It began the way most good ideas do: I was avoiding my work.
Don’t get me wrong. I always try to take pride in what I’m doing, no matter how bleak, but I’d been performing essentially the same basic tasks at the oil and gas company every day for three years, a job I’d landed immediately after college, and I felt ready to climb the corporate walls. (And I’m not talking about a “career advancement” climb. I’m talking a “blue pajamas, matted hair, crazy person” climb.)
I’d been listening to David Ramirez’s Apologies at work on loop for what must have been a couple of months. Most social media websites were blocked on our work computers, but every now and then I ran into a website that peeked out like grass through the cement, and David’s was one of them. When he released the album back in 2013, it was streaming for free on his site and I took advantage of the kindness. (Although I did purchase a hardcopy at his merch table later on.)
Starting a creative blog was an idea I’d been kicking around since getting into Nick Flora’s podcast “Who Writes This Stuff.” Although I’d blogged in the past (didn’t we all? O, the angst!) I was ready to write at a more sophisticated level, less about which boy broke my heart and more about which artist’s work grew my heart and challenged my brain and, perhaps most importantly, fueled me through another day of deep freeze at my desk job.
Since David’s music had been such an integral part of that moment in my life, I decided I’d begin with him. He’s a top-notch live performer, so I jumped on his website, thinking I’d catch him the next time he was in town and write up a review. Although I didn’t see any OKC dates, I noticed he would be playing in Dallas the same night I was to be there for a work trip. And then, and I don’t know what strange breeze fluttered into my tiny office and compelled me to do this, I decided a review wasn’t good enough. I wanted to talk to this person face-to-face, shake his hand and let him know “Hey, thank you for doing what you do. It means a lot.” I didn’t want to write a review, which probably would have gone something like “He was so good! He was SO good!” Instead, I wanted to do an interview.
So, that was that. I had my people reach out to his people (er, I sent a message to his manager requesting a brief pre-show meeting) and was promptly mortified immediately after I sent it. It felt like a ballsy move, especially considering that my blog didn’t even exist yet, that it was still at an embryonic stage, (that I wasn’t even off the clock, shhh), that I hadn’t ever interviewed a person in my LIFE except my parents, for that sixth grade homework assignment. (You know the one: “Mom, Dad, what was life like when you were my age? What are your hopes and fears for the new millennium?”) At that point all I had was a degree in writing and enough career frustration to stroke out. And excellent taste in music, of course.
Okay, I’m sure I’ve bored you with enough trivial details by now, so I’ll try to economize and get to the good stuff. To my shock and amazement, David’s manager wrote me back the next morning and said:
David would be available for a quick interview before the show at Prophet Bar. He is on around 8 pm. Shall we say 7:15?
He will be backstage before the show. There is a door on the right wall just behind the stage. Just knock on the door and pop your head in…he will be back there.
I didn’t take out a mirror and study my face at that point but I’m sure it was similar to that one emoji, where the yellow guy’s mouth is hanging open and his hands are at his jaw and there’s that faded blue color at the top of his head for some reason. Either that or “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. (Which bears a striking resemblance to the aforementioned emoji…can someone find out if that’s on purpose for me? Thanks. Just kidding, I’ll look it up myself. Thanks.)
Fast forward two weeks and suddenly I’m in Dallas standing in line at the Prophet Bar, which is already out the door. I’m a nervous wreck, no surprise there, having arrived at the venue with only five minutes to spare. (I’m running late most of the time, it’s one of my lesser qualities. Acceptance is the first step.) With trembling fingers, I’d shoved what was probably not enough change in the parking meter, tapped three minutes worth of makeup on my face and was furiously scribbling notes on a pad as I inched forward in line. While I’d thought a lot about the questions I was to ask David, it occurred to me last minute that I probably ought to write them down in case I blanked. Already, my inexperience was trying to bleed through. I internally rallied, amped up my bravado and finished my notes, trying my best to ignore the two girls behind me who were taking turns saying David’s last name in various accents, rolling their R’s dramatically. “Rrrrrramirez. Dah-veed Rrrrrramirez.”
“This is why I don’t go to music shows alone,” I thought. “No one to goof off with.”
Once inside, my only strategy was to act like I knew where I was going. The Prophet it a cool place. It’s narrow, shaped like a shoebox, and the street entrance is at one of the short ends of the box and the stage is directly opposite, at the back. There’s seating along the right side and the bar occupies the left side. I strode to the backstage door, fearlessly (but really, petrified), and walked in. The backstage area is a breezeway of sorts, with doors on all sides. There is also a stage door to an adjacent venue, and I could hear the sounds of another band already playing their set. Two of the doors were open: one was a bathroom and the other streamed in sunlight from the back alley. A bartender, just done with his smoke break, walked in from the alley and I asked him “Is David in there?” nodding to the only other door.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably. Just pop your head in and see.”
