Ryan Monroe is taking a much-needed break from touring and recording music — by editing a behind-the-scenes documentary of recording his debut solo record. “A Painting of a Painting on Fire,” to be released Tuesday, is a musical mosaic that, while complex, maintains a prismatic sense of pop music.
The Columbia native plays keyboard and guitar in Band of Horses, the globe-trotting indie-twang band fronted by Ben Bridwell, also from Columbia. The band recently returned from touring South America.
“I guess, when I would come home and it was a short amount of time, I would just rest, especially when I drank so much,” Monroe said. “Now when I come off tour, I’m not dragging as much.”
Monroe stopped drinking about two years ago, which means there probably isn’t as many late-night tour follies as depicted in the band’s “No One’s Gonna Love You” video.
“The main reason I did it, I wanted to lose a bunch of weight,” he said. “I want to stop smoking. That’s next. A week (of not drinking) was a long time for me. It was a lot easier than I thought. Now, I really don’t miss it. My life really did get better.”
Monroe played every instrument on “Painting of a Painting.” Well, almost. He did have two Atlanta-based singers, Ametria Dock and Chantae Cann, sing harmony. He met them when they joined BoH in concert at The Tabernacle in Atlanta.
“They have two of the most amazing vocal instruments I’ve ever heard,” Monroe said of Dock and Cann, who are backing India.Arie on tour. “It’s really nice to work with people who you can say do your thing and you know it’s going to be awesome.”
Kind of like when Monroe himself was invited to sit in on BoH’s early demo sessions for the 2007 record “Cease to Begin” at The Jam Room. Monroe was put in contact with Bridwell by their mutual friend David Wilder.
“Luckily, David put in a good word with Ben for me,” Monroe said. “I had kind of been keeping tabs on (Bridwell). David would always say, ‘You should talk to Ben.’ And sure enough, we’re hanging out at (former Columbia venue) The Garage one night and Ben was like, ‘Come to the studio and we’ll do some stuff.’ ”
After playing together, Bridwell invited Monroe on a European tour.
“I had to make sure my one bar shift a month at (former Columbia venue) Headliners was covered,” Monroe deadpanned.
There was no organ on BoH’s 2006 debut “Everything All the Time,” and Monroe was brought in to play those parts and to sing harmony. On the last record, 2010’s “ Infinite Arms,” Monroe contributed the austere and sentient “Older.” Now Monroe, who has played in local bands Captain Easy, Secret Child, Peak and Foot, is a career musician.
“I still feel like I just haven’t gone into work,” Monroe said. “It feels like a dream come true. I’m so appreciative of Ben giving me this job. If I wasn’t playing with them and didn’t have the certain schedule I have, I wouldn’t be able to make this record.”
Monroe is known for his fervid songwriting approach. The result has at times yielded wonderfully chaotic songs, while other offerings have been just weird.
“His songs are out there,” Bridwell told me in 2010. “And sometimes, they’re heartstopping serious. I think that’s one of his greatest strengths.”
The 11 songs on “Painting of a Painting” were whittled from a list of more than 150 songs with the help of producer Chris Testa. The album was recorded at Redstar Studios in Silver Lake, Calif.
“Once I got in there, it didn’t take long because Chris had such a good grasp on arrangements and he gave the songs good haircuts,” Monroe said.
Since BoH collectively produced much of “Infinite Arms,” how was it turning the songs over to Testa, who has worked with Jimmy Eat World and Dixie Chicks?
“I had lost perspective on a lot of the songs, honestly,” Monroe said. “I had given them to my friends and family, and they were sick of them, so you know I was. I totally welcomed a virtual stranger’s opinion.”
The music can’t be pigeonholed. “Doritoys” sounds like ’80s prog-rock, while the song “A Painting of a Painting” begins as a piano-rock ballad before impressively evolving. Monroe usually sings in a high register, but on “Turning Over Leaves,” he employs a deeper, strange voice.
Monroe doesn’t have any tour plans. He’s actually going to take a break — really — until BoH starts rehearsing at the end of July for its tour with My Morning Jacket. After that, the band will be touring in support of its fourth record, scheduled for a September release. The album was recorded live at Sunset Sound in L.A.
“There were no computers there and it was all tape,” Monroe said. “We played in the same room for eight hour days. It was amazing. It’s super raw, the warts-and-all mentality. It’s endearing.”
Monroe used to come home to Columbia after tours, but he and his girlfriend, Lydia See, now live in Boston. He still feels connected to the city’s music scene. Years ago, he wrote the song “A Painting of a Painting” on an out-of-tune piano owned by Brian Sansbury. Musicians like Herbie Jeffcoat, Les Hall, Josh Roberts, Larry Gornto and Jeff Kozelski have also influenced Monroe.
“I learned a bunch of tricks from all the fantastic musicians in Columbia,” he said. “I would watch them play just like I would watch Eric Clapton play.”
Recently Monroe’s parents, who fostered his career path by buying him instruments when he was young, converted old VHS tapes to DVD. One video shows a pre-teen Monroe being surprised with a drum kit. For a few seconds, he ran around the room crying. It didn’t take him long to pick up the drum sticks.
“I got on it and started beating the crap out of it,” Monroe said.
Whew, bet his folks were glad when took a break from playing music.