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Feature Thu Oct 04 2007

Rachel Ries - Leaving Chicago

We (and I mean Chicago) may not have Rachel Ries in our lives for long. On her new record, Without A Bird, she sings of either being in love with or at odds with her adopted hometown of Chicago. From one song to the next she's either coming or going depending on her level of heartbreak. In a city of millions, containing thousands of musicians, artists and writers, Rachel Ries stands out and apart. This is in part due to her unclassifiable style which contains elements of folk, jazz and swing. In part it's due to her unwavering aesthetic and the sheer beauty of her songs. All of these elements make her a bit of a musical outsider in the hyperkinetic, indie rock scene so prevalent in Chicago. Luckily "the city of big shoulders" has a number of world class venues where an artist with Rachel's unusual musical style and lyrical quality is made to feel at home. Rachel has been a recurring fixture at clubs like The Hideout, Schubas, Old Town School, Uncommon Ground and California Clipper over the last three years. Nationally she has played venerable clubs like Club Passim in Cambridge, Tin Angel in Philadelphia, Pete's Candy Store in NYC, and the famous Kerrville Folk Festival.

Rachel has had a pretty unconventional life to date. She was raised in Zaire and South Dakota by her Mennonite Missionary parents. She left Zaire at the age of 4 and moved to the plains of South Dakota. Life on the plains seems to be a fixture in her songs, as well as contributing to her MySpace motto of "prairie swing/city folk." She is a classically trained musician in voice, piano, violin and viola. Her 2005 debut record, For You Only, was picked up for distribution by Waterbug Records and left critics and fans a bit dumbstruck with its combination of early, stripped-down swing jazz combined with the folk blues of the American South, combined with her modern and contemporary lyrics. At the time Sing Out! proclaimed, "Without a doubt, Rachel Ries is one of the most talented young singer-songwriters of recent note. Lyrically, with her mostly-confessional, well-crafted, first-person songs, she reminds me of a young Joni Mitchell, but her inventive melodies seem much closer to older folk and jazz traditions." Acoustic Guitar Magazine said, "The album was recorded on vintage analog equipment, presumably to further capture a bygone sound. Some artists might need the boost in creating atmosphere, but Ries is well up to the task of invoking mood, memory, and nostalgia all on her own."

Without A Bird picks up where her debut left off, but instead of drifting away from those at-times-autobiographical songs, Rachel has dug in and continued to explore life from her unique perspective. The new record has just been released on Rachel's own label, SoDak Records. The best place to order a copy of the CD or a limited edition LP is through her MySpace page here or here through CD Baby.

I conducted this email interview with Rachel Ries on the eve of her departure for a months long tour of the Midwest and West:

Transmission: On the new record you revisit the words "for you only" which was the name of your debut record. What does that phrase signify for you?

Rachel Ries: Well, it came to signify one particular person who impacted my life & a number of the songs of "For You Only." The same can't really be said for recent years but I did, in a way, come back to tie up my story with him on this album — hence the throwback to that phrase.

Transmission: How did you assemble the band for the record and are they also going on tour with you?

Rachel Ries: I started playing with Ariel (Bolles) a year & a half ago — it's become a steady & sane musical alliance so there was no question of her playing a part on the album with her upright bass & impeccable harmonies. As for the rest of the band, it was a wish list. I'd seen Kevin (O'Donnell) play with the House Theater a few years back and couldn't shake the creativity & joy he cuts loose. When it came time to make the album, I knew I needed his style — orchestral, brushed, sweeping. So I asked... and skipped around the apartment when he said yes. Joel — again, I'd just seen him around and was convinced I wanted his chops and his background — and the fact that he plays the pedal steel took away any doubts. (One of the outtakes from the album, "Grace the Day", is layered gorgeously with the pedal steel. It's a shame it got slashed...) Alison (Chesley)(cello) is a wonderful, unconventional player and she added elements I now can't imagine living without. Lastly, my friend Maria (McCollough) was sweet enough to step in and play a violin part I couldn't get out of my head.

[mp3]: Rachel Ries — "Grace The Day" (outtake)

Out of the album lot, Ariel is the only one who tours with me. (Although this past month we were delighted when our tour and the one Kevin was on matched up unexpectedly. He got to be in the band again for a night — it was great fun!) I greatly look forward to the days of adding a drummer & other players regularly to the tours but for now it's hard to swing and the minivan can only hold so much. It just makes me want to turn my Chicago shows into real events; with all the players I hear in my head.

