From the woods of Connecticut to Nashville via New York, Jon Paul Ruggieri has come a long way. Growing up with a severe stutter limited his speech and meant that Ruggieri was compelled to find new ways to communicate. As a child, he discovered that he could express himself through music and never looked back. Ruggieri’s technical gifts have led to him being highly regarded on the singer-songwriter scenes in both New York and Nashville, where he has been a go-to session musician, collaborating with a host of other artists. All these experiences in the studio have helped Ruggieri to find his own musical voice and his debut album, ‘Waiting on You’, was released earlier this year. Andrew Frolish from Americana UK caught up with JP Ruggieri over the phone to Nashville, while Ruggieri was taking a break from writing songs for the next album.
So, JP how are you? How are things going?
Yeah! Everything’s great! I’m doing a lot of sideman stuff: lots of pedal steel and guitar, lots of session work. On top of that, I’ve been preparing a new album I’m hoping to record in the fall for release in 2020. Between those two things, I’ve been pretty busy. Also, I’ve been doing work on my other hobby, which is gardening. So, it’s a beautiful time! I’m actually just outside in the garden now – it’s a beautiful day here: not too hot, which is rare for this time in Nashville. I’m taking a little break from practising steel guitar, which I was doing this morning…yeah, everything’s great!
Excellent! For the uninitiated, how would you describe your music and your vocals?
That’s always a tough question that I struggle with. I think my music is certainly influenced by the blues and, hopefully, some jazz too. I’m an instrumentalist but I’ve always been interested in song writing as well. My goal has always been to try to bridge the two without the instrumental aspect getting in the way of the craft of a song. A lot of the time when you hear passionate instrumentalists who also write songs, it’s like they just go a little too far on the instrumentals and it ends up not being a song that anybody can access if they’re not an instrumentalist. My goal has always been to bring the blues and jazz to a place of accessibility and be able to hear a song. As far as the vocals go, I don’t know, I’m always flattered when people say they like my voice because I’m just trying to sing in tune! It’s such a difficult thing that I’ve spent a lot of time practising, singing into tuners and just trying to sing on pitch. Recently, when I perform, I’m just trying to let go of all that. I feel like I’m very much a methodical musician in the way that I approach things; it’s important when you perform to let go of all the thoughts of technique and just feel the music. Hopefully, you’ve embodied the technique enough into your subconscious that when you turn all that off and stop thinking about it, it just comes automatically and you can pay attention to the emotion of the music and try to convey that as best as possible.
When you perform, you look very natural, very ‘in the moment’. That really comes across. You mentioned song writing and your approach to that. Do you have a typical song writing process? For example, do you come up with the lyrics first and then the music or is it different every time?
I have titles in my phone or written down or lines and ideas. It usually starts with a musical idea but if nothing’s coming out, I’ll go back to those notes. I think this is pretty typical for a lot of people. Lyrics are the hardest for me and I spend a lot of time on my lyrics trying to get away from things you’d usually hear, trying to stay away from clichés and trying to explain stuff in a unique way. I tend to use a lot of imagery in my lyrics but, you know, something I do when I’m stuck is go walking. A lot of my songs have been written on walks. Maybe I’ll have the start of an idea and then go for a walk – it helps it come out that way rather than being on my guitar. When you’re on your guitar, you end up doing the same things over and over again. So, walking is a good one! Also, with lyrics, I do a lot of mumbling, making words or sounds, seeing what comes up. I read an interview once and Mick Jagger does that as well so I guess I’m not the only one. I’ve heard Paul Simon demos when he’s doing stuff like that as well. I think it’s a valid thing to explore a little bit if you can get out of your own way that you sound like a complete moron when you do it! Sometimes some cool sounds come up that lead you in a direction you’re supposed to go because I’m more interested in the sounds. A lot of the time, I’ll write a line that doesn’t make sense to me but it sounds really good. I find that when listening to songs as well. I’ll hear lyrics and a line really connects with me but I don’t know what it means and that’s okay. A lot of the time, four or five years go by and something’s happened to you in your life, whether it’s positive or negative, and you hear that same song again and that line that didn’t make any sense to you all of a sudden connects so hard. That’s even happened to me with my own lyrics. Sometimes they don’t make any sense when they first come out and then a couple of years later you realise why that line was pulling at you so hard.
