When you hear the music and the voice of Ronnie Ferguson, your pulse slows down. Because something in the room feels heavier. It's an intangible emotion. It's the expansion of empathy, a slower-breathing sensitivity or tenderness that starts coursing through you. Because the guy is spilling his guts, but it's beautiful and delicate, raw, a poetry unvarnished. A minimalist neo-folk arrangement of spindly guitars, woozy organ tones, breathy chimes and a vocal delivery that is the epitome of a healing sigh set to melody...
STREAKING IN TONGUES have been around for a few years, with a couple albums to their name. Ferguson is an Otisville (near Flint)-based singer/songwriter; I recently got to chat with him about the release of the band's new music video, as well as a forthcoming album Kindergarten Prayers.
Ferguson's songwriting connects to and kindles the honesty and vulnerability of eclectic troubadours who found inventive ways of accessing the ineffable woes or wariness of the human experience - namely Elliott Smith, but also Sufjan Stevens, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Gillian Welch, Tom Waits, Beck, or the original heart-on-the-sleeve stylist, Brian Wilson. He draws a subtle but distinct influence from contemporaries in the Michigan music scene, some still together, some recently disbanded, like Fields of Industry, Lone Wolf & Cub, Long Whisker, and Jim Cherewick. Ferguson tuned in to something about each of his influences - that a recording could have a lo-fi quality, yet be imbued with a poignant intimacy... "that moved me in a way that all the glossy studios and arena shows in the world never will..."
I read a review that name-dropped Daniel Johnston, Elliott Smith, Sufjan Stevens, and Mount Eerie... That's some powerful company... I wonder if those are indicative of your influences?
Thank you Jeff. That review appeared in Spirit You All and was very encouraging and came as a godsend during a time I felt pretty vulnerable and foolish, like I’d failed again with another passion project. Spirit You All is a unique voice in music because they highlight a lot of artists who have an unapologetic spiritual competent to their work, but they don’t stop there. They go on to analyze the craft of the work on its own terms, while some critics can be easily dismissive of anything that mentions J.C. or the big G-O-D. I’m a fan of all four of the artists mentioned in the review and I’ve listened to most of their albums over the years, though I’ve never tried to sound like someone else. The connections I find to other music that came before mine always seems to come later, after I’ve finished. I can’t listen to other music when I’m writing or recording because it’s too distracting. I find myself humming or tapping along and I don’t get any work done. I can’t even have a television in the house.
What were your earliest songs like? How did you work to find your own voice?
Pretty much my first songs, for better or worse, are the 14 that I wrote for our first album Knocky-Boo (The Eternal Playground). Taken as a whole, they are an eclectic bunch ranging from simple folk tunes to ten-minute two-chord epics. It wasn’t that I was trying to find my own voice, but more like I wanted my voice to reach out in many directions at the same time, with little regard to sonic continuity or fitting into a genre. It was the original premise for STREAKING IN TONGUES and a big reason why on the first album my friend Rob wrote and sang half of the songs. At the time, the two of us were playing together in two different projects (one for his songs and one for my songs). I thought of it as an experiment and I loved and still love Rob’s songs, though I think to a lot of people the mixing of our songs was just confusing and inaccessible because we’re very different as artists. I’m still proud of it and stand by it despite its many flaws, but I wanted to try something different with Life Support, mainly, something shorter, with one intimate voice, and more sonically cohesive. But, it too has its own set of flaws! Story of an artist.
In regards to visual output, the band has already made more music videos than quite a few that I can think of - where does that proclivity/talent/inspiration come from?
I came to music through writing poetry and working in the theatre. The first music I ever recorded and shared with an audience was for scores for plays I was directing. I think that my background has probably helped and hurt my development as a musician, or at the very least made me naïve about some musical things and hyper-interested in some music-related things that other more trained musicians may not care about, such as music videos.
What do you enjoy most about making videos and what do you appreciate most about putting your music/sounds to images?
I’ve always thought music videos can be a really inspiring and poetic art form. And the process can be wonderfully low-stress and collaborative. For example, our very first music video was made by a talented filmmaker named Wes Swartz for a song of mine called “Farewell OCD (You Pesky Bastard)”. Though we had some brief discussion before he conceived it, basically I encouraged him to run with his own interpretation. He came back with this beautiful, quirky video about an alien stranded on a planet far from home. I thought that was a nice poetic interpretation of a person who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder (the OCD mentioned in the title). And since then, I’ve encouraged every filmmaker who works on one of our videos to follow their own muse and to not feel handcuffed to a literal interpretation based on the lyrics.
