Ryan Traster had to get out of Minneapolis.
It was 2016 and the singer-songwriter had just released Broken Pop . Allergies and overuse had injured his vocal cords, so recording the EP had been an arduous effort. He was also on the tail-end of a failed relationship. To call it, as he does, a “weird time” would be an understatement.
So in October, Traster took an East Coast road trip that started in upstate New York, continued to Virginia, and ended in Nashville. It was there, in the bedroom of a rental apartment, that Choses Obscures, his new “cosmic country” album, began to take shape. It’s a fresh sound for Traster but might ring familiar to listeners, as it’s reminiscent of the wide-open ’70s Laurel Canyon sound, with hints of David Crosby and Joni Mitchell. Pairing sunny instrumentation with sullen lyrics, it’s Traster’s best album yet.
Of course, Traster didn’t know that then, because Choses Obscures was still just a concept, not a collection of songs he could actually play on stage. He attempted one performance in Nashville but his voice was uncooperative. “It was kind of a disaster,” he says. “I wasn’t able to demo or even sing any of my songs at that point.” Though he had always been a reluctant showman, now he was frustrated by the inability to put his songs across. “It was pretty grim. I felt pretty lost,” he says. “I really did think I was never going to be able to perform again.”
Traster hadn’t been properly diagnosed. He couldn’t afford to see an ENT, much less have surgery. “I just kind of had to go into the ER and be like, ‘Hey, could you look at this and tell me how fucked-up they are?’” he recalls.
While waiting to see if his vocal cords would heal on their own, Traster got a job “slinging drinks” at the legendary Ryman Auditorium. Considered “the mother church of country music,” it was the perfect place for a “nerd-level” country music fan to soak up music history, memorabilia, and performances from the likes of Loudon, Rufus, and Martha Wainwright.
The downtime in Nashville re-instilled the value of music in Traster. “You can see the impact that it has on everyone’s lives,” he says. At the same time, he did some soul-searching of his own. Without the constant travel and drinking that had consumed his life as a touring musician, Traster was forced to face himself, a process reflected in the song “Old World, Present Tense.” “Bury me in some tragedy,” he sings. “So I don’t have to be me/I can be a brave protagonist/Fighting to be free.”
“It sounds so cliché, but really the songs did materialize out of this devastating time in my life,” he says. “Not culturally devastating, not like, ‘Oh, man, this is the end of the world.’ But for me, personally, it was.”
Traster returned to Minneapolis in January 2017. His vocal cords healed, but after so much time off, “I just didn’t know how to sing anymore,” he says. A local vocal coach helped him recover his voice through physical and psychological exercises.
Traister had previously recorded his albums live in a studio with a band, but this time, he began tracking himself, lugging his recording equipment to “cool spaces” in St. Paul and Vancouver, Washington. He lifted recording techniques from sources like Tape Op magazine, whose founder, producer Larry Crane, had worked with Elliot Smith, whom Traster identifies as the “spiritual guide” for the recording process. Band members Michael McGarthwaite (guitar), Nick Johnson (bass), Peter Anderson (drums), Alexander Young (drums), and Andy Holmaas (guitar), along with guest vocalists Savannah Smith and Willie Wisely, later filled out the album. Traster also tracked with Kris Johnson at his St. Paul studio. Ed Ackerson mixed and mastered the album.
Traster named the album after a French term that means “dark energy.” But there is a bit of optimism here, especially on “New Again,” inspired by that initial East Coast road trip. “Just 60 more miles and we’ll be new again/Let’s book it to that next party/Just a few more friends to see/A couple more connections and we’ll be rich and happy,” Traster sings.
Hightailing it out of Minneapolis back in 2016 “was like turning my back to whatever kind of rut I was in,” he says. But though hitting the road felt like medicine at first, Traster soon learned the age-old lesson that if you run from your problems, they’ll still catch up with you, albeit in a different form.
“I still have bad habits and a wild itch I can’t scratch,” Traister says, but his performing hiatus did change him for the better. It wasn’t until he lost his voice that he attended a tech bootcamp; he now does UX Design for a large company in Portland and is “much more employed than I ever have been.” When told he could work from home, he jumped at the chance to buy a house in Joshua Tree. “This has been a long-term dream and scheme for me,” he says. “It’s such a peaceful, beautiful place. It’s really mystical.”
Traster shares the home with his wife and their 14-month-old daughter. Domesticity is a big change for Traster, a once notorious wandering hedonist. “I’m 35 now and I don’t see stabilizing as any kind of downside at this point,” he says. “I feel ready to embrace it.”
Settling down has actually been beneficial for his artistic life, too. “Music is a whole different thing when your dinner and family’s livelihood doesn’t depend on it. It’s such a different experience. You can really enjoy it.” His daughter has recently taken an interest in records, picking them up and dancing to the music. “It was a huge thrill to throw the new album on the turntable and get her feedback. It was cool,” says Traster.
During those dark days in Nashville, Traster swore that if he was ever able to sing again, he wouldn’t take it for granted. And he hasn’t. “Any chance I get to sit down with my guitar now, it’s like, ‘This is amazing,’” he says. “I forgot how important this was to my soul.”
With: Peter M (of We are the Willows) and Savannah Smith
Where: Turf Club
When: 8 p.m. Sat. July 6
Tickets: 21+; $10/$12; more info here