Last year, after a divorce, singer-songwriter Ryan Hamilton converted his tour van into a makeshift one-person RV, grabbed his guitar and his dog Peaches and headed west on Route 66. Hoping the open road would help clear his head, Hamilton and his pup would drive up and down the highways between Texas and California, staying nights in national parks. He wouldn’t return to his home in Granbury for more than two months. Though he didn’t set out to write a record, out of 30 some odd scratch ideas jotted down into his iPhone while sleeping among the mountains and deserts of the Great Southwest, 11 would be developed and now compose the material on Nowhere to Go but Everywhere, Hamilton’s latest album, released last month on New York’s Wicked Cool Records.
If the title of the album sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a nod to a line from Jack Kerouac, a hero of Hamilton’s (he claims to actually own a belt that belonged to the Beat icon), and the phrase helps solidify his new LP’s theme. It’s one surrounding the catharsis and purgation that can be achieved by endlessly rolling under big skies and through the red dust and gravel of long Southwestern straightaways.
“I just hit the road,” Hamilton said over the phone. “I just pointed in a direction and went. I just felt like I needed that windshield time, some time by myself to think about what had gone wrong in my marriage and my life. I had no intention of making a record, but writing songs has always been therapy for me. And some of those songs wind up on records.”
After the trip, Hamilton presented the tracks he’d fleshed out in the RV to his U.K.-based backing band, The Harlequin Ghosts, and his producer Dave Draper (Ginger Wildheart, The Professionals). Leery of being seen like he was exploiting or capitalizing on the pain of his divorce, he said he felt trepidation about tackling such a personal and emotional subject so directly, a topic that found its way into the tunes.
“People always seem to cringe when I mention my divorce,” he said, “but we should be able to talk about it just like we should be able to talk about things like mental health. They’re things we should certainly be more comfortable [addressing]. I didn’t want my divorce to be a marketing tool, but when I showed everyone the songs, they were basically, ‘You just need to make this record for you.’ ”
In addition to the album, Hamilton recorded many of his experiences on the trip with still photos and videos that have been compiled into a to accompany the album’s release.
Nowhere is Hamilton’s second album featuring the Harlequin Ghosts, a unique transatlantic collaboration that began five years ago. It’s not often you find a singer-songwriter living in Texas fronting a band based in England, but Hamilton said that after a few career false starts, despite the distance, his current group of cohorts is the best he’s ever worked with.
“I love that they just come at it from a different point of view,” he said. “There are so many bands that are huge in England that I’d never heard of, so their frame of reference includes so much I don’t know about and it definitely finds its way” in the music.
The results are evident. Their blend of Americana and indie has caught on among Britons. As was the case with the band’s 2019 debut, This Is the Sound, which won Album of the Year at last year’s Independent Music Awards, the Ghosts’ sophomore effort, led by the single “Jesus and John Lennon,” has found itself charting in the U.K., sandwiched between the likes of Neil Young and Taylor Swift.
Though he fronted some regionally popular outfits in the last decade here at home, such as the indie-pop duo Smile Smile and Ryan Hamilton and the Traitors, he’s not quite been able to duplicate the same success stateside as he has accomplished on his bandmates’ home turf.
“It’s interesting that in the U.K., we’ll play to hundreds or thousands of people in nice venues and midsize theaters,” he said, “but we’re lucky to get 50 people out to the DoubleWide [in Dallas] when we play here.”
He’s become at peace with the disparity. After he was able to bring his parents on tour with him in the U.K. and they were actually able to see just how successful his band was, he no longer felt he needed to prove anything to anyone.
“It’s just crazy, when I was younger, bands like The Toadies, Tripping Daisy, they were heroes, legends almost,” he said. “And somehow I’ve found success in a place that’s never heard of them.”
Though he’s come to accept the strange intercontinental divide, he does hope that Nowhere begins to change it. Here is home, and he said he’d love to be as well received as he is an ocean away.
“Maybe now that the Fort Worth Weekly is calling, I’ll be able to get my name out there a little bit,” he joked.