This week’s Throwback is no stranger to Ear to the Ground. Through heavy touring (over 260,000 miles) and thoughtful lyrics, David Ramirez has established himself as a premier singer songwriter. Recently he released “Fables” which is produced by friend Noah Gunderson. Check out this interview Greg did with the talented musician back in July of ’13, and if you dig free music, check out his Noisetrade account for his new single “Hard to Lie”.
Last Friday night I had the opportunity to sit down with Austin’s own David Ramirez at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio. Fresh off a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ramirez was in good spirits for his first visit to Cleveland. With the low expectations of the first time in a new city, Ramirez put on an intimate and powerful show on the tavern’s retro-lit stage.
Before I even talk about the interview, I have to mention that everything you’ve heard about David Ramirez’s live performance is true. He can (and does) silence a room. There’s an intensity in his comportment and style that is quite indescribable. He is one of the few “next level” artists that we have making music today. His vocals were phenomenal, as you might imagine, but I was particularly struck by the intricacies of his guitar playing. Ramirez has the uncanny ability of making the guitar part sound a lot easier than it is. His relatively simple show, full of several songs from his latest EP and full length, was supported by his producer Brian Douglas Phillips, who was also kind enough to answer a barrage of my questions. Together the two of them presented a real gift of a musical performance. I count it a blessing to have been there that night.
For those of us who have been listening to Ramirez for a while, it’s obvious that he wears his heart on his sleeve in many of his songs. He seems a bit burdened by a lot in life and so I couldn’t wait to ask him about the inspiring events that contribute to that affect in his music. After a few questions about his tour and the recent release, The Rooster EP, Ramirez gave me a few reflections on his songwriting and performing. He explained that he sees his music as a release of the burdens that he expresses in his songs. Then he said something that really made me happy, “…when people respond it reminds [me] that [I’m] not alone…” and he elaborated with the point that “people share the pain.” Anyone who has listened to a David Ramirez track will connect with that precisely. We share your pain, sir, and we feel it more than you will ever know.
Ramirez even cracked a joke about spending our Friday night in pain. His self-deprecating humor shows his sincere humble side throughout not just his on-stage performances, but his interactions with fans as well. He was a class act through and through. After a few points in our conversation I said that I wouldn’t write about this or that… and he brushed it all off. He does not seem to care about preserving any sort of manufactured image. He is proud to be himself and that self is a pretty good dude. For example, I asked him about “The Forgiven,” my favorite song off of The Rooster. I was convinced that the song was about his faith, but he mentioned that it was actually using the example of his faith to show the ever-present image preservation that happens in the music industry. It actually stemmed from a disagreement with his manager about a song Ramirez had written about his personal faith and an industry concern about being “pigeon-holed” as distinctly Christian artist. This song, then, was Ramirez’s way of showing his genuineness. It led to the incredible line (among several others), “if I can’t make them happy then they won’t come to my show.”
Both in lyrics and in our conversation it was evident to me that Ramirez is very powerfully affected by the combination of the fans and the forces of the industry. He wants to be true to his art and do what he loves, but he knows that he depends upon people attending his performances. I have to say I don’t think this will be a problem for much longer; I’m certain Ramirez will be packing out large venues in no time. The kind of sincerity that oozes from his lyrics is a rare commodity (ha!) in our current music landscape, so there will be increasingly more fans attune to this quality. His recent (only released on YouTube) song “Stone” presents a scathing indictment of the music industry writ large, so I had to ask him about his specific target with the song. He explained that the song was actually a self criticism in reference to his own adversity in establishing his career. “Everything in that song… is something I’ve struggled with.” Ramirez talks about drugs, carousing with women, and drinking as being things that he perceived to be part of “the life” and avenues he attempted to pursue in order to find success in the industry. Fundamentally the song is a call to arms for people both inside and outside the music industry to consider what makes it through; what music becomes successful and why? “Stone” has a lot of weight to it and will undoubtedly offend some folks, but what I found refreshing was Ramirez’s admission that he was calling himself to consider good art and good songwriting more than other artists.
In addition to wanting the story behind “The Forgiven” and “Stone,” I just had to ask about “Shoeboxes,” which is not only my favorite Ramirez song but probably his most well known. It’s a painfully honest reflection on a past relationship and the memories that go along with that experience. He described the background of it being a heartbreak song reflecting on a four year long relationship. Then, as a profound soul like his is wont to do, he communicated a simple truth that is enough to give all of us ordinary folks pause. He said that when you surround yourself with people, pieces fall off of them and become a part of you… and you a part of them. In an effort to explain my affection for the song, I said that what makes it so good (in my opinion) is that it is so profound and sympathetic without being cheesy. He, humbly and with a smirk replied, “all the greatest songs border on cheesy.”
I love asking artists about their songwriting process and Ramirez shared two things with me that were frankly unexpected. He said that he writes on the road. I’m certain that’s because he’s on the road so much. But he said he doesn’t really sit down with pen and paper so much as recording notes on his phone, saving them to revisit later for more serious writing sessions. The second surprising point was that he has a workman’s attitude toward writing. I guess in my mind I pictured him imbibing in beverages, writing his burdened lyrics out of some deep soulful reflection. Instead he explained that he sits in his room, intentionally putting time into the craft of songwriting. He spends time, ideally between two and five hours, to pound out a song. Sometimes he writes with the guitar, other times with lyrics, but he works at it just like any hard work. He described it as an “organic” work process. I tried to tease out his inspiration, again hoping for some stories about magical moments or tricks for being creative. His inspirations, as he explained them, are his friends, his lady (“the greatest woman in the world”), reading, and movies. When I pressured him on his reflections of past experiences for his lyrics he plaintively, if jokingly, said, “yeah… the past is a bitch.”
There were two things that struck me about David Ramirez that were astonishing. First off he was a wonderfully approachable person. It seems almost unrealistic how real he is in comparison to the relative greatness of his songwriting. What I mean is that he seems like he should be aloof and disconnected from “the rest of us” but he’s not, at all. He was grateful that I talked to him and went out of his way to have extended conversation with me. The second thing that impressed me was that, despite the modest crowd, he still poured his heart into his music. His performance of “Shoeboxes” was as impressive (if not more so!) in our small tavern as on his new Live at Fort Worth free album. For an artist to be humble enough to perform with such commitment and what seemed to be a consistently-thankful attitude… well, that’s remarkable.
Ramirez talked about his desire to “affect the heart and mind of humanity,” it occurred to me that he’s pretty successful at that task. When I talked to him about songwriting he mentioned that he likes to convey the things that he feels and wants to discuss. In short, as he said, “I’m a writer.” Yes, that you are, and a damn good one at that.