Wild Pink‘s John Ross picks up the phone from the “middle of nowhere,” in upstate New York, where he relocated from New York City in 2020. It’s not as if being in a sprawling urban metropolis is particularly desirable right now, given the perils of density amid a pandemic. But Wild Pink has never seemed like a “city” band, necessarily—their music is that of searching, of wanderlust, a soundtrack to getting outside and going somewhere else.
A Billion Little Lights, Wild Pink’s third album , is the biggest and more elaborately orchestrated statement in the band’s trilogy thus far. It’s a rock album that takes detours and side streets through gentle, intimate folk and grand, emotional symphonic pop. It feels a lot like the band’s entered a new phase, where their musical possibilities seem limitless, even while vocalist and songwriter John Ross hones in on more insular examinations of the self. The songs sometimes never leave the narrator’s internal monologue, but the world they inhabit is much bigger than that.
Ross spoke to Treble about losing his rhythm in 2020, taking cringeworthy notes, and making the biggest record he possibly could.
Treble: How was your 2020?
John Ross: You know, pretty shitty. It’s just a crazy fucking time for everyone, obviously. A lot of crazy shit was going on. I don’t know… Not amazing. How about you?
Treble: OK. Frustrating, some good things but a lot of bad.
JR: Yeah, I would say there were moments of good stuff but overall, pretty nasty stuff.
Treble: Did the pandemic and all that came with it get in the way of being able to make or release music for you?
JR: Yeah for sure. I haven’t played a show in like, probably more than a year now. And everyone in the band moved, just scattered all over the country. So in terms of playing music, playing live has changed. And for most of the year, I didn’t really write, which was pretty unusual for me. I didn’t write for myself or Wild Pink, which was pretty weird. I didn’t pick up a guitar for several months, so it was only recently that I started writing again. It was pretty weird. Really put a damper on it.
Treble: A Billion Little Lights feels like a big statement. Everything about it is big—especially in sound…
JR: Totally. That was a plan—I wanted to make the biggest sounding album that I could. That’s something that started with the self-titled record. There’s been a throughline through these three records of just trying to make something sound full and lush and big, and I think this was the end point. This is where I was driving for a couple years.
Treble: How many musicians are on the record?
JR: There’s probably, at least 12 I think. Between 12 and 15.
Treble: Lotta people to fit on one stage…
JR: Oh yeah, totally. I would say in 2019 our live shows, when we’re playing in the Northeast like New York or Philly or something, we would play like a seven- or eight-piece band. And that’s something I want to take forward when shows resume, is playing with a large group. But I don’t think we could totally ever match what we did on the record, doing it live.
Treble: A lot of the songs seem to have a lot to do with growing up, accepting who you are or understanding who you are. How much of this comes from your own internal monologue?
JR: I think that songs are a way for me to do that kind of exploring. But also I think there’s a lot of creating a world in these songs. I don’t know, it’s not all based in reality, obviously. But in terms of exploring myself, it happens. Writing songs is just how I do that. It’s not something I consciously set out to do, but that’s how it happens.
Treble: You’ve cited a lot of books and TV shows in the past when discussing influence, as well as social media. Do you keep notes or journals of the ideas from other works that spark inspiration? Or is it more just a matter of kind of filing things away mentally?
JR: It’s kind of both. I’m definitely inspired by stuff that I consume. And I’m always writing down ideas, 90 percent of which I’ll never use. But I definitely jot things down on my phone all the time. I tend to cull from the stuff that I write down, and I could be watching anything and just come up with an idea, and I don’t even know why, it doesn’t even seem like a good idea, but I’ll come back to it later and maybe it’ll make sense. Maybe it doesn’t, but sometimes it does.
Treble: Do you ever write something down and come back to it and think, “I have no idea why I wrote this”?
JR: I read so much embarrassing shit that I don’t even remember writing and I’ll just think, “god, it’s so cringey.”
Treble: Your songs often have parallels between history and the present—do you spend a lot of time outside of music reading about or studying up on history?
JR: Oh yeah. I’ve always been super into history. From a very young age. And that’s definitely a lens that I kind of look at songwriting through, if that makes sense.
Treble: Is there a particular era that you’re drawn to?
JR: Not really. When I was really young, I was into the 20s, 30s and 40s in America. But it’s changed so much. It changes often. I wouldn’t say there’s any particular time that I’m interested in.
Treble: Is there a therapeutic quality to making music for you?
JR: Totally. Yeah. I think that’s what I’m driving at, too, with the self-exploration and stuff. It has helped me a lot, personally, to have songwriting as an outlet, creatively. It’s just necessary for me, in terms of therapeutic value.
Treble: Do you think you’ve changed much as a person since you started the band?
JR: I think so, and I don’t know if it’s just from aging. I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. But I feel like so much of my self-worth is tied up in what I do musically, so I get so, so much satisfaction from songwriting. It has definitely helped me a lot as a person.
Treble: What are your hopes for 2021?
JR: I hope that touring comes back. It seems pretty unlikely at this point, but I hope it happens. Shit, that’s a big one.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.