Interview: Luke Rathborne

Released in October 2013, SOFT is a marked departure for singer-songwriter turned bandleader Luke Rathborne.  It is the New York based musician’s third album, although it is the first release recorded with the four-piece band that bears his name.  Co-founded by bassist Darren Will and featuring drummer Jamie Alegre and guitarist Jimmy Gianopoulos, the group’s sound is free of complexity and heavy on attitude, something the beginnings of rock and roll is defined by.

Produced by Rathborne and Emery Dobyons and featuring mixing/co-production from Gus Oberg and The Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr., SOFT is the perfect introduction to the band’s distinctive brand of garage rock.  The spirited atmosphere captured on record further illustrates the group’s ability to craft arrangements that mix the polish of thoughtful songwriting with all the dents and scrapes of a rock band with a big sound.  It is this same willingness to show the brushstrokes that has won them fans touring with Travis, PAPA, The Head and the Heart and Albert Hammond Jr.

Seven months after the release of SOFT, songwriter Luke Rathborne was eager to discuss the creative motivations behind his songwriting and the continuing journey of his first self-released LP.

You left Maine for New York at 17.  If you had stayed in Maine, how different do you think your writing/sound would be today? 

I’m not entirely sure. There’s something about small towns like where I grew up that can be pretty isolating to a young man.

I try to look at everything the way it is, because you could drive yourself crazy trying to think of yourself as different people according to the decisions you made. Don’t look back, isn’t that what they say?

There’s a romanticism and mythology that automatically attaches itself to the story of a young musician running around New York.  Did that very sense of adventure and uncertainty motivate your move? 

New York City definitely teaches you to grow up fast. I liked the sights and smells of New York and the feeling that it was the most different thing than the woods and the trees that I’d grown up around. I think you’re right that the sense of adventure and unknown had something to do with it. Now New York feels small to me. It’s funny how things work like that.

New York is a magnetic city, one that will immediately engage all five senses.  Were you ever concerned that living there would turn out to be more distracting than inspiring?

I can definitely tell you that what I was concerned about was the sixth sense that New York City taps into, and that is that ‘you are poor.’

There’s nothing that can cause concern or alarm like lying in some empty unlivable space eating.. Pieces of bread.

That being said, I was always lucky enough to get by and I’m thankful for that. Malaise is truly a middle class affliction.

Your songs are very concise, very direct.  Is that a style that you have arrived upon, or have you always taken that approach to songwriting?

I have some projects coming up that I think people will find very surprising. I suppose on some level I’ve always been interested in what it is like to speak, and where that crosses over to singing. Sometimes I want to be outside of myself and sing in a way that makes me feel separate from who I am, like a character. Other times I’m trying to get as close as possible to who I am.

Some view writing as a spiritual thing, saying they don’t know where the songs come from or when they’re going to arrive.  Do you consider songwriting to be a cosmic experience? 

I really think they’re just songs. That aside, writing songs is hard work. I think anybody would admit that when something falls into place it’s always luck and you feel grateful for it.

Some people don’t enjoy going to that space whether it be writing a play or a novel. But I like it a lot, yknow?

Right now, there’s a cat out my window in the alley calling into the night. Maybe a song is like that, but you can’t ask the cat why it’s calling, maybe it’s hungry or sick, or lonesome. All you can do is come up with what ever reason you have at that moment. It’s hard to say what compels you, and yeah, maybe it has something to do with the soul.

Some artists are reluctant to reveal their inspirations to their audience in order to maintain a certain mystique or impression.  For me, knowing what was on the writer’s mind enhances the listening experience.  As a fan, how do you prefer to interpret the music you listen to and does this have any effect on the way you unveil your own?   

I’m trying to think of a show that really didn’t align with my perspectives of what I thought about someone on record.

I suppose it depends on the character they’re trying to create. Like you were saying, sometimes it reveals more about someone.

For a period of time I was a purist and never say much at all onstage. That seemed to me part of the journey.

But now I like to get to know an audience. I like to joke around with them, be in the room with them and it’s amazing how small it can begin to feel. That’s really nice when the room closes up and you’re all there sharing a moment.

That’s a bit like how I started out. In small clubs and backyards. It’s funny how things have a way of returning back to what you thought you needed to get away from. I hope love isn’t like that, otherwise I’m going to have to start calling up all my ex’s.

SOFT is more aggressive than After Dark and the I Can Be One/Dog Years E.P.s.  What prompted these changes? 

Yes it is a bit more aggressive. The best way I can explain it though is it was returning back to a lot of the punk rock bands I was in as an early teenager. Where I grew up, there was a pocket of that and we did a lot of that rock n roll stuff, the faster the better.

A lot of it has to do with rejecting what came before, not saying anything negative about it, but it’s just part of the journey of moving forward. I consider this stuff band records, whereas my solo stuff is a bit of a different journey and more true to my own self and spirit.

Your earlier songs appear to be more introspective, while SOFT makes blunt statements about the presence of image and consumerism in the culture.  As your own fame grows, do these topics become more visible and troublesome? 

SOFT was really an experiment and going outside expectations for me. I guess it does sometimes bother me that people would ever treat someone different no matter what. Honesty is real important to me, and I believe it’s a person’s genuineness that endears them to someone else.

In terms of consumerism it’s something I always try to keep conscious of. I own very few things in my room, it’s almost a blank slate. I really believe that if you try to get to the root of the meaning of things, it doesn’t come from your possessions, and I’d like to think what you’re seeking can appear, if the will is there.

SOFT was the first album to be released on your own imprint, True Believer.  What made you decide to start your own label?

We were getting offers that had really strict restrictions on how many records I could put out in a given time, that would inevitably end up where you’re ‘owing’ someone money for extended periods of time.

Without getting too specific, in any kind of business there’s a situation that can develop where you’re indebted to someone to something that’s like a blank check, but it keeps growing.

I really love the idea of the personal nature of releasing my own records and maybe sometimes that means there are challenges you could never expect.

But when someone tells you they enjoyed a record you have the joy and satisfaction of having put it there yourself. That is something that money can’t really buy, just ask Ian Mackaye.

What do you take into consideration when composing a set list and how important is it to the success of a live show? 

Really it’s something that comes to be through trial and error. Sometimes I will totally disregard a set list and feel the momentum of the room, that is your main concern to never break the spell of the show.

What album would people be most surprised to learn is in your record collection? 

I really enjoy ‘First Take’ by Roberta Flack.

I know it’s probably no surprise, but it’s a really beautiful thing I think people should go and buy themselves.

Interview and article by Caitlin Phillips

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