I am pretty lucky, though, to have a lot of musician friends scattered around the country so it's not rare for me to have a drummer & banjo player in the NE, a violinist & guitar player on the West Coast or whatever else happens to fall into place.

Transmission: That's quite an adventurous tour you've booked for the new record. What should people expect at a Rachel Ries concert.

Rachel Ries: Hm, well, you should expect charm & jam and a whole lot of honesty. Spine-tingling harmonies and hopefully some damn good songs. We've been known to make the men cry and we do our best to deliver.

Transmission: You've been selling homemade jam on tour, how did that start and what's been the reaction?

Rachel Ries: It started at the kitchen table. A friend was over and cooking and we were pondering what I could possibly sell that would really *be* me; something that wouldn't be the usual t-shirts & CDs. And then it occurred to me: Preserves! Of course! I looked around my kitchen and saw jar upon jar of homemade pickles and my moms jam and it just made sense. I come from a background of quilting, canning, gardening — all those dear, domestic arts. Making & selling jam is a way to bring home into the music & on tour and it's a great excuse for me to take a day at home to concoct & boil and make a mess of the kitchen. I'm an awfully happy person when I'm in the kitchen — making jam helps, in a small way, make up for all the domestic time I miss when on tour. As for the reaction — some level of incredulous delight, usually.

Transmission: Your bio mentions your classical training. How does that training affect your performance, either live or on disc?

Rachel Ries: I'm sure it's left me with some vocal strength that I may not have had otherwise. I appreciate subtlety in vocal delivery and, although often quiet, that restraint requires a certain amount of power to carry it. Years of voice lessons and intensive choirs had to leave me with some of that, I figure. When it comes to guitar, I think my violin & piano training kept me dissatisfied with strumming & writing songs with 3 chords. Structurally, I have a tendency to want to get a bit tricky within a song — but hopefully not obviously so to the listener. Most often this means modulating or sometimes having different "movements" within a song (as in "fine, i'm fine"). The making of Without a Bird was so much fun because I let myself think more about really arranging a song — orchestrating it to get the point across.

[mp3] Rachel Ries — "fine, i'm fine"

Transmission: You've gone out of your way to release your new record on an actual record (180 gram vinyl to be exact), why did you do this?

Rachel Ries: I do a lot because it just seems right. In a way, I made vinyl for some of the same reasons I make jam. Most days I feel like I live as one chained to the computer and I have to act consciously to counteract that and my cellphone and my iPod and my store-bought food. Vinyl is tactile, aesthetically & aurally pleasing. It's also a crying shame when you put so much deliberation & care into which songs should live together on an album; how you want the arc of the album to rise & fall and which songs to follow which. Then you put that little creation into the world and it's dumped onto iPods and put on shuffle and the album you made, essentially, is lost — along with the packaging & artwork that you agonized over. Making the vinyl insures that there are gonna be at least 500 people out there who have the album full & intact for always and as it was intended. Lastly, I chose to record & mix the album to tape and it didn't seem right to just end the analog process there.

Transmission: You are listed as the producer on the record. What did that entail? Were you actually twiddling all the knobs or were you more responsible for the general feel of the recording process?

Rachel Ries: As the producer, I was calling the shots — telling people what to play and when. It's a challenge — pulling off an album artistically & all the day to day decisions involved — I wanted to be the one with that job. Some days I certainly wished to worry about less — to just go into the studio on time to play my parts and have someone to defer to; someone else to say if it was a take or not. But I just don't operate that way. As for the twiddling of the knobs — that's the job of the engineer and having one you trust to capture the sounds truly... well, without it, there'd be no album and there'd certainly be no peace of mind. I was very involved in the mixing — in the control room, working half of the faders and choosing parts but all under the watchful eye of my engineer, Kris Poulin.

Transmission: Your family was reportedly disappointed with your choice of covers recently when the Outkast song "Elevators" turned up on your MySpace profile (and was quickly taken down)? What happened with that? And do they ever give you feedback about your original songs? Are they as concerned about some of that lyrical content?

