How Carl Sagan and the cosmos helped shape Wild Pink’s ‘larger than life’ sound

The New York band visits Rumba Cafe on Sunday in support of ‘A Billion Little Lights’

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Wild Pink

There’s a moment on “The Shining But Tropical,” one of the standout tracks off of Wild Pink’s third studio album, A Billion Little Lights, where frontman John Ross surveys the coastline from some great height, struck by the way the myriad lights illuminating the unnamed city combine to create a single massive, glowing organism.

A similar concept plays out musically on the record, with Ross and Co. crafting majestic, epic indie-rock tracks from lush, shimmering layers of synthesizer, bass, drums and guitar that, from a distance, project a sense of widescreen awe. Zoomed in, however, the individual details come into sharper focus on glimmering songs such as “The Shining”: a celestial chime of synthesizer, a loping, unhurried backbeat, an atmospheric drone that hovers like an apparition in the background.

“This is definitely our most nuanced record. We spent a lot of time layering in small details,” said Ross, who will join his bandmates in concert at Rumba Cafe on Sunday, Sept. 19. “I wanted the whole record to feel like one cohesive thing. I wanted everything to have a through line, and for everything to feel larger than life.”

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Ross’ narrators often find themselves dwarfed by these musical surroundings, the singer making repeated reference to the vastness of the universe, a tendency he traced to an early fascination with Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” as well as a recent move from New York City to a small town in upstate New York where the night sky blossoms with stars that had long been invisible to him. “I think the longer I lived in city environments, the more I was pushed or drawn to nature,” said Ross. “I really enjoy it, and I take a lot of inspiration from that environment.”

The sound on A Billion Little Lights is one Wild Pink has been building toward since the band released its debut EP, Good Life, in 2015. “I love big, epic sounding things,” Ross said in a 2016 interview with Alivein which he cited the influence of musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, the Hold Steady and Titus Andronicus. At the same time, the musician said he views this record as a culmination of those efforts, describing the future as wide open. “This was the last step of that journey, that trajectory. I definitely feel like this is our biggest record, but I also feel like now I’ve put a period at the end of that sentence,” said Ross. “I just wrapped up writing a new record … and I think it’s going to sound quite different.”

Though its songs were written months before the word COVID-19 even entered the vernacular, A Billion Little Lights plays, at times, like a companion to the ongoing pandemic. “Oversharers Anonymous,” for one, makes reference to Slack, which has become an essential aspect of work-from-home life for many, while “Family Friends” includes a line that has likely been repeated in some form by thousands of people over the last 18-plus months: “Every day is Groundhog’s Day now.”

“It’s so weird. Of course there’s no way that could have been about the pandemic, but it definitely feels more relevant now,” Ross said, adding that it’s not uncommon for songs to take on new dimensions or to reveal their deeper meanings to him in time.

Ross said initial mixing for the album was completed in January 2020, with the March arrival of the pandemic ushering in a series of delays and a long period of inactivity. “I didn’t even pick up a guitar and really write anything until November of 2020, and it was strange to take 10 or 11 months off, because I had never done that,” he said. “It was definitely just a matter of feeling paralyzed, where you have no idea what’s going on in the world. Everything I was doing felt unimportant, and I just didn’t have any interest in it.”

Gradually, though, the music started to come back. In November, Ross started writing new songs on an upright piano he got for free off of Facebook Marketplace. Then in February, he joined his Wild Pink bandmates in a livestream performance to celebrate the release of the new album, during which the songs took on a looser, more freewheeling vibe than on the more carefully manicured studio versions, a direction Ross is interested to explore as the musicians take these first cautious steps back out on the road.

“I think I’m going to have some new feelings about the record once we get into the tour and we’re playing these songs every night,” said Ross, whose excitement for the return of live shows has been somewhat tempered by the spread of the delta variant. “I’m very nervous going into it, and we’re trying to do everything we can to keep ourselves and our fans safe. There’s a lot of anxiety. ... It definitely doesn’t feel like a normal tour. And it’s not. It’s not business as usual.”