That’s an interesting approach: the idea of mumbling the vocal tune and seeing if the right words emerge. Do you find that you’re always writing or do you tend to write in bursts of inspiration?
I’m in my thirties now. There was a time when I was in my twenties that I was consciously writing every day to try to get better. I treated it a lot like practice on my instrument. I had to write every day because I thought the more you do it, the better you get, which is true, I think. I’m not so hardcore about it anymore. I definitely sit down with my instrument every day, always playing but, writing these days, I try to take a little pressure off myself at the moment. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to where I was in my twenties – we’ll see what happens. I write when I feel like writing more these days but I’m glad I went through that time in my twenties because I learned a lot from that process.
Do you feel that, by taking the pressure off a little, you actually end up with better quality songs when they come?
Yeah – I think because I went through the strict approach and I was able to build my technique, I think that now taking the pressure off has been working for me because I have a better grasp on how to write in general so when inspiration comes I can just fall back on the technique that I have and let the ideas come out how they want to if that makes sense.
Almost like muscle memory – you’ve put the practice in so that when you want or need to access it, it’s there. What instruments do you enjoy incorporating into your song writing and what’s the hardest?
Aside from singing, I really only play two instruments: the guitar and the pedal steel. Oddly enough, I haven’t really incorporated pedal steel into my own music yet. Maybe on this next album, it’ll find a place. I think my music is more groove orientated and the pedal steel is not a rhythmic instrument so much. At least, I’ve not tapped into that yet; I shouldn’t say it’s not because hopefully I can explore that someday. Mainly I’m just playing guitar and slide guitar in my own music. The challenge for me, as I was saying before, is just to approach it in a way that the guitar part is really interesting but is not getting in the way of the music. It’s that balance I was talking about: wanting to do more than just strum or finger-pick chords. Making it interesting but not having the parts get in the way of the song.
Your pedal steel playing is beautiful; it’s haunting. It’s such a striking instrument.
Yeah – it is. I’m approaching that in the same way I do my songs. The pedal steel came out in the late-forties and was actually invented here in Nashville. This was the birthplace of the instrument. Relatively speaking, it’s a new instrument, compared to a lot of things. I feel like it’s been corner-stoned in country music. Usually when you hear it, it’s very ‘twangy’, bright and you have these pedal steel sounds that you hear again and again. I feel like there’s so much more to explore with the instrument: other genres, taking out the brightness and adding low-end so it does have that warmness and that haunting sound you’re talking about. I’m really interested in opening up the pedal steel to new spaces.
When you’re writing a song, on a really fundamental level, what do you think you’re trying to achieve through your music?
I guess one thing that comes to my mind, is I want to make it different. I don’t want clichés, whether it’s the chord changes or the lyrics. I’m always trying to avoid certain things if I can. Sometimes the music just calls for something that you hear often and I have to respect that too. Like ending a verse on the five-chord, you know, you hear that all the time. But then, in ‘The Meaning’, I do end the verse on the five-chord. I remember writing that and feeling that I didn’t want to do that and I kept wrestling with it over and over again until I just came to the conclusion that this song wants to end the verse on the five-chord and I need to not get in the way of my own head and allow that to happen. It’s something that I’m cautious of in a subconscious way, if that makes sense. Like in the bottom of my stomach, there’s a feeling that I want to stay away from those things and make it a little different if I can. So, I’m trying to achieve that both musically and lyrically. Then just trying to be honest if I can, which is hard to do for some reason. It’s hard to get out of your way of what you want to sound like or the sound of people you’re inspired by. You have to not let yourself do that because you need to sound like yourself. Trying to be honest with yourself and honest with your music, just letting come out what needs to come out. I think those are the two things I’m trying to achieve: something unique and different, something that has a nice groove and something that has interesting lyrics to it.
As we’ve been talking about song writing, we’ll move onto your album. What was the story behind the album and how did it come about?
