The new album from Trent Rice is a neo-folk homage to raw and ready, first-take garage rock and grunge. Beautiful strikes from the simple needs of creation to exonerate and rectify an overthought, indulgent, esoteric society beaming on the day-glo embers of neon. This is bearskin rug music cut by the hearth of wood felled by your own hands. There’s something so honest about it that it has an ability to shake loose the everyday frustrations of drowning in traffic and puts into perspective the menial strengths of our own flesh. With the right set of ears there’s even a bit of quirky Athens pop strewn about here and there, nurtured by the moss bricked melodies living inside the live-tracked acoustic takes Rice recorded at what was the Cottage Recording Studio.
Recently, I spoke with Rice about the circumstances and inspirations surrounding Beautiful. As both a surgeon and a family man, music is merely peripheral to his duties as a father and a doctor, but it provides him with a purgative release that makes him obsess over songs. In our conversation we talk about the vision and the process behind the record, as well as how his everyday experiences weave their way into his storytelling.
When was this album first conceived and how did you originally see it taking shape?
The album was written over an approximately five to six month span in late 2014 and early 2015. My family and I had recently moved back to Atlanta. We had just finished three years of subspecialty training in Nashville that prior summer and moved back to start our careers and to be closer to family. We had always loved the Decatur area, which reminded me so much of Athens in a way. We rented a house on a cool street right off downtown Decatur. The house had a magical vegetable garden, one of those with the arched trellis and running vines. The house was old but perfect — lots of charm. The owner had a personal history of tragic loss that struck me. Reminded me that life’s too short.
I’m always writing a new song it seems. I think I wrote “Her Mr.” first, which started it all. I can remember World War II stories my grandfather used to tell me which inspired it. Several of my songs have been sparked by stories I remember from him. The song essentially tells the story of a family who were separated after he went off to war. He is assigned to a bomber plane that gets shot down and he becomes a POW. He dies overseas. The song has a certain atmosphere around it that set the mood for additional songs. That was the start. The album would move away from that original story and enter more broad emotions and themes, but it was that initial story that was the spark.
You are a writer who prides themselves on the volume of work you produce, so how did you narrow the selection of your work to pinpoint these songs as having merit for the album?
I tend to only write for one specific album at a time. I also tend to keep a lot of what comes out when initially creating a song and then go back and fine-tune it. I start with my vision of the album and just let it run on its own. I don’t like to force things. I never know where it will take me or when it will be finished; I’m just along for the ride.
Knowing this, each song feels handpicked and placed specifically, can you tell me a little about each one of them, where they came from, your inspiration, etc?
“Great Good God”
This song goes back to imagining the original characters from “Her Mr.” This is when they were younger. This is a song about finding love in peculiar and strange places. “Great Good God” is an expression that I randomly heard, maybe on the TV one day. It stuck. It’s a fun song.
“Trick or Treat”
Themes broaden here, a song about dealing with the demons and monsters within oneself. Could say it’s a song about depression and those who help us through it.
I’ve always liked images of night and darkness; probably more of the mood than anything. Depression is the main character here again. I tend to like very visual lyrics. It’s a short song but one of my favorites.
An instrumental that helped shift the album to a new section.
Probably one of my favorite songs off the record. It only took about thirty minutes to write. It was very emotional in writing. I was driving home from work one day and a dear friend called to tell me that his second child had been diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome in utero. He was devastated. I was crying just hearing his voice, filled with fear and uncertainty. His world had abruptly changed. He is an amazing person. I remember telling him that if there was ever a perfect father for this little one then he was it. I wrote that song immediately when I got home. I remember Sarah cooking in the kitchen at the time. The recording you hear on the album is the very next day. The song was recorded on my phone where I put most of my ideas. I could never top it in the studio. The emotion of the original recording and having my daughter playing in the background was perfect. It’s a very special song and recording to me. I still haven’t shared the song nor the song’s inspiration with my friend. I think he will soon find out.
“I Will Be Your Man”
This song follows on the love theme but with a little sarcasm here. I think I shredded my vocals on this one. This was recorded at the end of the first day of recording. I have a lower voice but I kept upping the key for some reason.
“Work All Day”
Being a doctor I tend to have long hours. “Work All Day” is a song to my children. I’ve read many a bedtime story, probably one of my favorite parts of the day. Monsters, nightmares, and fatherly love are the main components here. This is for my kids.
The song that started it all.
