“Small-town boy makes good” is a familiar tale, but not one often told when the town is Lake Worth. And not often about a small-town boy who’s as resilient as singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John Ralston (www.John-Ralston.com).
Born at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach in 1977, Ralston (who’ll turn 40 years old on Dec. 29) has lived most of his life in the city affectionately nicknamed L-Dub. And what a long, strange trip the last 20 years have been — from his popular area rock band Legends of Rodeo and 2005 solo debut Needle Bed to releases on California-based Vagrant Records, international touring, and being dropped by the label, then a musical de-accleration into jobs like construction and information technology and — finally, his brand-new, long-awaited latest independent effort, IV. It’s Ralston’s first full-length release since Shadows of the Summertime (2011).
Available digitally through Bandcamp (www.bandcamp.com) and vinyl-only hard copy at select area stores like, logically, Top Five Records in downtown Lake Worth, IV is quintessential Ralston. Featuring a stark cover photo of a run-down house in Slab City, Calif., by Adam Perry, IV is essentially a one-man project. Ralston sings lead vocals and plays guitar, bass, piano, synthesizers and percussion, aided only by his wife Valerie diValentin (vocals on “White Beaches”) and guest drummers in old Legends of Rodeo bandmate Jeff Snow (on “Yer My Blues”) and IV engineer Michael Seaman (on “Pickup Truck” and “Cows”).
Ralston’s unique fusing of influences like The Beatles’ John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson are there, as always, but his use of synthesizers occasionally hints at a more modern update like Tears for Fears. And the more raucous, distorted tracks with Snow and Seaman on drums show glimpses of the often-experimental early side of David Bowie’s career.
“I was actually listening to a lot of Bowie at the time I finished this record,” Ralston says. “I started working on it before ‘Shadows of the Summertime’ was even done, recording on a Yamaha MT2x four-track tape machine my brother-in-law Andrew Schaap loaned me in 2011. I did a lot more work on it while I lived and did IT work in Abingdon, Virginia, from 2012 to 2014, and knew I would finish it, but that there was no need to rush. Then I got it to Michael [Seaman] to master.”
Seaman has worked with Ralston throughout his solo recording career, whether in Tennessee in conjunction with Grammy Award-winning engineer Charles Dye or at Seaman’s Listen Up Studios, both when the facility was based in New Orleans and in its recent Broward County location of Lighthouse Point. With a wealth of stellar equipment, plus his own expert ears and impressive multi-instrumental skills, Seaman added finishing interludes between the songs that put a bow on IV.
“I eventually dumped the four-track recordings into ProTools so I could add a few overdubs,” Ralston says. “And I don’t know much about the mastering process, but I knew I wanted the songs to run together rather than have the traditional three-second pause in between. Michael really got that vision, and made it come to life in the mastering. He was a huge part of the creative process on this record, especially considering that he started working on it after it was quote-unquote ‘done.’ And only after he did that work could I realize how truly not ‘done’ it had been beforehand.”
“John had recorded almost everything on the four-track, with minimal overdubs,” says Seaman. “When he gave it to me to master, my first thought was, ‘Whoa, this is more like a score than an album.’ The songs didn’t go through the usual structure as much as they floated, so I thought they should float together. We started talking about tripped-out effects and long-tailed delays; Pink Floyd-type stuff. He heard the first couple I did, and was happy with them, so we just ran with it.”
For many engineers, the blend of analog four-track tape with digital ProTools additives would create extra challenges. For Seaman, it was creative inspiration.
“I think that all made it better,” he says. “What John accomplished with the four-track gave me more appreciation for that device. The noise of the tape added extra texture that I could grab; weird little glitches, pops and other mechanical noises. They became happy accidental ammo. I’d throw something into delay, put in a reverb effect and twist a knob really quick, then start wobbling the resulting sound into a tempo that might work with whatever the next song was.”
