Gradually Descend Into Chaos
Pulling from the American traditions of blues, jazz, and folk, JP Ruggieri makes rhythmic, groove-based roots music. It's a sound grounded in sharp songwriting and nuanced production, created by a longtime road warrior who not only fronts his own project, but regularly performs as a sideman for other genre-bending acts.
Gradually Descend Into Chaos, his second full-length album, finds Ruggieri in resilient shape, turning a number of challenges — including heartbreak, a lifelong stutter, and a chronic pain condition that upended his day-to-day life for five years — into songs that are vulnerable, eclectic, and even celebratory. Ruggieri is familiar with struggle, but he's familiar with salvation, too. Gradually Descend Into Chaos explores the territory between the two, with Ruggieri tapping fellow multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix (longtime drummer for The Wood Brothers) as his collaborator.
"I began writing these songs during a chaotic period of my life," says the songwriter, who found himself reeling from the breakup of a nine-year relationship. He turned that hurt into inspiration, writing songs that blended first-rate musicianship — the same skills that have made him one of Nashville's most in-demand sidemen, regularly playing electric guitar and pedal steel alongside artists like Seth Walker, Oliver Wood (The Wood Brothers), Viktor Krauss, and Charlie Hunter — with lyrics that made room for both personal insight and universal sentiment. Things took a turn one year later, when Ruggieri was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia. The health disorder was impossible to ignore, with symptoms that included excruciating nerve pain generated by any movement of the tongue. "I couldn't even talk or go outside and let the wind hit my face," he remembers. "I was just trying to keep my sanity by writing lyrics and poems, playing my guitar, and recording these songs with Jano."
It was a dark time, but there was light, too. In time, Ruggieri fell in love and got married. His wife found a surgeon who specialized in trigeminal neuralgia, and within a month, Ruggieri had undergone brain surgery to cure him of the condition. Although he soon developed Bell's palsy, a condition that wiped out 30% of his hearing in his left ear, music continued to offer a source of stability and solace.
"At first, I worried I was never going to hear music as deeply as I ever had before," he says. "Then I realized I was hearing it even deeper."
Before Ruggieri's operation, he'd recorded the album's basic tracks with Jano Rix and bassist Jordan Scannella. He'd also grown a deep interest in the production and mixing process. "All the things I'd never thought about before — EQ, delay, compression, pre-amps, and distortion — became so important to me," he says. "I would spend time laying on the couch with my eyes closed and my headphones on, listening to records from start to finish, noticing how much the sound can affect the song. I knew I wanted to use the studio as its own instrument on my own album." Now, with his health intact, Ruggieri started turning that dream into a reality. He added an adventurous outro to "Kill a Smile," Gradually Descend Into Chaos's opening track, whose combination of funk-folk guitars, gorgeous harmonies, and percussive pulse takes an unexpected turn during its final moments. "I ran the basic groove of the track through a Moog synthesizer, then used a filter to mess with it, then blended in that sound as the normal track was fading out," he explains. "I wanted 'Kill a Smile' to sound like it was being killed." The album's closer, "Carry," was laced with stacked cellos and nimble guitar playing. With added contributions from multi-instrumentalist horn player Matt Glassmeyer and keyboardist Michael Bellar, Gradually Descend Into Chaos became every bit as diverse as its own creator, making room for the laidback soul of "Without the Sun" (a duet with Wood Brothers' frontman, Oliver Wood, who co-wrote the song), the cinematic slow burner "The Way I Like It," the bluesy stomp of "Buckets," and the carnivalesque interlude "Fun Machine."
Ruggieri has a long history of turning setbacks into breakthroughs. Years before his health scare, he was a frustrated teenager battling a crippling, omnipresent speech impediment. "I still talk about my stutter onstage," he says now, having gained a new level of fluency thanks to a life-changing speech program. "I'm kind of amazed that I can even get onstage and talk to people. That would've been my worst nightmare as a kid, back when I thought I was always going to be terrified to speak. Now I'm in a position where I might be able to inspire someone else to move past this thing. The experience did a lot for me as a human and as a musician, and it's why I gravitated so deeply toward guitar playing and songwriting. When I get interested in something new, I view it as a challenge. It inspires me and excites me. That must come from being a kid and being presented with this huge challenge, which is speaking with a stutter. Learning to push past it has been hugely inspiring to me."
Created during a time of instability, Gradually Descend Into Chaos is the sound of a songwriter regaining control of his heart and head. The production is spectacular, yet it never overwhelms the song craft itself. Instead, Ruggieri focuses his attention on the very elements that carried him through the chaos — distinct songwriting, bold production, and a willingness to chase down new horizons.