It’s interesting: I recorded that album just after I went through a huge life-change of a break-up of a relationship I’d been in for nine years. Some of those songs are from the last year of that relationship when things were starting to get kind of weird and I think, now that I listen back on it, a lot of those lyrics are me writing out of fear of what was happening. I think there was part of me that was wondering if this was falling apart and part of me that wasn’t so sure. So, the lyrics reflect the frustration of that. Like ‘The Meaning’ was me not able to understand what was happening and the frustration of that. Also, there was the frustration of the music industry and feeling jaded from it. So, it’s kind of a break-up album. But a lot of the songs were written before any that was taking place. So, maybe the next album will be more of the break-up album because I wrote all of these after it happened. It’s weird that album was recorded right after the relationship ended and now on this album, I’ve moved past that but all the songs are about it! It’s a weird thing! I wrote them all while I was recording ‘Waiting on You’. The story of that, song writing-wise, the goal was to record an album that sounded like you were in the room with the band. I didn’t want a lot of obstruction or over-dubs. I wanted it to be natural and real. We spent a lot of time on sounds for that album, moving microphones and exploring different pre-amps, different room and mic options and putting baffles up in the middle of the recording studio with microphones on the other side of the baffles. All kinds of stuff that we did to make it feel like you’re in the room with the band and listening that way. We recorded all the basics live with no click-track, which you can definitely hear on some of the songs. I think, overall, it’s really groove-orientated and feels good. I like the way it sounds, pretty close to achieving that goal.
Who did you work with on the album and who encouraged you?
It was a cool experience because I spent about two years helping a friend of mine build the recording studio that we actually recorded in. It’s a beautiful, top-notch studio in Brooklyn, New York, called Big Orange Sheep and it’s just absolutely gorgeous. Anyone in New York should check it out. I spent time building this studio with Chris Benham, the owner of the studio. So, when it came to the album, I was recording in a space I was very comfortable with. There were lots of close friends, including Chris. So, there was Chris Benham, who engineered it and was fantastic and patient, a special quality in an engineer. My good friend Chris Jacobie produced it, who is the guy I spend so much time on the phone with talking about sounds, not just for this album, that’s just how our friendship is: we’re always geeking out about music and sounds. On the drums is Evan Pazner, a dear friend, and the upright bass is Jordan Scannella, who is on the Hamilton tour right now as it would turn out. Evan Pazner plays with Lee Fields – he tours with him a lot. Then Karlie Bruce does all the backing vocals. She’s just an absolutely incredible singer. She recorded all those from Australia actually; she’s from there. She lives in New York, but went home for a couple of months and recorded them there. Michael Bellar, one of my favourite piano players, did the organ and all the keys – an incredible, tasteful musician. I hope I’m not forgetting anybody! That’s the whole cast – it was pretty stripped down and we were trying to keep it slim.
It sounds like a great collaboration. How long did that take to put it together?
It was pretty fast because we had to work with Chris’s schedule and everyone else’s schedules. We did six days of recording, maybe seven, including the time getting sounds. We spent so much time with the drum sounds. A lot of our time was just experimenting.
Which of the songs are you most proud of and why?
I really like the song ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Up’ and how that came out. It was actually the first song recorded. I think I just love the lyrics in it and love the idea of it. It’s very honest to me. When I wrote that song, it was something I’d thought about for a long time: the fear of getting older and also the fear of being a musician and chasing a dream that you’ve had since you were little kid and how that dream changes as you age. I’m definitely not the only one who feels that. I think anyone who is a musician or artist or in another profession, I think everyone to certain extent faces that. I was happy to be able to convey that in an honest way. So, I really love that song and ‘The Meaning’. That song really came out great! I love the percussion on that song and there’s a couple of lines in there that just make me smile every time I hear them. It’s not every day you write a line and when you hear it back think: “I totally nailed that!” I love it when that happens.
‘The Meaning’ has got a real groove and ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Up’ is beautiful. There is a lot of variety on the album in that way. You really managed to put out a whole range of ideas and styles. It’s a blend of styles and it is quite hard to pigeonhole; that’s a good thing. Were there any of the songs that were hard to write or hard to record?
