Johnathan Rice: Why the singer-songwriter nearly joined the CIA

At 22, Johnathan Rice has packed a lot of living into his short life. Fiona Sturges catches up with him
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The Independent Culture

At the age of 22, you might expect a singer-songwriter to be just waking up to the ways of the world. Not the Scottish-American Johnathan Rice, who has packed more into his comparatively brief existence than most manage in a lifetime. He's lived in two different continents, rubbed shoulders with the CIA, toyed with joining the priesthood, shared an apartment with a prostitute, supported REM on tour and is making his movie debut in the forthcoming Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. But perhaps Rice's greatest achievement to date is Trouble is Real, a beguilingly eclectic album of folk, blues, country and indie-rock songs, all delivered in a weary, windswept voice redolent of a singer with twice his age and experience.

The son of Glaswegian parents, Rice was born in Virginia but spent much of his childhood shuttling back and forth between Scotland and the United States. Such early rootlessness prepared him well for the lifestyle of a touring musician, he says. His home in Northern Virginia, situated just a few miles from Washington DC, may have looked like a typical American suburb though it was far from normal.

"The Pentagon was just a few miles away," he says. "Everyone on our block was working for the CIA. If you ever saw the film Pleasantville, it's a lot like that, a pristine, spotless environment, the kind of place that breeds suburban rage. Glasgow had a completely different atmosphere and seemed more genuine to me. If I hadn't spent as much time in Glasgow as I did, I don't think I would have become a creative person. In fact, I would probably have joined the CIA."

At 16, Rice was sent to a Jesuit school where it was decided that he was potential priest material. "Most of the time I was an atheist, though on this occasion I thought I'd had an epiphany. It was probably just puberty. I remember being seated at this long table with a bunch of priests. They said: 'We think you should consider a higher calling with the church. What do you think about that?' I thought about it and said: 'But I really like women.' I wasn't trying to be rude. As far as I was concerned it was a statement of fact. But I think I nipped that one in the bud."

On turning 18, Rice was set to study politics at Edinburgh University, though changed his mind at the last minute and decided to try to make it as a musician instead. On 9 September, 2001, armed with a guitar and a few copies of his home-made EP, he moved to New York. He describes the terrorist attacks that took place two days later as the "the beginning of my adult life. Like most people who saw it, it changed me forever."

After a few weeks sleeping on friends' floors, Rice found a cheap apartment on the Upper East Side. Among his room-mates were a male prostitute and a cocaine dealer. "Just the sounds I heard trying to get to sleep at night were enough to age me 20 years," Rice recalls blithely. "I think it was helpful for me to see some of the darkest things in life. It probably made me less susceptible to these things now. It's a cliché, I realise, but a lot of people I know who tour constantly and live nocturnal lives have gone down that road."

Despite the domestic distractions, Rice pressed on with the music, playing at open mic shows on the Lower East Side and distributing his EP. In order to make ends meet, he took a series of low-paid jobs, including dog-walking, delivering newspapers, waiting tables and decorating cup cakes at a bakery ("I was fired for over-icing"). But after 10 months, ground down by his living conditions and artistic invisibility, he returned to Virginia. Rice was ready to throw in the towel and go to college, but then he got a call from a Los Angeles record company. Two weeks later he signed a deal with Warner Brothers.

Rice recorded his debut album no less than five times before he was prepared to release the result. "I made records in Nashville, Virginia, New York and Los Angeles, all with the same core group of songs, but none of them were right," he says. "I was working with really well-known people with intimidating reputations. Not having any experience in the studio, I didn't speak up much, and that was clearly my mistake. It always felt like my songs were being taken away from me and turned into something else."

Eventually, he decamped to Omaha, in Nebraska, the home of Saddle Creek records, to work with his long-time hero, the producer Mike Mogis, of Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley fame.

"It was amazing," he exclaims. "We just agreed musically and he wasn't afraid of my ideas. I remember saying to him that I wanted to make a widescreen teenage movie but on record, and he really got that. I'm not much of a musician but he was able to translate my ideas perfectly."

Last summer, Rice was contacted by a casting director who asked him to audition for the part of Roy Orbison in James Mangold's Walk The Line. "It was baffling to me, because I sing like I've been burned badly with acid and he's one of the purest and, for my money, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock 'n' roll. But they seemed to like what I did."

His main reason for taking the part, he admits, was to work with the film's legendary music producer, T-Bone Burnett, who also composed the score. Rice has since been flooded with offers of other roles but hasn't been tempted.

"Hollywood is so unimaginative that you get offers, not based on your ability, but on the fact that you are connected to this other film. The attraction isn't lost on me but I think there's a lot of karma involved in this way of life. I've been riding a pretty incredible stream of good luck since I was 17 and I think it would be tremendously irresponsible of me to throw it all away now. Besides, it's much cooler to be in a band, don't you think?"

'Trouble is Real' is out now on One Little Indian.