Interview with Jay Ragsdale from Brave Town: New Music The Death of a Dream

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Brave Town has been a bit MIA — their last single “Holy Water Boyfriend” was released in 2017.

I learned the reasoning behind this hiatus in my interview with Jay which involved a redefining of the word “success,” a faith deconstruction, and a return to what is pure, humbling and meaningful. This sabbatical led to The Death of a Dream, their newest project that was released on Friday, February 15th. These songs were worth the wait. It showcases the experiences that center on failure, grief, change, and coming to accept that these encounters are integral parts of life. With vulnerable and refreshing honesty, the songs speak to the universal experience of letting a dream pass away.

There are so many singers out there trying so hard to make their voice different and quirky. This so often results in a lot of them all sounding the same — the exact opposite of their intention. I’ve always loved Jay’s voice because it’s unique of its own accord, and I feel like that’s hard to find these days. The songs are anthemic and super dynamic. Brave Town does such a good job of crafting their songs in a way that feels good sonically, but also gives you the feeling there’s always something deeper under the surface. They also put to rest any concern of how they’ll sound live. There are a lot of artists and bands I love in my headphones but make me unsure of how I’d receive them in real life. The Death of a Dream is produced in such a way that feels simultaneously clean and raw. This balance is so crucial to achieve for the nature ofthese songs, but Brave Town collectively, Quinn Redmond (co-producer), Erik Jahner (engineer), and Kyle Dreaden (mixer) truly mastered this coalescence.

I was a freshman in college at Belmont University when I first met Jay.

How you ask? Well, he came into my dorm room, plopped on the floor with his acoustic guitar, and played a quick cover to promote a date auction his dorm was putting on — a memory I learned he’s deeply repressed.

I’ve always been a fan of Jay as a musician and as a person. When I’d run into him on campus he’d always ask if my day was going well and if I confirmed, he’d always inquire why it was going well — which made me either pause in the midst of the hurry of my day to be grateful or would expose my fraudulence and force me to confess how my day was really going. Either way — he always challenged me and kept me honest.

I, a big fan of Brave Town, have been eagerly awaiting a new release. Wanting to find out if there was new music in the works, and the reasoning behind the two year break, I had Jay come on my podcast (prior to the 2/15 release of The Death of a Dream) and I loved the conversation we ended up having.

Since you’re from here, or from Brentwood technically, did you always know you were gonna go to Belmont?

Jay: Yes, pretty much. My oldest sister went to Belmont, my second oldest sister went to Belmont, my cousin, my brother-in-law, so… (laughs) when I started being in a band when I was 14 and starting playing shows, Belmont felt like the place I wanted to go.

What was your band called when you were 14?

Jay: It was a band called Harpeth. I think our first show was at The End at 1:00 am. I think it’s the first time I got cussed out in an affectionate way.

Did y’all play originals or covers?

Jay: We played originals because our covers were so bad. I would try covering Radiohead… like I couldn’t cover Radiohead well now! We mostly played post-rock 10-minute songs.

So you get to Belmont, were you intimated by the people at Belmont or did you kinda feel ready to go?

Jay: I think I was really excited. I think part of it was an over-estimation of myself. I met a lot of people and collaborated a lot.

So how did you meet the members of Brave Town, originally Wild Sun?

Jay: There were three other Wild Suns so we had to change our name eventually. It’s rough out there, y’all.

I was very much in band-mode when I met Michael Kelly at orientation. I would hear people’s influences and check them off in my mind, whether or not I could be in a band with them. Very prideful (laughs). Michael told me one of his main influences was Paramore and I thought Paramore was cool but I was like, psh not this guy! But somehow we ended up in a band together and he’s been my musical partner for almost 6 years now.

I knew Dan Crotts, our drummer, through a cousin. We played him what we thought were our two best songs and he was like: “Well not those two!” and I thought, “You’re in! We need that kind of honesty.” We went through a million bass players, but when we got the opportunity to play Rites of Spring we were able to win over the one we really wanted, who was Lucas Morton. I somehow manipulated him to stick around.

When did y’all put out your first official project?

Jay: I believe it was either 2014 or 2015. The songs on Brave Town – EP were really fun. I still feel good about them, but there was a time I went through where I was almost a little embarrassed by them. We have a song called “Denim” — I don’t know if I would write it today, but it did lead to some really fun opportunities. Life is a journey and music is a progression. I appreciate that more now than I did then.

I regret taking down our very first EP. I think it’s apart of a bigger issue in how we view ourselves and our music — I was selectively editing part of my musical history I didn’t think was up to quality instead of viewing it as authentic and part of my journey. I shouldn’t be the judge of what people get to like and listen to from me.

So tell me about graduating and that shift, and releasing “Holy Water Boyfriend.”

