On ‘ILYSM,’ Wild Pink’s John Ross Turns A Time Of Crisis Into A Profound Artistic Statement

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ILYSM — one of the most profound statements in the English language, condensed into a quick and easy acronym. Maybe because you’re short on time; maybe because it feels a little less heavy, a little less to commit to; or maybe because you share enough of a history and trust with this person you love to not need to elaborate any further. It’s also the title of New York-born indie rock band Wild Pink’s fourth album.

Their last record, 2021’s A Billion Little Lights, was a real statement; a slab of polished, almost arena-ready heartland rock, on which vocalist and songwriter John Ross explores a beautiful yet sad world. Their already devoted fanbase swelled, turning them into a bona fide cult band. Ross was ready to start working on a follow-up soon after. Then, halfway through writing, he was diagnosed with cancer.

ILYSM isn’t an album about having cancer, but there are nods throughout it to what happens when your world gets turned upside down. Love and beauty and connection become more important than ever, yet the doubts and the fears are louder and more existential than ever. There are lyrics that feel borne from the edge of anesthetic, blurry and dreamlike, while also ones that are deeply lucid and reflective. Musically, the album is less populist, more inward and altogether weirder than its predecessor — and in a sign of Wild Pink’s growing heft in the indie rock world, there are small contributions from the likes of J Mascis and Julien Baker among many others.

Uproxx spoke to John Ross over Zoom about love songs, experimentalism, ghosts and aliens, and more.

Can you tell me about the writing and recording of ILYSM?

I started writing it soon after A Billion Little Lights came out. I’d taken a little hiatus before that from writing, during the start of Covid, probably six plus months. [But] it started pretty quickly, the writing process. The writing process took almost a year or so before recording it. Then we recorded most of it in November of last year in Western Mass with [producer] Justin Pizzoferrato. I had never played with David Moore, the piano player, before, and it seemed like his ideas really helped take the [songs] from what I had envisioned in the demo process to where they are now. That shape-shifting kinda happened in the studio as a four-piece.

You were diagnosed with cancer during the writing process. Can you tell me about that experience?

Yeah, I was diagnosed in the summer last year, probably like halfway through writing the record. By the time it came to record the record, I was debating whether I should or not, how important it really was to be doing that. But I think that making the record was a very fun and cathartic thing during a really crazy time, and I’m glad I did it.

How did that emotional journey show up on the record?

I think at the time it probably felt a little bit heavier than it does now. But I feel like when I listen to the record now, it doesn’t feel super heavy to me. I really didn’t wanna make anything too heavy-handed, too serious about it. I write pretty emotional music I guess, so it kinda already starts in that place, but to me the record feels bigger [than that]. It’s not just about cancer, and I didn’t want it to be strictly about that.

But it was definitely crazy that that was happening behind the scenes, during the recording process itself. Like I knew that I had a surgery to remove a bunch of lymph nodes within a week after I finished. So that was definitely on my mind, but I don’t think it really felt too heavy at the time.

The lyrics on this album seem to have the same overarching themes as previous Wild Pink albums, like the beauty of the world, and feelings of love and connection. What makes you inclined to write about those things?

I think in the case of ILYSM specifically, just feeling a lot of support from my wife and family and friends definitely informed those feelings. [Cancer] is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life, so I feel appreciative of family and friends more than ever. It would have been exponentially harder without them.

But even from the first record, I think that the lyrics have always dealt with coming from a place of being in nature, or appreciating that. I think that’s just where I draw inspiration from. And I think it’s a little aspirational, too. I think that the lack of it, having lived in New York City for 13 years or so, made me appreciate it. And I’ve left New York [City] since, and I live in a more natural environment in Upstate New York.

That phrase, “I love you so much,” comes up in several songs and is the title of the album. What did that phrase come to mean to you?

It started from text messages between my wife and I. At first, it felt kind of funny and earnest at the same time. But then in light of what was happening at the time, it got a heavier meaning, and I kinda leaned into it. But it started kind of halfway joking, kind of serious, and I like that it works both ways.

Across the album, you deal simultaneously with realism and the natural world, but also with the supernatural. Where did that dichotomy come from?

