ABOVE: CHUCK RAGAN AND THE CAMARADERIE. PHOTO COURTESY OF LISA JOHNSON
"It's absolutely breathtaking, what I'm looking at right now," Chuck Ragan says as he looks out his tour bus window en route from Spokane to Missoula. The singer-songwriter is on I-90, closing in on the next city of his spring tour.
Last month, the Hot Water Music frontman released Ragan's fourth solo album Till Midnight, which was inspired by time spent in his happy place—his home in Nevada County, California where he lives with his wife and two chocolate labs. With love-tinged lyrics like "I need you like I need all my blood and my breath," Ragan's distinctive raspy voice beckons listeners to feel, evoking messages of gratitude and respect throughout the 10-song effort.
As a music veteran with more than 25 years of experience, Ragan has a rock-star aura as well as the charisma of a friend—one who shares his songs for fans to adopt as their own. As Ragan puts it, "That's the beauty of loving music and letting to it into your bloodstream." While enjoying his view of the Northwest, Ragan spoke to us over the phone about his current inspirations, why a song is never finished, and what he's grateful for.
MELANIE GARDINER: You're on the road—literally right now—promoting Till Midnight, which heavily focuses on love. Why'd you pin your heart on your sleeve more than ever before?
CHUCK RAGAN: I've always written songs to use music as a form of therapy or as a way to look at my obstacles or my memories from a different perspective. It's always helped me realize the grass isn't always greener and how I need to live more in the moment. My songwriting is a documentation of whatever's happening in my life at that point in time. For Till Midnight, I had a lot of time off at home. I'd taken a break from really hitting it hard on the road and that time served me really well for my own well being and reflection.
GARDINER: You say music is your therapy, but you have a world of fans connecting with your music, too. What's it like knowing that what you write for yourself is resonating with other people?
RAGAN: Creating records and writing music with people I admire and respect is a very spiritual and enlightening thing for me. So to have someone gravitate towards what we create—these songs that we organize, put together, put down on paper, record and then materialize to where it's physically cut and then utilized is such an inspiring process. I can write a song and a thousand people could hear it and there will be countless different reasons why those people get something out of that song. But they're all there for the same reason, which is to enjoy music and to let it help dissolve those problems or those rough days or to give a reason to keep putting the boots on. So to see ideas come to fruition and for someone to get something out of it is a beautiful thing.
GARDINER: Which artists' music have you strongly connected with?
RAGAN: Nowadays, I find a ton of inspiration from the artists that I'm writing with, that I'm playing shows with, and that I'm sitting down and having coffee with. The Revival Tour had a lot to do with that. We've showcased more than 100 artists and we've never had a bad experience. It was always something where these songwriters would come on and we would all learn from each other. I find artists like Tim Barry, Cory Branan, and Jenny Owen Youngs, these current artists that are doing what they're doing now are my idols, my generation's incredible songwriters. I've listened to so much music on the whole ride and I'm inspired by a lot of classic artists, but it's the people right next to me singing songs that are blowing my mind, if that makes any sense.
GARDINER: It does. So tell me—your creative process for Till Midnight involved inviting your band The Camaraderie to spend a week at your home to work on songs you laid out. Did any songs take a different direction once everyone was together?
RAGAN: Oh sure, absolutely. I feel like they all did when all of those different energies and talents collided and then got on the same track. When you strip everything back on that record, they're really simple songs. The one thing I told the guys was, "The floor is open. I want everyone to feel completely invested in this record and to just to do what you do best." Everyone was completely open-minded for that, and it flowed very well. Once that outlook was laid out on the table, we were just trucking along and it was good energy all around.
GARDINER: How exactly does that energy translate when you're performing the songs live?
RAGAN: It's always a blast playing the new stuff. But I feel like songs, in a way, are never finished. You get to a point where you're comfortable enough to put a stamp on it and send it out there, but even after recording it, when you're playing it live, you hear different harmonies, you hear different notes, you hear different tempos or peaks and valleys in the song.
In other words, you learn it until you're comfortable with it to where you can record it blindfolded, but then when it comes out on the record, you forget about those little nuances and those little things that you changed during the recording process. It's those spur-of-the-moment things you do that makes it an entirely new beast that you then again have to relearn. Then you get to the stage to perform these songs in front of people and once again, it becomes something else that you're there to relearn. That said, you're always kind of shifting and changing and it's a really exciting process.
GARDINER: That's awesome but of course touring has its less favorable parts too, which you explore in your book, The Road Most Traveled. In it, you say "It's easy to get caught up in the uncontrolled chaos of the road." How do you center yourself when you feel the chaos creeping in?
RAGAN: Balance is everything. And I'm not just speaking from a road perspective—even from home. My wife and I work out of the house and we always struggle to find that balance because when work is around you 24/7, it's easy to neglect the little things in life that really help us to rejuvenate or heal. On the road, it's constant sensory overload, and it's easy to lose track of days and time and to get caught up in the constant giving of yourself. I think I can speak for everyone on this bus and say that we don't really want to just show up, do our thing, and take off. We care about these people that support the shows and have respect for the fact that if they weren't all there, we wouldn't be either.
But in having that mindset, it's easy for the majority of personal time to go out the window. And when personal time goes out the window, basic responsibilities in life, like keeping in touch with family, starts to reduce. It's always important to draw a line somewhere in a respectful way where you're still approachable, you're still there for the people and meeting them halfway, but you're not neglecting your own duties and your own time to rejuvenate to be able to do it again.
GARDINER: Your lyrics on Till Midnight are all so powerful. Do you have a favorite line?
RAGAN: I'm completely connected with all of them in one form or another. If I had to pick one, some of those lyrics in "For All We Care" sum up a lot, with "For all we've got is moments of grace we savor more than not / And all we care is to drown out the sanctified stench of stale air." I'm sure I could go through and pick out the line on each song that sums it up. I mean, this was a record of love, gratitude and respect, and I'm surrounded by the most incredible people and feel blessed to have that.
Most important to me is my wife. She's been the greatest inspiration that I can ever ask for, and I find myself falling in love with her over and over again. I feel like I've accomplished more in my life than I ever dreamed of in music, and I owe the people around me for that. I don't feel like it's something I've done. It's more so something that I've been a part of and something I've stayed aboard for to try and right wrongs and learn from mistakes instead of just gallivanting around and finding victories. I mean, I owe to all to my wife and my friends and my family and my supporters so I could pick out a ton of lyrics and they would all adhere to that outlook.
GARDINER: As an avid outdoorsman, what's the one activity you couldn't live without?
RAGAN: I would say just walking in the woods with my wife and my dogs. There's nothing better.
TILL MIDNIGHT IS OUT NOW. CHUCK RAGAN PLAYS IRVING PLAZA ON APRIL 18. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.