The Story Behind Every Song On Wild Pink’s New Album A Billion Little Lights
Every new Wild Pink album is somehow lusher and more expansive than the last. Although the band’s self-titled debut included plentiful stunners, 2019’s Yolk In The Fur broadened their horizons significantly. The album dressed up John Ross’ dreamy indie rock in florid heartland-rock arrangements that put Wild Pink’s music in conversation with the War On Drugs and Bon Iver at least as much as Death Cab For Cutie and Hovvdy.
With A Billion Little Lights, out today, they’ve pulled off an even greater leap. It’s one of the most exquisitely pretty rock albums in recent memory, an impressionistic travelogue spanning the highways and the stars. Ross, now relocated from Brooklyn to an upstate enclave in Hudson, pulled inspiration from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and a smattering of favorite movies, books, and bands, crafting songs about feeling dwarfed by the infinite expanse and struggling to make sense of life’s big questions. With a cast of collaborators including Ratboys’ Julia Steiner on backing vocals, Magnolia Electric Company’s Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner on pedal steel, and members of San Fermin lending various kinds of orchestral splendor, Ross whispered his own universe of sound into existence.
Lead single “The Shining But Tropical” resembles M83 in its lavish synthetic sprawl, while the jaunty strings that lead off “You Can Have It Back” could almost pass for ’80s sophisti-pop. Some moments evoke dream-pop at its most pastoral, while others have the air of a traditional Irish reel. Wilco, Bon Iver, Tom Petty, Mazzy Star, the 1975 — all of this and more is run through the Wild Pink filter and swirled into a soft, monumental whole. Despite the vast range of touchpoints, the songs bleed into each other with an uncommon grace, working more like movements in a melancholy modern symphony than standalone units. Taken together, it all glimmers as gorgeously as you’d hope from an album called A Billion Little Lights.
Tonight, to celebrate their record’s release, Ross and company will perform a livestreamed acoustic release show from Hudson. Tickets are available here. Until then, press play on the album and let our track-by-track interview with Ross be your guide.
1. “The Wind Was Like A Train”
Why is this the opening track?
JOHN ROSS: I don’t know why it is. When I was writing it, I knew pretty quick that it was gonna be the opener. Just because it’s so simple lyrically and musically. It’s just got one single idea in it. Which is not something I usually do with my songs. I usually try to have a few different ideas in a song. But I liked this initial riff on the keys, and I just wanted this to be a singular opening, if that makes sense.
The refrain here is “I got your back.” Is that directed to someone in particular or about a specific situation?
ROSS: No, it’s not. I like to just keep it open-ended. It’s open to interpretation, really. I don’t mean for it to be a cop-out. That’s how I intend for a lot of the lyrics to be. I want people to get their own meaning from it. But yeah, I can’t say it’s about any one person in particular.
You can hear two of your noteworthy collaborators loud and clear on this one, Mike ‘Slo Mo’ Brenner on pedal steel and then Julia Steiner on backing vocals. How did those two get involved in the album?
ROSS: I had been playing with Mike for a year or two leading up to this. After Yolk In The Fur came out, he would come to New York and play shows — basically whenever we had a show in the Northeast, he would play with us. And moving forward, he’s become a core part of this band. So it was a no-brainer to have him in there. And then Julia’s just, I love Ratboys, and Julia and Dave are amazing people. It was kind of a no-brainer to ask her to sing on this as well. I really wanted to break up my vocal tone. I just wanted to spruce it up, you know? And Julia kindly sang on more than half of these songs.
2. “Bigger Than Christmas”
This is one of several segues between tracks where it feels almost like we’re entering a new movement in some larger musical work rather than a completely separate song. Were the songs written to flow together like that, or was that something that just came together while you were recording and mixing?
ROSS: No, that was definitely something I was trying to do from square one. I wanted the A-side and the B-side for everything to just flow seamlessly together. And that would inform some decisions I made with songwriting, in terms of modulating keys. So yeah, definitely intentional.
This one has that allusion to the Pogues’ “If I Should Ever Fall From Grace.” What inspired that reference?
ROSS: I was just listening to that record a lot. I just love that band. I was just listening to them a ton when I was writing this. I liked that the line has dual meaning. It’s a reference. It can work on two levels, you know? I think that’s why I decided to put it in there.
3. “The Shining But Tropical”
Why was this song chosen as the lead single?
ROSS: I think early on when we were all talking about singles, it seemed pretty clear that this was going to be the first single. Annie Murphy from Schitt’s Creek is in the music video, and that kind of also made the decision easier for that to be the first thing that we put out. Beyond that, though, I think it does work as a single. The video definitely had something to do with it too.
I figured it worked the other way around, where you’re like, “Let’s pick this one as the single,” and then, “Let’s make a video with a famous actress to go along with it.” How did Annie end up in the video?
ROSS: She is married to Menno [Versteeg], who owns Royal Mountain Records, the label that we had just signed to. I think the first song he played her was “Oversharer’s Anonymous.” And she seemed to enjoy the songs and was down for it. I mean, she came up with the idea for “The Shining But Tropical” video. And obviously she did an incredible job with it.
Several songs here, like this one and the last one, describe being awed by the vastness of the universe, just kind of seeing your own smallness. Is it fair to say that’s a big theme on the album? And what got you thinking about that?
ROSS: Yeah, definitely. That’s a theme that’s pretty big in the whole record. Did you ever see Cosmos, with Carl Sagan? You know, the old ones? That series was a pretty big inspiration on the record and definitely this song. And that theme is all throughout this record — and a little bit on Yolk In The Fur too, but definitely on this one.
