"Small Windows Into The Human Condition"
An Interview With Songwriter Clay Riness
by David Krotz - October 2003
Welcome back, Clay. Some of us have been waiting for this for a long time.
"Thanks. It feels good and it feels right, that's for sure."
So, what happened? What got you back to music?
"Well, I really thought I was done with being a performer. Remember the old song 'Said All I Want To Say To You'? (Released on One Season, 1991) That really tells it well. I felt like I was out of ideas and I was pretty tired of the whole scene. I needed a break. Then, we (meaning wife, Victoria) got pregnant and it was the perfect time for me to get off the road and stay home and be a Dad, so I locked up my guitars and never looked back."
And you went fishing, didn't you?
"Big time. I just didn't think about making music, I should say writing songs, for years. I did stay pretty passionate about playing the fiddle. But anyway, I got hooked on trout fishing and started a seasonal guiding business so I could make my living during the summer months when Vic (a school teacher) was home with the baby. I'm kind of a "go for it a hundred and ten percent and exceed the speed limit" sort of guy, so I really marketed the business hard and it worked out great. Jump ahead nine years and into my life walks a job offer from an animation company to be music director for a children's television show."
How did that happen?
"Someone knew someone who knew someone that recommended me for the position, I guess. So I started putting the musical elements together for that and I began composing again for the first time in a decade. Then a year in, the Trade Center disaster happened and all of our funding fell through and the whole thing imploded. Well, there's a good and a bad to everything. I lost my cushy new job, but I was really on a new path musically. I finally felt driven to write again."
And that led to performing again?
"Yes. It was a pretty natural turn of events. I began writing all these new songs, and with that came a desire to start performing them."
Your concerts now are...what would you call it?
"Uh...I don't know...seasoned? That's hard for me to talk about. I'm my own worst critic, and that's as it should be. I do have to say that I put a great deal of prep time into a show. I like to know that the set list flows well song to song, and that styles and keys are always changing up. Something funny, then something touching, something fast, then something slow. Diverse...that's what I would call the show."
And your new songs?
"Well, the ones that make the final cut are on the set list for a reason. I think they really speak of maturity, but even more than that, they're just good, solid songs...I hope. (laughs) You can tell there is a lot of forethought in the way the lyrics read. It's about saying something just right. Lots of the new ones are very universal...something anyone can relate to, at least anyone my age. (smiles) Songs like "Little Windows" and "Candle On The Cake" hit hard because they are so true. I don't think you can write those things when you're twenty. You need a history of life experience for that."
Can you tell me about how and why you write songs?
"I write all of these songs at my cabin, where I have time to think about the human condition...and I have peace and quiet. The place is a musical Petrie dish. I don't exactly know why I write songs. I'm not trying to create the next hit for Nashville or LA, that's for sure. Maybe it's about creating something from nothing. Or, maybe it's about the basic need to express thyself. Maybe it's just ego...make up something, play it for people and they clap. Who cares anyway? All I know is I write songs, for whatever reason. I am driven to that end."
You're not playing very much of your old stuff then?
"In concert you mean? Just a few favorites. People Of The Fields And Farms, Combine Boogie, River, Coming Of Age...the ones that I think were great songs then and still hold up. But I can tell you, I'm all done with "Cut Wood". You can't keep wearing out the same jokes and keep it fresh. It's a fun song, but if you want to relive the charm of it, you'll have to revisit the live recording." (Cut Wood appears on Live Bait!, 1986 and Best Of Four, 2002)
You do seem to like live recordings more than some recording artists. Why?
"I can't help it. I find live recordings magical because they capture a moment in time. Some people are bothered by the occasional cough or clunk, or the obvious blunder, but I find it a simple affirmation that what I am hearing is something that actually happened. In a room, in some town, for a few rows of people who were there to hear some music, it happened and was preserved. That's the base of it...it's a window into the past. And when you dig the music, that's even better."
What are the biggest differences between now and your former performing?
"I don't sing the same as I used to, I'm older. Some think it's a mellower me, some just think it's middle age. All I know is the songs are more reflective of having a life history, and they have something to say. It's all about the vibe, occasional voice cracks and all. I can't sing 73 notes in a breath like Mariah Carey and that ilk of the billboard world. I don't have the body of a Ricky Martin either, although many tell me that I look like him whenever I shake my booty. (laughs) But you know what I do have? Songs...real songs that speak of the human condition...they aren't spoken while an annoying sample track or techno beat goes on in the background. They are sung overtop of the woody guitar music that came with them. That's what makes it "contemporary folk music", I suppose, if we must label everything."
Contemporary folk music? Can you explain that?
"I call myself, loosely, a folksinger only because it's the awkwardly closest thing I can say that people connect with. How else do you describe getting on stage with an acoustic guitar and singing your own songs?"
Did you know as a kid that you were going to be a singer?
"Oh yes, even from childhood I wanted to be a performer. I sang Neil Diamond, John Denver, James Taylor and Michael Martin Murphey songs into the mirror, working on the facial expressions and body language, Stella tenor guitar hanging from my shoulder. Moments of it felt so real when I took my bows. I never lost sight of that dream or forgot that feeling. Those guys were songwriters! I was fascinated by the life of a songwriter, a thinker, a maker of four minute screenplays. What must it be like, I thought, to be able to say something so well and then make it such a pleasure to hear? I knew even then that such folly was a craft. It was poetry with a third dimension...a synergy of sound and thought, packaged in a unique box, each and every song."
And at what point did you know you had to make music your career?
"I eventually did what was logical. I went to college and then dropped out to play music for a living. (laughs) I played Ground Round restaurants and Howard Johnson lounges and bars of all types and I relied at first on covering songs by all those great songwriters. But eventually, I began to include more and more of my own songs into the mix. And eventually, I got tired of being background music. I stepped up to the folk scene, playing festivals and small concert venues as I began to perform only my own songs and a bit of traditional music. I was young when that change came and that was the turning point in my quest to fulfill that childhood fantasy of being a songwriter."
It must be cool to say you accomplished that goal.
"Well, it's been a long, personal journey. Nowadays, I can finally say that I like my own songs as much as I liked those songs by all my old heroes, and that's what reminds me that it was the songs that hooked me in the first place. I finally found my own voice as a writer. I like to think of my newer songs as small windows into the human condition."
Rumor has it that you've been hanging around with Michael Martin Murphey...true?
"Well, I guess that's true...kind of. Murph moved to the area a few years ago and happened to buy a ranch about two miles from me. He took a real shine to my father and the two of them became inseparable friends. It was inevitable that we would hook up, I guess."
So will that relationship open some doors for you?
(laughs) "Why did I know you would ask that? I don't expect anything to come of it, and I surely don't expect any special treatment. I'm just pretty happy that we became buddies, and that every once in awhile we get to sit down and play some tunes. He's a great guy and a straight shooter."
You mentioned Murphey as an early influence. What was it like getting to know one of your teenage heroes?
"It was really awkward at the very first. I wanted to gush and pay him all the compliments I could think of, but he hears that from everybody. So I just told him I had to get a few things said and out of the way and then we'd move on to becoming friends. I told him that he had been one of my favorite singers when I was a kid and that it was hard for me not to tell him that. Then, I let it go. When he started to show up at the cabin and at my home, I knew that we had passed beyond that first hurdle. Now, we're just friends, that's all. It's comfortable and loose and when he drops in, it's just like when any other friend drops in. It's great to see him and there never seems to be enough time to visit."
So, anything else you'd like to say to folks before we call it a day?
"Hmm...I get the last word huh? (pauses) I guess I just want people to come and see a show. Buy a CD. Tell your friends I want more great gigs. (laughs) I want to come to your town and open myself up to you and pour myself out into your hands and show you that I'm a guy who writes songs that you will relate to. I want to make you laugh and cry and sigh and squirm. And in the end, I hope you'll walk away with a memory or two that you can't forget."
-David Krotz is the published author of "How To Hide Almost Anything" and currently writes for the Winona Daily News. He has followed Clay Riness' career since 1980.
CLAY RINESS - BIO INFORMATION
Clay Riness grew up in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He was a musical kid, playing drums and gigging with various bands, including The Hal Atkinson Quartet at age 14. He was deeply drawn to songwriting even then, churning out sophomoric songs of youth on a Stella tenor guitar, and eventually the six string acoustic. An attempt at college (1976) opened the door to a new world of music and the lure of making a living as a musician was too much to resist. He moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and began paying the rent with bar and lounge gigs...relying on cover songs while continuing to hone his own writing skills. He released his first album of original songs in 1980. It was the first of many to come.
By 1983, Riness was tired of being "background music" and pursued a better market for his original music, the Midwestern folk scene. He moved back to Wisconsin and began touring and performing at festivals and small concert venues throughout the upper Midwest, showcasing his own songs and some traditional music. During the next decade he made his mark, touring with Wisconsin Public Radio's Simply Folk 10th Anniversary Concert Tour, appearing as a guest artist on Michael Feldman's "Whaddaya Know"?, and touring with a variety of other performers such as Larry Long, Ed Allen, Raldo Schneider and jazz fiddler Randy Sabien. Four more albums were released during this time period.
When he and wife Victoria discovered a baby son on the way in 1989, the couple decided it was best for one of them to be home care giving. Since she, a long time teacher, held a job with medical benefits, Riness resolved to get off the road and stay home, and other than a love affair with the fiddle, songwriting and guitar playing were shelved by late 1991. Eventually, a daughter came along as well and the hiatus from songwriting turned into a ten year break.
During this time at home, he started a business as a fly fishing guide on area trout streams near Coon Valley, Wisconsin where the two had settled. The business flourished as Riness spent the summer months instructing and guiding aspiring anglers in the art of fly fishing. He turned his time at home parenting into becoming a columnist and freelance writer for various fishing publications, and traveled on weekends to lecture about fishing.
In 2001, a production company in Racine, Wisconsin approached and offered Riness a position as music director for what was to be a weekly children's television show. After ten years away from songwriting, he uncased his guitars and began composing again. Unfortunately, venture capital funding for the project fell through after the tragic events of 9/11, but the experience had rekindled his musical passion. With his youngest daughter now in school, he decided it was time to start performing again. What followed was some of the best songwriting of his career. Now in his mid-forties, life experience and years of freelance writing had polished his skills, and a new passion for guitar surfaced as well. Taking the stage once again, Clay Riness had rediscovered an old love, performing original songs in concert. Like the songs themselves, his concerts were more mature, more focused and more reflective of life experience.
Also in 2001, Riness began teaching music privately while he and friend Jay Hoffman developed and began the River Valley Concert Series, a weekly concert event in Coon Valley, Wisconsin in which some of the best musical artists in the nation appear in concert. The venue proved important for Riness as well, as he began performing in the show as a musical host, with an eye toward making the event a radio show.
In 2002, Riness was commissioned to provide original, instrumental music for a 13 part series for broadcast on Public Radio. In early 2003, he released his first soundtrack, First Person Wisconsin, also the title of the radio series.
He continues to create commissioned works, recording them at his home project studio and also occupies an audio suite in LaCrosse, Wisconsin where he works as a production assistant and session musician in conjunction with Grammy award winning recording studio "Sound Strations Audio Productions".