Ryan Bingham Interview: Singer-Songwriter Talks ‘The Bridge’ Theme Song, Going Independent for New Album
Ryan Bingham is one of the leading lights of the Americana music movement in America. To fans outside the genre, he is best known for writing 'The Weary Kind' from the film 'Crazy Heart.' That won him an Academy Award, Golden Globe and Grammy, and he was named Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association in 2010.
When his former label, Lost Highway, folded, Bingham decided to go it alone for his most recent studio effort, 'Tomorrowland,' which he released via the self-owned Axster Bingham Records in 2012. Most recently he wrote and recorded 'Until I'm One With You,' the theme song for the new FX series 'The Bridge,' which follows the special circumstances law enforcement officers in El Paso, Texas encounter as a result of working in a border town.
The Boot caught up with Bingham to discuss the new song, his working process, going indy and more in this exclusive interview.
How did your involvement with 'The Bridge' come about?
I was approached by the writers of 'The Bridge,' and they were looking for a song that would go along with the theme of the show. They actually gave me a copy of the script, and gave me a little background info on it, and I started to work on the song from there.
Obviously you've done this kind of thing before, writing to an existing idea. Does that change the writing process for you, as opposed to just writing a song that's going to be on an album?
I think in a way it does when you have a script, because you already have characters to go off of, and a place to draw from visually. You can see where the characters come from. So it's almost like you try to put yourself in the shoes of each character and write about how they feel about their situation.
Do you start with tracks, or when you're writing for a storyline like that, do you start with lyrics and try to work backward?
No matter what I'm writing, I almost always start with the music. Definitely, the melody seems to set the tone for whatever emotions come to follow, and whatever's going to be written down. It always starts with the music, for me.
How long does it usually take for you to arrive at a finished song? Is it one writing session, or multiple sessions?
It really depends, but usually when I'm writing, stuff has to come pretty fast. I have kind of a short attention span, so if it doesn't come really quick then I set it down, and hopefully come back to it another time. I don't know, for some reason, every once in a while I'll get a song that'll all come out in about half an hour. And if not, then I'll come back to it at a later time, and just kind of wait for that moment. I've never been able to sit down with a pen and paper and kind of craft out a song, or really force anything out. It always has to come almost subconsciously.
This is actually the demo for 'Until I'm One With You,' that ended up being on the series.
Yeah, it is, I recorded it at home. I have a studio at the house. I sent it in, and then they ended up liking the demo.
Is this the first time you've written specifically for a television show?
For a television show, yes it is.
You've won an armload of awards for writing for film. Were you aware, going into your career, that your songs had somewhat of a cinematic quality -- is it something that you strive for? Or is it just something that producers have seen in your work?
I guess it's just something that came about. In the beginning I never thought about it that much. But looking back on a lot of stuff I write, it always -- when I'm writing, I get these images in my head about places I've been, and experiences I've had in the past, and people that you meet along the way. And a lot of times if I read a script, I'm visualizing a lot of that stuff in my head and just trying to describe what I'm feeling and what I'm seeing as I write.
So it definitely made sense, the further along I got. [Laughs.]
Especially once you started having the kind of success that you have had with that. Did that open the floodgates for you? I would imagine you get a lot of scripts now.
You know, not really. I've definitely got a few things, some things that have come my way. But it's not like I've had an onslaught of scripts showing up at the house. [Laughs.] It's kind of a few things here and there pop up, and then if I'm really inspired by the story or the script, I'll definitely take a shot at writing something for it.
So you do get to pick and choose -- you don't feel like you're compelled to try to write something for everything you get pitched?
No, I pretty much just write about stuff that I'm really inspired by. It's really hard for me to try to write anything that I'm not inspired by, or that I haven't had some kind of personal connection to in the past, or something that I feel. I'm not really into just writing everything I come across.
You released your most recent album independently. What makes that the right choice for you right now?
A couple of years ago, my wife and I took over my management and stuff like that, and we've always been a pretty much self-sustained band on the road, and did a lot of it in-house. And basically it came down to, the label we were on was going away, and getting merged into the big umbrella of Universal. And we were left with the decision to either try something on our own, or go sign with a different label. And we were confident in what we had going on, and wanted to take a shot at it on our own. It was just something that felt natural, in a way.
What are the advantages for you, and the potential disadvantages of being on your own?
It's been very liberating for me, creatively, and also on a personal level. All of the business stuff is in-house, and we bring it all back home at the end of the day. And whatever decision we want to make, whatever direction we want to take ourselves, we don't have anyone else in the mix of how they want to market the songs and music, and how they want to get it out there. So it's nice just to have the control of that and know that it's -- we're working a lot, and we're still learning a lot, and the business is definitely changing as we get into it. But it's definitely been a great thing just for us to learn about the business, and take things in the direction that we want to take them in.
Does it give you any trepidation at all that it's now your financial risk that's at stake?
Yeah, but we're pretty conservative in that aspect. We try not to get in over our heads with anything. A lot of this stuff, with recording and going on the road, we've been doing it for a while. So we kind of know our limitations on where we can go and where we can't, and set goals for ourselves in that regard. So it hasn't been anything that we feel like we can't handle.
You obviously got a lot of attention after 'Crazy Heart.' How did that change the game for you, just in terms of how you could approach the rest of your career after that?
I don't know if it changed all that much. Yeah, it definitely exposed my music to a lot of people that would have never heard it before, and it definitely opened up a lot of doors for me, touring-wise, to get out there and meet a lot of great musicians and producers, and people in the industry. But at the end of the day, after all the dust settled from the awards and everything, it was just back to writing songs and making records, and getting a band together to go on the road.
You've had both critical and commercial success. Which one means the most to you?
I'm not sure. I don't know if the success has been that important to me. I don't know, writing songs for me has always been a very personal thing, and I've never really tried to let success or business get in the way of that. At the end of the day, I'm still writing songs for myself. I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to achieve the success that I've had, getting to make a living going out and playing music, but that's not necessarily what's important to me.
Is there anything else you want to say about what you've got going on?
I'm really excited about the show ['The Bridge']. The people involved are really great, and it's always good to be around people that are inspiring There's good mojo around the whole project. I'm really proud to be a part of it.
I'm having a lot of fun playing the new songs from the new record out on the road. Everything's good. You can't really ask for anything more. I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing. [Laughs.]