What happens when you take an Alabama-born country lad living in Nashville, Tennessee and place him in Chicago? Arguably the cities represent two of the most heritage-rich music capitals of the United States, the difference being the style of music they’re renowned for. One is the heartland for country and alternative folk stylings and the other proves an industrial landscape for some of the best electronic sounds fuelled by roots of jazz, soul and Motown sensibilities. For Ryan Norris, the geographical shift has meant a recalibration in his musical outputs and readjustment to life; both necessary and a little difficult.
Throughout the past 15 years, and by his own admission, Norris has been part of the musical furniture in Nashville. The impressive network of likeminded souls he has ‘grown up’ alongside includes alt-country royalty Kurt Wagner, Courtney Tidwell, and Justin Townes Earle along with a slew of others.
“Nashville’s funny that way, everyone plays music, everybody’s in each other bands and everyone is kind of hanging out and just talking about different things, and you just end up getting together and playing with people and it works or it doesn’t and you get a little ways down the road and you can’t really remember how any of it happened.” Norris says.
Recently he has been based in the expansive soul-haven Chicago, where ironically he finds himself somewhat isolated from a core of musical brethren.
“If I had stayed in Nashville then I think I would have continued to play with lots of bands and continued to allow myself be distracted and not give this project the attention that I wanted to give it. It’s kind of weird being involved in this one thing– it’s good and it’s what I wanted to do going forward.”
His ‘project’ is Coupler– deliberate ambient music. This phrase Norris coined to help distinguish his independent sounds and plays in part tribute to Brian Eno who, according to Norris, gave ambient music a name.
“One of the first things he [Eno] did was Discreet Music and that was about doing something that was kind of unintentional– that idea that piece is a set of rules just kind of running their course. He doesn’t interfere with it too much.”
“A few notes on a sequencer, delay, a little bit of filtering and it kind of just does its thing and I feel like Coupler is inspired a lot by ambient music. It uses a similar sonic vocabulary but there is a lot more intention behind it. I mean yes, we turn on drum machines and synthesizers and what have you – they have their way of doing their own thing, but we interfere with them a lot.”
His name is perhaps not instantly recognisable outside of the USA, but the patchwork of Nashville instrumental outfits that Norris has been party to since his arrival there helps to build the picture of how embedded in Nashville’s music scene and family he has become. Norris is probably best known for his decade with Lambchop, the alternative country, electronic collective fronted by Kurt Wagner and featuring his best friend William Tyler, as well as long-time collaborator Scott Martin. Norris conceived his electronic project in 2012, at a time when his Lambchop compadres were also pursuing their individual side projects. Identifying that he found himself at the whim of others and stuck in the cycle of other outfit’s record productions, he pledged instead to seize the reins and try something on his own– taking responsibility for his musical destiny.
“I started to take a number of steps in my life around this time to give me more autonomy and more self determination,” Norris reflects.
“I’ve always been involved in my own kind of projects anyway and… I thought I’ve got to start something that I’m in charge of that no one else can sabotage that basically if it succeeds or fails it will largely be on my shoulders and how much effort I put into it. I mean things succeed or fail for a lot of reasons but at least I’d be in charge of that to a certain extent.”
On the eve of the release of his third record under the Coupler moniker- Gifts from the Ebb Tide, Norris is mindful of the boundaries he chose to fit within for this record. Having collaborated alongside artists who take a maximalist approach, where endless numbers of tracks are recorded, instead he chose the path that let him reach as close to zero as he possibly could, yet still actually allowed him to make something.
“I really strictly limited the tonal palette I could use, none of the tracks have very many overdubs, a lot of them are first takes, if there are overdubs I usually only did them in one or two takes. I just had to get, I had to go completely in the opposite direction as much as I could.”
Norris is candid in his motivations for making the record his way and wanting to ‘steer the ship’ as on other projects he’s been a contributor instrumentally only and the product of this distillation is the culmination of answering the question: ‘if he had his own project what did that look and sound like?’
“If I’m left to my own devices and no one else can tell me what to do what’s the aesthetic? What are the guiding principles behind that? A lot of what’s gone into the records is kind of sorting that out. Fishing through it, what have I learned from all these past experiences that can go into this, and what I have learned from these experiences that I want to keep out of it at all costs?”
Being captain of his own ship doesn’t mean Norris completed a solo project. He called on a few of his Nashville family, Matt Glassmeyer (alto clarinet) Rollum Haas (fomerly of The Features) Rodrigo Avendano, a former record store buddy from the early years, who became a housemate and musical collaborator, Norris has assembled the four tracked album with their help. Delivering what he describes as a ‘weird kind of edginess’ and placing them always on their toes, ‘the sound of walking on eggshells’, a reference to Miles Davis’ regularly stated aim.
“A lot of the music we make comes out of improvisation on record, and live, the way the stuff will be done, it will be kind of like electric Miles Davis where there is a lot of improvisation done and then it’s edited and kind of pruned or whatever, so there’s an amount of willfulness that goes into that – and when we perform live we kind of improvise with our machines and each other.”
While the record is out of step with his live performance approach given the time it was produced and his new geographical location, Norris’ latest challenge is figuring out how to translate the record into a live show to tour. This is because his current collaborators (Haas and Rodrigo) are based in Nashville and he in Chicago. For now, Norris is content to be in Chicago and while it’s frustrating to be starting from scratch on the network side of things, he feels it is good for him to step outside of his comfort zone, working within his ‘organisation’ rather than a band as first and foremost he’s a collaborator.
“The guys that I work with I have tremendous respect for and I really like feel like I’m a collaborator more than anything else. I like the fact that when you work with other people it pulls things out of you that you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise – so if I, and I had to tell people what to do I feel like I probably shouldn’t be working with them – that’s just not how I want to roll – so it started as a solo project the word organisation and I like the way that sounds we’ll call it that.
Sometimes that’s just me, sometimes it some other people. And we don’t necessarily do what other bands do.”
Gifts from the Ebb Tide is released Friday 17 November via yk Records.