Rayland Baxter didn’t build Imaginary Man around the concept of a made-up dude. He had lots of out-there ideas floating around when it came to naming his sophomore full-length.
“Imaginary Man was the second option,” Baxter says. He’s calling me from the road, which is to be expected for a guy who has been out on tour for the better part of the last few years playing everything from festivals to opening slots for Grace Potter and Kacey Musgraves to, of course, headlining his own gigs. “My list [of potential album titles], it goes Obligatory Podium, Imaginary Man, and then there’s like, the most ridiculous album titles you might hear. Acid Babies was one of them. Obviously that wasn’t gonna go anywhere. Burnout was one. The Joy Boy was one. I liked Frantic Romantic, that one was cool. Iranian Popstar, what the hell? Mercy of a Dirtbag. Good grief.”
Baxter’s eyeroll may have been nearly audible over the phone, but the records that have resulted from the way his ideas bubble over onto the page in a ceaseless, stream-of-consciousness style are hardly something to laugh off.
“[For Imaginary Man] I had a pile of songs to choose from, and they were all written within a period where I had started to open up my door a little bit wider,” Baxter says. “There was no theme. There was just a bunch of stuff that came together naturally. I think sometimes that happens. You just write and write and write and then when it comes time to record, it comes together. I am the one writing all the songs: they all come from my vault of thought.”
For that reason, Imaginary Man is as much an album with recurring themes as any of our lives are—fragments of ideas float around, but they’re not deliberately interconnected. Lyrics about wandering and dreaming rely on lush instrumentals and the occasional minor key to convey their tone, and while Imaginary Man reveals a tighter, more focused direction than we’ve seen from Baxter on previous releases, he hasn’t altogether left the romantic imagery behind—just taken it in a more experimental direction.
“When you get older, you start having little epiphanies every day—like, ‘Oh, that’s how it works.’ Or, ‘Ah, I’ve never thought about life like that.’ Or, ‘I’ve never really spent so much time thinking about the galaxy.’ Or time-space travel. I’ve been getting into, especially when I was out in Israel, just opening my eyes to the history of the world. It’s an old world, and life is really long.”
Rather than ponder this vastness lyrically, Baxter opts instead to treat each song like a picture, mapping out minute details in his imagery that allow the listeners to draw the vast conclusions on their own.
“Visuals are very important,” he says. “It’s how I describe moments in songs. In a band rehearsal I may not be so musical-minded in terms of theory and numbers, but I can explain when there’s a triumph at the exit of a bridge to a song that it’s like, ‘the golden army of Sir Lacelot’s force rises over the Irish hilltop only to see the sun shining behind him.’”
If anyone seems to grasp what Baxter’s talking about when he’s envisioning a triumphant landscape of a musical number, it might be producer Eric Masse. Masse has worked on everything Baxter has recorded and released in recent memory, from 2012’s The Miscalculations of Song, a self-described “paper bag” EP Baxter says he would put in lunch bags, to feathers & fishHooks later that year as well as his live EP, ashkeLon. When the time came to sit down and get to work on what would become Imaginary Man, recording in Masse’s backyard garage-turned-studio dubbed The Casino was the natural choice.
“He’s super duper talented, and he’s one of my best friends,” Baxter says of Masse, who has also worked with Robert Ellis, Caitlin Rose and Andrew Combs. “We get along like gangbusters.”
Also joining Masse and Baxter at the helm of Imaginary Man was Adam Landry, a producer and sound engineer Baxter has called a friend since his freshman year of college.
“They’re both mega-talented. My favorite album of 2012 was the T. Hardy Morris Audition Tapes album,” says Baxter. “And he produced that. The Middle Brother stuff is rad; the stuff that he does with Deer Tick, Shelly Colvin. He’s one of the producers in town that I think is on fire.”
Baxter seemed to have a knack for tapping talented neighbors to work on the record, which features vocals from Jesse Baylin alongside Isaaca Byrd and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez.
“I didn’t have to reach out past the friend circle for any musicians and any vocalists. It’s amazing,” Baxter says. “Not everybody gets to live in a town that’s expanding as rapidly—and as awesomely, for the most part—as Nashville is.”
Baxter may be insulated by a solid group of local musicians and friends now, but the chaos that met him when he moved to Nashville was just as influential to his song craft as the support, starting with a stint living in East Nashville with a metal band he met on Craigslist.
“I started writing songs in like a chaotic environment, and for the next three years I was in a chaotic environment writing songs,” Baxter says with a laugh about the initial big move. “After I moved out of that house, I moved in with an old family friend and her husband and their two little boys…I slept for two years in their playroom—I’d be writing while they were watching Spongebob or throwing macaroni at me; wake up in the morning getting hit in the face with a foam bat. I was able to write in a war zone. From then on, it only got easier and easier.”
But the chaos isn’t all behind Baxter, and for all his claims that Imaginary Man is an arbitrary title to wrangle in 11 songs he’s spit out since feathers & fishHooks, there’s a cohesion between songs and the writer behind them that lends itself to a duplicity: maybe the Frantic Romantic and the Mercy of a Dirtbag titles weren’t so much misfires as they were two angles on the one guy.
“The songs kind of lend themselves to this character that maybe is half me, but half this other character that I’ve made up in my imagination,” Baxter says. “Maybe [it’s] a cop-out: I’m not going to claim that I broke this person’s heart or that I really care about human existence or where we’re going after we die.”