The Milk Carton Kids and the Bittersweet Soul of Folk

milk carton kids
The Milk Carton Kids.

The sound of the Milk Carton Kids is an anachronism, interlocking country-brushed folk of the American West with songs that could be performed beside Woody Gutherie, Paul Simon, or Elliot Smith. They could be from a cabin along Tennesee's Natches Trace or an outpost in the Minnesota woods. But the duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan live in California, in Eagle Rock, the sleepy--yet artsy--enclave wedged between Pasadena and Los Angeles. Their music shifts from wintery music tailor-made for wool and houndstooth to quick fingerpicking to score urban square-dances and well-mannered hoedowns.

This isn't coffee shop folk; their album "Prologue" delves into emotional landscapes and delicate textures often evade "folksy" artists who perform only for the latte-sipping set. They've earned accolades from scions of the folk revival and were tapped to tour with the Prohibition-era troupe, Punch Brothers. Grammy award winning producer and musician Joe Henry, gave them a hat tip too, writing the liner notes to their album. The duo's guitars jangle behind their whiskey-dipped vocals, which coalesce into harmonies that ache with melancholy and glow with the warmth of hope. After the winter comes the spring, and like the Milk Carton Kids' stark beauty and slowly unfolding melodies, it's worth the wait.

The Milk Carton Kids play the Luckman Auditorium December 1, opening for the Punch Brothers, and Artbound caught up with Joey Ryan to explore the craft behind their bittersweet brand of Americana.

How did the cultural landscape of southern California help you develop your sound?

We found our way to the music we're now making together via a rather circuitous path. Our solo work before The Milk Carton Kids reflects a scattered search for identity in an environment where, fortunately, such a search was permitted, even encouraged. Largely to the credit of the aspirational culture in Los Angeles, we were allowed to flounder and flail about long enough to home in, finally, on something we found meaningful.

You've recorded in Ventura, the sleepy community -with a vibrant country scene decades ago -- just north of Los Angeles' sprawl. Why did you choose to record a show there?

We chose Ventura for the tiny venue there that stands for all the right things and does so in a most unlikely place, as you point out. Zoey's - which is owned, booked, and run on the generosity of Polly and Steve Hoganson - served as a proving ground and an incubator for our nascent duo. When it came time to record a live album, we knew there was no place that would prioritize the musical ambitions of the evening above all else the way that Polly and Steve would. We were able to turn their listening room into a veritable studio - at times our album "Retrospect" plays as a studio album, that is until the audience applauds as the songs end.

Where do you go in Los Angeles when you need to be inspired?

These days, Los Angeles serves as an all-too-temporary respite from our touring endeavors. I find the most inspiration at home, where the physical and historical landscape of Laurel Canyon and the comforts of family remind that life on the road, while seemingly continuous and unending, is actually the anomaly and not the norm.

If you could collaborate or create a dream band of Southern California artists (past and present), who would you include and why?

There is a wonderful family of players of whom we've been admirers for some time now. Instrumentalists all, we intend to rope them into a communion of sorts at some point in the not too distant future. Especially with Joe Henry at the helm and Ryan Freeland engineering, the ensemble of Jay Bellerose, David Piltch, and Keefus Ciancia have a sympathy and camaraderie that creates some of the most beautiful sounds coming from Southern California, or anywhere.

Your music is minimalist, yet rich with textures. How do you know when a musical element is too much and how do you know when a song is finished?

The minimalism is merely an artifact of the limitations we've placed on ourselves in instrumentation. In writing, in arranging, we're fighting against minimalism as a philosophy, striving instead for all the things that are its opposite - complexity, confusion, seduction. It's hard to do too much with so few tools at our disposal. It's easy to know when a song is finished.

What have you learned from the bands that you've toured with, like Punch Brothers and Joe Purdy?

Currently on tour with Punch Brothers, we're learning humility. First, because they operate on a different plane where it concerns musical ambition and raw ability. But perhaps the lesson is learned more profoundly since, in spite of their unequalled achievement as musicians, they each maintain a humility of character that is staggeringly generous to us as tour mates, and to everyone else working on their behalf.

The tour with Joe Purdy was our first as The Milk Carton Kids, and was naturally quite formative. Joe can show you quick what it means to be independent - religiously so - and to set one's own terms and live by them. We take a lot of cues from that experience to this day, musically and otherwise, and wouldn't be where we are if it weren't for him.

If your music could be the score for a film, what would it look like? Describe some scenes or environments that you think would pair well with your music.

The inherent sense of nostalgia that creeps in to all our writing seems to be the central contribution to any film we've had the pleasure of being involved with. It's a complex emotion, full of duality and paradox, and songs laden with it can transfer all that conflict to the characters on the screen. Rather than an environment or setting, it seems our songs pair best with characters, with human beings, and all of the contradictions they embody.

You've released your music for free. How do you think the value of music has changed in the digital age? What's your approach to thriving in the new music business?

We should view the phenomenon of free music with ambivalence. On the one hand, the trust and generosity of spirit that are engendered by providing something for free, be it music or any other art or service, are remarkable and powerfully affirming. To have played some small role in a culture of selflessness and goodwill has been one of the more rewarding parts of the past year and a half. But, if the expectation that music will be or should be free is allowed to prevail, it would stand as a tragic failure of human character. The value of music is unquestioned, the price of it seems to be in flux. At some point the price will have to settle at something that sustains the art form.


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