Matthew Ryan – Beyond The Obvious

We should applaud the artist attempting to create something beyond the obvious.  Sometimes that audience catches on (Tom Waits, Bjork) or sometimes it falls on deaf ears.  Matthew Ryan (not to be confused with the starting QB for the Atlanta Falcons), falls into neither category, but has been releasing some of the most beyond obvious albums over the past 14 years since breaking from the late 90s alt-country scene.  Unfortunately, not enough people have taken notice. However Ryan, like any true troubadour, carries onward with one recording after another.

Ryan’s 13th album, I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall (2011) continues to genre define, while evolving with the spare music accompaniment that accompanies Ryan’s raw lyrics.  Ryan said it best about his lyrical motivations in this interview with Glide – “I’m just documenting the life and observations of a fairly intelligent human that has a stubborn belief that we’re capable of so much more.”

You said in an earlier interview with Glide – “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.”  Are there any songs on I Recall Standing that you feel came close to your goal?

Writing a song is like casting a line in a very mysterious lake. I don’t lean much on the craft of it. I follow my gut, if it moves me then I feel I’ve succeeded, that I have something. So in that light, yes, there are songs on I Recall that I feel are resonant and honest and throwing useful fists in the air. Releasing songs is yet an even more mysterious cast of a line into an even bigger lake. But ultimately, listeners decide whether what you’ve done has a cultural relevance. And that’s what I was talking about there. Of course the table has been tipped over now and all the glasses and plates are shattered on the floor. Some peas have rolled under the couch and shards of glass are splintered everywhere. It’s harder to connect people in a cohesive fashion these days. But if there’s a song on here that I feel leans for the power and the glory of those songs I mentioned in our previous interview, I would say "Hey Kid" is the one. It’s the song I would want every American to hear. Actually, every human, every human confronted by and engaged with the deluge of new media and the flood of good and bad that we’re living in.

I Recall Standing is remarkably your 13th album – how would you best describe the creative intentions behind this effort in contrast to your past work?  What fuels your writing and album themes these days in the era of mp3 clips it seems harder and harder to get people to really “listen.”  Do you write with the audience in mind of the people who still actually listen to an album from beginning to end?

Sometimes I wish I wrote more with the audience in mind. But that’s just not something I can let into the process. I’ve always felt that if I tapped into something essential about living that people would identify with it as well. That part of the process is informed by feel…. feel is what pulls me along. To me, feel is everything. It seems generally true that’s it’s harder to get people to really listen (or read) these days. They’re pulled in so many directions and tend to lean on instant judgement where brevity is king and nuance is lost. I worry that most people don’t even realize that they’re dealing in that. The flood has become normal. Real consideration and digestion of information, music, policies and propaganda are fundamental to a rich culture and effective democracy. I feel a reaction to the speed of things is coming. I just hope it comes sooner than later. It could be a peaceful revolution and lead to a renaissance of sorts. That would be a beautiful twist because the villainization of intelligence and reason is troubling to say the least. As far as contrasting my work from the beginning to now what is the middle, well, I just feel I’m documenting the life and observations of a fairly intelligent human that has a stubborn belief that we’re capable of so much more.
You focus on individual characters stems from a lot of your experiences with non-fictional/current events – are there any events or occurrences in particular that particularly struck a chord with you?

On I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall I was thinking a lot about the silent majority, the middle and working classes. These people are the spine, the gut, the soul of our country. They send their kids off to fight our wars, they teach our children, they make our meals, they fix our cars, they do all the hard work. Yet their voices are quieted by the minutia of their lives. These people don’t often have the luxury of endless hours to read the news from every angle, or fully discern the contract for the mortgage they just signed. They don’t have the means to influence legislation. They often operate on trust and faith and optimism for the future. They try to trust that the government and corporations have their best interests in mind. I don’t mean to paint these people as helpless targets, because they’re not. They’re busy, they’re working hard. And it feels like the roof is caving in, and there are wars and economic uncertainty. There are flash floods, terror threats and foreclosures. And people are feeling took and there’s a lot of fear going around. And all anyone wants is peace, love and security. So I tried to write about it. I did the best I could because those things we want are still possible. They’re right there within our reach, but to me, it means we have to raise our voices and we have to engage ideology and capitalism in a conversation about morality. This is idealistic stuff, I know that. And when I say morality, i don’t mean in religious terms. I’m talking ethics. The difference between right and wrong. A sustainable future, loyalty to workers, shared sacrifice and shared rewards. It’s all possible once we cut past the crap and get to the work of constructing a real future that has got to be clearly understood by now is firmly depended on collaboration and shared interests. The alternative of exacting a new social darwinism is more expensive, in so many ways, believe me.
You’ve always questioned what is real, frankly asking – what do we want”  – do you feel you’ve come closer to answering that question and if so how?

