“The price is steep, for the secrets we don’t keep,” sings Matthew Ryan on “Meet Me By the River,” just one of the stellar tracks off his new album, Matthew Ryan Vs. The Silver State (MRVSS). Ryan doesn’t keep many secrets on the 11 tracks that make up the brilliant piece of work—he lays it out for the listener, warts and all. And it’s quite a journey.
So much that, along with last year’s From a Late Night High Rise, it’s probably his best work to date, and that’s saying something. Because Ryan is a songwriter who’s been consistently creative and wonderful for years now, “criminally underrated,” as one once put it. His songs often deal with loss, but also the hope that lies there for the taking, underneath the muddy mess of what hasn’t been too broken or diluted.
“As an artist, really, all you’re trying to do is to feel connected,” Ryan tells me. “Because these things feel lonely when you’re experiencing them. I do understand that with the way that I write, it’s not music for everyone, even though in my heart of hearts, that’s exactly what I have in mind. But I know that a lot of people don’t want to experience things this way.”
And maybe that’s why he’s still flying under the radar—because people insist on looking the other way. Like he sings on MRVSS’s “It Could Have Been Worse,”–“you promise her everything/not knowing what everything really was.”
It’s time to find out who Matthew Ryan really is.
“Music is the avenue that today’s poets work in,” Ryan says by phone in Nashville. “I keep fighting, and maybe I can contribute a song that can mean something better. And for me, that’s always been the motivation, whether you’re talking about ‘London Calling,’ or ‘Born to Run,’ or ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ it’s been my dream to write a song that resonated like that. But I’m a firm believer that a song like that almost writes itself, and you just have to be available to it, and the audience has to be available to it.”
Glide’s Jason Gonulsen recently had a chance to talk with Matthew Ryan about his new album, MRVSS.
The artwork for MRVSS produces a beautiful image for the whole album. Do you think people will immediately think, “political album,” or maybe something else?
Oh man, thank you. I’d hope they would think something else, but it would be understandable in the current times. It’s actually less politically evocative than what was originally going to be the cover, which was essentially a World War II propaganda poster. (laughs) But it’s not intended…it’s an interesting record in the subject matter, but it’s not an overtly political record.
Nothing like Neil Young’s Living With War or a Steve Earle record, something like that.
And the first track, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” is a big shift from anything on your last record (From a Late Night High Rise). Can you talk about that?
It’s funny, this record’s an interesting thing. I’ve hinted at stuff like this, with my third record, and my first, and throughout, you know. I really wanted to understand ambient music, so I kind of went off on a little trail. But talking about this record and “Dulce,” it was a couple things. First of all, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is a beautiful poem written by Wilfred Owen. It’s about World War I. It’s really beautiful stuff. But the total translation is that it’s true and right to die for one’s country, which in the poem they make clear is a lie. (laughs) So, I got to thinking about that, and I got to thinking about love and relationships. You know, I just wanted this record to feel alive, and for it to be fighting for something good. And these are dangerous things–like optimism and righteousness–that can be misunderstood. It’s dangerous, because I feel some people might take “Dulce” as country, and of course I was leaning more toward Irish roots of music, you know.
I heard more of what you mention.
There’s so much good country, like Steve Earle, who you just mentioned. But there’s so much stuff that’s not much different from any other pop music.
I don’t know if you would agree with me, but when people hear the term “country music” these days, it has this total negative connotation.
You know, it really is, and I don’t mean to keep using the word dangerous, but….(laughs). But really, it’s kinda weird. I’ll tell you a short story, and I don’t mean to call anybody out, but I live outside of Nashville, and for a long time I was signed to a Nashville publisher. It wasn’t a traditional…a lot of country songwriters have a different kind of deal with Nashville publishers. My deal was—I was paid so much a year to make records, and then they would have interest in my publishing on those records. I was pretty much like living outside the wall.
But one day I was in the office of this publisher, and I was trying to get some work done, because they had little studios for you to work in. And there was this guy down in the atrium, and he was playing every Journey hit you’ve ever heard on an acoustic guitar. And people in the office were gathering around and applauding and singing along and shit. And this guy went on to be a pretty well known country star. So that’s where a lot of country comes from, and that’s not a judgment of Journey, and it’s certainly not a judgment of this guy’s ambition, but it’s a long way from Hank Williams!
