Ratboys’ GN is the kind of album that feels enormous, with rich instrumentals and lyrics that create entire worlds in a few minutes. The songs sound huge, but they feel intimate, capturing moments of awe, sublime wonder and self-reflection in big rock landscapes set off with country and folk peaks.
It’s been a good minute since an album came out that I listen to almost every single day, but the cavernous arrangements and gentle vocals are easy to get lost in, each listen unearthing a brand-new detail. The songs overflow with feeling, the kind that makes you get a bit misty-eyed, and not even because of the lyrics, but because the songs are just that beautiful.
Julia Steiner and Dave Sagan are the musical partners who write and arrange all Ratboys’ songs before being joined by bassist Sean Neumann, drummer Evan Loritsch and trumpet player Cody Owens. Owens was unable to get out of work for this tour, so Ratboys are currently touring as a four-piece.
“It feels awesome to have GN out. It’s a lot of hard work that’s come to fruition. It feels good to share in the context of a show,” explains Steiner by phone while hanging around a rest stop en route to Washington, D.C.
These songs have existed for several years as solo songs penned by Steiner, but they found new life when workshopped with Sagan. Steiner’s gift for writing music that fosters intimacy blends with Sagan’s punk background.
“I grew up with music in the house. My mom played guitar and always had it laying around. She was an opera singer,” explains Steiner. “Part of me feels lucky because you don’t get to choose the music you listen to as a small child, but my mom is a musical person and always had music on in the car that still holds up today.”
Growing up on a steady diet of artists like Dolly Parton and Shania Twain, Steiner picked up a guitar and wrote songs on her own. Much like her father wasn’t super into music, neither were most of her friends in high school.
“In high school I played by myself, writing songs alone quietly, and there’s a lot of intimacy in that,” says Steiner. “But Dave had a totally opposite experience, being in punk bands since he was 13, filling up the room with sound, filling that space.”
“It’s exciting because when I first met Dave, I had chemistry with him musically, but I didn’t think about what it’d mean for me at the time. It’s helped us create something special. [Sagan] has taught me a lot about not being afraid to be loud,” Steiner says.
“Girls are taught to be soft and not take up space and to be quiet. It’s exciting to bend the expectations placed upon female singer/songwriters by trying new things and taking up space, not being afraid to be dominant.”
In addition to being musical collaborators, Sagan and Steiner are romantic partners. They have been friends ever since they met while attending school in Chicago.
Several songs on the record tell the stories of historical figures, and those stories were discovered by Steiner through a game that Sagan and she used to play together.
“We used to do these silly things called Wiki Races. You start on a random article and have to get to a specific article by clicking through links in the articles, like going from General Patton to PB&J, for example,” explains Steiner.
“I got really into Wikipedia in high school because it was kind of a rebellious thing. None of our teachers allowed us to use it,” laughs Steiner, “But there’s a bounty of information there. So much information and lots of stories to tell.”
Thanks to Wikipedia, “Crying About the Planets” came to life. It tells the story of Sir Douglas Mawson, an explorer whose Australasian Antarctic Expedition went incredibly wrong, leaving him nearly stranded in treacherous conditions, the only man to make it out alive. “Peter the Wild Boy” was inspired by the story of a feral child in Germany named Peter who was adopted by King George I.
“Telling the stories is a process. You broaden your own perspective by empathizing with people who have gone through the most extreme things,” says Steiner.
“I like writing about my own experiences a lot, but I think the balance of personal and impersonal is something I’m attracted to a lot. What unites our general experience? It’s fun and keeps me interested. I get a little bored if I’m only digging into my psyche.”
If you watch the music video for “Elvis Is in the Freezer,” you’ll notice that Steiner is sporting a Pittsburgh Steelers winter hat. Steiner is originally from Kentucky and went to school in Chicago, but her grandfather grew up in Pittsburgh before moving to Kentucky.
“He was the youngest of 10, and all of his siblings stayed in Pittsburgh,” says Steiner, “When I’m home in Kentucky during football season, we’re always watching Steelers games together. And when we come to Pittsburgh on tour he always reminds us where to get our cheese and where to eat.
“We love Pittsburgh. All the food and the crazy hills. It’s really like driving in a snowglobe.”