Tomorrowland, the title of Ryan Bingham's new album, sounds futuristic, but the Oscar-winning singer/songwriter hints, "Maybe it's not so much about looking ahead as it is about leaving things behind."
"There are no more rules," he continues. Recording Tomorrowland for his own Axster Bingham Records felt "totally liberating," he says, and allowed him the freedom to "do whatever we want and not have someone else's agenda on it."
Tomorrowland contains plenty of the pliant acoustic guitar work that has marked Bingham's previous studio sets, but Tomorrowland expands his musical landscape exponentially: Guitars howl into keyboards and drums stomp against strings, all bolstered by Bingham's jagged, weather-beaten vocals.
Despite his assertion that "I always try to be hopeful," Bingham's songs remain full of dark, often mysterious, places where light struggles to get in. On the bracing, haunting "No Help From God," he sings in a world-weary rasp, "Some say that angels are all looking down/I only saw vultures circling around."
Bingham recorded Tomorrowland at a makeshift studio in a friend's empty house in Malibu, Calif. that turned out to have an interesting heritage: it once belonged to Kris Kristofferson, one of his musical heroes. "I thought, who knows what you're going to find in these walls'," Bingham laughs.
Bingham and co-producer Justin Stanley (Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow) brought in a soundboard and microphones and set up the drums right in the middle of the high-ceiling room. They recruited in a small core of musicians to play on the album as needed.
"That's what was so nice about the record: we weren't on a time line or in crunch time," Bingham says. " I really tried to distance myself from any of that. I was like 'I'm in a house, I'm not spending a lot of money. I can take all the time I need and really get it right.'"
And Bingham is the first to admit that after the rush of the last few years, he needed to slow the pace.
The Oscar, Golden Globe, and Grammy wins for his song "The Weary Kind" from 2009's movie "Crazy Heart" caused a wonderful commotion that was at times humbling and overwhelming to Bingham, who was named the Americana Music Association's 2010 artist of the year.
Without taking a breather, Bingham recorded 2010's critically acclaimed "Junky Star," and returned to the road, caught up in an endless swirl of touring. What the public didn't see was a man thrown into a whirlwind, caught up in the chaos not only from the awards hoopla, but, much more cataclysmically, by his parents dying within a couple of years of each other. "It was too much, I felt like a zombie," he says.
Determined to keep his commitments, Bingham continued gigging, but when he came back to Los Angeles in 2011, he stopped moving for a bit, settled into his new life with his wife, and learned how to live in one spot. For the first time, Bingham had a true place to call his own. One of the many upsides was he got to explore the electric guitar.
"I was always staying with friends. I never had a space where I could set up an amp with pedals. It wasn't until the last couple of years where I got a house of my own and time off where I could set up and start playing Jimi Hendrix stuff and Jimmy Page," he says. "Just rocking it. My inner 16-year old kid was coming out."
His inner teen makes itself loud and clear on much of the album—he plays all the guitars on the album and had his collection of more than 20 at the ready — but especially on the first single, "Heart Of Rhythm." The passionate rave-up, the first one he wrote for the album, is all paint-peeling rock and roll from the perspective of a true believer.
"When I was writing it, I was thinking I'm going to write a whole punk rock album: The Clash, Iggy Pop, just getting it on," he says. Though Bingham broadened the album's landscape, many of punk's ideals: abandoning oneself to the music, defiance of convention, and going full throttle remain intact throughout Tomorrowland's 13 tracks.
By turns deeply confessional ("Never Far Behind"), and by others unflinchingly observant about society's underbelly (the epic "Rising of the Ghetto"), Tomorrowland features Bingham's fearless honesty throughout. "It helps to say it and get it out that way," he says. "That's what writing songs has always been about for me, it's never been about anything else. That's always been my thing."
While crafting the tunes in the studio, Bingham considered how they would sound on the road, more so than on his previous releases. "Before I didn't have the perspective of what it was going to be like live. I'm going to be on the road the next two years playing these songs every night and I want to have fun with them, so that was a focus." Bingham's tour starts Sept. 25 in San Francisco.
Bingham began writing songs when he was 17 to get away from his troubled Texan home life. The escape transformed from emotional to literal as soon as he figured out a way to sustain himself. "I had gigs where I could make $50 a night. I could just get in the car and get away and I could support myself," he says. "I didn't have to work for somebody. I could get all that shit off my chest through my songs. They were my therapy, my means of survival, my livelihood in every way."
And now, with more experience and a mantel full of awards, the 31-year old Bingham finds himself, in many ways, back at the beginning. "Doing this label and the new music on our own had led me back to writing songs that sustain me. It's a whole new adventure for me. Whatever that means."