Johnathan Rice signed his first record deal at 19, the same year he made his film debut as Roy Orbison alongside Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash in Walk The Line; he released three solo records that earned tour dates with artists as varied as R.E.M., Ray LaMontagne, Pavement, and Phoenix; he wrote and produced for a slew of well-known artists and collaborated with everyone from Elvis Costello to Jonathan Wilson; and he even published an acclaimed book of poetry. But Rice’s latest album, The Long Game, demonstrates a new kind of range and depth, stripping his songs back to their most elemental selves in order to reveal naked reflections on loss, pain, acceptance, and growth.
The Long Game is out May 2019 via Mano Walker Records.
The Long Game is the first record Johnathan Rice has released in six years. His fourth studio album under his own name, The Long Game is out today via Mano Walker Records; below, Rice takes us on a track-by-track journey through the years-long process of its creation.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Associate Editor
“The Long Game”
I wrote this song about four years ago. I was in my old house in Laurel Canyon and it arrived fully formed while I was sitting at the dining room table. It rarely happens like that, in my experience, but in this case it did. The night before I wrote it, I had a conversation with my friend who is a screenwriter; I was asking him about character archetypes and his process, etc., and he said something like, “The Type A personality takes a lot of risks, the Type B plays the long game.” As soon as I heard that phrase, I knew it belonged in a song. I like the idea that every relationship is a game of sorts — not a competition, but a game. One that can be lost if either side doesn’t play well enough or with their whole heart, or without the right amount of luck. I wanted to write a song that could be sung to a child and be understood more and more as life goes on. Three years, later I found myself recording the tune and my life had changed so much that the song had taken on a whole new meaning. I took that as a sign that it was made of the right stuff.
It was the first song I played for Tony Berg when we met for pre-production on this record. I was playing the guitar very lightly, so he put a really small microphone under the sound hole of my guitar and that became a defining sonic characteristic going forward. We got a take that he liked. Then we brought in Dylan Day to play some additional acoustic guitar, Gabe Noel to play upright bass, and Courtney Marie Andrews to sing. Her performance adds so much emotional weight to the recording. She understood the brokenness in me and I can feel her empathizing spirit when I listen to the song.
I wanted this record to begin on a positive, hopeful note. “The Long Game” is a very simple love song and I wanted to keep that feeling going somehow. This song was originally written six years ago by Jenny Lewis and I for a film called Song One; we wrote seven original tunes for that film, and they are all performed by actors. One of the characters in the film is in a coma and his loved ones are all waiting to see if he’s going to come out of it. While we were building songs around the script, we were thinking a lot about the space between life and death and consciousness. This is mostly Jenny’s song, I just had a couple lyrical and melodic tweaks that I added. The song is performed by Johnny Flynn in the film and, while I like his version, I always wanted to cut one of my own.
When we recorded it I knew it belonged on this record. Like “The Long Game,” it had taken on a whole new context as the years went by. Jenny’s and my twelve-year relationship had ended and so had our writing partnership; the message I get from the song now is one soul wishing another a good journey through space and time, no matter what the outcome. The process of excavating this old tune and reimagining it proved to me that songs are living things. Dylan Day plays a beautiful slide solo on it, too.
I wrote this song with Jason Boesel at the same dining room table I had written “The Long Game” years before. The song kind of tangles both of our perspectives and ideas together. The character in this song is kind of stuck in a bad moment. There’s a party that’s been happening in Los Angeles every night for the last hundred years or so — you can arrive at this party at any time, and you can leave it at any time. The funny thing is, no one will ever notice that you were there in the first place. Jason called that party “the hollow jubilee,” in a conversation and I said we should build a song around that phrase. So the character in this song is kind of drifting through this never-ending party with the nagging feeling that his life is falling apart. It’s like Hotel California, except it’s painfully sad and has absolutely zero chance of becoming a worldwide smash.
“Meet The Mother”
“Hollow Jubilee” is such a sad song, so I wanted to break that spell with some humor. This song felt like the right one for this midpoint in the record. About five years or so ago, I had a late night conversation with Bill Murray about love, marriage, and all the weirdness in between. At one point, he said, “You’ve got to meet the mother.” I thought about the phrase for years, and then I later added the part about kissing the bride. It felt like it belonged in a song — a kind of tag line similar to “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.” It’s my attempt at writing something funny, which makes it a bit of an outlier in my catalogue. Tony Berg recorded me live on electric guitar with Jason Boesel on drums, and then we fleshed out the song quite a bit. Mike Viola stopped by one day to sing backup and play bass, and he suggested we pare the song all the way down to its bare essentials, like a Suicide record. That’s what you’re hearing now and forever, ‘til death do us part. I wanted to make the video for the song with Lili Hayes. She and her son Kevin, who directed the piece, have one of my favorite mother/son relationships, which is well documented on the internet. It was great to be mothered by her for a day or two.