“Song Without Words”
I don’t have a certain formula for writing songs. In this case I had the entire song musically, but no words. The “do do dos” just seemed to get the atmosphere of the song across the best, so I left it. Words and sentences just couldn’t express it the same. It sounds nothing like it but a direct inspiration for the song was the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, one of my favorites. The children’s choir there is just perfect. I think I was also listening to Pet Sounds at the time.
Another image-filled song. This song turns to a darker, more dangerous relationship. It talks of a love affair, running away, and just getting out. I like these types of songs. I also like deserts even though I haven’t been to many.
This is a closing song about death. It’s the warmth of your loved one and how you’ll always be together. The song was written around the holidays, a favorite time of year for me. I remember a Christmas tree in the room when writing it. I think that same couple from “Her Mr.” is here in this song.
What was it like deciding the order for the tracks?
More thought went into the order of tracks for this album than usual. Themes, moods, timing, tempo, and even key signatures all played a role. I won’t bore you with my music theory reasoning behind this. I wouldn’t know what I was talking about anyway.
What was your process like in recording and what was it like working with Luciano Giarrano of the Cottage Recording Co.?
Making this album into a physical record started with my wife Sarah. I had recorded several self-released records on a small iMic at my home in Nashville on my SoundCloud page. After writing this album, I started looking for a better mic. For my birthday that next summer my wife surprised me with a day in the studio at the Cottage. She looked them up, contacted them, and set it up herself. It was the best present ever. I was super nervous about it. I’d never taken myself or my music too serious. I just didn’t want to suck at this legit studio.
Well, after meeting Luci, I was at ease. The vibe was relaxed and comfortable. The setting was in an old cottage in East Atlanta. The main recording room was lined with old stone walls and exposed plumbing. It was perfect. Luci just set up some mics and we went to work. The backbone of each song with guitar and lead vocals were tracked live. The initial goal was to get a few songs down so that my family and friends could hear better, clearer versions of my songs. The goal was three songs. Well, that quickly changed after the first day. Which lead to booking the next day, which then lead to booking two additional weekends spaced out over a few months. We had a blast! [It was] super chill and [we] kept the vibe between takes mostly goofy.
Can you briefly describe the highlights of making the album in the studio?
I really enjoyed my time with Luci. Pretty much the entire record is just us. A specific highlight is when Sydney Eloise and the Palms showed up to help with some backing vocals. We briefly went through the parts we wanted to add and then just did it. That was a great moment. The end of “Great Good God” is just everyone screaming and singing together, having a great time. Everyone had a shaker or something or other we found laying around. I think I was using a standard pair of scissors, opening and closing them to the beat. You can’t hear that as clear, though.
Can you briefly tell me about yourself as a writer, a songwriter, and how your personal experience reflects this process? How is your work reflective of your personal experience?
Writing music has always been my release. I’m constantly thinking about a song, whether it’s the music, small auxiliary parts, words, syllables, word fit — everything. I think my themes and messages are strongly affected by my experiences as a doctor and surgeon. My job is to interact and communicate with people on a daily basis. I see people at their best; I see people at their worst. I hear stories about life all the time. I think I’m a pretty good listener, which helps my patients and my music.
What would you like listeners to learn from or know about this album?
I think this album has many messages but the overall theme is about love, family, and the beauty in all of us. Yeah, I think that’s the message.
Is there anything you would like to specifically say about the family, friends, and musicians who supported you along the way?
My family are mainly the only ones who hear my music. Due to my job I don’t get to play traditional shows very often. I go to open mics in my neighborhood where I have met many new friends. My family seem to never tire of me picking up the guitar or pounding the piano. We have a lot of music in our house. It’s fun. My girls love it and help inspire the music more than they know.
What can listeners and fans expect in the future from you and your work?
I’ve been working on several new projects since this album. It has taken a little over a year to get post-production stuff ready for this record. Most of the new material is sitting on my phone where all my songs seem to start nowadays. In high school and college I was in a local Athens band, Center Street. We are currently working on a new record I wrote right after this one. The last album we did was around 2002, I think. I love those guys and now that I’m back in the north Ga. area we plan to make more music together. I also have more solo stuff in the works as well. But for now I hope folks enjoy this album.
Beautiful is available now via iTunes.
Trent Rice will perform tonight at the Earl in support of the Buzzards of Fuzz, MammaBear, and Hot Ram. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Admission is $7. 21+ to enter.