The desert can have an alluring effect on people. Just ask Ryan Traster: After a decade of nomadic living and performing, Traster was drawn to Joshua Tree, which became his home—and what resulted was the singer/songwriter’s most unique and textured album to date.
Low Mirada, out Sept. 30, is loaded front to back with layered guitars, expansive vocals, sharp pianos and much more. From the indie-rock and Southern charm of “The Night’s Got You” (which will be released Friday, Aug. 5), to the cowboy tale of “The Seventh Daughter,” to the psychedelic jams of “Fangs,” Low Mirada is undeniably diverse.
“It’s a headphone record,” Traster said during a recent phone interview.
He explained his move to the high desert.
“I was living in New York, in Brooklyn, for maybe four-ish years, and just kind of on a whim decided I was going to give up my apartment and visit some friends in L.A.,” Traster said. “It was an absurd last-minute thing. … I laid out a blanket on the street with all of my DVDs and CDs and a few pieces of vinyl and did a little corner sale, and I managed to get $300 cash, so I bought a plane ticket and went to L.A. and stayed on my friend’s couch for a little bit. I was out there for nine months total just checking it out, and I thought it was cool.
“While I was out there, I rolled down to Joshua Tree with some friends of mine a couple of times, and actually stayed up at the Rimrock Ranch one time. I was really stoked on the place; it just kind of had this cool vibe. I always had it in the back of my mind where if I ever ran into an opportunity where I could afford to buy a house, I should totally buy a house there—and flash forward to 2018, I had this really great job in Portland, and I convinced my boss to let me work remote. I bought a house in Joshua Tree and headed on down.”
Joshua Tree became Traster’s first real “home” as an adult.
“I spent my late teens, 20s and even early 30s being pretty nomadic,” he said. “I lived in Brooklyn; I lived in Portland; I lived in L.A. I would always just go around and make friends in places and hang out and play gigs and just kind of wander around. I think the part that I was most scared of, moving down to Joshua Tree, was that our kid was only like a year old at that time. Portland was getting less cozy, which kind of impacted the decision to move, but it was still just like, ‘Oh, we’re moving to this totally wild place with really crazy weather.’ Once you’re here for a while, you realize it has pretty much any amenity that you would need—but I was scared. I didn’t even know if there was a hospital in Joshua Tree.”
Much of the music by artists who live in the high desert shares a common trait: expansiveness. There must be something in the high desert air.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a regional sound; I didn’t move down here and start making desert rock, but I was really inspired,” Traster said. “I moved to New York for a bit in my mid-20s, and lived there for four years. I was just so inspired walking around every day, seeing stuff and nightlife, and I got really into film and stuff. Out here, I still walk—I’m a big walking person—but the first six months I was here, I was super-bored and felt like there was nowhere to walk to.”
As Traster got used to Joshua Tree, he started taking the same two-mile hike every day—which he called his “hamster wheel.”
“At first, I was like, ‘Man, I’m kind of getting tired of the hamster wheel,’ but then I started taking time and looking at all the different plants and trying to find little animals around the neighborhood that I knew—and just kind of slowing that down a lot. I think that really did affect the sound on this new record. I reworked some stuff that I had sitting around for a number of years. Usually, I sit down, and I write a song in five minutes, and then it’s done; I really like cranking them out super-quick like that. But now I’ve just been letting them percolate a lot more. I’ll come up with a riff, and then bum around for a couple of weeks thinking about the riff or thinking about a lyric or something. … I think especially for this new (record), it’s helped me think a lot more about arrangements, guitar, layering keys and different things like that. Although the sound is more urgent, it felt a lot more patient to me in the construction of it. It definitely is as expansive as the space that I’m living in.”
The more meditative approach to songwriting goes along with a more patient lifestyle.
“When I put out a lot of my previous material, I didn’t have a child; I didn’t have a full time job. It was more of this kind of vagabond thing, so it was a lot easier for me to just find the time to kick out these snippets every now and again and turn them into songs real quick,” he said. “Now, geographically, and life-necessity wise, I’m a lot more patient with it now. I do like this way of working; I don’t know if it’s how I’ll work forever, but I do enjoy it. I don’t make a living exclusively off of music anymore, however modest that living was. That’s what I did for a decade, so it felt a lot more urgent to kick out material and stuff—but now I dig the patience, and it feels a lot more zen.”
I was curious how this new zen approach to songwriting translated to studio time.
“The band that I recorded with live—which wasn’t the case on my last two records—is my longtime band that I’ve been playing with for over a decade,” Traster said. “We have such a slick, intuitive vibe going. I booked three days in the studio, but I’d been sending demos back and forth, and we talked about it a lot, so we didn’t even need that much time. We got the basic tracks done in one day, and then it was just fun stuff the next few days— overdub and stuff like that.”
Traster said he’s also taking a calmer approach to live performances.
“Realistically, the days of just hopping in a van by myself—which I used to do a ton of—and just driving to every city that I could find in between point A and point B, and playing a coffee shop, playing a bar, just doesn’t seem sustainable anymore,” Traster said. “With gas prices and my employment outside of music and stuff, I don’t even know if I’d want to do that. I’m 38 now, and you get really sore. What I’ve been doing is more of kind of a select, spotty thing where I’ll book a gig in Minneapolis, or Brooklyn, or Nashville, with a few things clumped together in places that I like to play, where I have people to play with. What I’ve tried to do is maybe bring one member from the band that’s available at the time, and play a couple of shows with a local drummer and a bass player. It’s a lot easier than trying to live in a van with five people.”
While Traster’s life may be calmer now, he’s still putting out a lot of new material.
“Since my last record, I put out five lo-fi singles for fun over the pandemic,” he said. “I did a side project with some friends of mine from Brooklyn. … I did a few songs with my friend from Minneapolis, and I already have another EP that I recorded that I’ll probably put out in the winter. I guess things haven’t really slowed down that much. I just started working with a new label out of L.A., which I’m pretty excited about, and I hope to do some more records for them and just kind of see what happens. I think I’ll probably be recording music in one form or another until I, like, corpse it.”
For more information, visit www.songsofryantraster.com.