John Ross had already entered the writing process for his latest Wild Pink album with a renewed perspective. He wasn’t interested in replicating the shimmering heartland rock of 2021’s A Billion Little Lights, which earned widespread acclaim and exemplified the kind of leveling up that’s hard to continuously keep chasing in music; instead, he wanted to experiment with more organic and unconventional sounds, to embrace an open mindset that would lead to fresh, exciting ideas. Many of the motifs that have cropped up throughout his discography, like ghosts and love and dreams, were already swirling in his mind. Then, halfway through the writing of the songs, Ross was diagnosed with cancer.
The phenomenal ILYSM, which is out today on Royal Mountain, avoids being exclusively about cancer but reflects the ways in which it imbued his life with urgency and meaning. Ross went on to record the album with a host of collaborators, including co-producers Justin Pizzoferrato and Peter Silberman (The Antlers), bassist Arden Yonkers, drummer Dan Keegan, and pianist David Moore of Bing & Ruth, as well as enlisting contributions from Julien Baker, J Mascis, Ryley Walker, Ratboys’ Julia Steiner, Samantha Crain, and Yasmin Williams, among others. And while the sound of the album is as lush and full-bodied as you would expect, there’s a surprising heft and at times deafening beauty to the arrangements, which are balanced out by moments of understated candor and intimacy.
Ross’ dreamlike lyricism, meanwhile, oscillates between wonderment and confusion, burrowing inward as much as it marvels at the world. He’s always been adept at combining the profound with the quotidian, and he does so here while flitting between a state of blurry disorientation and stark lucidity. There’s earnest simplicity and bleak humour, jarring transitions and quietly anthemic choruses, whispered confessions that land like a gut punch. Yet as deeply moving and transcendent as the album can be, Ross doesn’t push things too far in either direction, finding genuine revelations in the vast space in between.
We caught up with John Ross on the eve of ILYSM‘s release to talk about embracing earnestness, the writing and recording process behind the new album, traveling, and more.
Does playing these songs live give them a new weight for you, or does it release some of the weight that’s kind of been attached to them?
I’d say it’s more the latter. These were not songs that we had toured with before – we kind of figured it out in the studio, so it’s cool to rework some of them. Like, the song ‘ILYSM’ sounds pretty different now live than it does in the studio. It’s just been a really fun experience to bring these songs into a live setting. They’re probably a little more fun to play live, honestly.
How are you feeling about the response to the new material?
It’s pretty early still, but it seems very positive. Just encouraged, at least by what I’ve heard feedback-wise from the singles. There were times where I second-guessed making a record that dealt with illness, but it’s generally been pretty positive.
This is your fourth album, so it’s not the first time that you’ve gone through this vulnerable process of putting out music and being on the receiving end of that kind of support. But does it make you feel more nervous, to release an album about love and obsession and to potentially have this kind of fervent emotion echoed back to you? To have people love and obsess over it in that way?
Yeah, I definitely feel like apprehensive about that. It makes me nervous sometimes to write music that’s kind of earnest, you know? I feel like it just opens you up to criticism in a pretty brutal way sometimes.
It sounds like you’re less afraid to be earnest on this record.
Yeah, totally. I think that on this record, I couldn’t really deal in half measures, just because of the nature of some of the stuff, the way that I could with previous records where it’s maybe obscuring some lyrics or making them more cryptic. I kind of had to not do that this time and double down, which was nerve-wracking, honestly. It still is.
It’s definitely not an easy process to embrace that fully, no matter the circumstances. It’s still human nature to feel apprehensive about coming off as overly sincere or self-serious.
Yeah. I feel like I’m walking the line with this being pretty self-serious, again, because of what it’s about. I try to temper that with lighter moments, or maybe funnier moments in the record.
There’s a dynamic between humour and darkness on the record, but you don’t seem to be using it as a kind of armour. I’m thinking of the line “I’m just showing up every day like Cal Ripken, Jr.,” for example.
There’s at least an attempt at some gallows humour there, for sure.
Were you conscious about the heaviness of some of the things that you’re talking about and wanted to counteract that, or was it just how it came out when you were writing?
It’s definitely just the way it came out at the time. And that’s the kind of thing where I realized later how I was feeling – without getting into too much detail, I’ve never really felt the way that I did when in the worst parts of what was going on with my health. So moments like that just came out very organically.
Even though you were diagnosed with cancer during the writing process, you’ve said you didn’t necessarily set out to make an album about cancer. Lyrically, it seems like some of the emotional processing is happening on more of a subconscious level. Are you more aware now of how that experience influenced the direction of these songs?
