The American Dream: In conversation with Ian Felice

Winter is setting in when I meet Ian Felice which seems fitting considering the mostly melancholy theme of his debut solo record In The Kingdom of Dreams. It's welcoming stepping in from the cold to his small dressing room where a bottle of red wine sits on the table and there’s a calm atmosphere. No doubt there’s a slightly different feeling when he’s with his band The Felice Brothers but tonight he is playing solo and we laugh over how at least there’s no fighting over the aux cable on the road.

“It’s much more quiet when touring,” Ian tells me. He laughs before continuing, “I love touring with the band, they’re my best friends, but this is a different experience.” The way Ian speaks is exactly how you’d expect after listening to his debut record. He’s calm and collected as he thoughtfully pauses to sip on his plastic cup of wine. The record is not too dissimilar from the quieter moments on The Felice Brother’s Life in the Dark but seems to carry a much more personal tale. There’s a heavy theme in the lyricism of being on the road, a constant travel through the vast lands of the United States of America which sonically leaves you in a dreamlike state. Moments of despair mixed with euphoria. “The narratives aren’t literal,” Ian tells me. “There’s a lot of elements of hallucination and dreams. There’s often things happening simultaneously that don't make sense but may have some sort of symbolic meaning.” 

The American Dream is something that has been touched in lyrics for decades in folk music, and neo-folk, naturally, is no different. It’s a theme that has been read in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The Declaration of Independence proclaims “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and the American Dream has embedded this ethos in the cultural psyche - albeit difficult to see in America’s current political state. Felice’s lyrics are somewhat reflective of this. He admits to a theme of The American Dream. “It all comes from just experiencing America. About this assumptions that people might make.” Ian reflects. “I guess it’s also a good poetic subject.” The subject isn’t at the fore front of Ian’s mind when song writing. It simply just shapes itself. “I don’t sit down and think about that, if I do the song will just be so bad,” he laughs. “Just after, when I read back, it happens to be about that.”

In The Kingdom of Dreams is a journey. Upon closer listen I noticed the traveling through the songs, starting with the ideal dream world in the title track reaching to an eerie, dark and brooding section in Road to America with lyrics such as the slaughterhouse flies cloud the haunted skies. Not much has to be said about the final song on the record which has a title of The Final Reckoning. “The vague idea is that a narrator goes on the road through America and then he settles down and has his own house, living that American Dream, then it sort of decays at the end.” Topics touched are hauntingly relevant to the state of America at the moment, in Road To America Ian sings “the empire of Donald Duck.” He admits that a lot was on his mind when the record was being written, “I wrote it just after the election.” Ian tells me. “I was just blown away by what was happening in my country, politically, and didn’t want to address it. I just wanted to hide away from it.” Through his songwriting it’s clear that he’s found a way to address subjects and also hide away at the same time, his lyrics providing the vehicle to his musings. “I think it just happened to seep through,” Ian continues, “I think it’s pretty precedent in some of the songs.” This comes as a clash, he laughs when he admits to not wanting to ignore it but also wanting to ignore it. 

Story telling is a key element in folk. Ian’s passion has always come from stories. “When I was a kid my favourite songs would always be the ones that told a good story, or transports you to somewhere you’ve never really been,” he tells. “That’s why I love the blues and folk. I fell in love with Dylan and Neil Young.” We discuss Bob Dylan and his outspokenness about politics in his music, but then the opposite with Michael Hurley whose songs are far more personal. Ian Felice seems to be sitting in between the two, there’s the political and social commentary that you may need to dig a little deeper to be aware of, but also the open and heart on sleeve love songs such as Signs of Spring.”I’ve been really influenced by Michael Hurley,” Ian states. “I wish I could write songs like him, they make me feel happy and they’re uplifting in a strange, sort of childish way.” He’s smiling as he talks about Hurley, but admits that he’s not there in his own writing. I tell Ian that In The Kingdom of Dreams reminds me of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Ian takes this as a “great compliment”, but I suppose it’s a testament to the consistent theme of moving and travelling. 

Ian’s band, The Felice Brothers, have a wonderfully honest tale behind them. They started playing in Subway stations, between 42nd and Union Square but now the music has taken them across seas and around the world, but for him not much has changed, and he really means that. He pauses for a long time before admitting it. “It’s nice to have people that know the songs and aren’t just walking by with headphones on,” he laughs. “Making a couple of bucks is great, but it just comes from the same impulse to make music. It’s hard to think about the term of success.” Ian is no longer in New York City, he now resides upstate in the country. “I’m so disconnected to it [New York], I live in this rural community surrounded by cows.” He remembers the New York folk scene from his busking days, back when Ian was more involved in it, the days prior to having cows as neighbours. “I just felt like an outsider to any sort of music community,” Ian admits. “I just found that most of my inspiration comes from my own personal trip, you know, just being surrounded by nature and not really concerning myself with a music scene.”

In The Kingdom of Dreams is a new chapter for Ian. It's honest and personal, it really sounds like his record. It’s calm and comforting moments seem to be a testament to that upstate country life, but he’s still managed to keep you on edge and tied to reality in the darker moments. It’s a stunning record to say the least. Talking to Ian I’ve learnt about the ideas and meanings behind his writing and as we part he gifts me a book of his poetry. It’s clear that he is a genuine man and his music backs that. He may not be at 42nd Street station but his passion for his craft still runs deep.

Interviewed by Nathan McLaren-Stewart.