"You never really have a choice about the tone and subject matter of the records you make," confides veteran L.A. singer-songwriter Stan Ridgway about his new album, <em>Neon Mirage</em>. "At least I don’t. They’re obsessions, really. Things happen, good and bad. And for most people, the passing of a parent or a close friend has an impact. It’s really about the music, and how it heals the mind. The records I grew up with still inform me, and the best were like an inner journey – mixing up blues, jazz, pop and country to make something fresh and, in the end, positive. But you can’t ignore the darker side of things, either."
Stan Ridgway’s <em>Neon Mirage</em>, due for August 24, 2010 release, is arguably the most emotionally revealing, musically far-ranging – dare we say mature? – album of the L.A. singer-songwriter’s accomplished career. Yet it’s also a project whose troubled circumstances might tempt Stan to paraphrase John Lennon’s familiar wisdom: Life is what happens when you’re busy making another album.
Indeed, in many ways <em>Neon Mirage</em> can’t help but feel like an elegy to the colleague and family Stan lost in the midst of writing and recording its dozen, typically eclectic songs: gifted Texas-born violinist/session player Amy Farris; a beloved uncle; and the man who helped forge the very foundations of Ridgway’s unique outlook on life and music, his own father. "Events like that can’t help but have an impact on the music you’re making at the time," Stan admits. "You’d be lying to yourself – and your listeners – if you thought otherwise."
Ridgway quickly sets the album’s tone with a warm, accomplished recasting of "Big Green Tree" from <em>Black Diamond</em> (his forceful 1996 debut as an independent) produced by Dave Alvin. The L.A. roots rock legend reinvents it here in a gentler, more hopeful ethos around Ridgway and his longtime keyboardist/collaborator Pietra Wexstun, with Brett Simmons on upright bass and Amy Farris, then a member of Alvin’s own Guilty Women ensemble, on violin. Alvin had heard Stan perform the song solo at a special show for mutual friend and fellow songwriting legend Peter Case, and early sessions also yielded <em>Neon Mirage</em>’s memorable, Alvin-produced cover of Bob Dylan’s elegy to his own fallen hero, "Lenny Bruce."
It’s an album in which Ridgway’s familiar wise-guy wit and cinematic lyricism are further tempered by an ever-inquisitive mindset that ranges from the haunting, candid introspection of "Behind the Mask" to an effusive, wistful tribute to lost friends and the Nashville of record producer Owen Bradley, "Wandering Star." Elsewhere, <em>Neon Mirage</em> centers around more impressionistic takes on the toll patriotism extracts from its warriors ("Flag Up On a Pole"), the reality of being closer to the end of life’s rich pageant than its beginning ("Halfway There") and the human propensity for myopia in the face of looming catastrophe ("Turn a Blind a Eye").
Yet, as the foreboding and darkly loping guitar lines of "This Town Called Fate" and the album’s infectious instrumental title track attest, Ridgway’s new songs are also graced by the inventive musicality and unique viewpoint his fans have become well acquainted with since his early days as the driving force behind L.A.’s favorite ’80s experimentalists, Wall of Voodoo. But while the album’s expressive baritone and deft harmonica flourishes are instantly familiar, Stan employs them here on an ever-restless musical odyssey. Ridgway expands an already impressive musical palette via Wexstun’s always intriguing keyboard melodies and textures, the masterful sax, flute and woodwind work of Ralph Carney, the deft acoustic and electric guitar lines of longtime band mate Rick King and the rich symphonic string orchestrations of Amy Farris.
"I’ve probably confused people with my music, my choices, the albums and the changes in direction from year to year," Ridgway admits. "But I can’t help it. That term ‘eclectic’ fits me perfectly and there are just too many musical styles and songwriters and singers I enjoy to just involve myself in only one type of music. I try to bring all the things I love into the sound. There’s a weird old American jukebox in my head and it still plays everything that’s ever got under my skin."
Stan is quick to note where his often-mischievous musical curiosity came from: "Your parents’ record collection can be a big influence growing up. Something you thought was corny has a way of hangin’ on if it’s good to begin with. My dad was a big fan of country & western music, comedy records, hi-fi playboy stereo lounge stuff. Hank Williams, Dean Martin, Ernest Tubb, Sinatra, Johnny Cash of course, Allan Sherman, Charlie Rich, Patsy Cline, and Marty Robbins – all of the great originals. I learned to love the singing, the stories, and even when my tastes in music grew far too weird for my dad, we could still come together on those old records we loved and listened to together. The old western myths of heroes and villains and storytelling of Marty Robbins’ <em>Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs</em> was an important one. And I never would have thought of covering ‘Ring of Fire’ with Wall of Voodoo without my dad’ s influence in the beginning."
Ridgway also credits his father with informing much of the wry personal/musical viewpoint that’s always been central to his songwriting. "A sense of humor is important in handling the disappointments in life," Stan notes. "My father taught me that, too. Along with a strong work ethic. A certain type of ‘black humor’ helps put a light on the darker realities of living and let’s you get above them by making a joke about it. But it wasn’t a cynic’s view, more of a frustrated romantic’s perspective over a developed sarcasm about the way things really are and not how they seem to appear."
Stan explains: "In the last few years in his 80s, he always knew my mother and all of us right up until the end. But memory could sometimes be sketchy for Dad. Even so, he never lost who he was or his love, loyalty and dedication to family and working hard in life to achieve results. Or the hard won values of his generation and what they’d sacrificed to achieve for a greater good. All the great adventures he’d had, the global travel and work, the grand victories he’d experienced along the way were never lost to him. And he recalled them all in great detail with pride and a singular sense of humor. And us there with him." Ridgway’s father passed in December 2009.
But while Ridgway had long girded himself for his father’s passing, he admits the suicidal death of brilliant violinist Amy Farris in the midst of Neon Mirage’s sessions felt "abrupt and brutal." When Amy phoned him to cancel an upcoming appearance with his band because she wasn’t feeling well, Ridgway assured her it was no problem, saying, "’health is everything.’ But that weekend she took her life," he recalls sadly. "Possibly even the night we were on stage at McCabe’s. Dave (Alvin) called me Monday morning with the news and I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. But mental illness and depression are like any other illness, and Amy struggled from childhood with them."
Despite the troubled times it was recorded in, Ridgway insists Neon Mirage represents something even more personal than the sum of its songs to him. "It’s as much a journey as a destination," Stan says of his music. "If I don’t try and create something of my own, I just feel that I’m hangin’ on a corner waiting for someone to tell me what to think and do. It’s a mad society. But the best therapy for me is always creativity and invention. And a dedication to the people and things you love. Most people live their lives upside down and backwards, only jumping in when the consensus says it’s safe. That’s just human nature – who doesn’t want to be safe? But is that really possible?"