Someone’s Salvation: An Interview with Matthew Ryan
It has been 15 years since Matthew Ryan released his first album May Day and quite a few albums later comes his latest work In The Dusk of Everything. A little over three years ago, Ryan started his own label with the release of Dear Lover.
This was, also, the beginning of a three-album trilogy telling a story of the complications, joys, sorrows, sufferings and recoveries of two human beings in an intimate relationship. October 30, 2012, brings the trilogy to a close with In The Dusk of Everything. It is an almost purely acoustic album wherein other instruments play only a subtle accent to Ryan’s voice and songwriting. Matthew and I talked through the creative process of In the Dusk, moving back to Pennsylvania from Nashville, how place shapes story, and how this trilogy is also a commentary on the tensions at play in America as whole:
The last time we talked was during the release of Dear Lover, the first of this trilogy you have created that now ends with your latest album, In the Dusk of Everything. What has the journey been for you as an artist, a songwriter and most importantly as Matthew Ryan these past few years?
Well, it's been a time of great change. The circumstances that shook these records/songs from me are private, but as with most things in life, not unique. We are all confronted and pulled into the complexity of living. There's a constant future until there is none. That knowledge offers a beauty, a worry, a source for fuel and a hum of despair at times. I've seen my share of sorrow. A cursory look around at the world at its simplest a montage of co-existing and disparate events. It's remarkable. Sometimes at night I watch the moon for a bit and I can't help but wonder just how amazing it is that we look up there and it just doesn't seem odd that light's reflecting on a rock a few thousand miles away that has no interest in our laughter, entertainment or any other story unfolding down here. The sun hits it, just like it hits us. And yet, the stories we live and the victories we waltz mean so much here. It's beautiful. Maybe it's all we have. And by entertaining that thought through these roughly 30 songs I had to come to a conclusion. I concluded that all we have is each other and the promises we keep and break. Hopefully at the end of the day we are more vigilant than careless with each other's hearts and futures and presents. That's heroism to me.
What a great way of saying it, “The stories we live and the victories we waltz mean so much here.” The opening song on Dear Lover says,"I could be your superhero/ I could be your biggest disappointment." The last song on In The Dusk of Everything says, "Let's wave goodbye to who we were/We'll never be that again." On "Stupid World," also from the new album, you say, "Some suffer a blindness of wild disappointment despite good intentions…you're someone's salvation in a stupid world." There’s a movement from naive possibility or pessimism into making peace beyond the expectations, a sense of richer hope that can only come after illusions have fallen away. Was this planned? Or was it something you discovered?
Genuinely grateful that you get it, Kendall. As a communicator of ideas via language above all, that means the world to me. It's not about “hope,” it's about being that thing for at least one other person that offers peace in uncertainty.
I had a vague notion these three albums were connected. It was something I kept in the corner of my mind. If there's resolution, then I will know that it was done and I could offer an ending to this story. Well, not an ending, but a reason why despite all the heartache. It's always worth it. The potential for beauty is always there. We lose sight of it sometimes, both in life and creativity. It's interesting to me, because throughout these three records (Dear Lover, I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall, and now In The Dusk Of Everything) there is a couple struggling to break the surface so they can breathe. It's never really clear what's dogging them except their own decisions and the weather outside. The weather outside meaning: that collective plot of economy, war, work, future, environment, politics, unrest, division, philosophy and so on. These are heavy times no matter how you slice it. Our life-style particularly here in the states seems to offer a dissonance even though it's based on the pursuit of happiness. But when happiness is often defined culturally by so many ultimately numbing trails of work and consumption, entertainment, preoccupation and loneliness... Well, eventually you have to wonder what exactly it is that we're doing? Now listen, this isn't all doom and gloom. There are beautiful things about our culture. But it is the work of art to strive for even more beauty, to try and dismantle where the darkness is coming from. I'm not saying I figured it out, but to the best of my ability I followed that trail and came to a conclusion that I'm satisfied with. At least for now. And that conclusion is offered in the last verse of “Stupid World.” Probably one of my worst titles for a song ever, but one of my proudest moments as a singer, writer and musician.
As much as these three albums speak of the complicated intimacy between to human beings, is there a larger metaphor in play - that of individuals with the hopes, failures and potential in America? If so, how does In The Dusk tell that story now?
