Norfolk-based folk artist Ian Randall Thornton is southern Virginia’s best-kept secret. His music conveys a stunning depth of emotion, and in conversation the young songwriter displays maturity beyond his years.
A year after releasing his first single, Ian put out the song series “End Where You Begin” in 2014. The album flows beautifully and rewards uninterrupted listening from beginning to end. Ian’s profound lyrics shine in his simple acoustic style, and his meticulously crafted instrumentation makes “End Where You Begin” a delightful experience.
We had the privilege of chatting with Ian, who offered a glimpse into his background and his craft. We’ve split this interview into a three-part series. Click here to read Part 2, and here for Part 3.
Emily Cardé: Ian, how did you get into songwriting?
Ian Randall Thornton: I’ve been a musician my whole life. I’ve been playing piano since I was 6, and I started playing upright bass in orchestras when I was 9. I’ve been playing guitar since around that time too. I was more a supporting musician, though. I would play in a lot of bands. I also grew up singing in choirs. So I was always a musician first—and I love that. Truthfully, the songs I would write as a teenager weren’t very good.
Ethan Weitz: I can relate to that 100 percent.
Ian: I mean, my heart for creating the songs was extremely shallow. I was trying to write songs to sound cool, because that’s your main goal as a high schooler. I always feel that the heart and the root of whatever you’re doing will show in the fruit and what you’re tasting of. You could totally taste that I didn’t have a very good driving force. After high school I moved to California, and I was going to school and taking a break from music. I didn’t take any instruments out with me.
Ethan: That seems like a big step for a musician to go out there without any instruments at all.
Ian: Yeah, part of that has to do with the fact that my main instrument at that time was an upright bass, so I wasn’t exactly going to be able to fit that thing on an airplane.
I had some incredible friends and friendships out there. We’d share songs together, and it was kind of redefining to me to hear a friend’s song and realize that she didn’t write this song for anybody. It was completely written for herself, and she loves it more than anyone else could. It blew my mind to realize that a song could capture such meaning for the writer.
At the end of that whole season was when I wrote some of the main songs that I’ll still play today. It redefined why I wrote music. I wanted to write something that actually meant something to me, something that actually impacted me. In some ways, writing those songs actually changed me. I was writing songs that I needed to hear more than anybody else, with advice and wisdom that I needed, but that I didn’t know previous to making the song.
So with all the songs I’m currently writing, it’s just an idea until it moves me. Once it’s something that is actually meaningful to me, then I’ll adopt it and say, “Alright, this is an actual song, not just an idea that I’m trying to find.”
Ethan: So, what led you to start recording music, and actually put your stuff out there?
Ian: For a while it was hard for me. The mindset that I developed while in California was such a good place to start. But at the same time, once I got to the point of writing meaningful music, I didn’t have a huge drive to make people listen to it. These songs were written for me, and for my friends and my family. I would record it for documentation more than anything else.
But as I was talking with a friend who ended up producing my album, he said, “Man, I’m just going to have to call you out and disagree with you. That’s selfish to write songs that mean something to you but then to horde them. People need to hear these songs.” So I realized that I need to steward my songs as best as I can—to actually take care of them. Since then I’ve stepped into a completely different lifestyle: touring, discovering what works for me, and doing the best I can with my music.
Right now I’m spending the most money I’ve ever spent on a project, but I feel great about it. The whole process for me has been kind of gradual, and I think that is very important. It’s so easy for your reason for making music to get distorted or convoluted. Whatever I do, I want to ensure that I keep that purity. I want to ensure that the song is not just being written for what people want to hear, but that it’s being written because it’s what I need to express.
Emily: Can you tell us a little more about your creative process, or your routine for writing songs?
Ian: I feel like writing in general—not even just restricted to songwriting—can tend to be a serendipitous, almost spiritual, experience. You get done with it and almost wonder, “Where did this even come from? This wasn’t floating around in my head.” It’s like a spontaneous creation of something that has never existed before. And that can stop a lot of people from stepping into it. It’s a strange thing.
But there’s a tension between the inspiration—literally that wind that comes in when you just catch the song—and the actual diligence and work that goes into it. So for me, songwriting often is a combination of the two, though every song is going to be written a bit differently.
One of the things I really enjoy doing is giving the raw emotion. Once I catch the song, it’s caught. It just needs to be chiseled out. I have the emotion or the ethos of what the song is trying to say, but that is just the rough-cut stone. When Michelangelo was carving David, he said, “David was always there in the marble. I just took away everything that was not David.”
It’s kind of like that for me. I catch that serendipitous moment, where it’s like, “Woah, where did this come from?”—and I feel like in that moment there is emotion, intention. There is so much floating around, and I love the process of chiseling at it for weeks and months, and spending hours on end to make sure every word means what it is supposed to mean. That’s what good poetry is supposed to be: every word doing its job well. There is not an excess word there—just like with a sculpture. You would be able to tell if there was a huge chip on David’s shoulder, or a huge excess lump there.
As a songwriter, you know when a song is saying what you want it to say. And I enjoy holding that high standard. The song isn’t done until I know it is saying exactly what I want it to say, or until it sounds exactly how I want it to sound.
And then there’s the whole process of sharing it. For me, that usually happens in a close community of friends that are amazing songwriters and musicians. It’s not strange for us to get together and start spontaneously sharing our newest songs, because we are all so hungry for it: “What have you been writing—I want to know!” And after I hear my friends’ songs, there is a piece of their songs in all of mine. I get new inspiration, and I think, “Man, that song is so good,” and it spurs me on—it makes me hungry to create.
So after getting feedback and advice from my friends, the next step in a song’s growth is performing it. In performance I start to chisel out even more elements than just the word structure and melodies. How do I want dynamics to feel? How do I want some of the musicality of it to feel? That’s the next step in the creative process for me, I guess.
Ethan: Let’s talk about your album “End Where you Begin.” Clearly, this is a concept album, and it’s got a lot of stuff about love in it. What inspired and shaped this album for you?
Ian: There are so many things. One thing that kind of helps me write is that I love having an actual concept. This was the first project that I’ve done where I had that.
That first song, “Suffer Not”—I wrote that a long time ago. It’s cool, though: that whole album walked with me a little bit chronologically. So the first songs on the album are the oldest. The last songs on the album I literally wrote once we had already started production on the album. They actually ended up replacing other songs that I thought would go there.
Truthfully, it was a little hard for me to jump into the concept of love. I was writing all of these songs and they had very similar themes. And I kind of reached that point where I had a choice: I either needed to get over it and start writing different songs, or I could embrace it and keep writing songs about this same thing and see how far this rabbit hole goes.
There were probably seven or eight tracks that we cut from this project—songs that had similar content and structure, but maybe represented a different way that I thought about going about the concept. Once I started production, some of the songs came that were needed for that album, so that was really cool.
I called the project a “song series,” because I wanted to do it more like an artist does a painting series. They’ll do six or seven paintings, and all within a theme, they’re going to have a similar color palette. They’re going to be different things, but they’re going to feel like one body of work. And for me, those have always been my favorite types of albums. They’re not just a bunch of singles grouped together, but they’re actually one huge song. Each project within the song can feel like a verse or a chorus or a bridge, but they’re all centered around the same thought. And it felt freeing to think, “Oh, this one song doesn’t have to sum up everything about a topic as huge as the difficulty and value of love. It can be expressed over more songs.” And I could write 10 more albums with the exact same theme, though I probably won’t.