Rachel Ries: Ah, "Elevators". Well, when they heard the song, they didn't realize that I hadn't written it. This was cause for much worry as the lyrics are a bit colorful at times. Sex, drugs & the hood aren't my usual song topics and it was concerning for them. I think things are pretty well smoothed over with that by now. If I wasn't so close to my family it wouldn't be an issue but, as it is, they're the most important people in my life and it matters dearly how they feel about my life & how I live it.

[mp3]: Rachel Ries — "Elevators"

As for my own songs — they're not always overjoyed by what they hear but that's fine. When all is said & done, they understand that I can't write for anyone but myself. And they wouldn't have it any other way, either.

Transmission: Your songs are pretty introspective, is this a conscience decision you make when you write songs? Do you ever see yourself writing a song about a particular issue or in another voice?

Rachel Ries: It's just how I'm most naturally inclined to write. I write for myself — to fill some need; some compulsion. I suppose most people don't realize how much of For You Only was from a voice not my own. Many of those stories aren't truly mine but there's really no way for the listener to know that. I wrote a number of the songs as experiments in style. I was curious to see what I could write if I just tried to as opposed to what I write when I need to. For whatever reason, though, when I set out to make Without a Bird, I chose to be present and tell my own stories. For good or bad, this doesn't often yield the peppy little numbers...

Transmission: On this record you seem to be in a struggle between loving Chicago and leaving Chicago. Which is it?

Rachel Ries: Do I have to choose? Every day is a new day with shifting desires. And I imagine that once I do finally leave, it won't be because my love for it is gone.

Transmission: Musically what do you love about Chicago?

Rachel Ries: I love the diversity of it. Everything is represented here and, for the most part, there's an openness to all sounds. I love that places like The Hideout & the Old Town exist. I see them both as open-minded, open-hearted centers of community. Is that cheesy? I also really appreciate that it's not a big music business town — for whatever potentially self-defeating purpose, I don't want to worry about landing deals & getting song placements.

Transmission: Musically what do you hate about Chicago?

Rachel Ries: On my more irritable days, I'm frustrated that it feels like such a slow-growing town. Perhaps if I was in a 4-piece jagged rock band with a schtick it'd be different but I'm not sure that there's a clear or obvious path for someone like me. I think there are certain assumptions when it comes to ladies & their guitars & intentional words. I'd like to think that I don't match up to many of the assumptions but the trick is to get anyone to listen. And Chicago needs more drummers! C'mon, where are they all?

Transmission: You were once featured in a Tribune article about house concerts, have you continued to do house concerts and how does your approach differ doing them as opposed to a regular show at a club?

Rachel Ries: I do still play house shows — anything from punk rock attics to bourgeois living rooms and I have a hell of a good time with them. Typically, my personality comes out quite a bit more in those unamplified, attentive settings. It's a different sort of entertainment which relies more on stories and reality. But there's nothing like playing in a great club with the band and the energy and the songs played in their full & complete form.

Transmission: Your songs have appeared on a respected UK label's americana compilation called "Country Girl", do you have any idea how your music translates overseas? I expect that could be a be big, untapped market for you.

Rachel Ries: Europe is pretty high on my list of touring priority and just by tracking sales & radio play, I know that I have an audience there. From all the stories of my friends who tour regularly overseas, Europeans are, in general, more inclined to us songwriter types. And, of course, the Euro is killing us these days. All the more reason to get out of the States and start singing.

Transmission: Will you play again with The Tin Pan Caravan, the super group of sorts with Anais Mitchell, Robert Blake and Louis Ledford? What's it like playing and traveling with that group? Any funny stories?

Rachel Ries: We're going to be playing a small handful of shows in the NE this coming December but, from the looks of it, that'll be the end of our quietly existing band. It's entertaining traveling with them — dull moments are few & far between with our mixture of front-person personalities and it's an easy delight to not have to carry a show on your own. There's always someone to play off of — terrible Irish accents from Anais, random & epic stories of days gone by from everybody's favorite pawn broker, Louis, and Robert's grand-gesturing showmanship at every turn. And each of them are brilliant song-makers. It's a singular excitement to hear their new songs after our times apart.

Rachel w/Tin Pan Caravan live at Guilford College

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
Concord Music Hall
Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
Double Door
Elbo Room
Empty Bottle
Green Mill
The Hideout
Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
Logan Square Auditorium
Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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