I’ve always been into ghosts. I’ve always wanted to have a paranormal experience, but never have. When I started writing this record [I was watching] this Netflix show called Surviving Death, about the afterlife, and I was also watching that movie Signs quite a bit. [So] this record definitely deals with ghosts more than any previous Wild Pink records.

I think that there’s some metaphors on the record for love and obsession that have to do with ghosts and hauntings. Like in the song “ILYSM” for example, the character is visited by a ghost, and maybe confused about their feelings for the ghost. Which in my mind was kind of like how obsession can be confused with love. Or “Abducted At The Grief Retreat” is about an alien abduction, and again, the person’s kinda confused about their feelings for their alien captor. I guess I was just thinking about that at the time.

Why were you thinking about that idea of obsession?

I think the record started with looking at love through different lenses. I guess I’ve never written many conventional love songs. Which, this record has a few — well, maybe not conventional. But I wanted to write about love in a way that I haven’t on previous records.

Where do you think you did that?

Probably “See You Better Now.” I wrote that song for my wife. Just talking about the little idiosyncrasies that I appreciate about her that have deepened our connection. And I feel like the song itself has got more of a classic rock vibe than any of the other tunes do. Like I love Tom Petty and The Travelling Wilburys and stuff, so it’s kinda coming from my appreciation for those bands.

Were you consciously trying to push yourself as a songwriter?

Definitely. I wanted to get away from some of the more polished qualities of the last record. So with this record, I tried to experiment a little more. With the previous record I knew ahead of time exactly what I wanted to do, but with this record, I wanted to just not have it all so pre-ordained for myself. I [wanted] to go into the studio and figure it out in that week or two. Just to get away from some of the obvious choices that I made on the previous record.

When you look back at A Billion Little Lights, do you like those choices or do you wish you’d done it differently?

No, I like that record. I like the songs on that record. I wish we recorded certain things differently at times. But I always feel like I’m kind of correcting course. Figuring out what works and doesn’t work with a record, and steering back the other direction. I’m always kind of ping-ponging. I feel like that’s been happening since the first record. I just wanna make something I can listen to in a year or two and still feel very fired up about.

What did that more experimental feel do for the record?

It turned out better than I had planned. I wrote the songs and demoed them alone, and by the time I got with the band in Massachusetts, I was pretty ready to turn some of the songs on their head, to just kinda get away from what I had been living with for months. So when we actually played as a four-piece, things really transformed, and became more organic-sounding. There was some immediate chemistry when we started playing these songs that there was no way to plan for.

I feel like [with A Billion Little Lights] I was starting to experiment and play with a lot of collaborators and different instrumentalists, and I was really excited about how the unknown of playing with new players can really make the track better than I could have on my own. So I just really wanted to lean into that on this record. I remember when we recorded [2018 sophomore album] Yolk In The Fur, that was the first time I’d really used keyboards and synths. And I think on A Billion Little Lights, there was quite a bit of sound design elements and stuff that was very tucked in. But I wanted to just go further with it, and fool around with weird drum filters, and even mess with the arrangements, like ending songs abruptly like on “Hell Is Cold.” Just kinda get away from, again, the obvious choices that I think I made on the previous record. So yeah, I just really enjoyed experimenting, and not being too precious about anything.

My favorite line on the record is “I was a dead elm but I don’t know now / I wanna live here,” from “The Grass Widow In The Glass Window”. Can you tell me about what that meant to you?

There’s this dead hardwood tree that comes up three times in that song. You know, the tree’s dead and has mushrooms growing on it. But then by the end there’s some acceptance going on, or some moving on happening. And I really like the way that song flows. Because when the acceptance happens, [collaborator] Yasmin Williams comes in with her guitar part. It’s one of my favorite parts on the record. So yeah, I think that that song is about accepting and moving on from things. As far as some depression being in there or heavy themes, that song for sure has that the most.

I also love the record’s penultimate line, “Everything I thought was important but isn’t anymore after the year I went through.” Why did you choose to put that line at the end of the album?

It’s definitely the most literal line. That’s definitely about going through illness. I knew I wanted that song to end the record. I don’t know, addressing it head-on just felt right.

ILYSM is out 10/14 via Royal Mountain. Pre-order it here.