He disappeared back inside the bar and I was alone again. This door, although closed, didn’t have a handle. Instead, there was a hole where the handle should have been. So I leaned down and peered through it into the room, feeling slightly ridiculous, and caught my first sight of David, who was lying with his feet up on a love seat, his eyes closed. I hesitated. If this had been a film, the muffled sound of the band would have increased significantly, the camera zooming in on my face. The band would be playing, aptly, a cover of The Doors “Break on Through (To the Other Side).” Suffice it to say, it was probably the most rock n’ roll moment of my life.
Head spinning, I pushed open the door and walked in.
The dark green paint on the walls was peeling, slightly. It was a beat up room but with a hangout vibe, like your high school friend’s makeshift garage apartment. David was asleep on the love seat and across from him sat another guy, wearing headphones, and fiddling with film equipment. When I entered the room, quietly, neither of them stirred. I took a few small steps in. Still nothing.
“Oh God,” I thought to myself. “Not only am I about to conduct my first interview with David flipping Ramirez, but now I have to wake him up?”
Let me take a moment to say here that David is one of the few people I’ve met in my life who, in looks and sound and soul, is actually as interesting if not more so than a character in a work of fiction. In slumber, most people look like trolls, myself included, but David looked like a photograph, so vibrant and alive that it briefly paralyzed me. I wish I could describe to you the color of his jacket, so blue against his skin, or his face—with its strong brow and nose, and his signature five o’ clock shadow, a wonderful, worthy face, somehow both boyish and mature—but it would be impossible.
I cleared my throat. “Hi,” I said meekly, to everything in general, including the furniture. “I’m Holly.”
David opened his eyes, groggily. “Hi,” he said, looking at me and then at my sketchbook. “You’re here to draw the show right?”
He’d misrecognized me as a friend of a friend, who was to be at the show that night as well, sketching David’s performance.
“No, no,” I said, and then explained to him who I was. He introduced me then to the guy in the headphones, Rob Montague, of Late Morning Films, who was making a documentary entitled Long Way to the Top.
“David and his music are a big part of it,” said Rob, setting up his camera after I agreed to be on film. “This will be great.” I silently cursed my three-minute makeup job.
“If I’d known I was going to be on camera, I would have made my hair bigger,” I told them.
“You are from Oklahoma,” said David, and we all laughed. At that moment, I noticed the mug David was holding full of whiskey or tea—either would have made sense to me—and he apologized and explained that he wasn’t feeling well, and had been sick as a dog all through South by Southwest, which is why he’d been napping when I arrived. “Rob gets a lot of great footage of me napping in various locations,” he quipped, nodding at the filmmaker. I said I was really sorry and promised to be brief. After I’d set up my own recording equipment (otherwise known as my iPad) we began.
“I came to know you,” I said, “because I’m working on a film with a couple of guys who did a film with another actress, who was in Between Notes with you—”
“That’s right, that’s right, yeah—”
“So that was how I came to know you. You did that about, what was it, 2011?”
“Yeah I think February 2011 is when we started filming,” he said. “Because it was released that summer. Yeah.”
I told him I’d seen the trailer for the film and become interested in his music that way. “So anyways, a few days later, I opened up the Gazette and you were in it and you happened to be playing in OKC, and I was like ‘Oh I have to come see him’ and I’m actually kind of agoraphobic,” I rattled on nervously (and it took me twice to pronounce ‘agoraphobic’ correctly). “I kind of hate going to music shows; it makes me a little bit nervous.”
“Oh yeah,” said David, probably nonplussed at my nervous energy, and the fact that I just said I hate going to music shows.
“But, I like you enough and I liked your music enough, and I felt like it was kismet so I went and I really loved it.”
“Thanks a lot,” he said. “Was that at the Blue Door?”
“No, that was at VZD’s,” I told him. “Which is kind of a crazy little place.”
He nodded. “It ended up turning out to be pretty quiet in there,” he said. “I was surprised.” And then added, “It’s a restaurant.”
“Like a garage restaurant,” I agreed.
“Yeah,” he said and I laughed.
“And then I got to see you at the Blue Door,” I continued.
“Okay cool, yeah,” said David.
“Just kind of, speaking of that, it seemed like you really created, did you know either of them, before you toured with them?” (When I saw him perform at VZD’s, he headlined with Matthew Mayfield. At The Blue Door, he was with Noah Gundersen.)
