The Milk Carton Kids Deepen Their Sound and Songwriting on ‘I Only See the Moon’

Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, aka the Milk Carton Kids, discuss the creative process behind what is perhaps their strongest set of songs to date.
Milk Carton Kids: Kenneth Pattengale (left) and Joey Ryan

For a dozen years, the Milk Carton Kids have explored the sonic potential of two voices and two acoustic guitars—singing in silvery harmony over the gentle pulse of Joey Ryan’s fingerstyle rhythm, while Kenneth Pattengale probes the edges of consonance and dissonance on lead guitar. With the exception of their band-oriented 2018 album All the Things I Did and All the Things I Didn’t Do, Ryan and Pattengale have maintained this tight focus on what they can accomplish as an acoustic duo, both onstage and in the studio.

That quest continues on their new album, I Only See the Moon, but it has broadened in unexpected ways. For the first time, Pattengale served as their producer—building on his experiences at the helm of albums by Joe Pug, Cordovas, Joy Williams, Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage, and more—and Pattengale and Ryan also had their own studio in North Hollywood to work in. With the freedom to dig deeper into writing and arranging on their own schedule, they expanded their instrumental palette with varied guitars as well as clawhammer banjo, Hammond and pump organ, and Mellotron, and even brought in a string orchestra on the title track. All these sounds create a rich atmosphere while retaining the emotional intimacy of perhaps their strongest set of songs to date.

I caught up with Ryan and Pattengale by Zoom, with Pattengale sitting in their studio in front of some favorite guitars—including a prewar Gibson L-00 miraculously rescued from Hurricane Katrina. 

Cover artwork for the Milk Carton Kids new album, ‘I Only See the Moon’

After years of living in different cities, how did it impact your music to be together in L.A. again? 

Pattengale: It’s a big change actually. We didn’t realize those many years we were apart that [living nearby] makes it a lot easier to work together, run a business together, write together, and record together. 

Ryan: We spent a year making this record, which I don’t think you can do unless you live in the same city. We got through three weeks of it, which was how long it was supposed to take, and then Kenneth said, it’s not good. I agreed and was relieved that he said it out loud, because I think if there was a flight booked for him to go back to Nashville or New York or me to go off somewhere, probably we would just have taken the record we had in the can after three weeks and put that out. We never would have been honest with ourselves about how we didn’t like it. Instead we took a whole extra year, working every day to write new songs and record them and find the identity of the album, which we now think is probably our best one. 

What exactly did you feel was missing or coming up short? 

Ryan: For me it was just the songs. At the time, Kenneth said they’re kind of all over the place, except for two songs we ended up keeping [“Wheels and Levers” and “One True Love”]—these really seemed to be pointing in a direction. Then it was exciting to start with those as a kernel or a North Star to be guided by, and just write a whole new batch of songs.

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Pattengale: Yeah, everything’s about the songs. That’s all it ever was. It’s not like anybody’s perfect, even the best bands of all time. You know, the Beatles had some real stinkers, and they slipped onto albums. But the stinkers can’t outweigh the timeless songs, and they always ended up on the right side of that equation. 

I think what we’re most proud of on this record is ending up with an authorial voice that was headed somewhere and felt truthful—and didn’t feel like songwriting exercises or constructions. 

Ryan: One thing I hope won’t sound like self-flattery is, you know, I think we can sing and play anything and make it pretty; we could take a song that doesn’t mean that much to us and make it sound like nice music. But on this album, it was important to us that the lyrics felt sharp and purposeful as well as personal.

I’m digging the banjo-and-guitar combo on some of the new songs. Joey, back in 2015 you told me you were playing banjo but not ready to go public. What was the impetus behind tapping into that old-time banjo sound? 

Ryan: I learned the banjo to begin with on the tour bus with Sarah Jarosz and her band, when we did a collaborative tour in 2014. The sound engineer, Mark Richards, is also a great clawhammer-style banjo player, and she and he were jamming old-time songs the whole time. 

One of the modalities of songs I learned is in G modal tuning [G D G C D], and usually it’s pretty ominous sounding. I learned a version of “Wayfaring Stranger” in that tuning, plus a bunch of other songs that I won’t remember the names of now, but they were usually about something terrible happening. 

I wanted to take this sound and feel and put my own songwriting lens on it. And “One True Love” came out—it’s like a little bit of a cross between “Wayfaring Stranger” and the Gillian Welch song “One More Dollar.” And then the other one [“When You’re Gone,” recorded in the tuning E A E A B but played live in standard banjo open G tuning, G D G B D, capo two] is an ode to my love for the banjo and banjo songs and the people who taught them to me. It’s a little meta—a banjo song about banjo songs.

So for you, Kenneth, playing guitar over banjo rather than a deeper sounding guitar must completely change the landscape.

