video premiere: get to know gold star with a new country-soaked single 'sonny's blues'
As we premiere the home movie-style music video for “Sonny’s Blues,” we meet the man behind its strung-out Western melodies to talk L.A. punk and Ryan McGinley road trips.
Photography courtesy Jenna Putnam
Live in a city like New York long enough, and you'll start to miss houses. Lofts and brownstones will never lose their allure, but there comes a point after the pilgrimage where front yards and porches and fences feel a lot less like trappings of suburban boredom. For the past five years, Los Angeles native Marlon Rabenreither has been shacking up in a hundred-year-old Hollywood Craftsman. It's not only where he wrote much of Big Blue, the forthcoming album under his country-folk moniker Gold Star, it's where he recorded the project, too — live.
"It was a nice way to take all of these different kinds of songs and feelings and vocalize them in one place," Rabenreither says when we speak on the phone. The decision to skip the studio "was about trying to capture an immediacy: not doing a lot of takes and not really rehearsing things too much — leaving space to see where the songs go."
Rabenreither says you can hear the Craftsman creak on some of Big Blue's songs, but certainly not its lead single, "Sonny's Blues." Sharing its name with a James Baldwin short story, the full-bodied folk offering recalls elements of Bob Dylan, Wilco, and the country twang of Lucinda Williams, who invited Rabenreither to tour with her after his acoustic shows made the Grammy-winning artist cry. Today, we're pleased to premiere the single's accompanying music video: a super-saturated, lo-fi trip through a cemetery that enshrines both sides of the sweet-but-sad tune. Our conversation with Rabenreither spans literature and Los Angeles punk, but we begin with houses.
L.A. has such a wonderful musical history. Did the city shape the stuff that you listened to growing up?
Absolutely. The most iconic L.A. songwriters, you know like they're sort of tied to the city. Tom Waits, for example; even the more cliche stuff like Jim Morrison. Elliott Smith isn't from here originally, but he wrote about it so much. They give you a good perspective of the city through music.
Certain neighborhoods, too. The last time I was in L.A., I stayed in Laurel Canyon and obviously got into a heavy Joni Mitchell, Mama's & The Papa's kind of mood.
Oh man, it's unignorable. Especially Laurel Canyon, Topanga Canyon, because it looks and feels the same — all of that crazy 60s history definitely still informs the city.
I stayed in a guesthouse that Lead Belly had lived in during the 50s.
Wow, that's wild. Everyone in The Canyon always says like, "This is Houdini's house," "Neil Young stayed here," or whatever, but I've never heard Lead Belly. That's super interesting.
And I'd been watching the MTV Unplugged where Kurt Cobain talks about trying to convince David Geffen to buy him Lead Belly's guitar as I was looking on Airbnb. Anyway, let's talk about "Sonny's Blues." I read it was inspired by James Baldwin.
Yeah, there's a short story called Sonny's Blues that Baldwin wrote, and one of my friends has gotten me more into him lately. I had written a song not so much with the Baldwin story in mind, but she was kind of adamant that it was interesting subtext to the song. I liked that; it's not literal connection by any means, but it is kind of a feeling.
Do you find yourself drawing inspiration from literature often?
Absolutely. I think literature gives you a perspective on how you see everything, really, like all good art does.
Some of my favorite artists are obsessed with writers. Morrissey with Oscar Wilde, Patti Smith with Rimbaud.
Patti Smith is a great analogy. From the beginning, she always identified as a poet, but if you read Just Kids or her more recent work, it gives you so much more understanding of the context of a record like Horses. Her writing makes it so much more understandable and real in a way. I think if you're a creative person, it's almost your job to take everything in and see as much as you can.
I've read that you've done the Ryan McGinley road trips and hitchhiked a lot as well.
Ryan's always been an amazing advocate. He did a video for my old band, and he flew us to Amsterdam to play at one of his openings. I think I was 18 when I met him. He's good about supporting all the kids that he shoots. I think that's rare and important.
Tell me about the video we're premiering. It's really simple, but it's so lovely.
We wanted to have almost like a home video vibe, just a really simple, stripped-down video. We just borrowed my buddy's mini DV camera and hung out at Forest Lawns cemetery. I think it ended up aligning up with the mood of the song.
The colors are beautiful.
We felt like it had to be a bright video. Even though it's shot at the cemetery, it's kind of blown out to not have an overly morbid vibe to it. The idea was to have those things play off of each other in a way.
What's your writing process like? Is it something you do everyday?
Absolutely. I try to, even if it's just like playing on a piano for five minutes, just to have that kind of connection. I think that if you can stay out of your own way, not doubt yourself, and just follow things through, I've found it to be a good way of writing — to write a lot and to not worry about writing bad songs.
Do you feel like you've always been interested or drawn to country, western, and blues sounds? Or do you remember a sort of shift happening for you?
Well, it's funny you mentioned Lead Belly and Laurel Canyon and Kurt Cobain, because Nirvana turned me onto Lead Belly. That's how I got to appreciate that kind of music; I got into old rock n' roll and rockabilly because of bands like X. I came to it in a very roundabout way.
Speaking of X, you also front a punk band, and used to be in a psych rock group. How do you navigate between those different worlds?
I try not to think about it too much and just follow my instincts. The big difference is that Gold Star is more my own vision of the world. It's me sitting down to write songs, while the other group is very much a band; it's my oldest friends and it has the feel of a gang. It's not just my voice, and that changes things a lot.
What do you hope people take from the record?
There's a moment when it's out of your hands, really. There's only so much you can control, and now it's almost like my job is done. All I can do is perform it and try to convey that, you know? From here on out, it's open-ended.
'Big Blues' will be released in March via Autumn Tone Records. Catch Gold Star live at L.A.'s Bootleg Theatre on February 27.
Text Emily Manning