I sat down (over Skype) with my good friend Michael G. Ronstadt to talk about being a touring musician with several different groups, what inspires him, what he looks for through music, and what projects he’s working on now. Check out our interview below!
The Whole (S)tory (TWS): What sparked your life long musical passion?
Michael G Ronstadt (MGR): I guess what initially sparked that is music in my family and it’s still prevalent throughout the generations. Hearing my dad play with his trio and my Aunt and the whole family singing together at gatherings and the fact that a lot of the Ronstadts play music professionally I think showed me that’s a way of life. I took that to be a good indication that I should explore that route.
The second thing that probably sealed the deal would be the fact that even though we didn’t have a general music class, my dad came and played music to our elementary school classes when I was little, the combination of that and being offered to play in orchestra opened the doors to allow me to learn music.
TWS: Did you start out playing cello?
MGR: My parents tried to get us to play guitar when we were little but the teacher wasn’t very good, I didn’t really take to it, cello was the first thing I really got into. Later on I picked up guitar more and really took to it.
TWS: I think it’s really nice when you have people that you can look up to starting out in anything you’re doing like music. I know when I first started out no one in my family really played music and I didn’t really have anyone to inspire me to play so it’s definitely nice to have that connection.
MGR: It’s definitely nice when you’re surround by it; it’s kind of like going to a concert and being inspired that way when I was a kid.
TWS: Who have you worked with in your career and how have they influenced your playing?
MGR: I’ve worked with so many people that I can’t really name them all, but I feel like I’ve been surrounded by musicians who are humble, nice, kind and want to make real music and communicate with people. When I run into musicians who are genuine about their craft and that’s what they do and they just put their whole heart and soul into it, I like to be surrounded by that and it inspires me to try to communicate better on the stage when I play and hopefully I‘ll continue learning that craft for many years.
TWS: How do you think your playing style has changed over the years?
MGR: When I was younger I didn’t know quite what I was doing; I was just aiming for a lot of different things. When I listen back it seemed like I just played whatever came to mind and would see what happens, when I listen back I didn’t realize I was doing something so complex and then in the middle I got really careful about what I was doing. Now I think what’s happening to my playing is that I’m getting more comfortable, I feel like getting to be 30 years old I know what I want to do with my expression and try different things; I’m experimenting emotively rather than just with the technical stuff.
TWS: You kind of just answered my next question, which was how do you go about writing music?
MGR: To expand on that side, when I write music sometimes I calculate it and decide I have something instrumental that I’m doing and I put words to it or I like to haphazardly layer a bunch of cello parts on top of each other, if I get 12 cellos parts that sound really neat together I look at that and see what I did and that way I can re-create it later. Sometimes it takes me a long time to write something and have it ready for performance, occasionally it takes 30 minutes and I have a complete song. Sometimes hard moments in life inspire some of the best music.
TWS: What are some of your favorite music making memories?
MGR: Family gatherings where there are 40 of us in one room, maybe 5 guitars. I love sitting on cello trying to just follow along. Especially when I was younger I kind of had a moment, those moments are just lets see what’s happening where you’re not being forced to figure out or perform super well, you are just there enjoying yourself and those are my favorite moments.
Something very similar to that would be Common Ground on The Hill’s late night jam sessions in Susan’s trailer, no one would ever perform in that situation we are just there having a good time and to me those are the memorable moments.
TWS: What kind of qualities do you look for in people and their musical styles when you decide who to play with?
MGR: If I had the power to decide who I could play with, and I guess I could pick and choose, if I hear someone and they move me in performance, then its really exciting and I think, “I hope to maybe be able to play music with them someday” and I always have that subconscious business plan in the back of my brain, I say if you have the intent you might actually get there someday. That’s how I got to play with Aaron Nathans, who I did an album called Crooked Fiddle with and released last September. I have been playing with him for about five years and in that situation I got to work with him because I called him up, he opened up for Ronstadt Generations five years ago. I really liked his kind of innocent approach, it was kind of like a shy confidence that he had on stage that was purely himself and I felt like I could really learn a lot from his music and I feel like he’s learned a lot from me, its been a beautiful benefit. I just look for that communication factor.
TWS: I think that’s great when you can work with people who inspire you and you feel like they make you better in a way.
MGR: That’s kind of the fun part, if you’re not a little nervous and if the other person isn’t inspiring you it’s not as much fun, its gotta be fun.
TWS: What are the groups you are playing with now and what are the differences between the groups?
MGR: I have a few different projects that I’m focusing on. One of them, pushing pretty hard with is with Aaron Nathans from the album Crooked Fiddle and we’ve been doing well on the Folk DJ charts with this cd release, it hit number 12 or something like that for 2014. I’d say all 30 people heard us because it’s the Folk DJ charts. (laughs) It’s still really good because we are getting radio play, that’s one thing that’s going really well.
Everything is either based on my instrumental thing, I do classical crossover stuff or I have my songwriting and that kind of permeates through the different groups depending on the players I’m working with.
Aaron Nathans, he’s more of a songwriter/lyricist, I’m more of the lead guitar style cello player, I play bass, and I use a lot of my songs and we sing harmonies.
With my family (Ronstadt Generations), my dad and my brother, my brother and I are both lead players along with my dad so we pass it around; it’s the same type of thing except more people up front.
TWS: In Ronstadt Generations do you do mostly traditional music or more variations of things?
MGR: We do a lot of variations. We play a lot of Traditional Music we collect during our travels, we also play a lot of Traditional Mexican music that has been in our family for a lot of time as with a lot of peoples family traditions who live in the Southwest and Mexico area.
We play a lot of original music which is inspired by our various backgrounds in music. My brother kind of has the Emo/Hardcore/Punk/Rock n Roll/Bob Dylan/Jazz Band influence and I’ve got the Classical/Experimental Music/Radiohead/Coldplay/a lot of other varieties, Latin Music I’ve done a lot of that/Bosanova and my dad has a lot of the Old Time Cowboy music mixed with the Mexican Music and a lot of the Traditional Mexican and Southwest Cowboy music makes it into all of our styles.
TWS: It must be nice to feel like you can pretty much play whatever you want and not be limited to a certain genre or style of playing.
MGR: David Bromberg said it in one of his concerts, he said he committed “a career suicide” when he stuck to his want to be multi-genre. At the same time he’s’ David Bromberg, he’s respected for being who he is, he’s unique, you can’t mistake him for anyone else. It’s like Neil Young, you can’t mistake Neil Young for anyone else. It’s not our choice whether we become famous or not, but David Bromberg has a career doing what he does and it’s just amazing. I feel like if someone like that who I respect has done it and can laugh it off saying oh I “committed career suicide” its okay because he still enjoys making music in life. As long as no ones saying what I can do, I like when you can play what you want and what speaks to you because then you can speak to an audience and if we are hard to define its okay.
TWS: That’s a great story. This is kind of a fun question; it doesn’t really have to do with music, if you weren’t a musician what kind of career would you want to have?
MGR: It would have to be creative. I think I would like to design album covers for musicians, doing photography. I had an early childhood desire to be an architect. I think it would be so fun to design your own buildings.
TWS: What’s coming up that people should know about?
MGR: The biggest thing that’s coming up would be a big Ronstadt Generations summer tour, that’s going to start in southern Arizona, in Tucson and they are going to drive up to meet me in Ohio all of June and through the end of July we’ll be going up and down the east coast and back down to Ohio.
Keep up to date with Michael’s work on his website.