In the Denver, Colorado, scene that produced both the Fray and The Lumineers, Lara Ruggles has fought to carve out her own nice through relentless touring and yearning song craft. After three years of false starts and close finishes, Ruggles’ newest record Cynics & Saints showcases the breadth of her talent with songs that won her support slots with artists such as Nina Storey and Seryn.
Lara Ruggles will be making a stop at Birmingham’s The Common House on Saturday, July 9. Recently, she talked with her about her new record as well as a charitable project close to her heart.
Weld: First things first, how did you get into music and songwriting?
Lara Ruggles: I decided when I was eight or nine that I didn’t like “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago and that if there was going to be a song with my name on it, maybe I should make one myself. So I wrote the most repetitive 3-note building-chord thing on the piano that was really more of a riff than a song and I notated it on music paper in nine-year-old handwriting. And then, you know, some years passed and some evolution happened and eventually there was a guitar and the songs started to have lyrics and someone told me I was good at it somewhere along the way.
Weld: What is the Denver scene like and how has it affected you as an artist?
Ruggles: I feel like everyone has different experiences with any given scene, but I’ve been lucky to find the Denver scene very welcoming and collaborative. Everyone kind of appreciates and shouts out each other’s work and I think Denver is so full of so many talented bands and songwriters that any ten people could be involved in a completely different music scene and have hardly any overlap of the bands they know.
I’ve noticed there is this thing among Denver bands where it seems like all my favorite bands have written at least one song in 7/4 [time signature]. I haven’t fulfilled that challenge yet, but I think it’s a worthy one. I love Denver, but it’s hard to know where I’ll end up after this summer’s over — unfortunately rent is rising so fast that it doesn’t feel like a place I will be able to live.
Weld: Can you tell me about the writing and recording process for your latest album, Cynics & Saints?
Ruggles: It took a long, long time. I loved every minute of being in the studio. The songs were written over four or five years. A lot of them were about the relationship that ended while I was recording. And the next one might take just as long.
Weld: Were there any songs that jumpstarted the record?
Ruggles: “Small Is Beautiful” was one that we recorded a demo of one day, and the demo ended up being the final recording of the song. It fell together so easily. We called Phil Parker five minutes after we recorded it to see if he wanted to record some cello, and it turned out he had just been at the studio for another project so he turned around and was back in another five minutes.
Weld: Lyrically, what do you find yourself coming back to?
Ruggles: I’m not really sure if there are certain words or phrases I find myself using more than once…maybe a general theme of mining through my own heart-space in a way that’s partly about love and partly about the more existential, feely parts of being human.
I think that some people want to go see music that makes them feel good and want to dance, and some people want to go see music because it allows them to let go and open up a space where it’s safe to feel something harder to feel. I make music for those people. I’d love to write more rockers because they’re so much fun to perform, but most of the time they just don’t come out that way.
Weld: Can you talk about the Give: Voice Project?
Ruggles: I’ve always wanted to create a way for my music to funnel into a cause and support something larger than myself, so the Give: Voice Project was something I tried out for one tour.
In each city we played in, I chose a non-profit working with youth and the arts and gave 10 percent of my merch sales in that city to that non-profit. Ultimately though, it wasn’t sustainable for future tours — it’s just not profitable to be on the road at this level and as much as I wanted to be able to give something back, I need to pay my own bills first. It’s still a goal of mine to be able to give back in that way. I think maybe first I need to get more into activism and overhaul the whole music industry.
Weld: What are some unexpected lessons or values you’ve learned from music and touring?
Ruggles: Since I started touring I’ve heard a few people talk about how awful human beings are in general, and a few years back I might have agreed on certain days. But touring puts you constantly in need of the kindness of strangers, and there is so much kindness available.
I’ve met so many amazing people who have done unbelievable things to support me and my band on the road and off, that my belief in the basic goodness of humanity is pretty unshakeable at this point. And all of those people will be lifelong friends in one way or another.
Weld: What’s next for you?
Ruggles: I’ll be touring through September, partly with my band and partly doing road support for a friend’s band. After that I’m planning to spend some time in Arizona with my band — since we live in different states, we’ve always kamikazied our tours — found a central meeting spot, taken off, and rehearsed in friends’ garages and basements along the way. But I’m feeling like it’s time to work on some new music and bring the talents of the band (Henri Benard, Andrew Bates, Art Heffron and Brenna Ruggles) into play arranging and workshopping songs together. And then I’d love to tour Europe. And then start the long, long process of recording another lovechild of an album.
Lara Ruggles will be playing at the Common House on Saturday, July 9th; local favorite Joel Madison Blount (link to joelmadisonblount.com) will open. Admission is $10. To get the address and details, tickets must be purchased in advance here.