photo: Brent Goldman
“We wanted to focus on our recorded music— be patient with it and get it to a place where we felt it was as developed as our live show,” Ripe singer Robbie Wulfsohn says of the band’s initial approach to its latest studio record, Bright Blues.
Guitarist Jon Becker adds, “We realized that the studio is very much its own instrument in a way and a very different place to create. So we were striving to find a way to get the energy of our live show to connect with people when they’re listening in their car or their house.”
Ripe came together in 2011, when its members first met as students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The group soon found an audience for its dynamic, horn-infused blend of soulful funk and pop— building momentum through national touring and notable appearances at festivals such as Bonnaroo, SweetWater 420 and BottleRock. The band honed its studio chops on a pair of EPs, before winning new ears with 2018’s full-length Joy in the Wild Unknown. After signing with Glassnote Records, they began thinking about their follow-up, just as the global pandemic interceded.
Between the process of envisioning and eventually releasing Bright Blues, the lineup also winnowed down from a seven-piece to a core quartet featuring founding members Wulfsohn and Becker along with drummer Sampson Hellerman and trombonist Calvin Barthel.
Wulfson reflects, “To begin with, it is incredibly difficult to be in a band. Then you factor in what everyone was going through at that time. It eventually became clear to us that Ripe is twofold. It’s simultaneously the 11 years of friendship and shared experiences the core unit has. It’s also an ethos where we get up every day and affirm that this is what we want to do. Although the personnel changes happened for myriad reasons, I think it all came down to the fact that if this isn’t the thing that someone wants to do most, then we don’t want to make them resent the life that they’re living. This is something that feels real and important to us. We want to share it with others.”
For Bright Blues, Ripe reconnected with former Berklee classmates Noah Conrad (BTS, Niall Horan) and Ryan Linvill (Olivia Rodrigo, Dermot Kennedy). Wulfsohn and Becker flew out to Los Angeles to begin initial tracking in the summer of 2020 with Conrad and Linvill. The group later booked studio time in Boston, with the pair producing virtually.
“They were two college friends of ours who we would call when our horn players were unable to make shows,” Wulfsohn explains. “We quickly discovered that working with these other voices actually felt like amplifying what we wanted to do and what we were about. So we kept creating these things that really excited us.”
Becker adds, “The process was slightly different. Rather than having all of us in the room together, at points it was just Robbie and one other band member working together when a song was first conceived. That allows people’s individual voices to shine a little bit more in a cool way but it also still keeps it our band. It’s not going to be a Ripe song until the horns get going, until Sampson plays the drums on it. But Sam would also be in there writing the guitar riff for ‘Noise in the Forest.’ It was a nice, refreshing way for us to do it.”
ROBBIE WULFSOHN: The genesis point of that song was the day that I found out that my visa to stay in the States was going to be compromised. So I needed to make a pretty big life decision about whether I was going to stay in the States indefinitely or decamp to Toronto where I grew up to wait out that period of time. We had already planned to have a writing session later that day. So “Get Over” is one of a handful of tracks on this record where some of the content was informed by the crazy things that were happening as we put pen to paper.
Something we’ve talked about for longer than just this record is the fact that we want to bring a kind of catharsis to people. I think that, for me, one of the reasons that I’m really happy that this song opens the record is because the very act of writing it was doing just that for me in that moment.
I was given this massive piece of bad news that was also very unclear in terms of exactly what it meant. We could have canceled the session—everybody would’ve understood—but instead we all showed up ready to try and make something that would keep ourselves going in a pretty gloomy time.
This record feels like one of the first times that the thing that we are striving to create with our music and with our community sort of inverted. We were trying to raise our own spirits, too.
JON BECKER: The night before we were flying across the country to record this stuff, I had a very intense thing happen in my relationship. I was going through a lot of stuff during the recording of most of the record. For some reason, the solo wasn’t working and I got to a point where I needed to be alone with my guitar. So I asked if they could go make dinner, and I think for the first time in my career, I was able to play in a way where I was expressing emotion and not thinking too much about what I was doing, which was a very nice personal accomplishment for me. You can hear what I was feeling in that solo, or at least that was the goal.