“Matthew or Noah?” he asked.
“Mmhmm,” I said.
“Matthew and I knew each other but just real briefly. We’d met on a couple occasions, but neither one of those guys was I friends with beforehand. But now, now we’re really close, all of us. Which is cool.”
“Yeah, it just seems like, when you think about great writers of the past they travel in little wolfpacks, you know what I mean?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said.
“I just sort of wondered how that really affected the way that you write?”
“I think, I don’t know if it’s affected the way I write,” he said, “but it’s nice to know that there are other solo people out there, because most of the time I’m just alone in my car and both those guys pretty much do the same thing. So I think I was just encouraged by it and I felt like maybe, like you said, it’s kind of like a community, I feel like part of a family, you know?”
“You don’t ever like, run things by each other, do you?”
“Yeah yeah!” he said, perking up a bit. “Yeah, absolutely”
“Shoot each other an email,” I offered. He nodded.
“Before I went in the studio just this last time—I’ve got a new EP coming out in May—and before I went in the studio last month I sent Noah some tracks and just said ‘Hey, let me know what you think about these’ and then, uh, Matthew just sent me new songs last week to kind of look over. So yeah, we do a lot of that,” said David.
I couldn’t resist. “Are you pretty harsh with each other or pretty nice?” I asked, and then giggled. (So professional.)
“I don’t know,” said David, good-naturedly. “I mean thankfully, they’re both really talented so I don’t feel like I really have to say anything. The songs are good, but yeah I mean hopefully they wouldn’t put out a shitty song but I’d probably let them know if it [wasn’t good],” he said and we both laughed.
“Like ‘dude…’,” I said.
“I mean I’d hope they’d do the same with me, you know,” he finished.
I switched gears. “Have you ever heard of the band Richmond Fontaine? By any chance?” I asked him. David shook his head. “Well, they’re based out of Portland and I actually just read a novel by the lead singer. And you,” I said, “just recently started a blog—”
“That’s right,” said David.
“—which I read and it was very interesting.”
“Oh cool, yeah.”
“And I wondered if you hoped to accomplish something different from that, that maybe you couldn’t achieve through just songwriting?”
“Yeah,” he said enthusiastically and then paused a moment to think. “Yeah, the more that I write, the more that I could, you know, better myself. I think that different avenues of writing make you stronger all around so I used to have blogs when I was younger, back when—
“—Xanga?” we both said at the same time and then giggled.
“—was around, yeah,” he said.
“So did I, so please don’t be embarrassed,” I assured him.
“Yeah, but I never really had a vision for them. I just kind of treated it like a journal, which was totally fine, but with this I have all these stories and I’m getting older and I’m kind of forgetting some of them. I’d like to write them down and share them, because there’s a lot that goes into this stuff that doesn’t get seen, and you know people see the records and the shows, but there’s a lot about the life that makes the records good or shitty that really influences it all. So yeah, the blog is serving that purpose. It’s just another avenue to write and tell some cool stories.”
“Would you ever consider writing a piece of fiction or anything like that?” I asked.
“I’ve never thought about it,” he said, almost more to himself than to me. “I’d consider it though,” he says, this time to me, with a smile.
“Yeah?” I pressed.
“I mean, that’s all I read, is fiction,” David said.
“Well I, when I think about your songs they sort of sound like road songs, kind of like the way Keuroac was a road novelist. And you know, there are such things as road novels so, I don’t knowwww,” I said teasingly.
“Maybe?” said David, playing along.
“I think it might be a good idea,” I informed him, having my second very professional moment of the night.
“Alright!” he replied gamely.
“I’m just throwing that out there!” I said, laughing.
“I’ll keep it in the back of my head,” he said, not insincerely.
I looked at my notes. “Let’s see,” I said. “Okay. I’m sort of coming at you from the angle, and I’m going to assume here, and I hate to do that, but I assume you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing, as far as being a songwriter, playing music?” I said.
“Yeah,” David said with a nod.
“And I just didn’t know if you felt like that was a rare thing? Or not.” I went on, to give him a better grasp of the question. “You’re from Houston,” I said.
“Originally, yeah,” he said. “Currently based out of Austin now.”
“Well, you know, in Oklahoma, and I don’t know how it is in Texas, but in Oklahoma there’s this strong emphasis on go to college, get a good job,” I listed.
“Oh I see,” he said, finally understanding.
“Get insurance, take care of yourself and then live your life outside of work,” I finished.
“Right right,” he said. “So you’re asking, is it normal? To do what I love to do?”
“Do you feel like it’s normal?”
