The Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan Breaks Down the Craft and Meaning of ‘All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do’

Eagle Rock, California duo The Milk Carton Kids write timeless songs with roots in long standing traditions, which make for immediately poignant music. Their latest album, “All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do,” ambitiously expands their sound, while still capturing the intimate feel of their earlier work, with painstakingly crafted vocal harmonies and intricate guitar interplay. Fittingly, the record  simultaneously expresses both personal concerns and broader, socio political issues, in a thoroughly realized, cohesive way.

Singer and rhythm guitarist Joey Ryan, one half of the duo, met with Entertainment Voice and shed much light on the inner workings of the band and their new release. We explored the duo’s general approach and attitude, as well as their songwriting craft and process. Ryan discussed the general concept of the new album and the musical and lyrical inspirations, and delved into specific details and lines from the latest songs. We explored common misconceptions, the pros and cons of the “folk” label, and plenty more in an enlightening and amusing conversation.  

You really tap into a sensibility of bygone eras with your music, but do it in such a consummate way that it sounds totally natural. Does this “revivalism” aesthetic extend to other things as well? Clothes, design, mentality, mindset, etc?

No. I have an apple watch. I actually have a particular disdain for that mentality. Also, our music gets interpreted that way, and I can’t deny it, although that’s not actually what we mean. We definitely don’t mean to be doing a throwback. To the extent that anything that we’re doing sounds different from what’s modern, it’s merely a matter of, maybe, being a little out of touch with things that are modern, and maybe being a little more attached to things that sound timeless.

It’s not something I mind, and it is something that people think about and say all the time about us and a lot of other bands that are in the folk/Americana world, and some of them choose to play it up more on the aesthetic front, but we don’t. We were both raised in Los Angeles in the ‘90s and are fairly modern people, so it’s kind of just an accident that the music came out sounding like that?  

One striking feature of your music is the vocal harmonies. What’s the usual process by which they come about? Do you come up with chords and each just sing the melodies that come to mind, or do you specifically set out to write lines that mesh well?

The writing of the harmonies is the most laborious part of our songwriting process, I would say. We obsess over it, we labor over it, we change the melody to accommodate a better harmony line. I don’t know if we’ve ever done it before, but I know we would change words if a particular sound or syllable pattern wasn’t fitting the harmony. We write the chords and the lyrics first, but when we get into laboring over the harmony lines, nothing else is considered set in stone. Everything can shift to accommodate what we’re trying to do with the harmonies. In the end, I think what we’re after is a harmony part where both likes feel like they could be their own melody.  

To take things back to source a bit, milk cartons have generally had photos of missing children on them. Do you feel like you’re lost? If not, why the name?

Well, the name is a sort of a lot of contention. We like it because it feels like it says what we were trying to say when we named ourself that eight years ago, but also it’s a really annoying and bad name, because it’s the type of band name that, like, when you get on the airplane with your guitars, and the flight attendant says, “Oh, what’s your band name?” and you say, “The Milk Carton Kids,” and they go, “Aw, that’s so cute!” That is not as intended. They just think of the kids and the milk, and you’re like “No, the kids on the milk cartons were generally abducted and missing, and it’s a pretty dark reference,” so the “Aw, cute!” reaction is actually totally out of line and distasteful.

But the band name comes from one of the first songs that we ever wrote together, called “Milk Carton Kid,” and the lyric in the song is, “I don’t feel the pain I once did / One day it just vanished like a milk carton kid.” It’s actually dealing with the feeling of coming of age basically, growing up, abandoning your youth, and sort of happily shedding all these really awkward uncertainties of identity that you have to overcome in adolescence and get past as you move into adulthood. So it’s actually a bright and positive reference. We like the idea of using the darkest possible metaphor to express what’s basically a hopeful sentiment.   

The “folk” label has a lot of definitions, and is one often applied to your music. What does that term mean to you?