Well, what can you do, right?
Well, like I said, you can’t judge people’s ambitions. You just can’t. Everyone is driven for different reasons. But it’s still odd—because you’re right—country is perceived differently today.
You hit a lot of different images on this record (MRVSS). On “American Dirt,” you’re “spittin’ out American dirt.” When you wrote that, what were you thinking about?
Man, it’s funny. That song, I love that song so much, and I know where that song is coming from, and I understand the DNA of it. But I hope as people hear that song, I hope those people are feeling the same way I’m feeling about things. What I was writing about, and this going to sound really heady, but I think that anyone who reads this will understand where I’m coming from. You know, things weren’t always where they are right now in American culture; we weren’t measured by our ability to consume. We were measured by things like, ‘did we do good work?’ or ‘were we a good father, brother, or son?’ And now, through the marketing of things, we have…and I’ve fallen victim to it, I hope I don’t sound like I’m coming from a high place—but I hope that the song kind of expresses it…(pauses)…you can get caught up in measuring yourself by things that don’t really matter. And this song is kind of just about trying to get connected on who I am as a man and a citizen versus who I am as a consumer. And it sounds like a really big issue, but these things play out in really small ways in our lives, from dissatisfaction and disenchantment with ourselves and with our partners, and it can be pretty noir, you know? But the song’s trying to say that we might need to start turning our back onto some of this and try to find value in our words and our real experiences, not just in the virtual world and purchasing things and keeping up with the latest things. Maybe there’s something richer to be found through real contact.
Well, even with the title of the record, you’re setting the stage for a battle.
I think it is, Jason. I’m naïve, and it’s something that breaks my heart all the time because I seem to have the ability to be completely confronted by my idealism, and maybe proven wrong, but I still manage to be idealistic and naïve about what a song can do and what diplomacy and self involvement means—in a good way—having conversations with yourself about where you’re at and where you’re going. If you have those things with yourself, I think you can achieve a higher experience.
There’s hope everywhere in these songs. On “Closing In,” you sing, “Maybe we’ll never win/but we’re closing in.” Describe the hope in a line like that.
There’s no way for me to pretend that this record isn’t a metaphor for a lot of things. And some of those things are selfish, some of those things are things I want for myself, like a degree of economic security. But then other things, I’m not completely self-absorbed. I’m trying to say a lot of things—certainly it’s better to fight for something you honestly believe in, and that you’ve thought about thoroughly. I believe in reason without passion. And what that means is that you come to a conclusion without passion, without ugliness, without religious influence. And in some ways, it’s what our constitution was based on–we all have a right to a pursuit of happiness, as long as that happiness isn’t vulgar. But it is better to fight for it, because at the end of the day, what else do you have?
On a record like this, it may be dangerously personal. I believe that the more personal you get, the more universal you get because at the end of the day, I’m not going to experience anything that you’re not going to experience. And we’re not going to experience anything that some kid in Somalia isn’t going to experience. Now we have different words to describe what we experience, but at the end of the day, the human experience is what’s been written about for thousands of years, from The Bible to Crime and Punishment. So the more specific we get, and the more the word ‘I’ becomes ‘we,’ I think we’re better off.
What songs can one expect to hear on the upcoming tour?
“This is what’s fucked up about me—I want everybody to come to hear the song they wanted to hear. Not because I’m a pleaser, but because I’m a music lover as well. I’ve been to shows…for instance, I went to go see this band called The Jazz Butcher. My guitar player and I went–this was a couple of years ago. To make a long story short, I got into them late high school–early college, and this was about seven years after they had really kind of surfaced. And I’m at the show, it’s a small club—there’s probably about 80 people there, maybe less. And I keep calling for this song called “Harlan.” And so, I’m being an asshole just like any other fuckin’ listeners and assholes sometimes. I’m yelling, “Pllllayyy ‘Harlan!!!!’” Finally the guy goes, he stopped and goes, ‘Look man, I’m not going to play that Christmas music.” And I’m thinking, ‘You fucking dick, you have no idea what that song means to me!’ And my point is that I’m not always going to play the songs you want to hear, but what I’d want people to know is that I’m always going to want to play the one you want to hear.”
Glide Senior Writer Jason Gonulsen lives in the St. Louis, MO area with his wife, Kelly, and dogs, Maggie and Tucker. You can e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.