THE MAKING OF AMERICANA
AMERICANA: THE BACK STORY
Americana, is a career defining album from an artist whose writing has helped shape modern music. Drawing on five decades of experience, the 15 tracks that make up Ray’s first album of new material in nearly 10 years are as personal as they are rich in musical detail. The result is an album where raw emotions and genuine intimacy are juxtaposed with widescreen sound and spoken word passages that combine to provide an impressionistic narrative.
Americana was born out of a period of deep contemplation that followed Davies’s brush with death in 2004 when he was shot by a mugger on a New Orleans side street. The period of convalescence that followed saw him begin to examine his life via a diary in which he detailed both his recovery and, more significantly, his inner monologue. These writings form the basis of Americana: The Kinks, The Road And The Perfect Riff, his acclaimed 2013 memoir in which Davies attempted to come to terms with the key events that had defined his life, using his complex relationship with America as a backdrop to do so.
Like many kids that grew up in post-war England, Davies developed an early fascination with America – first through the cipher of the Western movies of the time, then through the discovery of jazz, blues and rock’n’roll. The latter, alongside old British music hall traditions enjoyed during Davies household sing-alongs, provided a powerful musical stimulus for Ray who soon also found himself in thrall to blues heroes such as Big Bill Broonzy and John Lee Hooker. It was this combination of music and film that stirred wild romantic notions in the teenager, America emerging in his mind as representing “the possibilities of a better life elsewhere.”
The Kinks’ first major Stateside adventure in the summer of 1965, however, provided him with a less romantic reality, culminating in a well-publicised run in with the unions that led to the band being unable to tour there for three years. Revenge, however, would follow, and their return in ’69 saw The Kinks begin their ascent that would see them attain nationwide popularity during the next two decades. Staying in New York for a period of time in the late ‘70s, Davies began to understand America further, absorbing its culture and marvelling at its strengths and reflecting on its flaws.
It is this myriad of experiences that have informed the music that makes up Americana, the album. Added to that is something that has long lain at the heart of Davies’s music: a quest for the self. “I had to learn something about myself before I could reveal it to the rest of the world,” he wrote in his diary, while convalescing in New Orleans. The album sets part of that revelatory process to music.
AMERICANA: THE ALBUM
With such a complex amalgam of influences feeding into the album’s lyrics, Americana boasts similar episodic structure to of the memoir upon which it is based. Almost cinematic in scope, it cuts between scenes of high drama and moments that are deeply confessional.
“Structurally, it’s quite complicated,” admits Ray. “The book is quite abstract. The album has some of that feel too because it has music and spoken word, but I had to balance that out. I didn’t want to have an album that was just music with readings interspersed, I wanted the story to flow.”
There are indeed two volumes to Americana, the second of which will emerge later in the year. The reason for this is simple enough: “There was too much music to fit on to one. There are so many songs I couldn’t get on the first record,” says Davies. “I want both records to be put together and ultimately listened to in that way. There’s two and a half hours of music that should really take you on a journey.”
In fact, the first instalment of Americana opens with the title track, an ode to the wonder Davies witnessed “on that great silver screen” as a child. Lyrically it moves forward to Ray’s initial wide-eyed visit to the States where he felt he was following “in the steps of the great pioneers”. Sweeping chords and rich harmonies compliment his evocative lyrics. “The big chord changes express my feelings about the geography,” says Ray. “Monumental gorges, Kentucky moon, Montana sky, sierra Nevada; to me, they’re not meant to be lyrics to a song, they’re just ideas thrown out there. That’s the inspirational, awestruck element of the record.”
Musically, the warmth of the song sets the tone for what follows, Davies employing the services of guitarist Bill Shanley and acclaimed Minneapolis alt.country outfit The Jayhawks to fine effect. Led by long-time Kinks fan Gary Louris, The Jayhawks were introduced to Davies by label exec John Jackson. An exploratory session was set up with the band at Konk, The Kinks’ studio, in the February of 2015.”We had a try-out day,” recalls Ray. “We did a couple of numbers and it worked really well. They’ve got this sensibility that I like as players.” The relationship established, recording proper began in October of that year. Jackson, meanwhile, acted as co-producer alongside Guy Massey and Davies himself.
According to Ray the creation of a proper musical unit is something that has added cohesion to the project itself. “This album is lot more me than a lot of Kinks records, even if I wrote the songs on those for the most part,” explains Ray. “But sometimes you just miss having a band around you because you’re operating in a void. That’s why I put a band together for the record. The thing about bands, is that you’re not necessarily perfect musicians, but dovetail into each other.” Davies is equally aware that the presence of The Jayhawks may link the album to a very specific type of music. “The truth is that this album has very little to do with Americana as a genre,” he counters. “It goes further than that. It’s more about the idea, the vision of America itself.”