JB: That song started with a guitar riff that I had written in my bedroom maybe a year before we even went into those initial writing sessions. I remember wanting to show that to Noah and Ryan. It was a very different guitar riff at the time, and they helped strip it down to its bare essentials, then rebuilt an entirely different song around it.
RW: There are several layers to it. The first day that we were writing it, there happened to be this sort of synchronicity where a bunch of women in my life were dealing with problems in the workplace— not being given the respect and care that they needed or deserved as human beings. That was where it started.
By the end of it, it was also about our commitment to recording the album—not being complacent and not accepting the harshest parts of our reality. Instead, we doubled down on ourselves and created this body of work out of the very moment where we were supposed to be shut down.
I know what it was about on day one and I know what it feels like to sing it now, and those things are not exactly the same. So I feel like both belong in a discussion of what the song means to me.
All Or Nothing
RW: This was one of the tracks that changed the most from the writing room to the finished product. One of the central parts of that song—the drum part, which is kind of looping and influenced by sample drums—came into being long after much of the song was already put together.
In terms of ephemera, even extending past the finish of the record, I was dating somebody at the time and things were falling apart without me knowing it. I’m pretty sure that the last time I ever saw this person while we were dating was the day that we did the bridge to this song in Los Angeles. So the story was already deepening and continuing without me knowing it.
Noise in the Forest
RW: There are parallels to “Get Over” in that, when we finally got the finished vocals done in that room in Boston, it was such a chaotic moment outside of the studio space. To everyone’s credit though, they kept the studio really serene. I was definitely raw or incensed when I went and cut the final vocals for that one, but by the end of it, I didn’t feel that way anymore. I just felt kind of spent, and when I go back and listen to those lyrics, I’m really grateful that I was able to turn that big heavy energy into something I like. It kind of feels like a magic trick, in yielding this thing that then gets to go and make people feel good.
I don’t recommend people inserting suffering artificially for the sake of the art, but there were definitely moments where it finally felt like we were doing the thing we set out to do from the very ground up.
RW: This one still scares me a little bit when we play it, which is a nice feeling. There are a couple of songs on the record that are quieter than anything we’ve ever done and this is one of them. It’s a very surreal feeling to take a show that, up until now, basically used high energy to achieve catharsis and try something more sentimental and maybe more on the pretty side. Every time that I feel it works, I want to give everyone a fist bump because we’re out on a limb doing something that five years ago people might have said doesn’t sound like us. It feels good to do that.
Queen of the City
RW: On the totally reverse end of the spectrum, it also felt like we were able to commit even harder to the higher energy stuff. I think the groove that’s happening on that track feels like one of the most kinetic things that we’ve done to date. Even when we did this in our new setup, it still yielded something that felt like a real distillation of this element that’s been present across a bunch of our songs.
I hadn’t heard it for a while, but now that “Queen of the City” is out [as a single], I listened with a bit more distance and thought, “It’s a good band. That groove goes really hard.” It’s crazy to listen to that and almost as a side thought, be like, “Damn, then they let me sing over it. That was nice.” [Laughs.]
JB: It was fun to watch it grow. “Queen of the City” began with Robbie, myself and the producers in the studio. It had some cool guitar lines and Robbie’s vocals were killer, but then it came together and became a Ripe song once it had the horns on it. That was cool to witness in real time. The bridge of that song is probably my favorite moment on the album.
RW: This is one where even the dance stuff feels like it got reduced into a finer, more distilled form. It is one of the most physically involved songs for me to do live because the chorus requires two microphones and tambourine. It’s a blast to feel it in our fingers, and bring it to life after locking it in this form.
At that point in the record, it was apparent that there were these not quite love songs but kind of love-adjacent songs. So we were mining that territory the day we wrote this. It came to light that three of the four people in the room had relationships that they had kind of squandered, not knowing what they had. Though now they have all realized how good things actually were.
That resonated with me for whatever reason. So I was writing from a place of not necessarily coming away with any lessons but just wanting to go back and reexamine these old burnt out husks of love. That was the motivating factor behind the lyrics. But looking back on what, at the time, we thought were a bunch of love-adjacent songs, everything now feels colored by the energy around friendship.
