The Dead Tongues, the moniker of North Carolina based songwriter Ryan Gustafson, has released a new single off of his upcoming album, Transmigration Blues – due June 26th. “Deja Vu”, which features backup vocals from beloved trio Mountain Man, is Gustafson’s light in the darkness song, a wistful track that serves as both a lamentation and a way forward, which culminates in the joyous, yet pleading, gang vocals on the final chorus.
Speaking to the spark that brought Déjà Vu to life, Gustafson says he: “wrote “Déjà Vu” in a brief moment, almost as if it was waiting to be sung….or like it had already been written down someplace in my memory. I was tired and felt isolated. This song gave me something to connect to. It felt like a bridge I could cross to see it all in some other light.”
Gustafson is running a recurring live stream series he calls QuaranTV on his Instagram, and has featured fellow North Carolinians Mandolin Orange and Molly Sarlé. The latest installment sees Gustafson coming together with long time friend and collaborator Phil Cook to cover Sylvan Esso’s “Slack Jaw” with a stunningly understated live video.
Speaking to their process Gustafson explains: “There’s a couple years I can think of where I probably spent more time with Phil than anyone else. Crossing oceans and highways one end to the other. He’s a dear friend to say the least. After catching up for a bit on the phone and talking over ideas for this performance we landed on covering Sylvan Esso’s “Slack Jaw.” It’s been a wet and rainy week and I’ve felt the craze of the times and isolation a bit heavier than usual. So it felt good perform a song with a Phil that was also written by our friends.“
Gustafson announced his new album Transmigration Blues with the first single “Peaceful Ambassador.” Digging into the cosmic Americana, folk and bluegrass that run through his past releases, the new single signals a turn for the North Carolinian musician. The self-assured sound belies the complex and conflicting emotional toll that writing these songs took on Gustafson. Here he looks at the world with the veil lifted, clear-eyed and astute in his vision of a society crumbling around him, Gustafson looks less at the why but instead at the human impact of our rapidly degrading social contract and what a better, more humane, future could be.
Speaking to this journey Gustafson says: “’Transmigration Blues’ belongs to the moments weaving between uncertainty and discovery. The placements between the mirage and the horizon line, the subtle and dramatic moments that unravel and shape ways of being. Here I am in the West, witnessing our internally deified structures of economy and society once again show how undeniably fragile they are, and in turn, calling for sacrifice. If a house falls, why rebuild it the same way? Political grand anthems do not exist on this album, but there are stories of the little deaths and rebirths, and of trying to navigate oneself to a place of purpose and compassion. So, at its best, I hope this album can provide an emotional language for some to ask themselves and to ask each other, how do we want to rebuild what has needed to fall and of what we’ve lost, what do we want back?”
When Ryan Gustafson finished recording Transmigration Blues, his fourth album under the name The Dead Tongues, in the summer of 2019, he slumped into a month-long haze of depression. For two decades, Gustafson—a preternaturally sensitive soul, interested in the mystic but grounded by his love of quiet woods and open deserts—had made many albums under assorted guises. This one however had left him wounded, momentarily empty.
Here, Gustafson built words and songs of intense emotional reckoning. He wrestled with relationships that failed spectacularly. He contemplated growing up in and then apart from a devoted religious household. He surveyed the damage of living hard in his 20s, partying in the back of vans as he prowled the interstates of the United States, reckless and free. Working through this baggage was daunting, Gustafson admits, but he’s better for having sorted through it, having pulled it from his body at last.
Transmigration Blues gets to the idiosyncratic heart and unorthodox past of Gustafson, who lives the contemplative rural life about which many of his peers simply sing. In this stark moment of uncertainty, The Dead Tongues’ hymns to understanding your past and finding renewal in the changing seasons are more vital than Gustafson might have ever imagined.