Album Review and Q&A: Alex Ramsey — ‘Bonsai’

Alex Ramsey has been a mainstay of the collective of Eastern Iowa’s folk and country blues community, either as a member of the Pines (who seem to be on a sabbatical) with his brother Benson and David Huckfelt or contributing his keyboard prowess on releases from acts like Mason Jennings and Ryne Doughty, as well as Wildwood Calling, the most recent album from his father, Iowa guitar legend Bo Ramsey.

Alex Ramsey’s debut solo effort, Bonsai, is a DIY affair, with Ramsey performing and recording every part at home. The album is rich with textures but at the same time is also a very intimate experience. Most of the vocals are aching, whispered and light — something this album shares with the Pines’ catalog, along with dreamy, sometimes half-heard lyrics.

The focus on piano and keys can make the record boisterous and raucous in spots. As Billy Joel sings in “Piano Man,” “the piano sounds like a carnival.” Ramsey’s tendency to draw from waltzing time signatures causes often dizzying avalanches of lunging and loping piano runs in songs like “The Highest Place.”

The flourishes of uncommonly heard chord changes and progressions and time recall both the complex piano-centric music of Fiona Apple and Radiohead’s more chamber-pop tendencies. The uneasy and sometimes menacing mood is delivered beautifully. In this, Ramsey certainly covers different ground than he explored in his time in the Pines.

If there is a theme to this record, it is the narrative of a restless, wandering outsider — possibly by choice, or maybe an outcast. “The One Below” offers a lonely view from above: “I feel like a vulture, circling the sky, waiting for life below to die”; “Worlds and Dreams” follows with, “from this height Odin can see everything / he got a glimpse into her eyes / now he can’t do anything,” capturing an isolation also tangibly represented in the complexity of the music.

In “The Beast You Create,” Ramsey says, “I’ve been locked out of my own house / now all I can see is the shore.” In the first track and single from the album, he’s “Crawling Out of [his] Grave,” declaring, “I was wrong, but now I see the sun.”

This otherness permeates track three, “You’ll Be There With Me,” featuring plucked guitars and doubled harmony vocals drawing from the template of the Pines:

With one look and you will know / I have to break my promise of returning home / But if I do, I’ll be in different form / Maybe I’m a flower falling on the pond / Who are you dying for?

One interesting aspect of Alex Ramsey releasing an album outside of the Pines is that it shines a light on the individual contribution he made to that collective: the color and atmospheric wash of keys, his harmonies and musical sensibilities. But the context of the Pines is certainly not required to appreciate Bonsai — if anything, it proves that Alex Ramsey is a unique voice whose time as a solo artist has come, if possibly overdue.

Q&A with Alex Ramsey

How long have you been working on this? I seem to recall talking to you back when you were opening for Pieta [Brown] during the This Land Is Your Music show and I remember talking to you about your first album.

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That was like 2009 or something. Wow, flashback! I have been threatening to make a solo album for a long time now. I haven’t been working on this album that whole time, except “Too Tired To Sleep” — I wrote that a long time ago. I really started working on Bonsai in late 2018. And I would work on it here and there. COVID hit right around when I started to get it mixed and so that slowed down the process, but that’s when I started making the music videos.

It’s interesting to me that this album was primarily composed before COVID, but there is an overriding tone of isolation and darkness that captures some of the despair a lot of people have experienced in the last year.

Yeah, it’s been fun for me too, to see the songs connect to other things that were not intended.

Do you have any additional thoughts about creating the whole thing yourself vs. the work you have done in the Pines and as a sideman on other recordings?

Yeah. Pines and other recordings were done in professional studios, so we had to work really fast — which is a good limitation to have. Since I did this on my own time, I had to create my own limitations.

And, there’s opportunities for both approaches. Since I’m somewhat capable of playing all the parts, there’s a certain sound there that couldn’t be created with a band.

The use of waltzy time signatures really helps propel all of those odd chord progressions. Those progressions that don’t really seem to resolve in an expected way.

I’ve always been drawn to the more “out there” chord progressions. To take all the same ingredients we’ve heard before and make something a little different is the craft.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 298.