Ryan Eilbeck will occasionally record a song demo, mark it with an asterisk, and then set it aside with the idea of returning to it at some point down the road.
“What’ll happen is I’ll have a raw idea, and it’s exciting because maybe I’m taking a risk with a song structure or a melody, so I'll just cut on the four-track and [record and] then forget about it,” Eilbeck said in a late-October Zoom interview. “And that’s what I did with [the song] ‘Jonah.’ And even though that first take was pretty haphazard, I also couldn't stop thinking about it. The song was kind of asking to be revisited.”
In the nearly 10 years since Eilbeck first recorded “Jonah,” which serves as the opening salvo on the new Natural Sway album, Natural Sway & the Squished Lilies, its meaning has continued to evolve and expand for the musician.
Eilbeck said he initially penned the song trying to capture a vibe, with his focus on the biblical figure resulting from having seen his older sister play the character in a church production as a child.
“And I remember her performance just being so epic, and she was running through the aisles of the church singing this song about running from God. And it’s just such a brutal, fascinating story,” he said. “And if I would say what [the song] means to me now, and what it evolved into, you know, I was singing the right feeling. And then there’s the opening line where it’s like, oh, look at this! All of a sudden, I’ve got my own place! I live in an apartment by myself. But I flick the lights on and it’s fucking lonely, and that fear of death is always right there. … So, it evolved into that frightening sense of loneliness that can strike you even when you walk to some place where you’re like, oh, this is a comfort zone. This is a safe space. I’ve got what I want. But, shit, I’m actually stuck in a whale’s belly.”
The musician revisits this idea throughout Squished Lilies, with scenes that at first blush appear serene steadily giving way to a hidden turbulence. In some sense, it recalls the way director David Lynch set the scene in his film “Blue Velvet,” from 1986, lingering on white picket fences and freshly waxed automobiles before panning down to reveal the hoard of black beetles feasting away just inches beneath the neatly manicured suburban lawns.
“Lying in the Grass,” for one, opens in relaxed fashion, the song’s narrator taking in a cloud-filled sky from a reclined position. As the track progresses, though, the music becomes more urgent, the chilled vibes overtaken by a lurking chaos existent just over the hill. A few songs later, on a pleasantly loping “The Wind,” a man recounts his love for a woman whose temperament leaves her prone to unexpected emotional squalls. (“Here comes the storm going off without warning,” Eilbeck sings.) Then there’s “The Delaware Lightning Bug,” which takes its title from a uniquely beautiful beetle that has become synonymous with the growing climate crisis, its numbers decimated by rising global temperatures.
“Save for ‘Jonah,’ the majority of these songs were written within two or three years, max, and then they started thematically speaking to each other,” said Eilbeck, who will join his Natural Sway bandmates to celebrate the release of Squished Lilies on Friday, Nov. 3, alongside openers and Fellow Hollow. “There are themes of nature and nature imagery, and always relationships. ‘Delaware Lightning Bug’ could even be a rare friend, a rare human, a beacon, a light. But also, they’re not always flashing. They go dark like all of us do.”
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Musically, Eilbeck, joined this time around by guitarist Riley Kelleher, bass guitarist Drew Cline and his brother, drummer Austin Eilbeck, hews toward the light, with the four-piece constructing a series of shaggy, loose-limbed tunes that draw at least some inspiration from classic rock.
“All these songs feel charged in a similar way, which, for me, meant I’m playing electric guitar, and it’s clean and it’s cutting but I’m running those tubes hot, so it’s going to be crunchy, and it's going to be grimy in some moments,” said Eilbeck, who traced this reignited love for the traditional drums/guitar/bass lineup to early jam sessions he played alongside new friend Kelleher. “He’d bring his guitar over, and we’d go into the basement and plug in. And all of a sudden, this spirit of electric guitar charged up these songs that I hadn’t really fleshed out yet. … It was just this spirit and this sweat and these drums. And so, I was in that headspace, and I was in Tom Petty land, or at least my own interpretation of it, where I was like, ‘I want to riff.’”
The album gained further electricity by the whirlwind circumstances of its recording, with the musicians capturing the 10 tracks to tape in a frenetic 20-hour session at the Tone Shoppe in Cincinnati that took place the day before Kelleher moved back home to Western Massachusetts.
“I was like, ‘I’ll buy all the food, all the beer, the smokes, and we’re gonna rip this record. We need you to put this down before you go,’” Eilbeck said. “But we had just kind of been jamming, so [Kelleher] knew the songs but he didn’t really have fleshed out parts. So, a lot of that stuff, it’s one, two, three takes at the most. … But we did have a sense when we were playing them that these songs felt different. There’s a spirit of old bands, and a thread of things you could find in the music of people like Tom Petty.”
While Natural Sway has and will continue to take different forms, Eilbeck said the project operates at its best when it’s a full-band endeavor, describing the recordings he’s pursued on his own under the name as occasionally “off the rails.”
“We don’t need a weird, frightening sample in every song,” he said, and laughed. “And other people also keep you accountable, like, ‘Hey, we’re going to make an album. Yes, we’re going to play a release show. We’re going to be a real band.’ And it can be hard to balance, hard to make the time, and there's never been a payout. But I’m still at it.”
As for what keeps him going, Eilbeck said this has remained consistent since he first picked up a guitar in childhood.
“I just love writing. I love trying new ideas and discovery and that shiny nugget of a new song bouncing around in your brain,” he said. “Sometimes I’m not even sure where something came from. It’s just this dreamy, creative place that’s almost outside of time.”