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.
Emily Cardé: I’ve noticed that your album “End Where You Begin” has a lot of biblical imagery, and your music is clearly influenced by your faith. How do you approach the intersection between your faith and your music?
Ian Randall Thornton: It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? To be completely transparent, I am a Christian; but this music isn’t intended to be a “Christian” album. As a musician, I don’t want to make music that makes sense or is meaningful only to one group of people.
But at the same time, as I even talked about earlier, I’m trying to express what is meaningful to me. I’m trying to express the most important things in my life. It would be disingenuous of me to express that without including any bit of faith, since that is such an integral part of my daily life and my entire outlook on the world.
So for me it’s important to have a balance: to express what is meaningful to me, while knowing that this isn’t my forum to preach. This is a place for me to really express myself. Art intended to persuade people of a way of thinking is technically called propaganda. I don’t really have a desire to try to convince people of a way of thinking with my art as much as I have a desire to express what is meaningful to me.
It’s the best line to walk. I want my music to really resonate with and make sense to anybody that can hear it, while also staying true to myself and my beliefs.
Ethan Weitz: On your second track, “Down in the Meadow,” you sing that “love is when you burn your lover’s sin.” Can you unpack that phrase for us?
Ian: Yeah, man. That’s kind of a funny one for the songwriting process. I remember the moment I caught the wind for that. It happened in the intersection of inspiration and work ethic.
I was on a break of a restaurant job that was at. I was literally in the broom closet just writing—just searching, writing poetry. And “Down in the Meadow” was different from a lot of the songs that I write, because it came in this moment when I was feeling the rhythm of the song but had no melody or music to it. I was just writing lyrics to rhythm. And I had written that first line—“down in the meadow where you found me years ago”—but it didn’t mean anything to me; I was just writing random stuff. But then there was a moment where the second verse to that song just came out of nowhere. And it was right at the end of that break. So I literally walked backed onto the floor with tears in my eyes, and I was like, “I need a little bit longer!” And I went back into the broom closet and recorded a voice memo and wrote the words down. So from a songwriting standpoint, that song is pretty funny, because it literally came to me in a broom closet.
To expound a little more on the project and where it came from, that first song I wrote (“Suffer Not”) was after a huge breakup—after that moment where I realized, “Crap, I don’t know everything that I thought I knew about love and relationships.” And for me that song really brought imagery, and also brought some truth that I needed. You guys know, I’m sure: any relationship you’ve been in is just the process of letting somebody know you more and more. And the more you know people, the more potential there is to love that person—but also the more potential there is to hurt that person. It has potential to go either way. That’s why we are so careful with the way we approach relationships and specifically romantic relationships. And realizing that was the inspiration for these lyrics:
I hope I learn from my lover how to let go of all she brought
Just as she will discover all my flaws that I forgot
Because love is not just a state that you are in
I tell you love is when you burn your lover’s sin
When you hear that this album is all about love, you might get immediate connotations about how cheesy that could be. But my goal was to write an album about what love is actually like. There are so many romantic moments, but there are also so many hard moments. That’s almost the ethos for this whole album: love is extremely hard, but so valuable and so worth it. I was realizing it’s not just a euphoric state that I’m going to get into. Actual love looks like forgiving somebody when they’ve hurt you. It looks like not holding them to a standard that’s unrealistic. It’s forgiving and forgetting all the wrongs that they’ve done to you. I don’t know what your experience with it has been, but I’d say that is love. It is forgiveness, it is being able to let go of all your partner’s flaws, and actually letting them be who they are. Love is actually reconciling. There’s so much power in reconciliation, and that’s how love can actually be sustained and grow deeper. So I feel like the whole album is trying to remove that disillusionment and demystify love a little bit. I wanted to actually get into what it’s all about.
Songwriting has been such a helpful tool for me in that way, because if you guys haven’t noticed, I’m an external processor. Inside of me there aren’t all these deep profound thoughts about what the heck love is, what the heck all this stuff is about. With all these emotions and experiences—even that relationship that ended—there were a lot of things that I didn’t understand. Now I understand so much more, but it can be hard for me to express that. And so songwriting has become this beautiful tool for me to actually sit down and wrestle with expressing what I’m feeling. Because when it’s inside of me, I don’t understand it. But when I sit down and actually mull over it for months—then I can almost rip it out of me and look at it and say, “That’s what this is! This is what I’m dealing with.”
Ethan: When listening to your album, it’s pretty easy to notice the musical parallels between “Down in the Meadow” and “I Have Seen,” and also between “I Was Made to Change” and “So When I Die.” Is there a specific reason why you put those parallels in there?
Ian: In some ways, “I Was Made to Change” was the chorus of the song. The whole thing was a song series, and I wanted it to all be within relative keys, so that it all felt like the same song. And I feel like “Down in the Meadow” was key for that. As a musician, I would have been frustrated with myself if I had written an entire album in the key of C. So it felt good to just go down there to C minor.
I love how the album follows the dynamic of what a good story feels like. It has those dips and builds and climaxes and falls and tension and release. I wanted it to feel almost cinematic, to feel almost like the whole album is meant to be experienced in a half-hour. It’s one song.
Musically, that connection right there is obvious. “So When I Die” has the exact same melody, exact same chords as “I Was Made to Change”. So coming back to the chorus and having a bit of a reprise gave a closure to the whole experience. You almost end where you begin, and then start over again.
I have a brother who lives in Hollywood, works at DreamWorks, and wants to be a writer. We talk all the time about the power of stories, the substance of stories, and what makes a good story. All of us in life have these cycles over and over. We go through that initial fall, we go through these ups and then downs, and then we go back again. It just seems to be the foundation that every screenwriter writes on. These are the pillars of story.
So it was important for me to incorporate that story aspect. And the story is obviously huge in folk music. In every culture, folk is the people’s music. It all sounds different, but their intention is to communicate the story. And actually, before the internet or blogs or whatever, that’s the way you would capture an audience. You’d actually tell things through stories, and you’d include principles and things that you want your children to remember. It was a way of saying, “Don’t forget about this, because this needs to affect the way that you live today.”