To me, it means a couple things. One, it means that the band is using predominantly acoustic instruments. There are other things that it has meant over the years and, if you define “folk” that way, we wouldn’t fit into the category, such as artists not singing their own songs, but songs that spontaneously arrived out of culture and tell the stories of the fight of the common man which is not what we’re doing. We’re writing our own songs about our own things, so that’s not in the most traditional sense of “folk music.” But now what “folk music” really means is it’s used to describe music that is played by predominantly acoustic instruments, and I think there’s some element of personal connection through storytelling in the lyrics. So by those definitions, we are absolutely a folk band, and anyway, we happily accept the label and the categorization and all the Grammy nominations we can get within that category.

“Folk” is a lot of different things. It’s a historical term, but now, literally, it’s a Grammy category, it’s an itunes genre. There are a lot of different committees deciding, in a lot of different circumstances, what music goes in “folk,” and what doesn’t. I actually don’t really care that much about labels other than to the extent that they’re useful, and if people ask me what kind of music we play, I say “folk music,” and they basically know what that means, so I find that useful. So like it.

There’s a lot of somewhat intricate guitar playing in your songs. Who are your favorite guitar players?

Oh! Well, you’ve got me the rhythm guitar player here, and Kenneth is the lead guitar player in the band, so I’ve long been on record saying that Kenneth is one of my favorite guitar players. Let’s see, I grew up listening to the rock ‘n’ roll guitar players from the ‘70s, like Jimmy Page, Neil Young. I love Stephen Stills as as a guitar player, the way that Neil and Stephen play together. And then, sort of later in life, I came to love the guitar playing of Willie Nelson and Dan Lanois. I guess the think for me, which I think is true for Kenneth and a lot of people that I’ve mentioned, is a really strong identity where right when they start playing, you know who it is.

“All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do” is a great title. Which of those two “things” is the bigger issue, and why?

(Laughs) That’s a good question. I’m inclined to give a cop out answer, which is that the whole album is about sea changes and really violent and traumatic shifts in reality, both personal and societal, personal and cultural. The album is written from the perspective of someone who is just on the other side of this really traumatic shift. The things that happened to us in our lives were myriad things, since our last record. For Kenneth, it was a breakup after a seven-year-long relationship and a cancer scare. And for both of us, a break from touring, which was the first time we’d been away from each other and from the road in eight years, and all of a sudden, just, sort of, found ourselves at home, with a real big part of our identities on hold.

And then the whole cultural and political reality that came to life in the presidential election. I don’t know if anything changed there, but we certainly all became aware of something that I think we weren’t really aware of before, in terms of who we are as a nation. It just felt like the ground was shifting rapidly beneath our feet, and we ended up writing a bunch of songs about all these different things, and they all seemed to be from the perspective of someone that’s just one the other side of a really traumatic event — not like an injury, but just a shift in your perception of the world, in reality, in the way that you’ve grown accustomed to the world being, and so you’re sort of dazed, and standing on the other side of this, and you’re thinking back, and you’re going, “God, what did I do to bring this on, and what didn’t I do that could have either avoided it or changed the outcome?” Or maybe this was all for the best, depending on which of those things we’re writing about. To answer your question, they really both need to be there because they work together, in the sense that they give a little bit of a feeling of uncertainty and regret, self doubt, when you’ve just come through something, and you’re looking back, saying, “Man, what did I do, and also, what did I not do?”  

How does the new album stand out from your others, in the sound, the lyrics, the approach, the overall aesthetic, etc?

Well, the elephant in the room is that there’s a five to nine-piece band playing with us on any given song, and everything we’ve ever done until now has just been the two of us on two guitars, our voices and nothing else at all. That’s the most striking thing for a listener who’s been used to us, for the last eight years, being a guitar and vocal duo. But there are some more subtle things. From a writing perspective, we made a commitment to being more personal and introspective. We might have gotten away from that on our album before that, which might have been a little more of an endeavor in impressionistic poetry and opaque lyricism, whereas this time, we made an effort to be very direct because we felt like we had a lot of things that we wanted to say, and it was important that people understood that. It just feels much more direct, personal, intimate. And sonically, there’s a lot going on to flesh out the pallette.