“Um, it’s normal for me I think,” he mused. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I do see a lot of people not being able to do what they love. So I consider myself fortunate that there are people who like what I do, so much that I can do only this. It’s nice. But I don’t think a lot of people are as lucky, maybe. So I’m really thankful for it.”
“You know,” I said, “there’s obviously a lot of people who have to work a day job and then do what they love on the side. I’m one of those people,” I added, quietly. “What do you think having a day job would do to you? Do you think that would just totally destroy you right now?”
“Maybe now,” he said, with an earnest shrug, “but I came from a place of working restaurants and bars and coffee shops and stuff, you know, so I know what it’s like to have to have a boss and check in. But I think going back to it would be really hard.” He thought for a moment. “But you know, it may happen that way, this may only last so long and I might have to get a job and just do this on the weekends or something, you know.”
“Do you think that that would be enough?” I asked.
“No, it wouldn’t be enough,” said David, matter-of-factly. “But I think what I’m saying is there is no guarantee, just because things are going well for me now doesn’t mean they always will. I think you’re just thankful for what you have and figure out where you are at the moment then yeah, whatever you’re doing, kick ass at it, really.”
Feeling like I’d finally hit my stride, I asked, “Is there any kind of success that some people define as success that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily want to achieve?”
He paused and then said, “Yeah I mean I wouldn’t want, I mean I don’t need to be a multi-millionaire or anything.”
“You don’t?” I asked.
“Nah,” he replied.
With a giggle, I tugged on the sleeve of his well-worn denim jacket and asked, “This isn’t a multi-millionaire’s jacket is it?”
“Oh yeah, yeah it’s…ten grand!” he said, and we laughed.
“It looks super expensive,” I said, grinning. (Professional moment #3.)
“But uh, no I’m real simple,” he said, returning to the question. “I like my life simple and the less complicated the better. So I don’t know what kind of success I don’t want; I know what kind of success I do want and that’s just, I’d like to be viewed as a great American songwriter, someone that’s really contributing, something honest and authentic to the art community here in the states but also internationally. And I want to—art has always changed the world and I want to be a part of that. I want to help people think and grow and feel something. That’s my goal. And as long as I’m doing that, I think I’ll always be happy with it.”
“Cool,” I said. “I feel like, how long has that been, camera man?”
“Uh, awhile,” Rob said. “About 12 minutes. That’s what my clock says.”
Resignedly, I decided I needed to wrap things up and give David time to himself before the show. “Well going to ask you one more thing,” I said to him. “It’s so cheesy. But I have to ask it.”
“Bring it on,” said David. (By my manner, he was probably thinking, “Is this crazy chick going to ask me to prom or something?”)
“Did you choose this life or did this life choose you?” I asked.
“Ah. That’s the million dollar question.”
“Chicken or the egg, right?” I said.
“Right,” agreed David, and then with the wisdom and thoughtfulness of someone three times his age, he said, “I see a lot of moments throughout my life and my past that have led me here, you know, that I couldn’t call coincidence and I couldn’t call just sheer luck. I mean I could just quit it, I guess, but I keep waking up every day saying, it’s my choice to keep doing it. But my love for it, I don’t think…well, I think that was put in me, just what it brings me and my passion for it, I didn’t create that at all. I think it was put in me.”
“By?” I asked.
“Oh, by God,” said David, almost shyly.
“Yay,” I said, still in the phase of my life where I said ‘yay’ all the time, whether appropriate or not. “Let’s end on God. I think that’s a good note to end on. Right?”
“That wasn’t leading at all!” David said, and we laughed.
Of all the moments in our talk, I reflected on this one the most. At first, when I listened to the recording back, I cringed. I felt embarrassed, as though I’d coerced David into saying something he didn’t mean, or didn’t want to mention. (God can be a touchy subject, you know. Even David sings about in “The Forgiven” from The Rooster EP: “They love me for being honest/They love me for being myself/But the minute I mention Jesus/They want me to go to Hell.”)
But, it was an essential exchange to have, because it made me realize something very important, something that will define every conversation I have with every artist from here on out: I’m not a journalist. I don’t have any savvy when it comes to interviewing, and this was quite clear in my talk with David, because I was never taught the language of the practice nor the etiquette. My writing background, my degree, was in English, not in journalism. And, quite frankly, I don’t want to be a journalist. I have a lot of respect for them, but that’s not in my wheelhouse. I’m a writer, yes, but most of all I’m just another person, another curious artist, trying to navigate my way through the waters of creativity and the inevitable struggle, loss and, if I’m lucky, triumph. I just wanted to talk to David, to take look inside the mind of someone who seems to be doing this very thing so intensely, if heartbreakingly, well.