Say It to Me
RW: This one began almost as an ode to a friend who was at the end of his relationship after a serious grief moment had happened and they didn’t bounce back. We didn’t know at the time that it was going to be a terminal wound, but there was a big feeling around an inability to communicate with each other.
But even though there was this darkness on the outside, it has almost a dance break post-chorus because we were like, “Yeah, but we still want people to dance to this.”
JB: I think “Say It to Me” was the first song that we recorded for the album. Like Robbie has said, I remember thinking this album was the first time we were making music not only for other people but also to keep ourselves going. Robbie’s lyrics in the pre-chorus really resonated with me— “I know it’s hard.” It felt like he was kind of there with me, and I hope other people can feel that way too.
RW: Something I have recently noticed about myself is that I go down Wikipedia rabbit holes pretty frequently as a coping mechanism. I was doing it more often with less reason over that period. When we got into the room to write, it was as simple as choosing to write about the last thing that I had actually looked up, which was whether the singers on “Angel” and “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy were the same and whether that guy was in the band. It turns out the answer is no on both counts. I also remember specifically looking at Mark Wahlberg’s history as Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. There are not that many people who had a No. 1 record as a child and then go on into a different creative field. So the random things that we were doing right before we walked into the room informed it.
I have a soft spot for this song. Rather than trying to capture a feeling by putting words around something, this was the reverse, where just by talking about what was happening we arrived at a feeling.
RW: On “The Outcome,” I got to use loskop—a term of slightly admonishing endearment that my parents used, in a song that is not going to be pitched to Afrikaan-speaking people. [Laughs.] There are a couple of songs that have been left on the cutting room floor where I’ve tried to bring the non-English I heard around the house into the lyrics. [Wulfsohn’s family immigrated from South Africa to Toronto just prior to his birth.] Usually it’s a disastrous idea, but this time it actually worked and made it to a record. So that made me really happy.
JB: “The Outcome” is fun and one of my favorites on the record. The moment when that one started to come to life was when Robbie began stacking like 16 vocal harmonies of himself in the chorus and the pre-chorus. It sounded like something that you might hear on the Phil Collins Tarzan soundtrack. That’s cool because I know both Robbie and Sam went through pretty big Phil Collins and Genesis phases over the course of the last couple years.
RW: I was on a walk and those words fell out. I wrote them down, and within two days, I happened to be in a session where the entire lyric happened to fit. Shout out to Bruce Springsteen for some inspiration in terms of how to structure things in a more human way. Also, shout out to José Saramago and his book Death with Interruptions for being the first time the idea of death as more than just this grief-filled ending was personified to me. So I had those two ideas rattling around in the old noggin and the space on a walk to let my mind wander.
Saramago’s writing style immediately transports me somewhere else. He uses these crazy crooked metaphors, fables and parables to tell what feel like really true stories about the human condition. And there’s something about the way that Springsteen condenses these massive ideas into stories about people doing normal life stuff that has always really stuck with me.
So I guess by reading Saramago and seeing these head-in-the-clouds but still brilliant meditations on the meaning of death—and wanting to do more than just give the CliffsNotes of a Saramago book in a song—I found myself reaching for what felt like my opinion of his technique. I wanted to try and make it feel a little bit more tethered to the ground.
RW: That one is up there with “Paper Cups” in how it feels kind of scary and vulnerable to play. At least for us, we knew immediately when it came into existence that there was something to it. But “Good Intentions” is probably the most actively sad to play. There’s just an energy locked into that recording that feels very indicative of the chaos and the changes that happened through the making of the record.
We also made the decision to have a record that is so much about catharsis end without a note of resolution. We could have moved “The Outcome” last and closed out on a triumphant sing-along note. Instead, it’s one more calm, slightly melancholy meditation on all that’s happened. Everybody contributes a tasteful small piece to the puzzle and then the last sound on the record is a solo acoustic guitar playing the most stripped-down version of that progression.
That’s one of those songs where I’m excited to make it something that we bring to life and achieve catharsis with it. But, right now, sometimes it’s almost an unsettling piece of music for me, even though it felt true to the moment. I really like what we did with it.