It’s been a long wait for new music from Romantica. The band made a big splash back in 2007 with the release of their second album, America, which wove frontman Ben Kyle’s experiences as an Irish-American into a tapestry of upbeat alt-country and gave him the opportunity to share a stage with one of his songwriting heroes, Ryan Adams. Pretty soon they were playing every stage at every street festival, and their song “National Side” became a local anthem.
The band followed it up with a quick-draw EP, Control Alt-Country Delete (still one of the greatest album titles ever), which they recorded in a single day down in Austin, Texas at SXSW. Ben Kyle also kept busy as a solo artist, teaming up with fiddle player Carrie Rodriguez for a project in 2010 and putting out a lush solo album in 2012.
But the hunger for Romantica remained, and Ben Kyle’s interest in his band never dwindled, even as he continued adding kids to his growing family (he is now a father of five) and his bandmates’ own families grew as well. In the fall of 2015, the band decided to hole up as a group, kids and spouses and all, to record their third full-length album, Shadowlands, but an illness seemed to keep pushing its release further and further away. At one point, he became so sick that he wondered if his ability to make music might slip out of his grasp once and for all.
Thankfully, we know how this story ends, because Kyle and Romantica are playing a big album release show at the Fitzgerald Theater this Saturday, February 4. After a long recovery, Kyle is feeling better and more committed to his music than ever. I met up with Ben at his home for a chat over a cup of meticulously brewed pour-over coffee to talk about all that’s happened to get him to the release of Shadowlands.
Andrea Swensson: You first handed me this record almost a year ago, and a lot has happened between then and now. Can you catch me up on how we got to this release now?
Ben Kyle: We made the record over a year ago. We went to the barn in southern Minnesota to make it, because we knew, as a band with blossoming families, that the only way it was going to happen was if we took some time away to really focus for a couple weeks.
Where does one go if they are trying to record in a barn? Do you put out a want ad?
This barn is in Montgomery, Minnesota. They host a concert series called the Red Barn Concert Series. After I was invited at one point to play a concert there, and I just remember thinking wow, what a beautiful space. I’m always on the lookout for a space to make records, because I love the idea of building an environment or an atmosphere around an album. Then, after the concert, the owners approached me and said, “We’d love you to use this space for any of your creative endeavors or needs,” and I thought, “Yep, I will be back for sure. We’ll move in for a couple weeks.”
The sound of the record is very ambient, like it just grows and grows to fill this big space. Does that have to do with where the songs were recorded?
For sure. Romantica has had some player changes over the years; in a sense, the current instantiation of Romantica hadn’t yet found its voice. I really wanted the opportunity to find our voice as a band. It seemed to me that the ideal situation would be a place where you could get together live, and let that happen organically. So I was definitely looking for a live space that would have a natural ambiance of its own, and allow the ambiance to paint the picture, the landscape, of the record.
Can you talk about the song “Harder to Hear”? It feels especially poignant right now.
Well in some ways a lot doesn’t have to be said. Really it’s about finding yourself in a culture where there’s very loud voices. Often times we feel the pressure to choose our side and just let that be our opinion or our voice. I feel like that happens too much, and we miss the complexity of life and all these really deep issues. And so I think it was realizing that tendency in me to forget what I really think, and just to side with an argument that seems the most obvious. One of the lines is, “We don’t need to be right”; another one is, “I don’t want to be cool.” It’s so easy for us to lose our way; when we’re more concerned with being right or being cool, we’re really not being our true selves.
How do all those loud voices impact you as an artist? Has it changed the way you write or release music?
To me, it seems that the culture of music and media these days is that you really need to do something frenetic and ironic, or cynical, or just goofy. And as an artist I can’t give in to that pressure, because I know that I won’t be expressing what I have to do. I have to give up the desire or need for it to be validated, or accepted, or praised, because that’s not what matters when you’re making art. Shadowlands is a quiet record, and it’s not the kind of album that’s going to grab your attention immediately; it requires patience and attention, but if you can give it that, you will be rewarded.
Did your illness make you think differently about your relationship to your music?
For sure. Tim Gihring wrote a beautiful article in Minnesota Monthly about the album, and after I read it I texted Tony [Zaccardi, bassist in Romantica] and said “This guy knows me better than I know myself.” [laughs] One of the things he recognized is that, in the press release I had said, “This album feels like a resurrection.” And he recognized that for there to be a resurrection, there has to be a death, too.
So I feel like that has happened. With the illness, with the hiatus over the past years, there was sort of a death for me; for the band, and for music even, in a way. It got to the point, with the illness, where I realized that I may not be able to write or play again. I may have to let everything go. It’s a really, really hard place to be, where you feel like life is just slipping away from you. So I think I got to the place there where I was able to let go and say that’s okay. I let go. I surrender. And I receive everything that I’ve ever been given, and everything that I will be given, as a gift. And so now I feel like everything I have is something that’s really given back to me. It does feel like a resurrection.
It’s really made me realize what I have. It almost doesn’t matter anymore whether I make albums or not, because I’m breathing. And then if I get to make albums, too, that’s amazing.
I’m so fascinated by the healing properties of music. Were there points in your recovery where you turned to music for help?
Well there were times when I didn’t have any strength at all, couldn’t even play a guitar and sing. It was hard. But my wife would always remind me that it’s really important to sit, even for five minutes, and try to play some chords. Not to practice, just to do it because I love it. The difficult part about this disease is that it’s a neurotoxin illness, that it limited my inspiration and motivation in my brain. so it’s really healing to be able to pick up my guitar from time to time. It was very healing to play and write. It reminded me that my art and my health are connected. I think that singing and writing are healing for the soul.
Do you have any last thoughts you would like to share about the album before we go?
Well I think it’s really important for people to know how grateful I am that the record is coming out, on many different levels. I really appreciate everyone who was involved in making this what it is. From the people letting us record in their barn, to all the band members taking weeks off of work and family life to contribute, the people who did the cover art, everyone. It’s all really come together beautifully, and the fact that everyone acted out of love — like they didn’t expect anything back. We just made some great music because that’s what we do. I’m delighted that the album was able to come to fruition in spite of all the obstacles that we had. The sickness, finding a label all that and people who are waiting for the album have been so patient and seem interested.
We’re not going anywhere. Thank you, Ben.
Romantica play an album-release show for Shadowlands at the Fitzgerald Theater on Saturday, February 4. Jayanthi Kyle opens. Find tickets and more information at the Fitz. Interview transcribed by Nicholas Trahan.