There’s no shortage of dark and dreary songs in the canon of early American music. Tales of lost love, death, sickness, war, and despair run through roots genres, including bluegrass, blues, gospel and folk music.
Ryan Boldt grew up listening to these songs, soaking in the depth, beauty, sadness and hope inside them. Songwriter and frontman for Deep Dark Woods, an alternative country band from Saskatoon, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, Boldt was raised Mennonite. One of his core musical influences was his grandparents, who were in a group that performed country gospel music.
Though the songs he listened to tackled hard topics, Boldt doesn’t see them as being dark. Rather, he says, they provide an honest glimpse into people’s lives.
“It was just the way people wrote back then,” Boldt says. “Singing songs was a way to feel better, and a lot of the things people were singing about were their mother dying or their loved ones passing away. I don’t consider it darker, it’s just something people did.”
Boldt embraces that same tradition of tackling life’s hardships through song. His appreciation for early American traditional music started early and has only grown since his teen years, when he started writing in that style. In addition to folk music, he’s influenced by gospel, sacred harp singing, Anglican hymns and “that sort of thing.”
Boldt’s understanding of vintage roots is immediately apparent in his music. The Deep Dark Woods—which formed in 2005 and recently released its sixth album,Yarrow—embodies the timelessness of folk and roots traditions while infusing them with electric guitar, drums and a rugged, rock ’n’ roll flair. In a foundation of traditional styles, he finds an authenticity and structure.
Boldt’s appreciation of things crafted and real extends to his hobbies outside of music, as well. He is a stonemason and enthusiastic gardener, and is, as he explains, “obsessed with curing meat.”
“I grew up eating a lot of that sort of thing,” he says. “I became interested in how it was made and figured it out on my own. Now I just do it myself rather than buying meat at the supermarket.”
Boldt takes the same approach to writing songs as he does to any of his other crafts: learn how something is done and where it came from before you start doing it yourself. A self-acknowledged history buff, he’s interested in world history, the history of cooking and music history—including how to structure a song. He sees a clear connection between his hands-on hobbies and his music.
“I think it’s really important when you’re creating something to know how it’s made before you make it on your own,” he says. “Painters knew how to paint a classic painting. They went out and created their own style, but they knew the history of it.”
For Boldt, knowing the history of songwriting, and how a song is crafted, is vitally important to his own work and he advises other songwriters to study the craft before they take it up themselves.
“You have to know how it works,” he says. “It’s like any other trade—you need to know how to lay bricks before you lay them.”
On Yarrow, Boldt puts his understanding of song structure and music traditions to good use. The album is a quiet standout of the contemporary roots and alt-country landscape. It blends classic country, early rock grooves à la Roy Orbison, a Nick Cave-like moodiness, and a grungy folk sound infused with gothic macabre. The whole thing is topped by haunting background vocals by Kacy Anderson of folk duo Kacy & Clayton. Woven throughout the album, Anderson’s harmonies add depth and emotional complexity to Boldt’s already emotionally charged songs.
The album sees Boldt telling tales of murder, prison, floods, sickness, loss and heartache over reverby guitar. His smooth, crooning vocals seem to echo through from another time. It’s familiar territory for the artist, who admits he doesn’t know if he could sing happy songs—even while he doesn’t see his music as being dark.
“Even if the subject is about dying or losing someone, there’s never hopelessness in the songs,” he says. “There’s always a bit of hope in the songs I sing.”
The Deep Dark Woods will perform at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 28. Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $12/adv, $15/door. 429-6994.