There are many mysteries surrounding scrappy, guitar-strumming Scotsman Johnathan Rice. Why does his singing voice eerily echo that of precious pop star John Mayer? (Ask Rice and he’ll tell you he can’t help it—he’s been sounding like a wheezy old man since he first started singing as a Glasgow teen). And why does he tour completely alone, driving himself from gig to gig, Fed-Exing his CD’s from hall to hall? Or why, above all else, has the 20-year-old Sean Astin look-alike been taken in and mothered by some of the most respected women in music today—Rachael Yamagata, the Cardigans’ Nina Persson, and U.K. chanteuse Dido—who’ve all featured the lad as opening act?
There are other Rice oddities, as well. Like his decision to push back the release of his turbo-folk Reprise debut, Trouble Is Real, until he’s certain he’s built a solid coast-to-coast U.S. fan base (an introductory EP is currently available on his website). Or Rice’s recent choice to stymie and/or challenge Dido’s mostly female audience with a striking acoustic cover of Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country.” Watching him from the wings at a Berkeley venue, Dido herself is stunned; “Isn’t he great?” she purrs. “He’s singing songs like this, and he’s barely out of his teens!” And Rice’s whole face lights up when his benefactor drops by his dressing room to say hello; he’s so honored to meet Dido, he almost drops his whiskey glass. “This is all just bizarre to me,” he murmurs after she’s left. “This certainly isn’t a tour I thought I’d be offered, just in terms of what I do compared to what Dido does. But I guess I’ve been meeting all the right women so far. Like Nina from the Cardigans, who’s a total sweetheart and spends most of her tour just quietly knitting backstage.” Pause for Rice’s trademark Glaswegian wit. “I don’t think it was a cardigan she was knitting, though.”
Strangely enough, Rice’s sonic vision cleared during a two-year stint at a Washington, D.C., boys’ prep school. “I was taunted; I caused trouble with the athletes because I don’t think they liked me very much,” he recalls. “I was just a pasty-looking music kid to them, but I don’t bear any grudges—they’re all failing tests right now at some prominent university.”
And besides, Rice snickers, he culled some great material from the experience—chiming, pop-underscored originals like “So Sweet,” “Mid November” and the faux-vintage-bluegrass stomper “Put Me In Your Holy War.” The singer insists that “Catholic education has produced some pretty interesting people, like James Joyce, because it’s the perfect mix of repression and spite, and it can either break down your spirit or force you into a better frame of mind until you do something about it. That’s certainly what it did for me.”
And revenge upon those jerky jocks has been tasty, indeed, Rice smirks. “I think what happened with those athletes is, their girlfriends eventually drag them to my shows. I was back playing a club in D.C. recently, and there were a lot of ’em in the crowd, a lotta the same boys and their girls. And they were extremely friendly.”