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Rose City Band’s New Album Is an Ode to Portland Summers

“Usually summer is my happy time, and in Portland it historically has been a joyous time after months of darkness and rain. So it’s a tough blow to have to deal with smoke and fires and climate change.”

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“Rose City Band is the perfect summer soundtrack. Like eating a mushroom cap at the river or having dinner with friends in your garden.”

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Ripley Johnson intended Earth Trip as a summer album, but he got a little more summer than he bargained for.

The day after he put out his third album as mastermind of the Rose City Band, Portland broke its record for hottest day ever, with temperatures reaching 108 degrees.

“Usually summer is my happy time, and in Portland it historically has been a joyous time after months of darkness and rain,” says Johnson. “So it’s a tough blow to have to deal with smoke and fires and climate change.”

The impressively bearded guitarist and singer-songwriter moved to Portland in 2012 from seasonless San Francisco, where he’d already established himself with his bands Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo.

“We moved here partially because we wanted to be back on the West Coast, but also just to be so close to nature,” he says of himself and his wife and Moon Duo co-conspirator, Sanae Yamada.

While much of Johnson’s earlier work buzzes with the bad-trip energy of the Doors or the Velvet Underground, Earth Trip is all wide-eyed wonder, assisted by Barry Walker’s expansive steel guitar playing. The mood is redolent of classic country, but everything seems slowed and suspended, like a flower in perpetual bloom. Johnson’s on the cover, walking in the forest and staring up at the sky—an appropriate image for music that prefers to take the scenic route.

Johnson doesn’t do psychedelics as much as he did in his teens and 20s, during which time he mainly listened to the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and the other classic-rock staples that still inform his sound. But while working on lyrics for Earth Trip, he decided to take mushrooms again.

“I thought I’d write all the lyrics on mushrooms,” he says, “but, of course, that doesn’t work.”

Still, it did help him get in touch with his younger self.

“I’m looking back in a lot of ways, and I’m exploring the type of music that I listened to when I was younger,” says Johnson. “And while working on this record, it sort of brought me back to that mindset and those formative experiences.”

Those formative artists, the Stones and Neil Young in particular, occupied one of the most turbulent and traumatic times in American history just as Johnson does as a witness to COVID-19 and climate change. But while the Stones’ canonical, Mick Taylor-aided run and Neil Young’s “ditch” albums drew inspiration from the disappointment that set in once the hippie revolution began to splinter and sour, Johnson prefers to keep his spirits a little bit higher.

“I’m a realist, but also I tend to be an optimist,” he says. “I’ve turned to music for relief a lot of times. If there are heavy things on my mind, that might come out in the music a little bit, but it’s always tempered by my inherent optimism. Music for me is an expression of healing.”

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