. She was calm and I started playing some other music and she started crying! [laughs] So I put the song on again and she stopped and so I just left it on. My wife and I are kind of sick of the song now. We need to get her another song!
Is she going to be allowed to get a tattoo?
[With a huge smile.] She can do whatever she wants!
What are you looking forward to on this tour with the full band?
I’ve been looking forward to every night and every show! These guys in the band right now are fucking bad ass. They are so much fun to be around. They’ve all played in bands a long time and have been on the road a long time and they get it. We get on the road and there’s no drama and there’s no bullshit, it’s easy going. Doesn’t matter where we’re playing – if it’s a shit hole club or a big nice theater. It is the same show and we are excited to play. We’re also working up all these old songs too. Sometimes songs come across on a record different than they were intended to be so it’s really been fun to have their input on stuff. They’re all very musical and I’ve been learning a lot. That’s what I really look forward to on these tours. I never really had a formal musical training or anything. All these guys can read music and write it and chart stuff out. They’re great engineers and play a lot of different instruments so it’s just been great. On the bus we keep a bunch of guitars and we’re learning a bunch of different songs by famous bands and working up cover tunes plus old songs. I come away from the tours and feel like my game is just on another level and it’s a lot because of these guys.
I heard you have a couple of trophies laying around the house. (Bingham won a Golden Globe, a Grammy and the Oscar for “Weary Kind” from the 2009 movie Crazy Heart.) Are they up in a trophy case?
[He laughs.] No, no I don’t. They’re actually in storage right now. That was a great time. But, you know I didn’t get into playing music to win anything. It was the most surreal fucking experience of my whole life. I never had any goals—that was not a goal of mine at all. Then all the sudden I have people saying to me, “I can’t believe you’re winning a fucking Oscar.” And I’m like, “I can’t believe I’m winning it either! I don’t even understand what it’s all about. I’m not even a fucking actor.”
See Ryan Bingham at the Regent Theater in L.A. on Wednesday November 18th. Get tickets here!