Jay: That song was a lot for me and for us. I had been going through a faith deconstruction for awhile. I used to have these views on people and the boxes I and others should be in, and when I came to Belmont, that began to unravel through a lot of different experiences and relationships. “Break up with your holy water boyfriend” is this idea that letting go of that faith foundation can actually be a really good thing.

I was learning a lot about how my faith had historically viewed women and kept them in certain roles. And so I wrote and shared an article detailing my faith deconstruction and that ended up being a bigger experience for me than the song. It felt really vulnerable and honest. I had this feeling that I wasn’t alone in the sentiment that the beliefs I grew up with weren’t really working for me anymore. I got a really great response from a lot of people who were commenting on it and engaging with it. And there were a lot of people that were upset about it, thinking I’d lost my path. But my favorite part was the outreach from people I hadn’t talked to in so long who told me they felt the same way.

And it was the first time I put out music & art where I cared far more about its immediate impact on my personal community than a wider community of people I don’t know. It changed the way I viewed and measured success in a huge way. It was so meaningful and impactful for me.

And this whole experience made me realize I had been viewing myself as more of a musician than as a human being. I used to believe if I had a real back-up plan to music that I didn’t have what it takes. And I think that sentiment fails to view musicians as human beings. I was also comparing myself to other musicians in Nashville way too much and it became really toxic. Brave Town stopped working and I felt like not only a failure but like I had lost my identity.

But I’ve really come to appreciate that time. In that silence it really exposed my insecurity and I’ve been able to see myself again.

That’s so cool. I totally agree with your view of success. I like to think more about how can I be “impactful” than how I can I be “successful.”

Jay: I agree, and I think it’s impact both ways. I used to think about reaching other people with my music but I never thought about being reached myself. I’ve been trying to derive value from my songs now by asking myself, if no one hears this or even likes it, “what does this bring me?”

Another thing I’ve started doing is playing music for people in hospice. It’s really wrecked a lot of my understanding of being an artist and just as a person to play music for one person that’s non-responsive. It’s such a powerful experience because it’s the exact opposite of what I used to view as success. I’ve played shows for thousands of people at this point, and usually afterwards I would just feel super tense and judgmental of myself. But playing for one person in hospice is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

I’ve started posting poetry too online and intentionally not “hash-tagging” it or anything, and instead of thinking about how many likes I get, I’m thinking about who liked it or engaged with it. It’s made me feel more like an artist than I’ve ever felt.

I wanna go back to “Holy Water Boyfriend” for a bit and the inspiration behind it. I’m assuming you grew up in church?

Jay: Yes, I grew up southern baptist.

And when you got to Belmont, did your faith change their or did it mostly change afterward?

Jay: It definitely changed there. One of the biggest things for me was I started dating my partner Sarah and her brother came out as gay, and that’s his own story to tell, but he was a Christian and wanted to be a pastor (and he his today) but he had all of these people telling him that he couldn’t, and were de-validating something he believed about himself and worked through in his relationship with God. And knowing him and loving him, and seeing Christians attack and condemn him, I just kept thinking this behavior doesn’t feel like it’s of God.

And then simultaneously, Sarah was learning about women in the church and about not being able to lead and be pastors. My sister thought about being a pastor for a while and I kept thinking, how could someone deny what she felt called towards? It really started unraveling my faith and I felt really lonely in that. I started listening to The Liturgists Podcast and I learned that wrestling with these different issues and when faith breaks and changes it can actually be a really good thing.

So all of these revelations eventually led to “Holy Water Boyfriend.”

Jay: So the song is kind of an amalgamation of “fake” Christianity and using it as an excuse to treat people unfairly.

Well, I think we can use Christianity to protect ourselves from a really beautiful world and use it to put up walls between us. That song tries to deal with the fact that deconstruction is hard but it’s a good thing.

I also realized that I had been the worst listener. The most certain I was in my Christianity was when I was the worst listener.

I couldn’t agree more. The Liturgists Podcast has helped me so much too. I used to think that if I was doubting my faith than I wasn’t a firm believer. And the older I get, I feel like the more I’m questioning and doubting, the more I feel closer to God.

Jay: That’s beautiful. I think challenging, wrestling, being open and honest, and listening to other people are at the center of faith and spirituality.

So what’s next for you? How are you bringing this kind of newfound identity with your music into the new year?

Jay: I’m working on music and poetry and like I said, just really trying to change the way I interact with people on social media, and really trying to put out stuff that’s vulnerable and will connect me to someone else.

And Brave Town has recorded 6 songs collectively called The Death of a Dream which I think relates to a lot of things we’ve talked about.

I’ve written more songs too but maybe I’ll just keep them for myself! I’m still reevaluating what this all looks like for me and I’m really trying to get back to how my music is pushing me to my inner community.

The Death of a Dream is out now on all digital platforms and you can read Jay’s article “Holy Water Boyfriend” here:

Interview by: Monica Moser

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