Pattengale: I had to use a whole other guitar—a 000-18, just off the shelf at Martin. Julian Lage has a 000-18 from 1939 that is maybe the best guitar I’ve ever played. Once I played that one, I never bought a 000-18 because I could never find one as good as his. But then I realized I needed it, so I called up Martin and they sent me one. It works great.

Joey Ryan (left) and Kenneth Pattengale onstage in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in May 2014. Photo by Rachel Kramer
Photo: Rachel Kramer

That would fill out the low end much more than your usual guitar. 

Pattengale: My [1955] 0-15 is such a particular thing that lives on top of other sounds. It’s like a pointy little needle. With that triple 18, you get all the lower harmonics and overtones that feel like more like a bedrock.

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Guitar wise, are there any other changes in what you’re doing in the studio or onstage? You’ve had so much consistency with instruments for so long, with the combo of the Gibson J-45 and Martin 0-15.

Ryan: Yeah, but I switched guitars entirely on this record, and also now for live. I don’t really play my Gibson anymore.

Live, I play a [slope shoulder] Martin DSS-17. We’ve been in a good partnership with Martin for many years. Kenneth has his own signature model, we’ve been to the factory and the museum, and I’ve played so many Martins that our friends have. But I’m always looking for something that feels like me, in the way that my ’51 J-45 does. George Gruhn brought this DSS [to a show], in the black smoke colored pattern, and I was like, “This sounds like a J-45.” 

Then the sound guy who travels with us, Jason Cupp, convinced me that it’d be better if I played a guitar with a little more legibility, mostly on the low end. He was having trouble getting what he wanted out of my guitar. This DSS-17 sounded enough like me that I was willing to try it out. He was super happy with it once we got it plugged into our live setup. So that’s what I take on the road now, and I have to say, traveling with a new guitar that can be replaced at a moment’s notice, versus an irreplaceable vintage guitar—just the stress level alone is worth it. But I think it also sounds better up front.

So that’s the stage guitar, but in the studio I used a different guitar—it’s one of Kenneth’s guitars.

Pattengale: It’s a 1932 L-00, 12 frets to the neck. Mark Stutman had it up in Waterloo [Ontario, at Folkway Music; see the March/April 2021 issue]. The story goes, it floated away in Hurricane Katrina and lived in the water in the Gulf of Mexico for a couple of weeks and then he ended up with it. 

Ryan: There’s still silt in it. 

Pattengale: Yes, silt and barnacles and stuff inside, and the belly’s distended like an inch below the bridge, but it sounds great. It weathered that storm very gracefully as it were. That’s all the guitar Joey plays on our new album, with the exception of the last song, where he plays one of my little 0-15s [from 1956] with nylon strings. 

Also Martin sent us a 12-string guitar—a David Crosby signature model. It’s a really lovely guitar and on the album, too.

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You’ve been writing songs together for a dozen years and also now have your own music camp, the Sad Songs Summer Camp in the Catskills. What has your experience been like trying to impart what you know about songwriting?

Pattengale: Well, it’s our favorite time of the year. It’s truly such a unique experience. 

The big secret about songwriting is that songs are, I think, fundamentally different than other forms of writing—journalism, poetry, novels, screenplays, things that require a lot more time and a lot more faculty. Songs are like little windows into the soul, and they’re not necessarily governed by or requiring quote-unquote good writing or formal writing. You know, most of what you’re responding to in a good song is just the person that it comes out of. 

So people come from all over the world to learn how to write songs from us, and really the only trick is teaching them how to open up in an intentional way to show some side of themselves that’s worthy of expressing in a song. After that, it’s the uniqueness of their own writing talents, their imagination, their worldview, and their personality that actually does all the heavy lifting for what is a good song and what’s a compelling song. 

And so [teaching songwriting is] this really wonderful exercise in just being able to show up and essentially be a champion of a safe space for people to express themselves in a way that feels true and authentic and honest. And then of course, the huge benefit is you’re there in real time to witness and receive it. 

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Joey, do you have a similar perspective?

Ryan: I’d second that and add that I just love teaching. I have to say, I didn’t think we would have anything to teach or would particularly enjoy it. I dreaded our first camp a little bit going into it, but it turns out to be one of the most rewarding things on our calendar. 

You know, you go around for 12 years and you do this thing obsessively, and you don’t realize how much you’ve actually learned and how much you actually have to offer in terms of perspective or lessons. It feels really good to engage with people who are on a similar journey, even if a majority of the people at the camp are not even trying to be professional songwriters. But that’s kind of the point: it’s just the craft for its own sake. Having engaged in it for so many thousands of hours, it’s fun to talk to other people who are doing the same thing and get really deep on what it is we’re trying to do.

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 342

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, founding editor of Acoustic Guitar, is a grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, Beyond Strumming, and other books and videos for musicians. In addition to his ongoing work with AG, he offers live workshops for guitarists and songwriters, plus video lessons, song charts, and tab, on Patreon.

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