It was Ralston’s Beatlesque themes, and Seaman’s engineering, on the independently released Needle Bed that helped attract Vagrant Records. The label reissued the album with different cover art in 2006, and put the young singer/songwriter on the touring jet set to the Fireside Bowl in Chicago; Madison Square Garden and CBGB’s in New York City, and beyond.
“I was touring and recording all the time between 2006 and 2009,” he says, “and supplementing my income by working construction while I was back in Lake Worth, which I did even more of when I stopped touring in 2010. I took a band on three separate tours through the United States and into Canada, and one to the U.K., through England, Wales and Scotland.”
Those tours encompassed Ralston’s second LP for Vagrant, Sorry Vampire (2007), and the 2008 EP White Spiders, which arrived in Europe just before his first concert there. Yet what would’ve been a euphoric moment was instead bittersweet. The EP was his last release for Vagrant, since Ralston — now also a father — knew he’d essentially been dropped after Sorry Vampire, and that the tour would likely be his last through Europe.
“I knew by then that I didn’t want to tour anymore,” he says. “I had a three-album contract with Vagrant, but they didn’t pick up my option for the third full-length release. It was a huge let-down, because music had been my life to that point. I didn’t have a résumé or any other job prospects, but I’d put out records that I still feel good about, had gotten great reviews, and that people seemed to love.
“And I really liked the people I worked with at Vagrant, and wanted to keep making records without having to tour. I just figured I needed a team like that to continue releasing them. Which, as I now know, was short-sighted at the time,” he said.
Occasional Ralston offerings have dotted the indie landscape over the past 10 years to prove that point. When We Are Cats was his self-released four-song EP from 2007, and he even teamed with a small Tampa-based label, 24 Hour Service Station, on two 2010 releases.
A tribute to New Order, Ceremony, featured his country-tinged ballad interpretation of that band’s “All Day Long,” and the holiday single “Jesus Christ/A Marigny XMAS” sported red and green vinyl editions. Shadows of the Summertime preceded another self-released, two-song single, Golden Greats Vol. 6, released in 2015.
“I’m a collaborative guy, so the hardest part about the split with Vagrant was accepting that I now wasn’t part of something anymore,” says Ralston. “I’d released my first record, and it had gotten picked up by a label, so it was hard not to have the expectation of living happily ever after. It took me a long time to wrap my head around getting dropped because I hadn’t sold enough records.
“And that meant having to figure out a new way of doing things, which I’ve done now,” Ralston said. “I’m in a place where I couldn’t be if I still had to worry about the commercial sales side. And it’s a better place. A million times better.”
Which, after a long hiatus, has led to IV. The disc has a Beatles’ White Album quality, in that it also features elements that can seem disparate if listened to individually, yet more in context if listened to in sequence. On the track “Problems,” Ralston repeats the phrase “I’m not done” over and over as if a mantra, or to prove the point, perhaps even to himself, that his experience with Vagrant hadn’t necessitated a retirement.
Point taken all around. Without being bound by contractual obligation, L-Dub’s finest already has a new album called Meditations/Turn Eternal in the can. The small-town Ralston is just waiting to decide upon a worthy 2018 release date.
Alas, it appears that next album will be released from afar, as Ralston, diValentin and their children are moving to Winston-Salem, N.C., in mid-December following a special album release and farewell show at Voltaire in downtown West Palm Beach on Dec. 7. Another small town thus becomes Lake Worth’s loss, yet Ralston didn’t completely close the door to returning in a final email on their way out of town.
“I’m going to miss everyone down here,” he writes. “Such a great arts community in spite of our surroundings. It really is amazing. I know full well that I’m not going to be able to replace what we have down here. But it feels like it’s time for an adventure. I’ll probably be back in two years, lol. :).”
If you go
See John Ralston’s Shadows Band, Grey & Orange, and Sweet Bronco at 8 p.m. on Dec. 7 at Voltaire, 526 Clematis St., West Palm Beach (561-408-5603).