I'd like to hear your feelings about the way this band and songwriting and the experience of recording have provided any kind of catharsis, whether after the passing of your father, or as a means of finding a deeper consideration of the bond with your son…
My father got sick when I was in high school and died during my senior year. During his months-long fading away in the hospital, I would drive across the state to visit him after school every day that I could. Through the trauma of it all, mental illness really took a hold on my life, mainly chronic depression and bipolar (same stuff my dad struggled with to the end of his life). Alone in my basement, I would lie down on the couch with headphones and listen to the sad, beautiful music of Elliott Smith. This went on for months and months. His music touched me in ways that nothing else could at the time, like it has for many people who suffer. Though I never tried to sound like Elliott Smith (and I don’t think I could if I wanted to), my own musical beginnings were certainly a continuation of that very intimate experience I had with his music. I still feel enormous gratitude for having his music in my life, though I no longer listen to him obsessively.
I dedicated our most recent album Life Support to my dad and to Elliott Smith because it would not exist without them. In fact, I would not exist. My only hope with going to the places I did on Life Support is that it could be a friend to someone who needs one. I guess, really, that’s my greatest hope for everything that STREAKING IN TONGUES has done and will ever do.
What was the experience like, in terms of creating, completing, and releasing that album?
Making and releasing the album was a way for me to also let go of my dad and grow in wisdom in regards to the mental illness that plagued his life and my own. During the recording of the last song on Life Support, my son Elliott ran in and interrupted the recording. Literally, the last words on the whole album were his: “Daddy, I just have to tell you one more—” and the recording cut off. As I said goodbye to my dad, he barged in to fight for my attention. There, in that moment, I was both a son standing at a gravestone and a father in a living room surrounded by distractions. It made the hairs on my neck stand up, and the whole world seemed to have a sad and touching clarity.
But really it was just the end of a chapter. Chapters since then have been much happier. Elliott and I have a wonderful relationship and often spend time working and playing together. I’ve always been passionate about my interests, but I’ve been careful not to push my interests on him. He is a gifted soccer player and visual artist and I’m his biggest fan. I never played soccer growing up and he’s already surpassed me as a visual artist. I just want to continue to encourage him to do his best, to explore new things and find his own passions along the way. We’ve only recently started collaborating on creative projects.
Let's talk more about your work editing videos to the music...and how you came around to creating something like 'Wasted Days.'
The first music videos I made for STREAKING IN TONGUES all used stock/public domain footage because I didn’t own a video camera, but I still wanted to learn how to edit and go through the whole production process on my own. As I got into the stock/public domain footage world, it was very inspiring to me to find all of these old, forgotten, beautiful pieces of film. I began to think of how I might use the concept of recycling to make something new, not unlike visual artists who use existing sources to make collage. It was so much fun searching for the right accompaniment for a song…it was like searching for a line of poetry in a book of random words. When I saw the right video, I just knew, and would get to work right away on shaping the two together. I did that for a year or so, but eventually purchased my own camera near the end of the Life Support music video series.
How did this video come together? What inspired it?
I had long planned for the music videos to switch to scripted in-house productions for our forthcoming third album Kindergarten Prayers, but I pitched a script idea for “Wasted Days” to my son, and we both got excited about making it together. My script idea was probably influenced by the British television series Black Mirror, which is to say, it takes place a few minutes or a few years in the future and bends a little more toward the darker truths of life. It explores themes of addiction and withdrawal, as it relates to video games. I don’t want to say more because it will ruin it!
Here's the new STREAKING IN TONGUES music video, "Wasted Days," featuring Ferguson's son, Elliott.
Here's the new STREAKING IN TONGUES music video, "Wasted Days," featuring Ferguson's son, Elliott.
Can you tell us more about 'Kindergarten Prayers?' What did you find most fulfilling or even most challenging about the writing and recording process?
I started writing new material for Kindergarten Prayers shortly after I finished Life Support, though some of the recordings go back to the very beginning of my musical journey. Elliott recorded with me on the album (this time on purpose), along with some talented musician friends. It’s a far more ambitious album than Life Support, but was considerably less painful to make. It’s sunnier, more playful, and has elements of psychedelic folk. Listening to it now, I think it was probably influenced by Badly Drawn Boy’s Hour of Bewilderbeast, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, as well as albums by Flaming Lips, Belle and Sebastian, and The Beatles.
The band's had several members in its live incarnations, previously... But now it's just a duo?
Yes, STREAKING IN TONGUES is now just Elliott and I, so we’re still discovering how we want to play the music live and also what we want to do for a Kindergarten Prayers video series. We’re not rushing the process. The album will be released in April through our own record label/recording studio, Eternal Playground. We’ve already made plans for a sporadic, low-key tour throughout the year. Along with our music, my first book of poetry is being published in March and Elliott is having his first art show in May. Plus, the new indoor soccer season is starting soon. We’re just trying to keep it real and put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time.