Yeah, sure. I think the only ones that came out easy to me were ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Up’ and ‘Don’t Break My Heart’. Those two songs I wrote in one sitting, which is pretty rare for me. ‘Waiting on You’ took a while to write; I kind of wrestled with that one for about a year. ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Up’ came out super-easy. It was late at night and I was in my apartment in New York City; it must’ve been 10:30 or 11:00 at night. I was on my floor and it just came out in about 20 or 30 minutes. It’s just one of those things when you get into a flow state and lose track of time. That was a really great experience for me. I think any writer is grateful when those moments come.
How have audiences responded to the songs from the album?
It’s been great. When I play to new people, I’m always wondering if the music is accessible. Everyone’s been really awesome at the shows and after the shows, coming up to the merch table. I’ve been able to sell lots of physical CDs. I’m running a campaign in the US through which I’m donating 50% of physical CD sales to a non-profit organisation that is replanting old-growth forest and giant coastal redwood trees that have all been chopped down. I’ve been able to help replant trees in protected areas, including really important species of trees too, so that’s been really gratifying.
That sounds fantastic. I heard that you have a passion for trees, particularly bonsai trees. Tell us a bit more about that.
I think it’s just nature in general. I’m really into hiking and backpacking, going out for multiple days with everything on your back so you can get deeper into the mountains. I’ve been into that for a long time. More recently, I got into gardening and bonsai, which is an incredible art form that combines art and trees. Nature has always been a really important thing to me. I grew up in the woods in Connecticut and was always playing out in the woods. Maybe that has something to do with it but I love that stuff!
You mention growing up in Connecticut and earlier you also talked about how the song ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Up’ relates to your dreams of becoming a musician. So, I’d like to go back in time now and think about how you started out in music. You started quite young. How did you get into music and what were your early influences?
It all started with the rock band Nirvana. When I was a kid I was absolutely obsessed with Kurt Cobain and I still think he was a genius. It made me want to play the guitar and sing songs. I was also born with a really debilitating stutter. It was very difficult for me to even say my name. That’s been a whole journey to get to the point I’m at now. When I look back on it, I think that music was really my way of speaking and expressing myself because of this thing I have with my stutter. I just couldn’t speak, certainly not the way that I wanted to. I think that’s why was drawn to music. I started to play guitar when I was nine. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I wrote my first song. I just kept going from there. By the time I was a teenager, I got exposed to blues and started getting really into guitar more. It’s been a real lifelong journey.
You mentioned your stutter; how do you think that’s affected your music career?
It’s definitely one of the reasons I got into music in the first place. I don’t know if it’s really affected my career at all but maybe it has. I’m very positively minded about my stutter at this point in my life. I see a lot of good that came out of it and my experiences with it. Maybe my personality trait of obsessing over guitar and music has come from trying to overcome my stutter at a young age. I think a lot of my personality now is about trying to overcome challenges. I wonder if that is because the experiences I had with my stutter. With guitar, I’m always thinking of stuff that is so hard to play but I feel like, man, I could do that and I’m up for the challenge. I wonder if that part of my personality came from my stutter. It’s an interesting thing: stuttering and music. There is a lot of information that we haven’t learned about yet.
Did you find you could communicate fluently through music in a way you couldn’t when you were speaking?
Oh yeah, for sure! Every stutterer can sing without stuttering. When you sing, you just don’t stutter, so that was the main thing for me. Man, I could write this song and I could sing it. I could express how I felt in a deeper way than speaking. I could do it through music and not have to worry about stuttering. Absolutely, that was a big part of it.
Do you have any advice for anybody who has a stutter or similar condition who is trying to succeed?
The American Institute of Stuttering in New York City. People travel from all over the world to go there. It’s an intensive three-week course. I did it twice when I was younger, first time aged 13 and the second time I was 17 but, if you’re in England, don’t be put off as I’m pretty sure they have scholarships and stuff too. They are the sweetest people and the best support group. At the time I went, the things that they were doing were just ground-breaking. It was the only thing that helped me overcome it. I’m sure it’s still ground-breaking but I’ve been out of that loop so long because I don’t have to have therapy any more. I’m just trying to be positive about it; that’s the main thing. That’s so hard and I had such a difficult time that I didn’t see anything positive about it and yet now pretty much everything I see about it is positive. So, stay positive and reach out to the American Institute of Stuttering.