“Naked In The Lake”
I’m certainly not the first songwriter to try and capture the seedy glamour of Los Angeles, but I’m happy to add to the pile. Hedonism is inherently kind of pointless, but it’s a distraction that can often be sublime. That’s what this song is about. Life in Los Angeles, and California as a whole, is kind of imbued with an underlying sense of mortality. Hundreds of thousands of Dorian Grays all chasing a selfish dream. There are some nights where you can just imagine the earth opening up and swallowing everyone whole. Like “Hollow Jubilee” and “The Long Game,” this recording is based around a single performance of mine — just acoustic guitar and vocal, and then all the other musicians came in and added additional textures and colors. Gabe Noel plays a fretless bass that we multi-tracked and Griffin Goldsmith plays some really creative percussion. Dylan Day provided some really cool weather as well.
“Below The Deck”
This is the only real rocker on this record. It’s kind of tossed off; I tracked it live with Griffin Goldsmith on drums. This song is supposed to be like a Carnival Cruise if they were selling vacation packages to Purgatory. Mike Viola sings harmony with me on the choruses. He has the perfect power-pop/Big Star instinct for harmonies. It makes me so happy.
“Another Cold One”
This is another excavation. This song was written by Jenny Lewis and me for a film called Ricki and The Flash. The song was written for Meryl Streep’s character, Ricki, who has pursued a floundering music career at the expense of her relationship with her family. We were asked to write the song by the film’s director, Jonathan Demme. We had met Jonathan on Song One, for which he was a producer. He became my friend and brought so much magic into my world. It’s hard to articulate, but he really broadened my horizons as an artist and provided me with vital encouragement and some opportunities that changed the course of my life. Almost everyone who knew and worked with him feels the same way.
Years later, I was working on this record and I went out to a party and bumped into a mutual friend who told me Jonathan was not long for this world. I was so sad to hear that news. I was back in the studio the following day with Jonathan very much on my mind, and I started playing this song in front of the microphone. Tony perked up and asked about it. He didn’t know the context or the original purpose of the song, but he felt it fit the mood of the other material we had been working on. So much of this record is about processing and moving through loss, so I get why Tony felt that. Again, a song written years ago took on a whole new meaning. I did tweak a couple words here and there from the original, but it’s very much the same piece. Like “Silver Song,” it’s kind of an agreement between two people that know each other very well. In this case, the two people are basically agreeing to disagree, forever. Jenny and I asked Meryl Streep what she wanted from the song as far as her character was concerned and she said, “Write me something that doesn’t have an apology in it.” One of the best creative directions I’ve ever gotten, for sure.
I was listening to a lot of Ricky Nelson, Sinatra, and the Ink Spots when I wrote this — melancholy crooner shit; giant, ghostly sounding vocals and sparse instrumentation. This record was almost done, but I wanted to create a kind of old school reverie as an intermission of sorts. I had written this in my old apartment in Echo Park some time in 2017 and found the demo on my iPhone. I had forgotten about it. I recorded it with Mike Viola and Jason Boesel at Mike’s studio, which is called Bare Bones. It’s all just one take, except for the background vocals which were overdubbed immediately afterwards. I love the way Dave Cerminara mixed this recording. It sounds really modern to me, despite the old school vibe of the composition.
“Millions of Miles”
I love duets. I want to make a whole record of duets some day. This song was originally written for another artist, who asked me to write a duet for him and a young singer that he really liked — Courtney Marie Andrews. He needed the song that week. That was the only direction. I really like writing songs on a deadline; I really believe that if there were no deadlines imposed on artists there would be way less art in the public sphere. I assumed I was not the only writer that he called, so I quickly got to work. I knocked out most of this song, and then Jason Boesel came by for a hike and a couple bottles of wine and he finished it with me. I went in to the studio where the artist was working the following day and he introduced me to Courtney. The three of us sat down and I started teaching them the song. As soon as she started singing, I felt something very powerful. I can’t really remember too many times when I’ve heard a singer that good. I was really knocked out. They liked the song and agreed to cut it. Luckily for me, the recording never saw the light of day. I didn’t think twice about putting it on my record. Courtney and I sang it live on the same mic. I’m really playing second fiddle to her on this song. When you’re working with Courtney Marie Andrews, the first fiddle is always taken, and rightfully so.
This is the youngest song on this record. I’m very grateful for it. It arrived just in time, at the end of the sessions. I hear a lot of acceptance in this song, which as I understand it is the final stage of grief. It’s a message of peace to an old friend, and a message of love to someone new. It illuminates a path forward and hopefully honors the past, as well.
I live by the ocean at the moment; It’s hard not to look out at the Pacific every day and not feel like all things are possible. I believe they are.