- Photo by Chelsea Arnott
A few years ago, local singer-songwriter John Donovan made a four-song EP in his bedroom. That was nothing new: Donovan had been writing, recording and releasing smart, sensitive singer-songwriter folk for a few years.
But rather than paint these songs with close vocals and acoustic guitar, Donovan became a one-man Americana band, handling the loping rhythm section, mellow organ chords and everything else on his own. And instead of releasing this collection of songs under his given name, as he had before, Donovan invented a fictitious Texas-based sextet called the Ruby Troupe, populated by such unlikely musicians as Edgar "Buck" Edwin, Roscoe Fogg and Philander P. Soloman.
Then something odd happened: The Ruby Troupe got a fair amount of blog buzz for its song "Buffalo Skull." A handful of music sites included it on playlists; the modern rock station in Juneau, Alaska, played it on the air; a DJ from London requested that the "band" do a voice-over intro for his show. Meanwhile, John Donovan, erstwhile solo performer, was playing open-mic nights around St. Louis. He never claimed the Ruby Troupe ruse as his own creation.
"It was almost catfishing," Donovan says of the bizarre experience some years later. "There was something really cathartic about not taking credit for that, almost a sacrifice of art."
In the years following Donovan never stopped gigging, writing and recording — the full-length Via Crucis (2013) and the EP Bernadette (2014) soon followed, both a return to the intimate, often searching folk music he began with. Donovan wanted to document his move away from solo performance and capture some of the rapport he has with his bandmates; to do that, he resurrected the Ruby Troupe moniker, reintroducing it as a name for his (actual, non-fictitious) band on the new four-song EP Silt.
"This is a lot less stressful and more fun than doing it by myself, but there is more immediate pressure — there are people depending on you to get it right," Donovan says of his relatively new role as bandleader. "At home, you have all the time in the world to get a vocal take the way you want it. You can't be as much of a perfectionist. But playing songs with competent, friendly musicians gives it new life."
Those musicians — guitarist Andy Berkhout, bassist Steve Lenivy and drummer Christopher Fenter — provide a loose and hazy framework for these tracks, one that pushes Donovan's voice into a more rock-oriented atmosphere. Opening track "St. Elizabeth" is emblematic of the band's reworking of these older songs. There's a looseness to the rhythm as Fenter and Lenivy settle into a loose groove reminiscent of syrupy reggae. Donovan and Berkhout share guitar duties, and they dial in tones that are both ragged and starlit.
Donovan and Berkhout have had many opportunities to play off of each other. Donovan plays guitar in Berkhout's project Trotting Bear, which just released its atmospheric, twang-centric LP Currents this summer.
"I think our common ground is the enormous umbrella of singer-songwriter," Donovan says of his musical relationship with Berkhout. "His approach from the start has been more introverted and almost dreamlike in texture, and mine tends to be more storytelling in a more forceful way, lyrically. We definitely don't do the same thing, and I like that it shakes up my routine a lot."
Whereas Trotting Bear recorded at John Vanderslice's famed Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco, the Silt EP was a more streamlined and local effort. The quartet knocked out the songs over three hours at the Gaslight, the studio and bar space that opened this year on the Hill. The space was still raw and unfinished when the band recorded, and Mark Cange's simple set-up — a few mics, a compressor and a ProTools rig — allowed for a warm if bare-bones recording.
Donovan is releasing Silt as a digital-only EP as a means to capture his band in the moment; in fact, all the songs on the recording date back to earlier solo releases. It's a stopgap of sorts, Donovan admits.
"I've got a project in the works that will hopefully become a full-length, and if I really hack away it should be out next summer," he says. "I've been doing a lot of songs in my bedroom studio and I really like the way they're coming along."
When asked what moniker he'll use to release these sixteen or so new songs — the Ruby Troupe or some other pseudonym — Donovan says he plans on releasing it under his own name once again.
"There's a certain amount of pride in doing it myself," he says. "I'm sure it will be my downfall."Listen to Silt below: