The Soul Of A Clown: Matthew Ryan I/v
Every now and then you stumble across an artist that you really love straight away. That was the case for us when we reviewed Matthew Ryan’s album “Boxers” last year (https://thesoulofaclown.com/2014/11/02/matthew-ryan-boxers/). Having then taken the trouble to listen to a load of his back catalogue we knew we were dealing with a very talented (and hardworking) songwriter. We were therefore delighted when we got the opportunity to ask Matthew some questions about the past, present and future:
As mentioned in our review, we are ashamed to admit that your latest album “Boxers” was our intro to you, can you tell us a bit about the life of Matthew Ryan to date?
Where to begin? If we’re lucky each of our lives become long and winding novels. It’s been a long and beautiful road so far, difficult and discouraging at times. But always honest. There’s been a lot of beauty. I was born just south of Philadelphia. Moved to Delaware with my folks. Then moved to Nashville in my early twenties looking for adventure. Lived there a long time. Now I’m living in a small river town outside Pittsburgh, PA with the ghosts of steel and true winters and a new sense of optimism. There’s been a lot of songs written and released over the years. I started out on A&M Records in 1997 with May Day. There’s been about 10 proper records released since. It’s odd, I don’t really remember the albums on cue, but I remember all the songs. When I was dismissed from A&M in 2000 I felt stunted. It took so long to release music in that system and I wasn’t comfortable with the notion that I had to become a “brand” in order to be a successful artist. I also didn’t feel I had earned the “rewards” that that system used to heap on you. Of course, those “rewards” exact a certain toll as well. But I have to say, the people I met at A&M are still among my favorite people I met in this business. There was still an air of romance regarding the relationship between music and zeitgeist. But either way, there were giant mergers and the bottom lines were drawing the lines. It was time for me, and many artists like me to be shown the door. So the next 10 years or so were spent with a workman notion and commitment that I would quietly release the best songs I could, offer them via the means that were as close to the source as possible. For a while that meant more spare and solo-feeling records. But I grew up loving bands, they were my first introductions to what music can do. The big ones for me were The Replacements, The Clash and The Blue Nile. Early U2 as well. To me, the best bands are the ones with great songwriters. I don’t mean in craft, I mean in emotional incision. The band offers the cinematography, the writer offers the script. Upon making a handful of records that were essentially experimental folk records, I found myself lonely, and felt that the approach was betraying (on some levels) the more communal or hopefully universal threads at the center of my work. That’s not to tear down my previous work or those that helped me along, I feel there’s a lot of great songs and music to be discovered there, but it was time to explore gang music again. It was what always fired me up, so strange that I walked away from it. Almost like I was wandering the desert or something. But like I’ve said from time to time, even missteps lead you somewhere. I love where I’m headed right now.
The Joy of coming late to an artist is we have a readymade collection of album to instantly discover, which of your past releases should we start with?
Man, there’s no way for me to answer that. It all means everything to me. But for the sake of the question, I would say if Boxers is the first thing you’re hearing I would suggest the Matthew Ryan Vs The Silver State record, or Concussion… Regret Over The Wires. May Day. East Autumn Grin. Yeah. Please buy them all. It’s been a cold winter. “Heating bills” are through the roof…
How would you describe your sound and style of music? And has it developed over the years?
Well I grew up loving punk, “folk” and more ambient/electronic English music. Joy Division, New Order, even Ride. Then Springsteen and The Replacements, The Clash, The Waterboys. Petty. Leonard Cohen. And of course Bob Dylan. Crazy Horse. The thing that sets those guys apart are the songs. I feel if that music is in your heart and mind, you have to feel compelled to try and say something. Even today as a music lover, I want music beyond a cool haircut or beard. I want bones and blood, black eyes, romance and hope. That’s what I try to offer. I can never separate the dark and the light. They always coexist. It’s a matter of where you’re looking. My songs honor that. And beauty is found in the ability to see and/or feel it even when it’s obscured.
One of the things we loved about “Boxers” is that whilst it has a singer songwriter style to it, it has a ‘bigger’ sound was that deliberate?
Absolutely it was. Because it feels better. There’s something about a gang, the “I” becomes “We.”
You also do a fine job of having introspective lyrics but the album still retains a feeling of joy and positivity, which is so much better that some of the more ‘dreary’ singer songwriters out there, is that a fair comment?
I hope it’s a fair comment. Rings true to me. But music is subjective. There’s a time and place for almost anything that offers some version of the truth.
Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem appears on the album, how did that come about?
I was a fan of what Gaslight was doing before Brian and I became friends. I was warmed to hear that my work was a part of his arsenal, part of his code if you will, of what helped him to find his own voice. I didn’t know this when I first discovered them. It meant the world to me when I found out because by almost any measure I’ve had a quiet career so far. It’s strange to work so hard and just maintain something near a waterline. I’m not complaining, a big part of my “underachievement” may be my resistance to the cult of ego success often requires, or at least that dangerous waltz with it. I’ve always wanted to maintain my humanity and live my life while offering this work. But I’d be lying not to admit that it bothers me at times because my mode has always been the belief that it was songs that mattered. And I believe I’ve written quite a few really good ones. Now as selfish as this may sound, and I certainly don’t mean it that way… But I understand the risk in saying it, to see what’s happened for Gaslight (through their own work ethic, smarts and talents) somehow makes me feel that I’ve contributed to that greater conversation Rock n Roll is capable of. Even if only by being a part of Brian’s influences. Of course my goal is to persevere and make more of my own contributions over time. You know the saying, the future is unwritten. As far as how it happened? We became friends after we got in touch with each other. It’s not the mutual admiration society one might imagine. We’ve cut to the real bone of a friendship and talk about what’s really going on. It felt obvious to me that he should be involved with Boxers. His friendship lit a fire just when I felt mine might be going out.