It’s quite inspiring that you managed to turn it into a love of challenges and a positive thing; it’s a really good message from people to hear. As you got older, you studied at the Berklee College of Music. How do you think that technical grounding in music changed your style of song writing? It’s quite a different path from many song writers.
It was huge for me. Berklee is a weird place because it’s put down so much by some musicians and other people are crazy about it but to me it was a perfect place to go because I was a late bloomer even though I’d been playing for a long time. I didn’t get into the technical aspects of music until I went to Berklee. I concentrated on song writing and guitar performance so I went to school for exactly what I wanted to do. There was so much about technique in song writing and guitar playing, which meant that when I got out and continued working on that stuff, I had such a great foundation to work off. Like I said before, hopefully, those techniques go in to your subconscious so that when it’s time to actually get to work you don’t have to be thinking about them. It was a great experience and I’m super-grateful for the opportunity to have gone. I was going to school every day for music with people who were just as passionate about it as I was and being in a great city like Boston was awesome. It was a blast!
You have obviously moved around quite a lot: you were brought up in Connecticut and you’ve lived in Boston, New York and now in Nashville. How do you think geography has influenced your song writing and your songs? And how does the music scene differ in those places?
That’s a great question. I’ll focus on New York and Nashville because I considered myself more a musician than when I was in Boston, when I was still so overwhelmed with being in school and studying. Both New York and Nashville have influenced me greatly. The music in New York is unlike anywhere else in the world, I think. It’s so unique and so creative and I love it! There is so much going on there. I think there is a real New York sound that you don’t get anywhere else. New York is known as a melting pot and that’s really what the music is; it’s kind of its own thing. I played with some incredible players that were big influences for me as musicians and teachers. I really pulled a lot from those people. I consider New York to be my formative years. When I moved to Nashville, my quality of life went way up and I’m glad I came because it’s been awesome but I do miss the music in New York. There are incredible country musicians here and it is actually a very diverse music scene.
You collaborated with a lot of different musicians as a session player. What have you taken from all those collaborations?
I think my time as a session musician has given me a lot of experience in producing. I’ve learned to be a patient player, trying to come up with a lot of parts instead of just shredding the guitar. When you’re in the recording studio as a songwriter, no one really cares about that guitar-playing pace. It’s made me more parts orientated and got me thinking in a more musical and technical way about things in the recording studio, such as microphone placement and sounds. I’ve had a lot of time to explore that as a session player. So, when I go in to record my own thing, it’s a little easier to have an idea of where to go.
At the moment, what experiences or musicians are inspiring you?
Just lately, I’ve been getting into Django Reinhardt a lot. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to unlock that vocabulary. Speaking earlier of shredding guitar players, the kind speed that he played with but in such a musical way was kind of incredible. Also, Thelonious Monk, the piano player and composer, has been a big one for me lately. What’s been interesting me has been how he filled the places in between his melody and the little spices that he threw on the music. So, I find myself immersed more in instrumental music these days and a lot of jazz.
I’m sure that will influence what’s coming next. That brings us right up today. So, musically, what can we expect of you in the future?
Hopefully, something different but not too different. I’m still trying to figure out the approach I want to take with production on this new album. I’m toying with the idea of having it more tight sounding with more overdubs and being a little more produced, without losing the natural feel. So, I think that’s what I’ll be exploring. Hopefully, whatever it is it will be unique and accessible and that’s really what I’m going for.
Are all the songs written or are you still in the middle of that process?
They’re pretty much all done. I have one or two more to finish.
Will we get ‘Weeds and Flowers’ and ‘Up by the River’? I heard those live and I was hoping that they would appear on the next album.
Absolutely, yes! Talk about honesty, ‘Weeds and Flowers’ was just about the most honest song I’ve ever written. It was pretty much the full story, in its own way, about the break up I was talking about. I’m glad that it came across well because I feel really proud of that one.
You have given so much of your time and been so open and I’m really grateful for that. It’s been so nice talking across the Atlantic and actually hearing the sound of the birds in Nashville. Over here, the rain is pouring down and it’s so miserable but I can feel the sunshine in Nashville through the phone! Knowing that you’re in your garden and hearing the birds has warmed my day!
‘Waiting on You’ by JP Ruggieri is out now.