This is some of my favorite production on the album. The shimmer effect on the vocals here is awesome, and the way the drums and guitar become this kind of brittle backdrop for the keyboard melody. How did this arrangement come together?
ROSS: I knew on this record, I didn’t want it to just be guitar rock music. So I started experimenting a lot more with synthesizers — which I’d started to do on Yolk In The Fur, but again, went all-in on it for this record. so I came up with that initial riff at home and had a lot of the song tracked. But then when we went in to work with David Greenbaum, the producer, he just brought some magic to it. What I brought to him was pretty straight-ahead synthy, I guess. And then when we got together, it just helped me fully flesh it out.
So there’s a pretty significant difference between the demos and the finished product — it bloomed quite a bit from there?
ROSS: The demos, they were pretty far along. But they were all like MIDI drums, the vocals — there was a lot that had to be replaced. So we went about replacing stuff, but then way beyond that too. Some of the demos were maybe halfway there. But then definitely working with David, he just brought a lot to these songs.
How did you decide to work with him?
ROSS: We were introduced by someone who I was working with that they were kind of like my manager at that time. I was on tour and I was in LA and stopped by for coffee, basically, and David and I talked about this record, and I started sending him demos. I want to say it was probably six months between meeting and actually working together.
These are also some of the most beautiful lyrics on the album to me — the way it moves from this person’s microscopic size relative to the universe into the incredible personal impact they made on you.
ROSS: This one, I just wanted it to feel really dreamy. Musically, at least, it’s very much inspired by Slowdive. Lyrically I just wanted it to sound like a memory or a dream or something.
5. “Oversharers Anonymous”
“You’re a fucking baby, but your pain is vaild too” is probably your most instantly quotable lyric.
ROSS: Yeah, it’s cool to see people point that out or hang on to that line.
Why do you think that line sticks with people?
ROSS: I don’t know. It’s open to interpretation. But yeah, it seems to have resonated.
There are some lines here about people’s inability to unplug from their busyness and technology. Relatedly, this is also probably the first reference to Slack that I’ve heard in a song.
ROSS: I used Slack for a job that I held onto for a year, and I don’t know. People are on Slack all day long at work. Do you use Slack for your job ever?
Yeah, we use it. I’m on it right now. I’m not looking at it, but I haven’t closed the window.
ROSS: Yeah, and that’s the vibe too. It’s always up on the desktop.
6. “You Can Have It Back”
“Everybody laughs easily/There’s something wrong with me.” Is that about social anxiety?
ROSS: I think it’s something that I think everybody knows what that feels like. Or maybe not, but I’ve definitely felt like that in the past. I wrote this song thinking it would be for a different project with a different singer. But by the time I had demoed it out, I wanted to keep it for this record. I was kind of toying with the idea of starting a different project, like a new band with a different vocalist.
Is that something you’re still thinking about doing?
ROSS: It’s definitely on the backburner. But yeah, I’m thinking about it. I can’t say too much more about it because I don’t know. I talked to a friend of mine who is into it. But I’m writing other Wild Pink songs now. It’s definitely on the backburner.
7. “Family Friends”
“Every day is Groundhog’s Day now” — this has to be a pandemic lyric, right?
ROSS: It’s actually not, which is crazy. I wrote that probably several months before the pandemic, but it definitely feels relevant now. That’s more about just getting into a groove, just habitually going to work and then writing, just kind of doing the same thing every day. And this song is definitely inspired by that show. Pen15. The two characters’ friendship is really pure and hilarious and sweet. And the ending of this song is kind of about friends dancing with each other.
8. “Track Mud”
This is another one of the prettiest songs on the album. The acoustic guitar sounds incredible in this context and it made me hope you use more acoustic guitar going forward.
ROSS: Actually, we’re doing this livestream. The day this record comes out, we’re doing a livestream performance of the whole record, but we’re going to do it all acoustic, stripped down. So I’m excited to hear all these songs done that way.
9. “Pacific City”
Between the Heat reference here and the Temple Of Doom namecheck on “Family Friends,” we get a decent glimpse into your viewing habits.
ROSS: It’s really fun to just zone out with a guitar. For some reason it’s just conducive to song ideas. Like if I’m just slightly distracted and there’s a guitar in my hand, sometimes an idea will come together that way.
The saxophone really stands out on this one. What inspired that addition?
ROSS: That’s Stephen Chen from a band called San Fermin. He’s awesome. We never had sax on our stuff before. I really just wanted to have new sounds on this record. I had met him at — we must have done a show with San Fermin at that time, and I just asked him if he would do it, and he did. I love the way his sax sounds. It just sounds otherworldly.
10. “Die Outside”
Why is this the closing track?
ROSS: This one is the closer because of the outro. The outro of the song is just like thrashing loud. It just seemed like a great way to end the record. Of all the 10 tunes, the ending of this song just made the most sense to end the record with.
So it’s not like, “Here’s my last word on these themes,” it’s more just like a grand finale. That’s how I would sequence it too, probably. Let the music be your guide. People like me are sometimes too focused on trying to create some kind of narrative thread on an album when it might be more impressionistic than that.
ROSS: Yeah. This song is really fun to play live because of that outro. Everyone just gets really fucking loud. We’re not a super loud band, so it’s a fun moment live for everybody on stage.
A Billion Little Lights is out now on Royal Mountain.