Jonathan Rice – Good Luck Streak In Music School
Let’s get it out of the way: Johnathan Rice sounds like Conor Oberst. He can’t help it. He likes Conor Oberst. Conor Oberst is a friend. Oberst’s band Bright Eyes, along with countless other Saddle Creek acts, was a big influence on Rice, he’ll be the first one to tell you. That Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis produced Rice’s major-label debut, Trouble Is Real (released April 26 by Warner Bros.), only serves to emphasize the comparison.
Rice, 21 — though he wrote portions of Trouble Is Real when he was 17, he says — isn’t yet as developed a lyricist as Oberst, but he has a gift for melody, for the tricky intersection of pop, rock and country, that rivals anything Bright Eyes has come up with. He’s also more charming, in a lumpen, hair-in-the eyes sort of way.
Bright Eyes’ recent releases have made Oberst the first alt-folkie to resonate with members of the O.C. Nation, and Trouble Is Real — already featured on shows such as “Smallville”, “The O.C.” and “One Tree Hill” — might do the same thing for Rice.
“I haven’t been proud of much I’ve done, [but] I think this is a decent first record,” he says. “I’ve still got a long way to go. This record is a document of me at my youngest.”
Rice, the son of an executive at the World Bank, spent his childhood in Scotland and Virginia, “but no one can figure out where I’m from, not even me,” he muses. “My accent is so strange that by now I sound sort of Canadian.” Weaned on Gram Parsons, Blind Willie McTell and Elliott Smith, Rice started writing songs in earnest at 16. He released an EP, Heart And Mind, on friend Chris Keup’s Grantham Dispatch label shortly after he turned 18.
Rice thought vaguely about going to college, but he convinced his parents to first let him spend a year in New York in search of a record deal. “I thought [being a musician] was something I could try out,” he says. “And now it’s become the only thing I could ever do.”
Rice moved to New York two days before September 11, 2001, and spent the next year telemarketing, walking dogs and playing club gigs. He scraped together enough money to return to Virginia, hungry and broke, after nine months. A short time later, a copy of Heart And Mind made its way to Warner Bros. He signed to the label almost a year to the day after he left home.
Things got more complicated from there. Trouble Is Real, most of which Rice wrote during his year in New York, had a hard birth. “I recorded [it] five times, maybe six times,” he recalls. “I nearly lost my mind making this record.” By Rice’s estimation, at least three versions of the album were made. There were sessions in New York, Los Angeles, Montana, Virginia and Nebraska, among other places.
“I had this whole plan in my head,” he says. “I was gonna make my folkie album, then my rock album, then my experimental album. By the time I recorded all this stuff, I was at the end of my rope. I figured I wouldn’t have time to make all those records.”
Trouble Is Real, which bears traces of all its various incarnations, is messy and likable, a big, aching heart of a record ranging from orchestral pop to blues to prototypical Dylanesque folk. There are vague stabs at political commentary, none of them exactly nuanced (“All God’s children/Got automatic weapons/We’re coming after you/…’Cause Jesus loves you too”), though it’s hard not to appreciate the effort.
Rice, who now lives in Los Angeles, will spend most of the summer touring behind the album, both as a headliner and an opening act for R.E.M. November will see the release of his film debut, Walk The Line, a Johnny Cash biopic in which he plays Roy Orbison. It took three hours of hair and makeup to make Rice look like Orbison, which he figures was just as well. “Roy Orbison is probably the greatest singer in the history of rock ‘n’ roll,” he says, “but certainly not the dude you want to look like.”
This recent series of fortunate events has left Rice feeling incredibly guilty. He feels a little awkward about getting a record deal so young — most of the bands he loves spent years on the road before putting out albums, and most of them didn’t record for major labels, either — but he’s trying to look on the bright side.
“The past four years I’ve just been riding a streak of incredible good luck,” he says. “I’ll just keep riding it until they take it away from me.”