All I know is that I’m happiest when the world I’m wanting for intersects with the world that is. Even if it’s only for a second, that’s real joy. Whether it’s a public or private event, the glow is the same. There’s a lot of cons and fakery in our culture. I try to avoid fake power and fake joy. I’m always looking for the real thing. Maybe it sounds arrogant, but I don’t intend it that way, nor do I feel I have all the answers. Maybe I’m looking for something that may never be found in a permanent fashion. But I know that men and women have never been so confronted with themselves via media like they have been in the last 70 years. Commercialization of virtually every aspects of our lives has lead to a new emptiness, a need to fill something that is ultimately meaningless. We should embrace our modernity, there’s beauty in it. But there are also dangers.

I Recall is very ambient with its drum loops and DIY feel and holds the album together naturally from the listener’s standpoint.  Was it a natural decision to go into this minimalist direction?  What ideas were you considering with musically on this recording?

When I’m being creative my instincts are the pilot. These things are not plotted or designed. I often feel like I’m carving a path through a dark thicket of trees. The words have to marry to the cinema, and vice versa. To be honest, it’s occurred to me that in many ways the albums I make alone are a collection of demos. I would want to stress this to people that listen to my recent albums. What your hearing on these are the absolute birth of an idea. There is very little distance between conception of the songs and what is ultimately released. Many are first vocal and guitar takes, many of the verses they’re hearing were captured right as they’re written. It’s a very naked and visceral approach. But clearly different from the energy of a rock band. Often, the recordings are more conversational, and that works for me. It’s more like just you and me in your car, or in your home.
The songs then come to life in a more explosive fashion on the road, in front of an audience and with other musicians. I hope it makes for a wider experience for people. My thinking is that that the duality and elasticity of the songs offer unique experiences. When someone comes to a show, it’s a more communal event, as it should be. I just put together a small backing band of friends to take on tour. We’re calling them The Red Needles. I can’t wait for people to experience this. The songs now go from the intimate anthems of the album to full on anthems live. These guys have inspired me to want to get back in the studio with a band again once support for I Recall Standing is done. There’s a lot ahead.
You’ve toured with some talented contemporaries – amongst them Lucinda Williams, Josh Rouse, Steve Earle, Kasey Chambers. Is there anything in particular that you believe they picked up from you and what do you feel you picked up from them?

Lucinda and Steve remain the biggest influences on my view of how and why we do what we do and how to state our cases with dignity and intelligence, not to mention music. But I’ve been very fortunate to have shared the stage with a ton of great artists. I’ve learned something from all of them. As far as what they’ve learned from me? Or picked up from me? You’d have to ask them. I can only hope that they realized I wasn’t the terminally grumpy bastard that my music might often suggests.

How was your summer?  What recent shows in particular that you saw struck a chord with you?

It’s been a ridiculously hot summer here in Tennessee. It’s got me thinking it’s time for a change. Summer is too long and mean down here. But all and all things are good personally. I saw U2 this summer for the first time in almost 20 years, and I gotta say, those fellas inspire me. It was a great show, lots of heart and intelligence and utterly connected to the times we’re living in without giving in to defeat or despair. Each of us has to make that choice going forward, and great rock n roll still confides in you with a voice that says, ”I know it’s fucked up right now, but don’t you dare fucking give up on yourself or us.”

Can we expect a tour for the new album and if so – what do you plan on offering on this run for songs and musicians?

Absolutely. I can’t wait to share these songs and The Red Needles with everyone. We’re working on the dates now and they should be announced in the coming weeks. We’ll be pulling mainly from the last 3 albums but there will be a handful from the earlier collections as well and maybe a cover or two. We’re having a great time with this, I suspect that will spread to those in the rooms we play as well. This is sounding really beautiful.

Matthew Ryan will be taking part in the tribute to The Replacements at Bowery Electric in NYC on November 16 & 17th along with a number of guests including Brian Fallon (Gaslight Anthem), Jesse Malin, Ted Leo, Chuck Ragan, Tommy Ramone and Alejandro Escovedo. 

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