The songs of Adam Ruskowitz are melodic to the core, with chiming choruses, understated guitars and lyrical charm. Ruskowitz's most recent album, Points on the Pieces, echoes the work of power pop luminaries Marshall Crenshaw, Game Theory and Aimee Mann's early solo work, and making it all sound effortless in the process. In this interview, Ruskowitz discusses his "haphazard" songwriting process and how unforeseen circumstances affected the sound of Points on the Pieces. We are fortunate to welcome Adam Ruskowitz to Listen Local.
Introduce yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
My name is Adam Ruskowitz. I live in KCK and work in Shawnee, KS. I have a grown-up job to support my music habit, but writing, recording, and performing will always be an important part of my life.
Tell us about your third album, Points on the Pieces. Where was it recorded? Who else plays on it?
Points on the Pieces started out as a simple solo acoustic EP. It had been over 6 years since I had put out Boxed Wine & Bottle Rockets, and there were three or four new songs that I felt were ready. I decided to try something I hadn’t done before; record stripped-down style, with only acoustic guitar and vocals.
Unbeknownst to me, the studio where I’d done my previous two albums had shut down. The owner had left the music industry to focus on running a boxing gym for the youth of Kansas City. (Or to phrase it another way, faced with the prospect of enduring the recording process with me for a third time, his preference was to be punched in the face repeatedly by a bunch of angry kids).
I had to do some research to find a new studio, which allowed time for my modest and unassuming acoustic EP to spiral out of control into entire album, complete with full instrumentation and an overarching lyrical narrative.
I eventually decided on Element Recording in Kansas City, MO. I did all of the guitars and vocals, while studio engineer Adam McGill (formerly of the Republic Tigers) handled percussion, bass, keys, etc. He’s a pop-music savant, and helped me take the songs to levels that just wouldn’t have been possible on my own. After we had everything recorded, studio owner Joel Nanos headed up the mixing and mastering process. Joel brought a lot of unique ideas to the table. The sound of this album was skewing poppier than anything I’d ever done before, and Joel’s instincts allowed us to maintain somewhat of an indie veneer to everything.
Describe your creative process with songwriting and recording. What tools do you use? What may surprise people about how your music is created?
My process is haphazard. I’ve never been able to sit down with the sole intent of writing music. It typically happens organically, with an intriguing lyric or melody that pops into my head. I’ll record snippets of ideas with an acoustic guitar, and then flesh them out over time with full lyrics and additional instrumentation, using a four-track recorder app on my phone.
The most surprising part for me is always how much a song can change from inception to finished product. I think it’s really important as a songwriter not to become too devoted or married to an idea. If you write a really clever or poignant lyric, the temptation is to show it off by making it part of the hook or refrain. But sometimes it’s better served elsewhere. When I was writing Points on the Pieces, I had written this line that I thought was kind of cool: “I told you that I blacked out, but that was a white lie.” I wanted to develop an entire song around that theme, using that lyric as the chorus. I finished the song, but it just wasn’t clicking in the way that I had hoped. The song was scrapped, and that particular line eventually wound up in the bridge of a song called “Baby Maybe.” I only sing the line once, and you could even say that it’s buried away. But used sparingly, it was far more effective.
What most excites you about music and creativity in Kansas City?
Local music is thriving, and my favorite part of that is that it’s not limited to any particular genre. People are doing exciting things in Kansas City all across the board. There’s something out there for anybody willing to search.
What are you most looking forward to in 2016?
Playing some shows, discovering new music, writing songs, and maybe getting around to recording that solo-acoustic EP.
Adam's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
The Way Home by George Pelecanos
I love anything that Pelecanos writes, but if I had to choose one, it would be this stand-alone story.
Superfudge by Judy Blume
The best installment from my favorite series of books as a kid.
Game Change by John Heilemann
An awesome peek behind the curtain of modern day political campaigns.
The Greatest Generation by the Wonder Years
A lot of musicians have touched on the quarter-life crisis phenomenon, but nobody has done it quite this well.
The Family Sign by Atmosphere
Quiet, haunting, and reflective underground hip-hop. Rewards the patient listener.
American Idiot by Green Day
My favorite album from my favorite band!
Enduringly bizarre and wonderful.