For this special guest volume of Strangers Almanac, singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan takes us behind the scenes of his writing and recording process. The always brilliant Ryan is currently finishing his soon-to-be released album.
I was listening to M. Ward’s version of Daniel Johnston’s “Story of an Artist” today and it got me thinking about what motivates me to do this. Over and over again, I’ve put my mining helmet on and went with glowing eyes into that great unknown. The process is no fun for me. I’ll be honest with you about this. It’s hell. I can never quite put a finger on what draws me in. It’s an irresistible urge for me. Almost as if my chest fills with reverb and my mind offers a conversation in words fit for a postcard. But that’s only half of it—that’s a rush.
The tough process emerges when you want to create something to be offered to the world that can possibly defy judgment. A song at its best feels like weather—it surrounds you. It’s the end result that brings the greatest reward and joy. And that’s only sometimes, because it’s been my experience that I miss the mark as often as I hit it. But to offer anything in the arts that people welcome into their lives, there are only a few things with a greater potential for beauty.
In recent years I’ve taken the painter’s approach to songs and recording. More and more I feel the most distilled, honest, and pure work comes from a singular drive and work ethic. It can be dangerous, because it can tempt ego or self-obsession. I always wanted to be in The Clash or The Replacements. Bands are a dysfunctional but purring engine when they’re at their best. Democracy is a bloody battlefield and I’ve come to the place where I’ve realized that there’s plenty of conflict in the desire to communicate alone. As much as I dreamed and yearned and arm wrestled for it, that familial gang of all for one and one for all isn’t in the cards for my work. At least not yet.
And just as I write this, The Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” plays. God has a great sense of humor.
So here I am, part victory waltz and part embattled soldier; it’s been days on end in my home studio trying to will 10 perfect paintings into a indisputable frame from imperfect tools, limited technical skills, and a very moody sense of objectivity. I’m almost done, so close I can smell it. But I can’t assume the last few miles are gravy. As any traveler knows, a mile is still a mile, no matter how far you’ve come. So I’ve had to force myself to step away, pull away, and stop from time to time. With every song, it’s been important that I capture the initial spark. It’s like trying to catch a hummingbird with your bare hand. Yeah, it’s elusive. I’m doing the recording myself, so detachment from what the recorder is getting isn’t an option—and in performance, you can’t fake it. You can never fake it; you have to allow yourself to be there. And you have to do that without thinking about it. So, you have to look for that spot where it just happens. And in that spot, the microphones and the instruments all become furniture. Then the harder work comes—you have to build the movie set. Art, science, math, hope, and ambition all gather in the bedroom to make a baby.
So why do I do this? Because music comforted me, encouraged me, inspired me, and challenged me. It brought beauty to the mundane and excitement to the boring. It’s made the already cinematic, nuclear. It made me feel understood. It made me feel connected to the people of my time and the people of the past and, of course, the people of tomorrow. Because no matter how technology changes our lives, we will always get our hearts broken. And we will always feel the need to do something, as vague as that is; the best music shows us a path to heroism. Art is the compassionate side of history. It’s been said that history is written by those who won. But if you want the real story, look at the paintings, read the poems, listen to the music of a time. That’s where you’ll see that nothing has really changed that much, that there’s still a good fight worth fighting
He said it: