CONFIRMATION BIAS #5: Ruy De Magalhães-Ortegano (Lawn, Rui Gabriel)

One of my favorite guitar records from last year is Johnny by the New Orleans trio Lawn. Together with Mac Folger, Ruy DeMagalhães-Ortegano is half of Lawn’s should-be “classic songwriting duo” that’s as much Strummer/Jones (or maybe Reed/Cale) as it is Lennon/McCartney. Anything you read on the internet about Lawn will surely say that Mac’s songs are “melodic” or “jangly” while Ruy’s are “angular” or “wirey”—fair enough, but what I find so compelling about Johnny is the way the 9 excellent songs blend together 4 decades’[1] worth of guitar music with a relaxed and unpretentious touch. They’ve got real swag, but they’ve also got humility, and my uptight, geographically generalizing Yankee ears can’t help but attribute that combination to the influence of the band’s home along the Gulf Coast.

You’d frankly have to be lobotomized not to find a visit to New Orleans exciting or intriguing on some level, but I’ve always found it to be kind of a bizarre place to actually play a show. Everything about the city—the architecture; the food; the nightlife; the dense, electric air in the streets; the quietly fantastic scene—reliably marks it out in my mind as one of the real “events” of any tour, and yet at the same time, the richness of the cultural tradition there is so present, so baked into every wall, that any noise you could make feels like a drop of invisible ink in a bucket of indigo. To be fair, this is obviously true of a small indie rock band playing almost anywhere in the country, but it hits you particularly hard in the Crescent City.

In that way, I imagine that living and working in New Orleans—if you weren’t getting fucked up all the time—might nurture in a person a sense of perspective that can be a little uncommon in a music world that has only become more myopic in the Instagram age. My chat with Ruy certainly confirmed that theory. We touch on the utility of comparison, the future of the album in the streaming era, and the importance of writing in a way that stays sensitive to precarities that aren’t necessarily your own.

illustration by Tim Howe

I think Johnny is a really special record. One of the qualities that draws me to it again and again is the way y’all weave together disparate strands of guitar music with a real laid-back ease. I saw a write-up for the record—on a particular high-visibility music blog that shall remain unnamed—that compared Lawn to a whole stable of current bands on what I’ll call the “publicist indie” circuit before saying, straight up, “or, you know, fill in all the older bands that inspired those current greats.” I thought this was incredibly lazy in addition to being sort of unfair to you guys. I’ve described Johnny to friends as Lemonheads doing post-punk, an admittedly inelegant simplification that doesn’t really do the record justice; point being, at no moment during the 35-minute runtime do I get the sense that you or Mac spend a lot of time listening to buzz bands. Am I off base here? What’s the most annoying “RIYL” that Lawn has gotten?

This is a funny question to ask; I was in bands a bit before Mac, but, for the most part, we were kind of late in the game since most of our friends had been in bands that received press coverage in some capacity. As someone who played in half-assed bands without any clear sense of direction or focus, I used to strive for that sort of validation, publication notwithstanding. Johnny is the first thing I’ve done that has been written about in such a conventional manner and I am grateful in many ways more than I am jaded. 

That said, the three of us did read that write-up and took its value with a grain of salt. Not because the write-up itself was bad or lazy, but because that sort of point-and-shoot comparison was expected. Mac and I are extremely self-aware when it comes to the divergence in songwriting and feel like a lot of the purpose gets lost in the notion that my songs sound like this and his sound like that. We wrote that album together with the intention of highlighting how organic our collaboration is, even within the division of ideas. How I play bass, how Mac plays guitar, or even how Hunter plays drums doesn’t necessarily change altogether depending on who’s singing. Granted, I gravitate towards my core as much as he leans on his, but we listen to the same music, write about similar things, and are concerned with the same issues. Ideas are just that, and our songs never take full form until we’ve all had our say. I didn’t dislike the review at all. If anything, I’m very happy about it because I want people to listen to our music, especially if they think it fits their taste. But we’ve gotten messages and write-ups from smaller blogs who kind of got what we were trying to do, albeit acknowledging that if I sing I am 100% going to yell. That made me feel extremely grateful and eager to explore some other places that I am otherwise scared to go to. 

On the “RIYL” note, I get its value and appeal. I’ve found some music now close to my heart that was recommended to me because I enjoyed something else. But the narrative that you will most definitely like, say, The Jam because you listen to The Clash is somewhat silly, if not asinine. For the sake of optimism, I like to believe that people are more unpredictable than streaming algorithms/tastemakers think they are.  

I hear you—any amount of press is definitely something to be grateful for, and it’s possible to maintain that gratitude while also acknowledging that some of the conventions for writing about music are totally bizarre. The whole “RIYL” thing is a perfect case in point: I feel like more often than not I’m not really moved by stuff that is recommended to me specifically for its similarities to something I love, but if someone else finds my music because some blog says it sounds like their favorite band, that’s awesome. 

The emphasis on the wide range of styles between the two of you must be especially frustrating considering how seamlessly the album is knit together. That natural marriage of styles works in part because you and Mac seem to share certain thematic concerns, as you say—and I want to get to that—but it also doesn’t hurt that the album is so well sequenced. Was it hard to get those songs to flow from one to another in a way that feels so intentional? Is sequencing something you think about much, either with your own music or with records you like? 

Yeah. I mean, I feel like you and I, 3 to 5 year age difference aside, belong to the subgroup of millennials that got their music from places like Last.fm, sites that made their bread and butter from basic RIYL algorithms. I did find some amazing music through that primitive sense of “if you like Pavement you might like GBV” or whatever, but now I like to take my time and really think about what it is that I like about anything. 

The marriage between Mac and I’s songwriting is definitely solidified by the fact that we both grew up in very insular socioeconomic bubbles and our rebellious phases were welcomed by our parents as part of growing up. I can’t speak for Mac, but this was a frustrating part of sheer, post-graduate life for me; whenever I become upset at anything remotely personal I catapult into self-depreciation and overanalysis. There’s always a lingering cloud whispering “why are you mad? You never really struggled. You got here just fine”. In that sense, Mac is way better at writing about his insecurities from his own perspective, whereas I often choose scenarios and characters to convey something that bothers me within. We are aware of this, and the sequencing of the record was definitely intentional in that sense. It isn’t a concept record, but we needed to find a way to reconcile Mac’s introspectiveness with my lack thereof. And we wanted to do this in a way that made sense, both thematically and sonically.

Sequencing is incredibly important to me, especially now. There is something to be said about an album that just makes sense, track by track. This is something that I think about constantly when I look back into the music that made me want to write. Again, I can’t speak for my bandmates, but the flow of an album is probably as important to me as the content itself. I was never one to listen to playlists much since I typically obsessed with one or two records at a time, and these usually follow a pattern of organization that I really want to achieve for my own music.

Oddly enough I was having this exact conversation with a friend the other day—the whole playlist phenomenon has always felt alien to me because my entire life I’ve really only listened to albums. Unless I’m at a party or someone else has the aux in the van, I’m putting a record on at track 1 and listening the whole way through. I don’t know if it’s because that’s how my parents listen to music or if the 40-45 minute album is just a form with which I bonded strongly in adolescence or what, but that’s how I’ve always been. I sometimes wonder if the playlist economy is going to turn sequencing into a lost art.

I gravitate towards albums so strongly, in fact, that I think with my own music I pushed myself to release a full-length before I was completely ready. With your solo stuff, though, you’ve been taking a much more patient approach, releasing a string of singles throughout last year (all of which I love, by the way). What drew you towards that blueprint? Has it been feeling good so far?

I did a lot of drugs my first year of college and flunked out pretty badly. My dad was living in Billings, MT at the time and made me move with him to attend MSUB to straighten me out. In retrospect, this was the right thing to do, but I didn’t see it like that at the time. I ended up isolating myself from everyone and not really making any friends. I spent that year endlessly browsing music forums and constantly downloading music 24/7. I think that’s why I listen to albums as opposed to songs; I used to have a lot of time to kill. 

I don’t know if playlisting is necessarily the demise of sequencing. If anything, streaming platforms – albeit problematic and devoid of economic integrity – kind of give you the option to consume music in this weirdly traditional way; you can hang around the house and put a Todd Rundgren record in the background like you would if you were listening to vinyl. Similarly, I think playlisting has always existed in some form, especially when I was a teen. iTunes let you download a song for a dollar, and the iPod Shuffle was basically a physical conduit for playlisting. Most people listen to music how they would on the radio, single by single. I don’t think this is a bad thing per se, but I do think that the allure of an album tends to get lost if you’re only listening to the singles. 

It means a lot that you dig the songs. I had this vision of releasing this huge concept album about Valerie Solanas (the person who tried to kill Warhol) with the thematic unity revolving around mental health. It was sort of my attempt to write a record like 69 Love Songs or 41 Songs in 47 Minutes. I recorded some songs at home by myself and also did some with my buddy Nick (The Convenience/Video Age) at my old practice space. I ended up becoming really anxious during the mixing process to the point I ended up shelving so much music and moving onto other projects to the point the whole concept didn’t make much sense anymore. When the pandemic hit, I found myself with all of this free time while also dealing with an unfortunate bout of creative block. I realized I had recorded 30+ songs that accrued in a hard drive for a couple of years. I started just mixing/messing with them. It occurred to me that I could just put them out one by one regardless of flow. I started doing that while also not focusing on anything else until after the previous song was released. It’s truly liberating, akin to getting errands done.

our subject, presumably basking in the liberation of getting errands done

Glad to hear I’m not the only one who shelves overly ambitious recording projects due to anxiety… Anyway, that Valerie Solanas concept is a really interesting idea; I’d love to hear some more of the songs that were meant to be a part of that record someday. It strikes me as a natural direction for some of the thematic preoccupations I hear in your songwriting. To my ears, both your Lawn songs and your solo tracks often seem to touch on insecurity and precarity—not just personal and psychological, but economic and social. From what you were saying before, it sounds like at least as far as economic precarity is concerned, the struggles you write about aren’t always your own, strictly speaking. What draws you back to those themes? Is social or cultural critique something you value in the music that inspires and influences you? Do you feel compelled to write about those things because of factors other than influence? 

It takes a certain amount of shamelessness (in a good way) to write lyrics from a deeply personal perspective. Mac excels at this because he embraces the most introspective parts of pop music, which tend to be catchier and more memorable. For some dumbfounding reason, I consciously rejected so-called “pop sensibilities” in high school, so all I really got were the noisy, disgusting parts of rock music. I was the pompous kid who would say shit like “The Beatles are overrated; listen to White Light/White Heat instead”. Once I got over those preconceived notions about “good vs bad” music, I was left with a knot in my throat whenever I tried to branch out and write, say, a happy or sad song. Sure, I am the biggest Wings fan there is at the moment, but if you told me to sit down and write a song like “The Lovely Linda”, I’d hand you a bag of nonsense. This is not to say that The Beatles didn’t explore some far-out lyrical themes, but rather that I still have a hard time writing something solid, simple, and concrete. 

Back when we did the first record, Mac and I spent some time toying with the idea of nostalgia as toxic and overbearing, albeit coming from different places; he saw looking at the past for comfort as an extension of his own anxieties and insecurities – which he conveyed in a beautiful, melodic way – whether I viewed it as a failure to grow up and look within your own hypocrisy. The year prior to writing a bunch of those songs, I spent a lot of time listening to The Kinks’ Arthur, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces. All of those albums are extraordinary examples of using wordplay, settings, and allegories to convey personal emotions about a particular topic or event. They offered me a blueprint of some kind that taught me how to intertwine personal issues with our opinions about the world around us. 

As most other Venezuelans my existence itself is very political. But unlike most immigrants from places akin to where I’m from, I’ve never encountered the struggles ingrained in those connotations; I grew up quite privileged, with a dad who has always been able to provide, and with the opportunity to move to New Orleans and establish myself within a group of people that enjoyed the same choices as I did. I’ve never gone hungry or cold, and the racism I’ve endured is minimal compared to what BIPOC and Hispanic folx go through daily. For that reason, those socioeconomic intricacies are interesting and of great value to me because they serve as a path for me to critique black-and-white thinking as much as it allows for self-examination. Mac once told me that my songs are essentially me angrily arguing with myself. That’s pretty accurate. I am not an inherently angry person, but I can be very confrontational if my own fragilities are exposed. 

I love Mac’s description of your songs, and in some ways, I think that’s pretty universal. Not everyone’s internal arguments are angry, but I think the best songwriting always comes from the writer’s attempt to reconcile contradictions within themselves or contradictions between themselves and the world around them. That probably sounds like bargain-bin Hegel or something, I guess another way to put it might be to say that my favorite songs always feel like they’re going somewhere or moving towards something. These days I don’t necessarily go in for hyper-narrative songwriting as hard as I did back during, say, my heavy Springsteen (or Costello!) phase, but I still want songs to feel like they have a through-line; I want to see some growth. Your songs do that really well! 

I think that’s why I share the suspicion of nostalgia that you say informed the first record. I think nostalgia is often the easy way out of wrestling with those contradictions. It can put you in a very black-and-white, un-self-aware mode—maybe something like “emotional fascism” (supposedly the original title for Armed Forces). (For what it’s worth, I think good songs can use nostalgia to their advantage, pulling the listener in with something that feels comfortable but ultimately involves a bit of discomfort, but that’s probably a conversation for another time.) I became especially suspicious of that nostalgic mode while living in Portland. I started to worry about the connection between nostalgic anti-self-examination and a certain social milieu that’s pretty visible in art scenes there—namely, privileged transplants who are content to just kind of fuck around for a decade or so. I was definitely part of that for a little while and it didn’t feel good, and I think my creative biases have in some ways developed as a reaction against that. From the outside, it’s always seemed to me like New Orleans and Portland might have that in common to a certain extent. Obviously New Orleans has very much its own thing going on musically and culturally—and I definitely don’t want to stress an analogy between one of the country’s whitest cities and one of its least white—but at the very least, I’ve definitely known people who have moved there to just party. Do you think there’s any truth to that comparison? How do you think the city has bled into your creative life?

I agree with that. I often become attracted to art that is contradictory in spirit solely because it seems very human. There is something to be said about stream of consciousness-heavy writing since it does come from a subconscious state of acknowledgement. I’ve always thought that anyone’s strength lies in writing about the things known personally, and those will come out whether one tries to or not. Humans are dustbins of random knowledge that seep through in unpredictable ways. To master that idea in the process of creating something intangible is quite beautiful. I know this may sound like a chock-full of rambles, but this is how I’ve been trying to perceive people around me. Of course, if anyone engages in racist, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, elitist, xenophobic, and otherwise hateful rhetoric, that baseline gets thrown out the window. Otherwise, I think it’s fair to assume that most people are trying to make sense of their internal dialogue.

I also have to remind myself that nostalgia is not necessarily a medium for self-sabotage. There is an absolute, romantic way to look at the past to solidify the kind of personal growth you want to achieve. But like most things that feel great, it is incredibly difficult to draw that line. I think the problem with a lot of people my age and older is that we eventually become envious of times in our lives that are long gone to the point we isolate the things that were good and mute everything else. I have a very traditional set of responsibilities now. Errands can sometimes become overwhelming to the point I daydream about the nights when I was getting blackout drunk at a bar until 4:30am with seven other 20 year-olds. This is an inherently bad coping mechanism that I’m still working really hard to abandon. Not only for the sake of my mental health, but also because it can be insensitive to your surroundings; New Orleans, in all of its cultural glory, is a very poor city ravished by the legacy of Jim Crow and years of environmental negligence. To write about certain past experiences here – getting drunk at bars in gentrified neighborhoods, missing college house shows, fucking around, etc – is to ignore how privileged I am to have enjoyed myself at the expense of a place established as a slave port. Now, I’m not saying that it is always wrong to focus on the good times, but how would I dare to write a song about how awesome life is here knowing that my experiences don’t mirror those of most locals –  people who bike through potholes to get to work, where they have to clock 75h a week or else they might face eviction. It just doesn’t feel right.

I really don’t know much about Portland other than its inception is well-rooted in white flight. But from an outside perspective, I definitely see some parallels between our respective scenes: they revolve around young, mostly middle-upper class college kids who play in each others’ bands and are ambivalent about moving back home after the fun’s over. In that sense, I agree that there is a lot of truth to the comparison you’ve made since we both thrived in very specific socioeconomic bubbles. How the city has bled into the way I write songs is emblematic of the emotional maturity I still need to attain, however. In a way, I like that I force myself into a position to evaluate my coming-of-age years against the backdrop of a southern city. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that, through that mindset, I am striving for a level of validation and authenticity that I don’t really deserve. New Orleans doesn’t owe me anything, but I would still like to claim it as my home even though I haven’t lived all that much. And I still miss going to a bar with an empty head, without any responsibilities other than to keep my phone charged and clean my room, eventually.

[1] You know which 4.

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