On The Beatles’ “Getting Better,” John Lennon responds to Paul McCartney’s It’s getting better all the time with his sly It can’t get no worse. Still supporting the idea that it’s “getting better,” Lennon’s subtle slip of cynicism is what Luke Rathborne likes to capture in most of his narratives, including “Losing You,” off his upcoming third album, Again.
“I feel like there’s this optimism and layering in a cynical point of view, because then people actually believe you,” says Rathborne. “Even if it’s just Paul McCartney, you still need that other perspective. That’s why it’s such a different experience listening to The Plastic Ono Band versus ‘Revolver.’ It’s being in that space of trying to get the most of two different sides of something.”
In his songs, Rathborne is more interested in the different perspectives of his characters, where they’re guarded in one sense but also trying to connect. “If you read between the lines they’re actually really earnest,” says Rathborne. “The most important thing to them is just making a connection.”
Much like “29 Palms,” which Rathborne wrote after observing life in smaller desert towns in California, there are different points of view presented, but everyone is trying to achieve the same thing, which is getting away from whatever cards they’ve been dealt.
“I really like those songs that are open to interpretation like Elliott Smith’s ‘Angeles,’ or any of those songs where you check in with them every couple of years and it’s a completely different thing each time,” says Rathborne. “It plays into what you’re going through in a different way. He [Smith] talks in sincere terms about his life and taking mental inventory and sometimes that can be done with just a few phrases and situations. I would love get to a point with songs where it’s so personal, and obviously becomes personal for everyone.”
A sample of Rathborne’s perfectly procured pop-rock, “Losing You” finds the song’s narrator surprisingly optimistic as he’s losing someone.
“If you read them on paper, the lyrics seem sad, but then it’s upbeat and you’re tapping your toes along to it,” says Rathborne, who researched and experimented with various synths that were eventually incorporated into the track. “It’s like a continuation of that Nick Lowe ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ idea, but hopefully adding in this weird instrumentation and all these bizarre synths and stuff.”
To capture the grainier storyline of “Losing You,” Rathborne, along with friend Teagan Wright, shot the video using a $10 camcorder found at Goodwill. Playing out like a television show recorded on a VCR in the early ’80s with the commercials roughly edited out, the video moves swiftly from a mocked high-speed boat chase scene to multiple shots of Rathborne “training” and demonstrating some enthusiast karate moves.
“It’s funny because the process was supposed to be somewhat easy and linear, but shooting on a VHS camera was the hardest thing possible, ” says Rathborne. After finishing the initial shoot, both realized that nothing had recorded and redid the entire video, at one point using workout weights to hold the camera in place to shoot Rathborne’s multiple training shots.
Since 2020, Rathborne has been releasing one narrative song after another, which all have a place on Again, and has been using this past year to reflect on how he wants to present each song, and story.
“All this introspection made me realize that the value of putting things out is really important, and that there should be no metric towards the why or the how,” says Rathborne, who also closed out 2020 with the holiday song “Come Back to Me on Christmas,” co-written with his friend Rain Phoenix.
Working with Phoenix was another turning point for Rathborne. “It was just having someone there through the process who’s always trying to push things forward and has that energy around her,” shares Rathborne. “Doing that was really helpful, because you realize how strengthening it can be to put yourself out there.”
He adds, “Sometimes insecurity and fear can take over and be really intense where you convince yourself out of things. It’s so easy to find those reasons to not put yourself out there, but it means something to people, and to yourself, when you overcome that. I really think it’s something that you have to overcome, and it’s a pretty constant battle.”
On Again, which was recorded with producer Ted Young (Sonic Youth, Kurt Vile) prior to the pandemic, Rathborne says, there are deeper self reflections as well as a certain optimism behind all the songs.
“I feel like it really is that weird space of exiting out of feeling like you’re 20 and looking over the next horizon and preparing yourself,” says Rathborne, who has been playing in bands since he was 12 years old. “It was just Ted and I in a room, and we shaped the way it sounded together the whole time. You don’t always get the opportunity to do that, and I feel like he sacrificed a lot of time for it. When somebody gives you the opportunity to go into the studio and bring the best that you can, it’s really important to rise to the occasion.”
For now, the world needs something this funny, and Rathborne isn’t too concerned with taking himself seriously all the time. “I have a lot of music that’s like pretty serious, so to make something funny can be confusing for people sometimes,” says Rathborne. “We did this video for ‘Ordinary Woes’ that was pristinely shot, but I just like the idea of people listening to the song and looking at the video, wondering if I’m insane or critiquing my karate moves.”
Rathborne adds, “I’m a fan of the funny stuff right now, because we’re in pretty serious times. There’s some value in being able to shut it all off, not in an irresponsible way, but processing it all through something else for a moment.”