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: Ian, of the songs that you have written, which one is your favorite to write or to listen to?
Ian Randall Thornton: That’s super hard. At this point, I’ve probably written 30 or 40 songs. I don’t have an answer, to be honest. They’re all so different; I really do love them all.
There is this one song—my first single—called “Life I Couldn’t Think Up,” that I wrote when I was out in California.
It was one of the first songs that really meant something to me, but it took me months to finish. It was my first experience of taking a feeling that I had and putting it into words and melody. I feel like I can almost step back in and experience that emotion any time that I want.
I wrote “Life I Couldn’t Think Up” after this trip to Portland some friends and I took. Everything about the entire trip just felt perfect—the friends we went with, the character development within that. And just such an amazing story developed within this trip. There were moments where I almost felt like I was seeing it from afar—like an aerial view of this moment in my life. I felt like I was watching a movie. It was just beautiful, but also everything that led up to each moment felt almost like a choreographed play.
We had just such an amazing time. We’re all crazy personalities—we don’t get weirded out about anything. So we were all just like constantly joking and somehow we got into this joke of trying to weird each other out, make each other feel awkward. None of us could be phased, but this one friend would just always drop this bomb of her mom being dead. She’d throw it down as a joke, trying to make us feel awkward. And we were like, “Why do you have to drop that one every time?”
I wrote down the line “life I couldn’t think up” on the way home. My friend Nate was in the back playing ukulele and almost scoring this beautiful, intense, emotional moment. And the girl I mentioned was just opening up and telling the story about that morning when she woke up and found out her mom had passed away. And it was super heavy, but super beautiful. It felt like an indie film, and in that moment we took a little bit of silence. And I wrote down the fourth verse to “Life I Couldn’t Think Up”:
Sometimes life can begin to seem
Like a perfect take for a movie scene
In a film that I would watch and enjoy
The feeling’s nice, but the feeling’s coy
And then for months later, I had a couple more things happen like that—where I felt this emotion, and literally each verse would just be a snapshot of this scene. And now when I listen to the guitar part, the lyrics, the melody—everything about that song really takes me back, and I feel like I’m experiencing that moment all over again.
Sometimes when I’m on stage, playing in a new place, singing the line about how “I’ve never been here before,” I’ll feel the weight of all the people in the room. Everyone has their own crazy, complex story going on—with hopes and dreams and aspirations and goals and letdowns and failed attempts. And when I’m in a foreign airport, I see all these people and I get hit with how massive the world is and how many people there are—billions of people, and I don’t know any of them. Each one has such an intricate story going on right now that I have no idea about. And “Life I Couldn’t Think Up” expresses that idea.
I just mentioned that one because I feel like that was almost a breakthrough song for me. I discovered that I can capture something real that means something. Every song is a memory of mine, and each one is going to mean more to me than anybody else, but for that reason I think people can really connect to them. And that has helped me to write all of the songs I’ve written since.
Ethan Weitz: I’ve got to ask, Ian: do you have any new music in the works? We’re waiting on pins and needles over here.
Ian: Yeah man! I’m working on two projects right now. One is really serious, and one is just for fun.
I’ve been working on my first full length album. It’s kind of conceptual, but maybe not as conceptual as the first one. I’d say it definitely has a similar tone to it, but different production. It wrestles with the beauty, difficulty, and value of family, and the idea that everything that we have has been given to us. Everyone has family; it is an essential part of life, whether it be blood family or not. And these people that taught you everything you know are some of the people you are going to love the most that you ever could, and also have the most conflict with, the most struggle with, the most fights with. So it’s kind of that. I’m really excited.
We have about 20 tracks that we’ll painstakingly whittle down to 10 that we really believe in. It’s my first album having a producer on, and that’s been really good for me. I love to produce my own stuff and produce other people’s stuff, but I think there is something good to be learned from having a producer. You learn how to trust somebody else with these songs that mean so much to you—somebody that can take the album in a different and bigger direction. We can do so much more in community than we can do by our own blood and sweat.
It’s the biggest production I’ve ever done, and I want to make sure I do good PR for it. So it won’t truly be out until the beginning of next year, although we’ve been working on it for a while. You can count on some singles by the end of the year.
But in the meantime I’ve been working on all those songs that get turned down in the studio. They are beginning to stack up, all these songs that I really care about but didn’t go on the last record and aren’t going on the next record. There are some songs I just want to capture now, so I found some other songs that have a similar feel, but also some with a different feel than my usual stuff—more a José Gonzalez, Iron & Wine feel—the sort of music that feels so good to do lo-fi. I have recording gear, so I’ve been working on that project in some of my free time. It’s been a blast to just layer on different instruments in production. Some of the songs I’ve even written after coming up with the style and the vibe that I want. Writing in the studio can be really fun. You have a feeling you want to go for and you write. Usually for me the lyrics go first, but this production has been more music-first.
That record, I hope to be out even this spring or summer. I’m doing a big cross country tour this spring so it’d be nice to at least have it in my hand before I release it this spring. It’s going to be fun.
Ethan: Since you mentioned José González and Iron & Wine: do you have any specific musical inspirations for either particular songs or albums, or for you as an artist in general?
Ian: It’s hard to say. I think that’s why I’m doing this other project. I have some inspirations for the specific style I’m going for with all the “Ian Randall Thornton” music, but I play and listen to and love so many different genres. I like to make my own stuff consistent, but at the same time I do want to experiment with it. I love crazy, big orchestral stuff. I love Sufjan Stevens, Tigero, Jonsí, and any of that crazy Scandinavian progressive stuff. I love extremely complicated music, because I love to play it. And then there are times when I just love to play intense rock and roll or progressive indie-rock. I love artists like MeWithoutYou and some of the more intense music. I’m wearing a MeWithoutYou shirt right now! They had a little bit of a folk album going on, but a lot of their other stuff is literally just screaming poetry. It’s just so good.
A lot of my stuff is simple folk music, which I really love too. I love how the simplicity of folk really puts the lyrics on display. If there was crazy stuff going on, you really wouldn’t get it. Even with my last album, there is some sweet stuff going on, but I was intentional in the way we produced it so that we wouldn’t distract from the lyrics.
Truthfully, though, I started writing the songs that I write and they started going towards folk music. Which I wasn’t really listening to at the time. I would write the music in that timeless folk style, because it really does resonate with people and it’s such a good platform to express a thought or an emotion. I feel like when I started writing, people started telling me who I sounded like. So I started going to listen to them and I thought, “These guys are awesome!”—songwriters like Gregory Alan Isakov, Ryan Adams, David Ramirez, and of course classics like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Johnny Cash.
As far as music I’d love to create in the future, I’d say I have a bit of a wide range. For me, it’s been important that my first two albums are consistent, and then whatever I do after I’m kind of just like, “Ah, let’s just go crazy.” You’ve got to define before you re-define. For example, Iron & Wine, did the same thing: their first two albums were super stripped-down folk acoustic albums. And then he goes and releases “The Shepherd’s Dog” which is crazy, but awesome. That’s what I’d love to do for my third project.
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