Johnathan Rice: A Return to New York

Music Features Johnathan Rice

A few years ago, when he was back in his hometown for a friend’s wedding, Johnathan Rice decided on a whim to stop by his 10-year high school reunion. As he tells it, he soon found himself among a sea of investment bankers and other former classmates with more conventional professions.

“I was the weirdest-looking guy there by a long-shot,” he laughs, his voice rising above the clamorous salsa music emitting from the North Hollywood Mexican restaurant where we’ve arranged our meeting.

To his credit, despite having achieved great acclaim in the past 10 years as a singer/songwriter and one half of the duo Jenny and Johnny (the “Jenny” in question being former Rilo Kiley frontwoman/girlfriend Jenny Lewis), Rice did not participate in any manner of “face rubbing.” He did, however, get to hear some people’s honest opinions of his post-high school decision to break into the music industry.

“One guy said to me, ‘When we heard what you what gonna do we just thought—man he’s just going to sleep with a bunch of groupies until his dick falls off!’” Rice says with a laugh. “But that didn’t happen.”

Indeed, circumstances have gone much better for the 30-year-old Scottish-American artist than his classmates could have anticipated. Now, after a nearly six-year gap from his previous solo record (2007’s Further North) Rice has returned with his third solo release, Good Graces.

He’s been nothing less than prolific in the intervening years. In the time since Further North, he’s worked extensively with Jenny Lewis, first as a producer on her 2008 solo record Acid Tongue and then as Jenny and Johnny. If that weren’t enough, he collaborated with Elvis Costello as a session musician for Costello’s 2008 album Momofuku.

This year alone, Rice claims to have written close to 40 songs.

In spite of this wealth of material, Good Graces proves to be concise affair. Boasting only nine tracks, the whole album clocks in at just over 30 minutes. That’s not to say Rice has skimmed on quality, with jaunty, folk-inspired tunes like “Acapulco Gold” and “Nowhere at the Speed of Light” sharing space with appropriately melancholy fare like album closer “That Summer Feeling.”

“I think this is the best of what I’ve done so far,” Rice says of the release. “People say you lose your inhibition when you become 30. For me, when I turned like 28 I was already like, ‘I just truly, honestly stopped giving a shit about what people thought of me or my music or whatever they assume my personality is.’ I just try to identify my own spirit and where I want to come from.”

Rice wrote the majority of the album while camped out at a friend’s New York apartment. It was his first time living in New York for any extended period since his first disastrous venture into the city almost 11 years prior (more on that later). Moreover, in spite of the album’s spirited pacing, Rice says the emotional state it came from was far from his brightest.

“It was very dark for me and some other people in my life. Very confusing. That’s all I probably want to say,” he explains. “[I] definitely found myself—rather than using my thoughts and my melodies to vent—I tried to make myself feel better with the music and using it as a healing thing.”

Of course, while Rice would be the first to say he lives a lucky existence, it’s far from the first dark period in his career.

Born in Alexandria, Va., he spent most his childhood and adolescence dividing his time between Virginia and Glasgow, Scotland, where his parents originally hailed from. While he claims living in California has somewhat eroded his Scottish brogue, it continues to flare up every now and then, particularly when he uses words like “lovely.”

Upon nearing the end of his high school career, Rice flirted with the idea of becoming a working musician. It was no surprise, as both of his parents were massive music fans and had done their duty to make him one from the moment he was born.

“There’s footage of me in highchair singing along to ‘Sara’ by Jefferson Starship,” he recalls.

Prior to his high-school graduation, the teenage Rice met Chris Keup, a singer-songwriter/aspiring A&R man who helped him record his first EP, a six-song collection called Heart and Mind. Rice then decided to defer his education and make his way to New York City. Despite their love of music and the arts, his parents were less than enthused.

“My parents are from working class Scottish, Irish-Catholic families. The whole progression is your great-grandfather is a coal miner, so your grandfather can be janitor so your father can go to a university and so you could go…the whole upper mobility thing I totally understand…They saw it as, ‘Why would you waste a great education? Why would you potentially throw it all away?’”

Inevitably, his parents compromised, agreeing to give him one year to indulge in his ambitions. An excited Rice arrived in New York on September 9, 2001. Two days later, the world changed forever when two commercial airplanes were driven into the World Trade Center towers. Several of the images that Rice witnessed during this time would make their way onto his 2005 debut album, Trouble is Real.

Needless to say, however, the year did not go as planned and Rice returned to Virginia where he began waiting tables for a living. Out of the blue, however, he received a call from a Warner Bros. A&R man who had come into contact with Heart and Mind. He invited Rice to come to Los Angeles and audition. After flying out and performing a few songs, Rice was given a contract.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, besides promoting and touring behind Good Graces, Rice has a whole range of projects to keep him occupied. He already has a new solo album planned, and, together with Jenny Lewis, has recently finished composing a series of songs for a new film called Song One, which will star Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn.

“We’re not in the film, so the other performers are performing the songs,” he explains. “That is really cool because all those characters had a backstory that was not our backstory, so we didn’t have to write our own perspective. It was so much fun.”

Inevitably, Rice’s real-life partnership (both personal and working) with Lewis raises countless questions from fans. For his part, Rice says he has made peace with the inescapable curiosity and the fact that certain listeners will deconstruct their songs to unearth veiled references to each other.

“I have my assumptions about artists that I love and it’s fun to speculate and it’s fun to make up your own reality,” he says. “I have no interest in really dispelling any rumor or any perception that anyone may have. It’s theirs to have…If you’re going to be tight with another songwriter or if you’re going to be in a relationship with another songwriter, in my opinion, everything’s on the table at all times. There can be no restrictions based on, ‘don’t write about that’ or ‘that would hurt me if you wrote about that.’”

Between multiple music ventures, a movie musical and being one half of an indie-rock power couple, life is anything but boring for the former Virginia boy with the Scottish lilt. One thing’s for sure, Rice will certainly have some new material to share when that 20th high-school reunion comes around.

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