As you can tell, this conversation (I’ve extracted the word ‘interview’ from my vocabulary now) took place a long time ago. To be precise, it took place on March 18, 2013. I made the classic mistake of sitting on this recording for too long, and then after some time had passed, I became intimidated by my own ambition. My friend Hillary has a framed print in her house that says “FEAR NO ART.” I love it, and I think of it often, probably because it’s something that I do fear, all the time. I’m not sure I realized it then—to be honest, the memory of it is a hyper, neon, out-of-body experience—but for all intents and purposes, David Ramirez is my favorite musician. I don’t want to blather on as to why, because anyone who’s seen him live will know why. (This is my not so subtle way of telling you to do just that.) Maybe it’s because he writes lyrics like this:
Well there’s a piece of me that loves all this sadness
That loves for onlookers to call me tragic
But buried underneath all the women and the booze
Is a man that I know who’s ashamed at what I choose
Well I believe in God and I believe he wants me to believe in me
(“Chapter II” from Apologies)
Or maybe it’s because his music came into my life at a time when I needed it the most. Perhaps it’s because he’s created his own genre of sound, something that feels both old and new, like a smile and a frown, a sunrise one day and a rainstorm the next. Whatever the reason, despite the fact that our conversation was already in the can, I became too scared to tackle the burden of writing it down. I was afraid, quite simply, that it wouldn’t be good enough.
These are the excuses I leaned on: I quit my corporate job (finally) and went through a subtle depression and a brief period of unemployment. I came out on the losing end of a breakup, which severely altered the roadmap of my life, both physically and theoretically. I lost two grandparents. I got a better job, and then left that one nine months later for an even better one, my first editing gig. I had yet another surgery. New people came into my life, some disappeared. I completed lots of other art projects, smaller ones that felt manageable. I performed on stage. I appeared on film. I walked around my neighborhood. I drank coffee. Life happened. Life happened. Life happened. I would run across the recording and listen to it. I would see my notes and read through them. And still, I felt I couldn’t write it. Eventually, I stopped writing all together, even in my journal, which I’d done nearly every day for nine years. It’s now been over a year since I’ve penned an entry.
But that’s fucking lame, I decided, finally, about a week ago. And those excuses no longer hold up, not even to me, who never really bought them in the first place.
So I write this now, imperfectly, and still feeling inadequate. David is in town, performing at the Blue Door tonight, October 24th, and I made that a self-imposed deadline. I’ve sent him a copy of this piece, with my sincerest apologies (running unfashionably late, as always), and I hope he understands how much it meant to me.
I also want to mention that after our conversation at the Prophet Bar, I handed him a couple of sketches I’d done of him and he posed for a picture with me. Later, he was nice enough to post one of the sketches on his Instagram page. I stayed for the show that night, of course, and he was just as impressive as always, but perhaps even more so this time, as he was so sick. His forehead and neck glistened under the lights, betraying what was surely a fever sweat. He talked a bit less during the songs this time, thanking the crowd profusely and apologizing for being ill. “I feel like fucking Tom Waits up here,” he’d said. Although there were a few notes that he mixed, since his voice was going out, other ones he went for, full steam and ferociously, despite the gravelly rawness that illness brings to your voice. The crowd cheered aggressively, appreciating his gusto, wanting to contribute theirs. We all seemed to sense that this performance was special.
For my fellow OKCers, I will be at the David’s late show tonight with Kyle, and if anybody wants to come sit and listen with us, definitely do that. The show is at 10:30 and the doors open at 10. We will be in line by 9:30. We’ll be dressed as Neville Longbottom and Hermoine Granger, so that might help you spot us.
If you can’t make it tonight (I realize how last minute this bit of advice comes), I encourage you to visit David’s website and see if you can make another live show. Also, any and all of his full-length albums and EPs are readily available online for your listening pleasure. I can’t play favorites—that’d be like asking me to choose a favorite slice of pizza—but here’s a short list of suggestions, just to get you oriented:
Feeling badass, try “Good to be Bad” from American Soil
On a long road trip, try “Find the Light” from Apologies
At a crossroads in your life, try “Argue with Heaven” from Strangetown
At home on a snowy night, try “Paper Thin” from Apologies
After a fight with your partner, try “The Bad Days” from The Rooster
If you’re a woman, try “Without a Woman” from Raw
If you’re a man, try “Kindness” from Apologies
And of course, be sure to check out David’s newest full-length ablum, Fables (which was produced by pal and fellow musician, Noah Gundersen.) Cheers to you, David. I can say, with candor, that you are the best.
Thanks again for listening, all you little foxes.