BY LIZA MITCHELL
The science of making music is like mixing a good, stiff drink. It’s designed to make you feel good or forget about your troubles. It can be light and refreshing or powerful enough to bring you to your knees. In the end, it’s all a matter of taste, and you keep on mixing until you get it right.
Whether he is strumming his acoustic or jacking up the volume on his electric, Ryan Bingham understands all too well the benefits of mixing it up. His current tour is an amalgamation of concert halls, intimate clubs and outdoor festival settings.
“I like to mix it up. It always kind of depends on what time of year it is and where you’re going, but I really enjoy the diversity of changing it up each night,” Bingham says. “You can kind of get a feel for the room and what the crowd might be ready to get into.”
Touring on his own, Bingham is shaking up his bag of tricks that demonstrate his prowess as a singer and songwriter. “We’re going to play some rock ‘n roll, a bit of country, some folk and Americana,” he says. “We’re looking forward to coming to Jacksonville and hope people come out and have a good time.”
After splitting with his band, the Dead Horses, and subsequently from his former record label, Bingham took the reins and created his own label, Axster Bingham Records, with his wife, Anna Axster. His most recent album, Tomorrowland, is at once a love letter and thank you note to the rock artists who have influenced Bingham along the way. And it is decidedly “un-country,” which suits him just fine.
“I’ve been evolving a little bit. The most recent record is definitely a lot more rock ‘n roll than the ones in the past,” he says. “There are more electric guitars, and it’s a lot louder. But I still mix it up with folk and acoustic guitar. I like to be able to explore all of the different opportunities within music and not just be stuck doing the same thing.”
After his first two albums, Bingham collaborated with Grammy-winning producer T-Bone Burnett on the soundtrack for the critically acclaimed 2009 film Crazy Heart, notably co-penning & performing the film’s award-winning, theme song, ‘The Weary Kind.’ The track earned Bingham an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and Critics’ Choice Award for Best Song in 2010, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media in 2011. Bingham was also honored by the Americana Music Association, earning the coveted prize of Artist of the Year.
Bingham took a different turn when he covered the David Bowie classic, ‘The Man Who Sold the World.’ He counts Bowie – and the late Kurt Cobain, who also created an iconic acoustic version of the song with Nirvana – among his influences, and he has enjoyed stretching his skills beyond the boundaries of country music, especially in the wake of the new industry-driven, pop country.
“I’m not really a fan of that kind of stuff. It’s more of a brand for the product they are selling, when what it should really be is just writing songs,” Bingham says. “Country music in the branding and marketing of it is just like a Budweiser poster. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, and it hasn’t really been too hard for me to stay away from it.”
Despite his gravel-filled vocals and his rugged cowboy good looks, don’t expect an airbrushed scene of wild horses kicking up dust clouds on any posters for a Ryan Bingham show. He’s mixing up the music and leaving it to his fans to decide what that means to them. “It will just be a blank piece of paper that comes with a set of watercolors, so people can just make their own.”
Songwriting, for Bingham, is definitely about substance over style. He approaches it like a waiting catharsis, a connection to, or a way to cleanse away, an event or emotion. Bingham knows that true music can touch people in a way that singing about the contents of your red solo cup can’t and won’t. And in the end, it can build that bridge to help get you from one day to the next without slipping over the edge.
“It’s always been a form of therapy for me. It helps me get things off my chest,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s more subconscious, but it always seems that the music sets the tone for whatever emotion you are going through that day. It’s a mix of all of it, just letting the feelings come out when they want to come out. I always think that if you want to write a song, you just have to look around you and see what’s going on.”