Good Graces is the latest release from Scottish-American singer-songwriter Jonathan Rice, and it’s his first solo project in quite a while. Since releasing his second album in 2007, Rice has focused on collaborative work – with Jenny Lewis (the pair became Jenny & Johnny), Elvis Costello, and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. He chats with American Songwriter about connecting with Costello, why he’s proud of the EP’s single, and why he’s trying to write music without “trap doors or dark alleys.”
How did you end up working with Elvis Costello? What was it like?
I wrote the song “Carpetbaggers” for Jenny Lewis because she wanted an uptempo number for her live show back in 2006. I wrote it as a duet. I sang it on the tour. Elvis was/is a big fan of Jenny’s and we asked him to duet with her on it for the Acid Tongue record. I guess he just dug recording with us because he booked Sound City as soon as we were done with it and we just left our gear in there and made his next record with him. He’s a Deadhead, so we get along famously.
For the record, what are your feelings on rice…. fan? not a fan? Brown or white?
I would prefer that to remain a mystery.
Tell us a bit about Good Graces.
I wrote it during a very difficult time in my life. A lot of things seemed to be crumbling around me and i felt powerless to stop it. Rather than focus on that darkness, I tried to write songs that were really open-hearted and positive, which, in my opinion, is harder than writing something sad and/or depressing. Bill Murray told me that it’s harder to make someone laugh than it is to make someone cry. I think it’s true. My intention was to try and make music that could heal myself and the loved ones around me that were suffering.
How would you compare it to your last album?
Well, my last album is the Jenny & Johnny record. I think the experience of making that record and touring the world with those songs did what it always does – it made me want to make a totally different type of record next time around. although Jenny does sing quite a bit on this record. I’m hopelessly addicted to singing with her. This record was made very quickly and produced by me, for the most part. Farmer Dave Scher had it at his lair in Venice Beach for a while and he definitely let his bearded lizard crawl all over it.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Townes van Zandt, Paul Westerberg, Dylan, Gram Parsons…
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I’ve always been drawn to the written word. I’ve always consumed books, magazines, newspapers and music voraciously. I think after a while I just decided that music was the avenue i would use to communicate. I wasn’t one of those guys like Jackson Browne who’s songs were just incredibly crafted from a young age. I really think I get better as time goes on. But I have to think that, or else game over, right?
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I do a lot of writing with other bands and artists. at the moment I’m working on about eleven different songs. I can’t disclose what they’re about, but if you guessed love/death/god/forces of temptation/drinking/sex you’d be getting warmer…
How do you go about writing songs?
It’s just an extension of the way I live. I can’t really think about much else. I hear music in everything. I’m otherwise unemployable.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I mentioned before that I was trying to write some positive music and lyrics. I’m very proud of “My Heart Belongs to You” because it’s 100% sincere. There are no trap doors or dark alleys, which you can find in so many other songs of mine.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
My crisp coating of self-loathing prevents me from answering this.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It changes with the weather, as far as I can tell. Some days it’s easy and the flow is with you, some days you just have to drink gin and tonics until you see God.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I hate the “whoa-oh-oh” thing that’s in every song on the radio right now. It’s in every other song I hear. I may drive me to emotional ruin.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is …
It’s not annoying to me. Almost everything else is, though.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
People always come up to me about this song “The Acrobat,” which I wrote when I was 19. I guess the lyric is very universal.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Man, there are so many who don’t get their due. David Bazan, Nik Freitas, Morgan Nagler of Whispertown, too many to count.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“Rock Bottom Riser” by Bill Callahan is pretty perfect. A story of loss and redemption as good as any I’ve heard.