In the face of a cancer diagnosis, Wild Pink's John Ross crafted his band's gorgeous new album, ILYSM

click to enlarge In the face of a cancer diagnosis, Wild Pink's John Ross crafted his band's gorgeous new album, ILYSM
Mitchell Wojcik photo
John Ross (right) feels lucky to even be back on the road with Wild Pink after the past couple of years.

Nothing is "normal" anymore.

For indie musicians, that reality is even starker than in most other lines of work. People by and large don't buy music anymore. Online music companies don't provide equitable compensation for streaming. COVID kept musicians apart. The pandemic completely killed touring for years, and even in its slow return has been financially unfeasible for many artists. It's a seemingly never-ending series of gut punches.

But New York City indie rock band Wild Pink was grinding through it. Led by singer/guitarist John Ross, the group released its third album, A Billion Little Lights, in February 2021, finding an audience and critical praise on the strength of its big lush rock sound and Ross' sentimental lyricism. Wild Pink was on the rise, and by the summer Ross had already written about half of the band's follow-up record.

Then the "new normal" got even less normal.

In June 2021, the then-34-year-old Ross was diagnosed with cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes.

It's the type of earth-rocking revelation that makes anyone question everything.

Should he even bother still writing the record? Was any of it worth it when mortality was staring him in the face?

Ultimately, his surgeon convinced him to keep living his life as close to normal as possible in order to not go into very dark mental places.

The result is Wild Pink's new album ILYSM, a soft yet soaring record emerging from the most perilous moments of Ross' life. Even now he struggles with how much the disease actually shaped the album.

"I don't know, I think I'm still kind of figuring that out. I think my initial take was it didn't really affect the writing too much, it more so affected whether or not I should even make a record," says Ross. "But... my headspace was pretty f—-ed up. There are songs that are like clearly about cancer; 'War on Terror' is one of them."

"It was definitely helpful, if nothing else, to write about it at the time," he continues. "And I made some decisions, like the vocal delivery or getting as hushed as parts of the record do, that I don't know if I would have done if I wasn't in that headspace. Those circumstances were pretty unique."

While Ross is recovered from the cancer after multiple surgeries, you can still hear the tender vulnerability of his headspace at the time of making the album in this collection of songs. But ILYSM (an acronym of I Love You So Much) is anything but a cancer record. While some songs touch on the subject, Wild Pink certainly doesn't dwell on it. Instead the album strives to be an unconstrained ode to the simple and fragile connections of love in our lives expressed with a vast, seemingly infinite ceiling of sonic space that allows the whispered tones and ornate instrumental work to fully shimmer. ILYSM isn't an album of sorrow, but of joy in existence.

"That was important to me — to never have it feel like it's wallowing," says Ross.

Also important to Ross was moving away from the massive feel of A Billion Little Stars. While the album certainly has its moment of absolutely going for something epic — the album's title track approaches Joshua Tree-era U2 levels of sweeping grand euphoria — the singer-songwriter didn't want that to be ILYSM's identity.

"Really, I wanted to get away from widescreen-sounding tunes or production. I definitely didn't want to make another record that just kind of sounded like that again, because I feel like A Billion Little Lights kind of already had that going on," says Ross. "A lot of songs like 'Hell is Cold,' 'St. Beater Camry' and 'War on Terror' definitely [have a] more small room, hushed, intimate vibe, which is definitely what I was going for."

And while ILYSM is a deeply personal album for Ross, it would be a mischaracterization to describe the album as his own creation. In fact, it's the most collaborative Wild Pink album to date. Not only did that mean more tracking together with the core Wild Pink band members — drummer Dan Keegan, bassist/keyboardist Arden Yonkers, and steel guitarist Mike "Slo Mo" Brenner — but the group also brought in an array of collaborators, including vocal backing from the likes of Julien Baker, Julia Steiner (Ratboys) and Samantha Crain, guitar work from J Mascis, Yasmin Williams and Ryley Walker, and specialists to add saxophone, banjo, clarinet and organ detail work.

"I just wanted to use as many different people as I could to just make a record that I couldn't make on my own, you know?" Ross explains. "Just to get some new sounds and get it out of my comfort zone."

"I wanted to get away from some of the production techniques from A Billion Little Lights," Ross continues, "which basically just meant getting everybody together to play as a band and not doing it piecemeal. That was a focus for us making this record — leaving in some of the spontaneity. I think 'Hell is Cold' is where we did that the best."

Another collaborative force that helped Ross shape the record was The Antlers' Peter Silberman. The frontman of the indie band — who crafted one of the greatest hushed albums about love and death of all time in 2009's Hospice — is credited as a co-producer in addition to singing and playing guitar and keys on the record.

"Peter is someone whose opinion I sought a lot. It wasn't so much like him in the studio, we just talked about the record a lot together. He just offered some guidance or critique or opinions whenever I would ask him for it. He kind of just helped me out with the big picture of the record."

The response to ILYSM has been overwhelmingly positive so far. It was already ranked No. 20 on Paste's list of the "Best 50 Albums of 2022" and is sure to end up on many other year-end roundups as they begin to trickle out. But for Ross, simply being around and being able to still share Wild Pink's music with people in-person provide all the needed positive reinforcement to forge beyond any sense of former normalcy.

"I mean, it's pretty incredible to come out of cancer and COVID and to be on a two-month tour supporting this record," says Ross. "I feel very lucky. I try to think about that when I'm tired." ♦

Wild Pink, Trace Mountains, Dario Ré • Sun, Dec. 4 at 8 pm • $16 • 21+ • Lucky You Lounge • 1801 W. Sunset Blvd. • luckyyoulounge.com • 509-474-0511

Music in Manito @ Manito Park

Tue., July 16, 7-9 p.m. and Wed., July 17, 7-9 p.m.
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Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...