The moon and stars seem to come up quite a lot in your lyrics. “Younger Years” has the line, “I was naked as the day I was born / ‘Neath the fullness of the moon.” “One More For the Road” repeats the line, “Oh, the moon is barely full.” “Big TIme” has the lines, “The stars overhead bear their meaning / With the weight of the sky, or so it seems.” What is it about this imagery that you find so appealing?

Oh, I’m going to have to improv this answer. You’re pointing out something I hadn’t realized before.Maybe we do have some sort of obsession with the moon and the stars, and what those celestial bodies evoke, but it’s not a conscious thing, so I don’t know. I’m saying this after the fact, but the stars and the moon seem to function as a constant that someone on earth would look to for some sort of guidance, or as an example of permanence that, by contrast, highlights the uncertainty or fleeting nature of earthly or human endeavors.

I know in “Younger Years,” it was a thing that came from this poem that I wrote. In that verse, the narrator me, I guess is just realizing that everything is different now. There’s this rebirth, this reexamination of everything in reality, and you’re there naked ‘neath the fullness of the moon, which is this constant, which is illustrating just how drastically different your circumstances have become, by comparison.

Drinking is another theme that comes up in a couple of those songs. In “Big TIme,” you sing, “I lowered my glass to the table,” and later, “So I raise up my glass to the sky now.” Also there’s the song “One More For the Road.” How does drinking fit into the mix?

Well, I don’t know. To be honest, “Big TIme” is actually an older song of Kenneth’s that was released years ago on a solo album of his. So for any of our Milk Carton Kids writing habits or themes or trends, “Big Time” is probably an inappropriate place to go. Now, oddly or maybe not oddly it fits in, I think, with a lot of the themes on the record, which is why we put it on the record, plus I always loved that song. I don’t know — we do drink, but it’s not something I think of in a very metaphorical, symbolic, or meaningful way.  

What is the song “Mourning In America” about?

Oh, I think you know what it’s about. That’s the song with the most overtly political or cultural commentary on the album. It tries to put this seismic cultural shift that we’ve gone through, in the last two years, into a personal context, and tries to deal with it on the same terms as a personal trauma. Whenever I’m trying to write a song about anything remotely sociopolitical, it’s very important to me to always make it personal. So it deals with a lot of the feelings of disorientation, disillusionment, shock, sadness, and just wonder, I guess, at the cultural seismic shift of the past couple years.  

What’s one lyric on the new record that really makes you gush up, and why?

The entire song, “Nothing Is Real,” is one where I just really feel like I said what I meant to say. I really am happy with how that lyric turned out. Choice favorites, to answer your question, are “True love is binary / Beauty’s a lie,” or “Your mother’s a program,” or “Songs are just subroutines / Values aside.” That one came out the way I meant it. Plus, I enjoy an exercise in sarcasm in songwriting, and we don’t do it a lot, and this one was purely that, and it came out well.   

If someone asked you “What kind of music do you play?” How would you answer?

Who’s asking? I answer differently depending on who’s asking. If it’s a music person that I think is going to catch some deep references, I might get into how we’re a folk harmony duo in the tradition of The Louvin Brothers, The Everly Brothers, and Simon and Garfunkel, and hopefully writing more contemporary songs. But when I go back to the airplane example, and they say, “What kind of music do you play?” and I have no idea who they are, or whether they know anything about music, or care, I say, “folk music,” or if they say, “Oh cool, so like what?” honestly, what I say (laughs) is “We sound like Simon and Garfunkel.” People ask us a lot, “Do you mind the comparisons that you get to SImon and Garfunkel?” and I’m like, “No, it saves my ass everytime I’m in an elevator or walking down an airplane aisle. I just say we sound like Simon and Garfunkel, and everyone in America knows exactly what that means and you know what? It’s not far off.  

All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do” is available June 29 on Apple Music. The Milk Carton Kids’ North American tour runs through Nov. 6. All tour dates and tickets are here.