By Jim Morrison
Ian Randall Thornton likes to let the songs flow naturally, following whatever is inspiring him at the moment. But he also doesn’t want his albums to just be a collection of unrelated songs.
So when he started working on the tunes that would become his new album, “Lineage,” about three years ago, he followed his muse. Over time, though, he realized he was writing about family, not only his own family, but the metaphor of an extended family tree.
“The songs had this commonality,” he says over coffee on a recent afternoon at Cure Coffeehouse and Brasserie in Norfolk’s Freemason neighborhood. “I embraced that concept. I said I’m now going to write songs that intentionally can fit together almost cinematically to tell a story.”
The result is a compelling, thought-provoking three-act cycle of songs that explore family, friends, the passage of time and the search for meaning and identity.
Thornton debuts the album with help from friends at The Chapel on Colonial Avenue in Norfolk at 7 p.m. on Aug. 18. He’ll be joined by some of the players from the album, including his producer, Stephen Price and Luke Skaggs, who along with his sister, Molly, played on the album. If the last name sounds familiar, they are the children of Ricky Skaggs. Local songwriters, including Logan Vath, will each perform a song to open the show.
“The album is called ‘Lineage’ so it’s about where you are, but also the extensive lineage you have with the past and all that you’ve inherited from your family and your culture. How to sift through your culture and family and to look toward the future, sifting through what you keep of the past to get to the future,” he says.
” ‘Cause who are we but who we came from,” he sings in “Who Are We.” “Who will not affect their children as a king receives his kingdom. Who is he but who he came from.”
His lineage, then, is only the beginning. While it’s clear in some ways, it’s a mystery in others.
His grandfather, a grandfather he never met, is featured in photographs on the cover and back of the album flying in World War II. Thornton created a lyric book for the disc, a bonus for his Kickstarter supporters that he says he just shipped to all his relatives.
“There’s something very personal about it, but I also wanted to reach beyond that,” he says. “That’s my dad’s dad. But that also is my dad’s dad flying in a war for his entire country.”
His grandfather’s lineage extends beyond the personal in that way. Thornton says the focus on family — there are songs written as Thornton talking to a daughter and to a son, neither yet conceived — is ironic in a way. He never met either of his grandfathers. He has a small family circle. Most of them live on the West Coast while he grew up in Virginia Beach and now lives in Norfolk. His mother is from the Washington, D.C. area and his father from northern California. When he was 18, he toured Europe. He tours there and throughout the country.
One of the album’s many highlights, “See You Through,” a song to a daughter he has yet to father, was inspired of the scene coming out of a train in a mountain village in Switzerland near Lake Geneva. “Oh hold on to your awe and wonder,” he tells her. “Don’t let them get torn asunder. They’ll be a fire that’ll burn you through.”
In another song, “Philadelphia,” the oldest on the album, he writes to an old friend, a member of his extended family, that he is missing. “It was one of those brotherly friendships,” he says noting the city’s nickname. “It was about missing some friendships, about kind of letting go of those feelings.”
He says the albums first four cuts are interrelated conceptually, then are three songs that take a rest from the concept before he closes with a suite of songs back to exploring lineage. The album closes with “Family Tree” that explores not only family but what’s everlasting.
He funded the disc with $12,000 in Kickstarter money and $15,000 squirreled away from touring. Recording took place throughout 2016 in North Carolina.
Sonically, the album transitions easily through the quiet modern folk of a Joan Shelley, the folk rock of Bon Iver or Iron and Wine and what Thornton calls some progressive rock nods.
Thornton says he began singing in choirs at three and started taking lessons at six. After several years, he moved from the piano to upright bass and played everything from jazz to thrash punk to indie jams. Over time, he began writing songs that meant more to him, songs with roots in folk.
He confesses an original reluctance to embrace the folk song with its simple structure and focus on storytelling, but it won him over.
“Folk music was a place where I could actually say something,” he adds. “Writing songs as a way of understanding things.”