The album’s first three tracks – Americana, The Deal, and Poetry – recall The Kinks in many different ways. “Generally, there are elements of [The Kinks’ 1971 album] Muswell Hillbillies, [1972’s] Everybody’s In Show-Biz and things like that on this record,” says Davies. “The Deal is an old song. I quote a song called How Are You [from The Kinks’ 1986 album Think Visual] towards the end.”
Lyrically speaking, The Deal presents the tale of an aspiring musician enjoying his time in the Californian sun, unaware of the exploitation that lies ahead. The track ends abruptly and leaves the listener hanging suggesting the protagonist may have entered into a Faustian pack. “He could have done,” smiles Ray enigmatically. “You sense the naivety of the guy. ‘I’m going to LA to get myself a deal’, like so many wannabes I’ve met in LA. You just know it’s going to end badly for him. That’s why the fade out is there. You get to the point [the lyric reads] ‘The deal is…’ and then the song just stops. But I suppose it is also an admission of the fact that I was seduced by LA and it’s fake behaviour.”
Poetry, meanwhile, is another example where Davies succeeds in fusing the confessional with the observational; the opening verse focussing neon-signed, mall culture and the products of globalisation; the second verse switching into more personal territory, harking back to Ray’s move to Louisiana at the turn of the Millennium.
“The truth is that the aspiration is there [for me] to put little vignette - stories about people - within this bigger story,” explains Ray. There’s the personal story, then how it became lost in the shopping mall culture.”
Davies’s own emotions are evident on Message From The Road and A Place In Your Heart, both of which echo the events of the summer of 1965 when Ray headed out on that fateful US tour less than a month after he’d become a father for the first time, and four days before his twenty first birthday. Of the two songs, the former is a heart-worn duologue with The Jayhawks’ keyboard player Karen Grotberg, while the latter appears to offer a rambunctious riposte to the longing and emptiness expressed in the previous track. Elsewhere, The Invaders, further reflects the disillusionment that Davies felt during that first US trek, where he bristled at matters ranging from segregation through to the resentment he felt from the American industry at the time.
Life on the road with The Kinks also forms the basis for the first part of The Man Upstairs, with its lackadaisical introduction that alludes to the band’s 1964 hit, All Day And All Of The Night. Initially, Davies reflects on the inter-band relationships built around the transient comforts of life on the road before dealing with the difficulties musicians face when they’re forced to check back in to “the reality motel”; the second part of the song sees him personalise the experience as he raises the subject of his battle with insomnia which continues to dog him to this day. “The man involved in that song could also be your inner psyche telling you what to do,” he adds, underlining the self-questioning that exists throughout the album.
While Heard That Beat Before (a jazz-inspired shuffle) and A Place In Your Heart (a further beautiful duet with Grotberg) add to Americana’s tapestry of sound, the cold comfort of The Long Drive Home To Tarzana is further proof of Davies’ remarkable ability as a narrator. “Basically, [on that song] there are two people in the car and they’re not talking,” he begins. “The words are just thought bubbles. There’s a line where he says ‘It’s a long, long way to paradise.’ She doesn’t answer. They’ve passed paradise, they’ve had their big moment, and the relationship’s over. ‘Because I told you lies’. Sometimes it’s hardest to say ‘I’ve lied to you’. Sometimes ambiguity is better than a concise statement.”
Further personal matters characterise tunes like Mystery Room, where a brooding Cajun atmosphere underpins an exercise in self-reflection and the notion of being “faced with mortality”. Adding to that contemplative aspect to Americana is, Silent Movie, the spoken word mood-piece that follows. Davies relives a conversation he had with his friend, musician and New Orleans neighbour, Alex Chilton, wherein they discussed the ageless qualities of songs. “It cheats time and it makes you feel safe. But the reality is that things are changing in the world.”
If Americana is an autobiography set to music, it is also a project which observes a set of universal truths that affect us all on a number of different levels. While Ray Davies has drawn on his past for the source material, he is also acutely aware that recent political events will have an impact on how people view his latest conceptual work.
While he is clearly willing to challenge himself as well as the conventions of the past, there is also a sense that Davies has found a modicum of happiness during the writing and recording of Americana. For a man who once described his songwriting as “therapy”, this seems like a major breakthrough. The fact that the first part of Americana ends with the uplifting, anthemic Wings Of Fantasy is indicative of his desire to inject a sense of optimism into his work.
As Ray prepares to release the first part of Americana, he is also restlessly contemplating how to translate the entire project into the live arena. The most recent critical and commercial success Sunny Afternoon – which re-tells the story of The Kinks.
“I’d like to hook up with a great director to turn Americana into something that’s a combination of stage and screen.”
Ever a conceptualist, it is impossible to predict what Ray Davies will end up doing with the Americana live show. Whatever comes next, you can be sure of one thing: the music itself will continue to touch people, his audience finding themselves in the many facets of Ray’s complex personality. In the meantime there is the first part of Americana to enjoy: an absorbing album best enjoyed in one proper sitting, with a minimum of distractions. Listen in closely…