Gravel-voiced Ryan Bingham was thrust into the national spotlight in 2010 on the success of the film Crazy Heart and its theme, "The Weary Kind." Now he returns with Tomorrowland, an album that finds the singer-songwriter shaking off some cobwebs.
With its devastating lyrics of a life almost used up, "The Weary Kind" won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best original song. Then Bingham released an album, Junky Star, that stayed close to that confessional, personal theme. But after a full tour in that introspective mindset, life began to imitate art a little too much.
"Junky Star was so stripped down and dark and acoustic," recalls Bingham before taking the stage at a Nashville concert. "A lot of the songs were really personal, and playing those songs live every night was a little sad to get through. It's tough when you're playing them night after night, month after month. That was mainly the focus of [Tomorrowland] -- just having fun again."
For the new album, the 31-year-old picks the tempos up off the floor, slings an electric guitar around his neck and starts rocking. He's still not done writing about the gritty realities of life, but now he seems to temper his outlook with genuine hope for the future.
What was it like baring your soul every night on those Junky Star songs?
It's strange because you write those songs, and you're not thinking of playing them for other people. Being that vulnerable all the time and wearing your heart on your sleeve like that is a little awkward sometimes. When you're in a room full of strangers singing all this personal information, it can be challenging.
So now you're ready to let loose?
Really, [Tomorrowland] is not that far of a stretch from some earlier stuff that I have done. I mean, we have always played some rock 'n' roll live. With each song you write, you look back and it's kind of about different chapters of your life. Songs I wrote in my early 20s, I am probably not going to be writing about that. You keep growing and experiencing new things, and you travel to different places and meet people from all over the world.
You said each song is like a chapter of your life. Have you found where this album fits?
I don't really know yet. I mean, I do, in a way. I went through a lot of stuff with Junky Star, the Oscars and when that whole film thing was going on. My mother died right before that, and right when Junky Star came out, my father died. A lot of people didn't really see any of that going on, and I just tried to make sense of it all.
I find with each record it's a process of my life. It's just writing about the things that I have gone through and am going through at the moment. It's kind of like a photo album, in a way. I can see the songs, and it kind of takes me back to what I was going through, and it also helps to leave it behind and move on.
You often sing about social issues, and "Beg for Broken Legs" sounds upset with class differences. Why do you empathize with that point of view?
I guess maybe because of the way I grew up. I kind of grew up on the darker side of town -- a lot of different towns -- and I moved around a lot growing up. So maybe I was that kid. I travel around now and go through all these cities, and all that stuff is still very prevalent, like racism and all. Sometimes you get fed up with it. It's so divided and so extreme, it's like there is no moderation. It does not seem like there is much common sense or a sense of what is right and what is wrong.
What drew you to Los Angeles? You moved around for so long, so why did you decide to settle there?
A big part of it was I met my wife there. It was just a good place for me at the time, and I loved hanging out with her there. I moved there, and we kind of built our own life. My family kind of disappeared when I was young, and I was on my own. When I met her it was like, "That is my family now." I just had a new start.
Is that what you are singing about in "Western Shore"?
Part of it is that I have met a lot of people out there that are not from there. It is a very diverse city with many different walks of life, and you hear everyone's story of that whole progression of moving west. People kept moving out there until they dead-ended at the ocean, you know? They're here making new lives for themselves, and that's kind of my story as well. There was not really anything left for me at home, so I had to go out and create my own.
Now that you have had some time to settle in, what do you find yourself doing?
I still love being outdoors. California is a really beautiful state with a lot of national parks, so I like to go camping and hiking. A lot times, I'm just kind of hanging out in the wilderness.
So we are not going to see you in any paparazzi tabloids?
No, I am not really one for the scene. A lot of people are like, "Oh, you live in Hollywood?" It's like, "I live the furthest away from Hollywood that you could be." I live up on a dead-end road in the middle of a state park.
When I was listening to "Never Ending Show," it seemed like a rejection of stardom and that whole scene you're talking about.
I would say so. It was fun. I had a great time working on [Crazy Heart], and it was an honor and a privilege to get to be a part of that, but it's just not my world. Writing music and writing songs has always been something totally different for me. It was always more of a therapeutic thing to get things off my chest. It's not really about any of the other stuff. So, yeah, at the end of the day, I was kind of done with [stardom].