If noir cinema crawled from the waves, Misery Hill would be the likely sonic outcome. Part horror film, part evocation, part breezy California surf rock, the six track mini-album is an evocation of creepy places, genres forgotten and the singular synthesis of Ethan Ballinger, one of roots Nashville's most respected guitarists.
The supple playing, harmonic sense and aural complexity make sense for the man who splits his time between playing with roots doyenne Lee Ann Womack and garage country’s Aubrie Sellers, while also producing lauded artists like Peter Bradley Adams and Ryan Culwell. But while his unique guitar sensibilities embody some warped combination of Django Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Cropper, Tony Rice, and Link Wray, what’s startling is the lush emotionalism beyond the words in his own music, the way the tracks quietly layer and build, the rhythmic propulsions and well, the places he goes.
Born to a pair of touring bluegrass playing parents in Tennessee, Ballinger picked up the fiddle at age 3, piano at 7, and then moved on to guitar at 10, “because my friend had drums, and we had a garage band.” Unbeknownst to the musically precocious child, who latched onto playing the melody on the bass string, they had arrived at something called “surf rock.”
It didn’t matter. Between channeling “Ren & Stimpy,” the music of “Star Wars,” the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the Zombies, classic cartoons, The Beach Boys, “The Twilight Zone,” Metallica, The Ventures In Space and Led Zeppelin, he absorbed intensity, heavy “psychological” things, surreality in many forms and enough psychedelia to never buy into any one emotion, truth or oeuvre.
“Obviously, I don’t write songs in a narrative way,” says the multi-instrumentalist. “But every line and every note mean many things to me. I don’t wrap things up in a neat little sentence, or line, because there are so many ideas to explore. I hope that allows the songs to bring emotions and feelings out of them. You know, those things we don’t always have words for, but they’re in there…”
“Even though the album is exploring dark feelings and impulses, I think there is hope in connecting with that, knowing you’re not alone in dealing with anything, knowing that you’re not the only weirdo in the world who feels and thinks the way you do. That’s what the music I love does for me, and it’s always been my ultimate goal to pay back the rich world of music that has given me something to live for.”
Having produced albums in his bedroom since childhood on whatever recording device was available, Misery Hill is the culmination of a lifelong obsession with exploring sound and harmony. Whether it’s the ominous snippet “B-Roll”, which sets the stage for the whole record, the almost Japanese film swell of “Monster” with its swirly vocal and cosmic patina, or the sonic disruptive knocking in “B Killa,” the experimental pushes traditional forms against more expected forms. The title track’s cascading surf rock moves in a decidedly lo-fi way where the voice is one more instrument on the plane of evocation, while the bright acoustic jangle of “Never There” offers a Laurel Canyon goes to space vibe.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that ‘Never There’ deals with people who are emotionally distant and vacant, until much later, but that’s something that’s always terrified me: the thought of people not being able to connect, or ever truly understand one another. Anyway, I just thought about how the song subconsciously fit the horror theme.”
He laughs a bit when he says this. The unwitting way truths fall in line. Misery Hill was born from the ashes of an abandoned full length horror themed album. As these completed songs emerged and “spoke” to each other, Ballinger decided to issue the collection as a “mini-album” on Valentine’s Day (“the second scariest day of the year”) to offer this music to all the people living in the cracks.
“Depressions, anxiety, loneliness, isolation, feeling misunderstood, confusion,” he offers, citing all the reasons for this music. “Being freaked out by life, that’s really the ultimate horror.
‘Monster’ isn’t a literal monster. It’s a metaphor for the things that are inside, and the things we all live with. I can’t even tell you about where it came from, other than I was playing my Mom’s 12-string guitar, and these chords fell out that felt both so Nirvana and Brian Wilson with that intangible melodic thing that’s both feeling and inviting.”
Raw urgency defines “Monster,” though it is vulnerable in how abstract the structure and execution feels. Designed to let others find their own emotions in the song, the guitarist who believes he learned to play as a way to write and connect sees Misery Hill with its surf guitars, chaotic rhythms, other worldly tones and silken sonic clouds as a means to excavate new paths in what music can be and do.
“The minute I picked up a guitar, I was writing riffs and songs. I’m inclined to explore, and that’s where the melody and harmonic ideas come from. I’m too broke to afford a therapist, so this is where I go. These songs are pretty elemental to who I am.”