There is absolutely a metaphor at play. I don't believe you can separate the individual from the larger migrations and plots. We are at each other's mercy, and we are at the mercy of each other's violence and apathy. There is something to rugged-individualism, I'm a liberal and I believe in the responsibility we have to work, and our own lives. But I, also, believe in investing in each other, aiding in each other's ability to succeed. It is unforgivable to walk by one who's suffering without the very least an acknowledgement of shared humanity. I believe in public institutions whose sole purpose are collective acts of brotherhood. By lifting each other up we make the bigger machine run smoother. Yes, there is waste and corruption, I agree and it angers me at times. But to say that these things should be the work of private companies whose goal is profit is naive at best. We have a responsibility to each other. Peace is more attainable and lasting under these kind of circumstances. A dog-eat-dog world of social Darwinism is like willfully tumbling down a hill off a cliff and into a sea of hydrofluoric acid just so you can enjoy a primal giggle on the way down. Now clearly these songs aren't going on about that larger story. But I'm always reminded of a great lyric by Mike Scott of The Waterboys that changed the way I saw things when I was a teenager. The line is from “We Will Not Be Lovers.” It's goes like this:
"Now the world is full of trouble
And everyone's scared
Landlords are frowning
Cupboards are bare
And people are scrambling
like dogs for a share
It's true and it's hard
But it's nothing compared
to what we do to each other
Because we will not be lovers"
That's what I'm fucking talking about. Pardon the language. But if I've written one thing as beautifully honest and resonate as that, well, that would be something. But that's where these records are coming from. That's the engine in those cars. I feel it's so important that these things be said.
Thanks for that. Good words. I, too, had some perspective blown into my teenage world with those same words by Mike Scott…Let’s talk about working with David Ricketts again. He’s collaborated with some of the tops in the industry – Robbie Robertson & Sheryl Crow – as well as contributed to some pretty famous film scores. You worked with him, not only on your first album, May Day, but also East Autumn Grin and Regret Over The Wires, and now full circle, on this latest album. What's that relationship been like for you as an artist? More so, how's it been to be heard throughout the years by someone who was there at the first session in 1997 and, now, who worked on such an intimate album as this?
David and I quickly became great friends. We're connected by that mysterious shared thing that great friends have. I love working with him, he always brings physicality, a distinct emotional location to the work he does. Cinematic and honest with no smoke screens. He's been a great educator to me of what music is capable of. We had no interest in selling this record, hyping it, or blowing smoke in your face. This album is a lean for intimacy, a real communication between humans sharing the same gap of time that forms a history. We could do beautiful things. This record hopes for that, pulls for that, implores you to fight for that without one sales pitch. David's ability to marry tradition with the elusive modern (or should I say traveling present or timeless) is second to none, I've loved working with him every time that I have. I'm sure it will happen again.
What moved you to choose such a scaled down album?
The songs dictated that. I felt that they were so sturdy, distilled and structurally sound that all bluster could be communicated simply by the story being told. David agreed and our goal became to use the music to offer the scenery while dialogue move over it.
You said moving back to Pennsylvania has inspired the air of the record, that there is the ghost of the steel industry in a very real presence but a stubborn optimism. How do you see that playing out in the songs of In The Dusk and in your writing?
Sometimes you have to have the eyes of a tourist to reinvigorate your connection with life around you. Where I'm living is very visual, severe and beautiful. Bridges, churches, streets and factories. Money and no money. Living in Nashville for all those years I started to feel disconnected from real America. I loved my community in Nashville, but honestly it started to feel like a movie set where what was real was becoming blurry. There's a disconnect that can emerge when you're only surrounded by people of a same sort. It starts to feel like an aquarium, and if you stop wondering what's outside the aquarium, well that's dangerous. I miss Nashville sometimes, particularly friends and the food, but I don't miss who I feared I was becoming. And whether it was real or not, the notion was reason enough to move on.
Architectural Theorists Christopher Alexander, speaking of the places we live and find life, said,“The more living patterns there are in a place - a room, a building, or a town - the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.” There is a sense that you are experiencing this in your new, old home, and that it is shaping your work. If so, how?
That's a beautiful quote Kendall. I spend most of my time living. Writing is something I do in waves, or when that feeling enters my chest and room. Whenever you find yourself in alignment with what you're feeling and what you see, there's a certain illumination that emerges. I had to move in order to reengage with the present. I'm grateful for that. I plan to keep moving, this change has showed me that you can't let the past overtake you. You have to deal with it, put it to rest and move on. And sometimes that means a literal location, but sometimes that work is on the inside. A life well-lived and honest movement through all the interiors are the fuel for days and creativity. That's all I'm doing, hopefully great work comes from. I've probably said it a hundred times, but the further in you go, the more universal it gets.
Continuing with that. There is a theme of “returning” in the creation of this new album. As mentioned, you returned to your home state. A return to your first producer. A return to a mostly acoustic set of songs. A return to Analog recording. What’s behind it?
