Trying to understand Wild Pink is like looking at the night sky through a broken telescope. Backwards. There’s beauty in the music, but it’s so light and delicate – almost ethereal – and much too far away to ever be considered ‘real’. Furthermore, the profound nature of that beauty is offset by obfuscations – in Wild Pink’s case, forays into film and pop culture references and song titles – all of which mask the deep vulnerabilities held within.
And while vampires, ghosts and spirits still haunt Wild Pink, the bogeyman in the corner is much more real this time.
In 2021, with last record ‘A Billion Little Lights’ just starting its breakout journey, Wild Pink’s John Ross received a cancer diagnosis which would ultimately colour every aspect of writing and recording ‘ILYSM’. The diagnosis came in June, and although an operation to treat the cancer was successful, he was devastated to learn that it had spread to his lymph nodes.
A subsequent operation was needed, meaning treatment would be much more challenging.
“It definitely informed the songwriting, for sure,” he says. “But by that point, everything had intensified with the songwriting. I’d already booked studio time, but I definitely debated whether I should be making a record at that time.
“But it was actually really helpful to just dive in. It made the whole process more focused. I guess I knew the surgery I was facing in the back of my mind, but I don’t think it cast a shadow over the recording in that sense. We just really enjoyed the process.”
After finishing recording, John would go for the operation on his lymph nodes within a week.
For Wild Pink (completed by drummer Dan Keegan and bassist Arden Yonkers), this is somewhat of a telling journey to completing the album. Having been preoccupied with the micro and the macro – especially on ‘A Billion Little Lights’ – as well as asking abstract questions about the meaning of life and humanity, such themes hit a little harder on ‘ILYSM’ when there’s the added context of personal connection and the power of human resolve to draw upon.
Fortunately, John has now entered the surveillance phase of treatment. “I’ve got two clean scans, I go for a scan every three months, and I have a third on Monday. Things are moving in the right direction,” he says. It means ‘ILYSM’ – an album born out of the fear of the unknown – now stands as a testament to hope and resilience.
At the centre of this lies ‘Hold My Hand’, a duet with Julien Baker which shows the power held within small interactions when you’re at your most vulnerable. It was inspired by a nurse who held John’s hand before he went into surgery. Like one of the major themes of ‘A Billion Little Lights’ before it, it explores the fundamental wonder and fragility of human life. Profoundly moving and devastatingly poignant, it will resonate with anyone who has found themselves in a hospital ward holding the hand of a loved one.
“It’s a pretty simple song,” says John, somewhat humbly. “It came together pretty effortlessly, but for me, the worst part was when it came time to release it. I got very uptight because it’s so personal.
“In fact, this whole rollout experience has been pretty intense because of what was going on and what I’ve chosen to share. It’s been really nice to hear that this song resonates with people, though. That makes it worth it.”
Indeed, John’s never been particularly forthcoming when discussing the meaning of songs. Place and setting are important to him, but much of the beauty within Wild Pink’s work is that it’s never fully on the nose, which means reason and purpose are left to the listener to riddle out. Ultimately, the wizard’s curtain has remained remains shut.
But on ‘Hold My Hand’, when John goes personal, it goes deep. “Wherever I go, when I go down / Will you be there when I come around?” is as obvious as John’s ever gotten in his lyrics. Given that, it’s little wonder the press rollout has been so intense.
Yet not everything about making ‘ILYSM’ was quite so challenging. John mentions that the idea of joy and discovery lies within the record, with these themes finding their way into the lyrics. Equally, in collaborating with the likes of J Mascis, Julien Baker, Ratboys’ Julia Steiner and The Antlers’ Peter Silberman, he was able to tease much more out of the songs than was there in their bare bones. In this case, the joy of discovery lay in the hands of his collaborators and the way they could shape the songs to something entirely new from the vision John had in his head.
Recorded in a live room, it means ‘ILYSM’ is far less studied and ‘perfect’ than ‘A Billion Little Lights’, but instead possesses an organic quality that makes the most out of the collaborators.
“It was a failsafe way to get these songs out of my comfort zone,” says John. “I was really keen to have these songs transform themselves from when I wrote the demos, and they’ve changed so much from where they started. That is really satisfying.
“I was actually talking to Justin Pizzoferrato, who engineered the record about this. I’m not a perfectionist in any way, but when I’m writing the songs – when it’s just me in the early stages – I really do edit them a lot, to the point the song is more or less done. But once it’s there, and I’m ready to share it or bring it to the studio and get the collaborators in, I’m ready for everything to get turned on its head. Wherever the song goes, I’m ready to go with it.”
For ‘ILYSM’, such an approach has had profound implications. It’s far less polished than ‘A Billion Little Lights,’ and there’s a grittiness to it not yet seen in Wild Pink’s output. It’s also serpentine and, at times, almost formless, as if songs have naturally expanded to fill the allotted space. Several of the tracks edge past the five-minute mark, often unhurriedly. The languid style often masks the heavy themes when added to John’s hushed vocals.
In fact, it’s somewhat ironic that ‘ILYSM’ is finally the double-LP record John had wanted to make for so long – delivered at a time when he had no intention of writing a double album.
“I feel like a lot of the aspects of this record touch on what I wanted to achieve with the last one,” he says. “But I didn’t set out to make a double record this time. In fact, I’d say that making this record has been more satisfying than making the previous one. I think the way it was recorded gave everybody who worked on it a lot of room to experiment.
“And then I think the songs are not only longer, but they’re also bigger in scope than the previous record – even though that’s what I wanted to do last time. I think it’s been a really gratifying experience.”
Wild Pink’s ability to create wondrous little worlds has never been in doubt. They may be a little bigger this time, but they’re also much more defined. They may remain little dots at the end of a telescope, but on ‘ILYSM’, they shine a little brighter…
Taken from the November issue of Upset. Wild Pink’s album ‘ILYSM’ is out now.