Lee Ranaldo: “I see myself first and foremost as an artist”

Guitar legend Lee Ranaldo talks to CHRIS FAMILTON about his multidisciplinary career, writing songs in a singer-songwriter fashion and the future of Sonic Youth.

Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo is a polymorphic artist with ideas constantly tumbling out as spoken word, art and of course music. When FL reaches him at his New York home he’s preparing to head to Nova Scotia, Canada, for a rare few weeks of rest and relaxation. “Sometimes it is nice to not have any agenda and just be out experiencing things,” he explains, adding that downtime for him generally involves moving from one art-form to the next. “Usually one is a vacation from doing the other so when I’m not touring I get to work on drawings or something else in my studio.”

Having fingers in a number of artistic pies allows Ranaldo flexibility in his creative expression. He explains that none of the disciplines he works in are mutually exclusive. “I see myself first and foremost as an artist who doesn’t work in a particular field,” he says. “I’m interested in visual artists whether that’s painting, drawings and cinema; I’m interested in language whether it be writing as poems, stories, journals or lyrics; and I’m interested in music. I feel like they feed each other.”

In the wake of a Sonic Youth hiatus prompted by Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s marriage split after 27 years, Ranaldo has released a new solo album, Between the Times and the Tides. He’s released solo works in the past but this album sees him working primarily in a standard rock band format, with the material written and recorded prior to Sonic Youth’s break.

“This record was done during one of those periods before we found out what was going on between Thurston and Kim. Over the last decade we’ve built a lot of time into our schedule for people to work on their own projects outside Sonic Youth. I’m thankful it was done before I had any inkling of that stuff so it was done as normal without any added pressure that my band was stopping, or anything like that.”

Though the album is predominantly based around electric guitar, the songs started life acoustically in Ranaldo’s lounge room. He later added a rhythm section – bassist Irwin Menken and long-time associate and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley – as well as guest artists including Wilco’s Nels Cline, Jim O’Rourke, Alan Licht and John Medeski.

“I wasn’t really planning to make a record like this,” Ranaldo says. “The songs just started coming out and I performed the first couple that I wrote and that led to writing some more. I started off thinking it was going to be an acoustic and voice record and then it ended up as this rock band record. It just built in this very natural, organic way from the very first tunes that came out of my acoustic guitars in my living room,.”

Ranaldo says he was determined to create an album in the traditional sense; one with an ebb and flow and a narrative to both the music and the packaging. Like so much of the cross pollination in his work, the initial seed for the album came from a photograph. “It really started with this picture of me that we used on the front cover. I was writing the first of these songs and I did an interview with some people for a documentary. One of the guys took those pictures and when he sent me that one I thought, ‘Wow, this looks like it would be a really cool album cover.’ That goaded me into writing the record to wrap in this package in a sense.”

“It just built in this very natural, organic way from the very first tunes that came out of my acoustic guitars in my living room.”

Ranaldo says he was initially inspired by the music he listened to when he was younger – from John Fahey to David Crosby, Joni Mitchell to Neil Young and The Velvet Underground. “I really wanted it to be a personal record harking back to a singer/songwriter album like they were when I was listening to records like that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, where it would be a window on somebody’s life and you hoped you’d find a commonality and shared experience from listening to it. Records then were these experiences that they’re not really now. You’d get a record and pore over the liner notes and who played on each track and they’d stay with you longer and be this real listening experience. Even if it was for no one other than me I wanted this record to be made in that kind of mindset.”

As our conversation winds up, there’s still that white elephant in the room: The future prospects of Sonic Youth. Together for 31 years, they are currently in a holding phase while each member explores other projects and Moore and Gordon are given the space to decide whether they can still work together artistically.

“I have no doubt that we’re all going to continue,” Ranaldo says. “We are all doing interesting things now and that spirit that has driven us all these years isn’t just going to dry up if we stop working together. I wouldn’t say [we’ve been] building towards this, but we’ve really prepared ourselves well over the last 10 or 15 years being involved in lots of independent projects outside Sonic Youth. It’s easy to fill time – the challenge is filling it in a significant way so all of us get offers to do various things all year long.”

Lee Ranaldo’s tour concludes at Melbourne’s The Hi-Fi tonight (October 24).