Are you surprised by the huge success The Gaslight Anthem have achieved, and is it something you crave as well?
The short answer is yes. But the arrogant part of that answer is, on my own terms. I would like my work to accumulate over time without compromise. My compass, or gut feeling has always been that I was gonna have to earn this the hard way. That’s why any despair I’ve ever felt has been tempered with patience. The work is too emotionally complex. People who want these kind of songs have to find them. And often, that discovery is accidental. I can only keep heart and keep offering it. Of course, my manager feels there’s more utilitarian ways to help people discover it sooner, quicker. And she’d say there’s very dignified ways of doing that. She’s doing a great job, and judging by the story so far for Boxers, I’m starting to believe her. None of that is to imply Gaslight has operated in an undignified fashion. I’m trying to answer both your questions here. I am surprised by their success. They probably are as well. But there’s something irresistible to what they do. Their work has a direct line to the engine room, they do it with so much heart. That kind of noise goes as far as those involved will allow it.
Have you ever played as a member of a band or have you always been a solo artist? If so, why?
Well, I got quietly called-out recently by a friend for not talking much about my early years. Particularly in Delaware. I started in basement bands and garage bands in Delaware. We played a handful of shows in the area. It was a beautiful time, that lightning of first getting in a room with friends. The focus and brotherhood a shared creativity brings. Picked up a guitar for the first time while still living in Chester, just south of Philly, when I was about 13. A couple years later a girlfriend’s Dad taught me some chords and that really started it. I’ve often wished I had just stuck with some of my first bands. I sometimes wonder what we would have grown into. There was another gang I played with early in Nashville that had something real special as well. But ya know, it’s not easy to explain. Every time I step onto a stage with a group of musicians, I feel like we’re in a band. It’s always been my measure of what I’m doing. In some ways, for a long time I felt a responsibility to write great songs for the gang I was fronting. It took me a long time to get comfortable with what I was writing, to feel I’d found my voice. My aim was high. I rarely found much charm in what was simply charming. I know there’s freedom there, but I always felt a great song offered something else. As much as I like Sorry Ma I Forgot To Take Out The Trash, I LOVE Let It Be. Writing a song like 16 Blue or Unsatisfied clearly requires something beyond ambition. It’s the marriage of war and poetry. More vivid than films. I guess I just didn’t think anyone else would stick with me through that process. There’s a lot of reasons why one might believe that. Reasons I’m very acquainted with that I won’t go into here. But that’s a part of rock n roll too, that heartbroken kid that’s as pissed-off as he is sad, as cold as he is warm. But my longtime friend and guitar player Brian Bequette has shown me a lot about friendship and trust in the trenches. I’m getting there. I’m enjoying feeling part of a gang again. Even if I do put an eye on the door here and there. Life and all these experiences are better with a gang. And I can feel the “I” becoming “We.” It’s beautiful.
How hard is it to be a working musician now? Does the developments in technology and social media make it harder or easier?
I don’t think there’s anything I can say that could possibly enunciate how hard it’s becoming to be a musician and artist these days. The whole economy of it has imploded for a hundred reasons. But a couple things remain the same:
We can’t stop.
And many people still look for that amazing spark music can offer.
As long as we insist on the true intimacy of being in a room together and experience this as a gang, both listeners and artists – We’re gonna be alright. It’s just a matter of adjusting to what’s possible, and then pushing it even further.
What type of music do you listen to and who would you recommend our readers check out?
There’s a band called Arliss Nancy I’m really falling in love with. Sounds like Rock N Roll to me. Particularly their song Vonnegut off of Wild American Runners. Don’t ever underestimate a voice that means it with a distorted electric guitar. On the other side of things there’s a band called Houses that are doing this wide and cinematic stuff. I think they’re pretty well known. I don’t know. Relatively new to me, but I love their song The Beauty Surrounds. Good late night driving music while it’s raining pianos.
Presumably you are supporting “Boxers” with touring? What does a live show entail?
I’m taking my new backing band The Northern Wires out with me. So these shows will be Matthew Ryan and The Northern Wires. We’ve done a few shows already. Taking our time to develop and grow into the very best show we can offer to people. These things need to breathe in order reach beyond their grasp. We refuse to fall prey to the quickness of our current culture. We hope that if the results are something rare and great that people will stick around long enough to recognize it. We’ve learned about 25 songs so far. Working on more. Drawing from all over my career with a focus obviously on Boxers. We’ll only be playing the songs that feel nuclear to us. We’re also planning some surprises. We’re excited. The shows so far have been loud and beautiful but it’s always important to me that there be an air of intimacy. We’re getting there. It feels great. Feels like a plane taking off.
Most importantly, is there any chance we will see you over in the UK at any point?
Yes. I love the UK. Hell, it’s where my blood is from. Feels like an extension of home. I’ve had opportunities to come over in recent years. But I’ve been committed to bringing a gang, offering the entirety of our intentions. That’s where we’re headed. It’ll take a minute. But yes, we’ll be there.
It’s great news that Matthew will be visiting the UK as we can’t wait to see him live. For now though, if you havent already got “Boxers” then you need to go out and get it now! It was definitely in our top 5 albums for 2014. Once you’ve done that we would also recommend that you start picking up everything else he has released. Hopefully then when he does visit these shores it will be to play to packed crowds who know and love all his music.