Sometimes returning is leaving I guess. I hadn't really thought about that. But I do know that I wanted to reengage that more primal thing. The majority of these songs were written on a typewriter or with a pencil. I used my old Silvertone as my main instrument when sitting down with these. I guess I don't yet fully understand what made me feel so set adrift. But my time in Nashville started to offer a growing sense of dissatisfaction over what I valued verses what I saw celebrated as valuable. That's not a judgment, but an offering of point of view from my code. I'm sure subconsciously there are clues in the songs to all of this. In fact, I'd guess it isn't subconscious at all now that I think about it. There's a line about that glimmering you chase... in “And So It Goes.” I suspect that sums it up. But songs are tricky. They're always about a lot of things. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of returning, that sounds regressive. I'm following that trail, Kendall, going whereever it leads. This is unlike any record I've made, I mean the shirts there and so is the haircut, but the feel is different. It has a poetic grace that I don't feel a lot of my earlier work achieved.
Much agreed. I think that poetic grace is something that can only come with age. So, when you started this trilogy you were also starting your own record label. You said, "My goal was to make the purest music that I could without any influence from any other. I felt it was time to lean entirely on my own strengths and weaknesses." How have those strength and weakness transformed over these three albums?
I'm driven by the idea that great work can defy logic. That's not to suggest all my work is great, but that's what drives me. After all these years under the radar I've come to value the quiet available in my life. I have famous friends, and while I might trade for some of the rooms they play, and probably a couple of their paychecks, I value my anonymity above anything that celebrity might offer. I would much rather write a great song that became famous because it was honest and useful, than to be a famous person any day of the week. As far as strengths and weaknesses, I'm riddled by both. My optimistic naivety is challenging and prone to heartache at times. But I'm helpless to it, it's part of where music comes from. So I've chosen to just accept it. And if push comes to shove, I can still throw a pretty good punch.
You once mentioned that your hope for the future of music is: "that we as a society slow down and absorb those things that are meaningful to us." Is that still a goal that shapes the music you create? How have you seen this in the world at large?
We're not slowing down. Some of us are, but the larger migration is towards more, quicker, now, repeat. This is dangerous. I'm not mourning the horse-drawn wagon. I'm just absolutely certain that our imaginations are ahead of our ability to assimilate to the technologies we create at times. During the industrial revolution technology was leaning for things that arguably made living easier. Now, via the push for profit, it seems to me that much technology and marketing is preying on instant satisfaction. Obviously, if we operate in a multi-tasking deluge the things that require time and emotional investment will initially suffer. And eventually the being operating that way will suffer. Then again though, I wouldn't necessarily underestimate our ability to adapt. Let's hope we grow a second heart, mind and soul to handle all the interior stuff, hold the big conversations, read the great books, hum the great songs, kiss the longer kisses.
You’ve continued to create space to connect more directly with your fans be it through Facebook, Twitter, short video posts, and then on the road with smaller venues or homes. What are your plans for touring this In The Dusk Of Everything? What would you like to see happen out on the road with this new collection of songs?
I love getting to know the people that make this possible for me to do for a living. They're smart, concerned, genuine people from all walks of strata, politics, skin, occupation and nationality. It's truly beautiful. But I've gotta be honest, my goal is to eventually play in rooms made only for music. I love playing small theaters, I don't generally draw the crowds to justify it. But sometimes I do and it's such a beautiful event because there is a certain energy about it. I'm not really a bar artist, don't get me wrong, there's fun to be had... But these are songs of a certain intimacy. I don't want larger rooms (meaning small theaters) because I want to remove myself from listeners, and certainly not to put myself above them; but so that it has that cinema, the lights, the feel and sound of a great PA system. I want it so that it could be a better experience for all of us.
Beyond touring, what’s next for Matthew Ryan?
I'm gonna do all I can to help those that want and need this kind of music to find this record. It's not music for everyone, but I believe there's a bit of everyone in it. I'll be touring and looking for opportunities to raise things above the waterline. I love this record, so it's easy to go in the trenches for it. I hope some people will come along, maybe this is the one where the odds are defied regardless of budgets or fashion. It's useful beautiful and honest music. I'm proud of that. I have some shows coming up, some headlining in the rooms I've come to know, and some with a band called The Gaslight Anthem. I love what those guys are doing. It's great and honest Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was beautiful - Brian Fallon (the lead singer) had tweeted some of my lyrics on Twitter. A mutual listener (her name is Rachael) saw it and brought it to my attention. I tweeted back and Brian messaged me and asked if I'd be interested in touring with them, the rest, as they say, is history. It was beautiful and completely organic. I could use more moments like that. Can't we all? And hey, all this technology does something beautiful sometimes doesn't it? We just can't let it overcome us. Because it will if we let it, just the past did to me for a while.