I’ve always felt like I, in some cases, understand the songs and lyrics months later, and I think that that’s definitely starting to happen now. They feel a little different to me.
Do you feel that more strongly than you have in the past?
I think that this record, at least with regard to illness, when I do talk about it on the record, it’s pretty direct in my mind. I understood it at the time that I wrote it, it wasn’t ambiguous or anything like that. I couldn’t point to a lyric or a song off the top of my head that was ambiguous.
I’m not sure what your songwriting process was like before, but did a lot of the lyrics for ILYSM come out in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style?
In general, the lyric writing process takes the longest time. I think that maybe describing it as a collage more than stream-of-consciousness could be more accurate just because it does take a long time, and the thoughts are coming at different times about a bunch of different ideas.
Does that collage-like approach appeal to you musically as well?
Yeah, definitely. I think more so than previous records, where it just sounds like a band in a room – or not, maybe, in the case of the last record – but I just wanted to use a lot of disparate sounds to create collages at times. It’s a very fun way to turn a song on its head.
Were you surprised by any of the musical ideas or transitions that came up while you were experimenting? How did you determine what to keep and what held back from what you were trying to convey?
I would say that working with the band created a lot of opportunities to bring the songs away from the demo phase into what they became, particularly with David Moore, the piano player. There’s just no way to know how the songs would end up before we ended up playing together in the studio. We had never even met before then, so I think that just going in with an open mind about where the sounds were going to end up made it very easy, then, after the principal recording was done, to go fuck around with them afterwards, before mixing.
You’ve said that you didn’t want the album to sound too polished or too grandiose, but I feel like there’s a fullness and depth to both the more accessible songs and the more experimental moments. What do you think the difference is there, between something sounding full and expansive rather than just big? Was bigness, whatever it means for you, something you wanted to avoid?
I think I associate bigness, at least with regard to my songs, as being conventional song structures and kind of anthemic-sounding, but it doesn’t mean that a sound can’t still have a pretty lush arrangement and feel very full. I think that what I wanted to avoid was just some of the more conventional song tropes that I was working with on the previous record. I still love making big-sounding, full arrangements.
It makes me think about how, when I feel kind of existential, I don’t just think about how big things are. I feel like it’s just as much about everything as it is about nothing, and the space between those two, which to me is the space that this record occupies.
That’s amazing to hear. That’s really insightful to me. Maybe to your point, I like to write about mundane things, and I think sometimes when it works, it can be profound, and exist in that space between something and nothing.
Listening to your previous records, I also get that feeling of the beauty in everyday life, or this kind of existential wonder. Was that less than ideal and more just something that felt real this time?
Yeah, I think so. I think it was unavoidable. Making a record going through all that shit – whatever I ended up with was going to be more real to me, you know. It wasn’t something that I set out to do, it just kind of ended up that way.
You use ghosts and aliens as metaphors on this record, and you’ve cited Signs and the show Surviving Death as inspirations. What appeals to you about exploring love through mystical imagery?
Starting with love as an idea was pretty arbitrary. The movie Signs and that Netflix show were pretty early inspirations when I started writing this record, and I think kicking around ideas about love and obsession was just a jumping-off point. I can’t say why it started there except that it just did; it started with thinking about those things.
I get why you would get curious about that connection between love, or being loved, and being haunted. That’s maybe another space you explore.
Definitely. And I think that ghosts are pretty evergreen stuff – ghosts are in tunes of mine from the first record, even.
At this specific moment in time, what do you love about being in Wild Pink that you never expected to – not just expected to be real, but to appreciate so much?
That’s a great question. I mean, this is like a no-brainer, but honestly, traveling. I just really enjoy that part of it. Making records is my favourite thing in the world to do as well. Those aren’t unexpected, though.
What do you love about traveling?
I guess I really enjoy the newness of it. Just starting each day not knowing exactly how it’s going to go. It’s like the opposite of mundane, which really fires me up.
Do you avoid writing when you’re on the road?
I do a lot of writing on the road, actually. Which is kind of ironic, because we’re talking about writing about mundane things. For some reason, it’s actually very helpful to be out of my comfort zone.
I guess the thing about traveling is that it doesn’t feel mundane, but there are certain aspects of it that seem mundane. There’s more to the feeling than what’s on the surface, and maybe that’s where the inspiration lies, when you’re, like, sitting at a coffee shop waiting to get back out there.
Yeah. I think that, at least with regard to traveling on tour, there’s a cycle to having the most fun ever, playing a great show like last night [in Boston, MA], and then waking up the next day and sitting in a coffee shop and then playing another show that night. That kind of extreme up and down – you can find a little bit of everything in that, the extremes of mundane and excitement.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.