He may not be a household name, but Matthew Ryan’s raw, emotional songs have struck a chord with enough fans to support a musical habit that has lasted over a decade and through 11 albums (so far). On the eve of the release of his latest effort, Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State, he took time out to talk with Popdose about his past, present, and future. Read on!
Judging from the title and the album cover, I was expecting an album of Irish battle songs!
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
But that really isn’t the case.
Well, they kinda are …
They’re pretty low-key for battle songs …
… and I think someone who listened to your last album, From a Late Night High-Rise, might look at this and assume that it’s sort of a rockin’ response to what was a very personal set of songs. But it isn’t really that either.
Well, it’s hard for me to be objective, but I think it has an emotional presence that’s a little more amplified.
It does feel like a more muscular record, more live, for lack of a better word, but it doesn’t feel like you’re bashing out the stuff you were carrying around for High-Rise.
Right. Well, I think in the last few years my work has gotten a little more confidential, and I think that might be a sign of maturity. You know? I wouldn’t say this record’s more a whisper than a scream, but I guess it is. And the things I’m writing about, I’d rather provoke a conversation than rage from a soapbox.
The songs have a really natural flow to them. I just noticed this morning that the opening track, “Dulce et Decorum Est” (download), is seven minutes long.
(Laughs) That’s good to hear, man. That’s what I’d hope would happen, ’cause if you’ve got a story to tell and you’re telling it well and it has its own cinema about it, time should become a bit more elastic, you know?
Well, we took a very blue-collar approach to it. Our goal was, you know, in the last few years, I’ve had to make music by myself, and then bring people in to kind of widen the scope of it sonically. Or, you know, even before that, I’d end up in a room with really talented musicians who didn’t know the music. For this album we got together and we worked these songs out for weeks and months. That’s one of the things that scares me, honestly. I know a lot of times in the “new world” there’s not a lot of patience. The line between art and entertainment absolutely has blurred. That sounds a bit full of itself …
Not necessarily. I know what you mean, and at Popdose we’ve talked a lot with our readers about how even the invention of the compact disc has changed the way we consume music.
It really has, and all the catchphrases and all the slogans about it being an on-demand world — it challenges wisdom, you know? And there’s more explosive compression and sweetness, and it’s frustrating as an artist, because with these songs we carved everything away. Everything that was superfluous, everything that felt unnecessary. And what we have now is, I guess … you know, Tom Petty is really good at distilled simplicity. Particularly at his midcareer point. And our goal was to make a record that stood there like a table made by Shakers, you know? And the thing about tables made by Shakers is that you might not notice them right away …
But you’ll notice them in 50 years, after the rest of your furniture has fallen apart.
(Laughs) Exactly — after you’ve had to buy four sets of chairs! But that scares me a little bit, because I think people can mistake that kind of simplicity. You know, the way we perceive beauty, we sometimes don’t notice it. That’s a little scary, but I trust that if we did our job, that people who love music will hear it and get it, and it’ll become part of their lives, part of their cinema.
Do you think that with this record you were working more low-tech than you were ten years ago with May Day?
Oh, no. Well, actually, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know. I think what happens is you start to mature as a human and an artist and you … you know, you start to get your favorite hammer and that sort of thing. This record is probably more caveman than May Day was, if only because I was so young when I made that album. My heart was in the right place, but I didn’t really understand what I was doing, and the whole relationship between singing a song and tape and stuff really kind of overwhelmed me. Whereas with these last couple of records I’ve really wanted to be able to kind of crawl through the speakers, in an emotional sense. I hope this record resonates.
How long has it been since you finished working on the album?
Oh, man. You know, the way things go for me — the way things have gone — I have to really remain vigilant with what I’m doing. So we finished this record probably … last summer? We put out High-Rise, ’cause that was done. See, in an emotional life, I made High-Rise when I needed to make it. And of course, even still … I still believe that, you know, you have to give a record its opportunity. I don’t feel comfortable just tossing it out there and hoping for the best, so you have to do the work around the record and try and communicate the story. So it was done probably a summer ago, but the process for High-Rise was still kind of waning. I wanted to put Silver State out last year, but with everything that I want to try and do around the record — I really want to build a story that’s successful, which is sort of the antithesis of the way things tend to happen. You gotta do that work in order to do it, and I don’t know if it’ll be this record or the next one, but my hope is, through will and work, to succeed. And, of course, write some good songs. (Laughs) That kind of goes without saying.
For a deeply personal, harrowing album like High-Rise, to take those songs on the road and perform them — not only after having recorded them, but when you’re already on to your next project — it must be difficult reliving the headspace you were in.
Well, you know, it’s a funny thing. It’s not really as tough as it may appear. A couple of years ago, during the 2004 election, I got to hang out with Michael Stipe a little bit for the first time. We had some conversations, and I’m sure he doesn’t know how much it meant to me, but we were talking about “Everybody Hurts,” and I asked him, “How do you sing that song every night?” Because I used to be a wreck. For me, it was a horrible experience, because it was too personal. And by this point — I’m paraphrasing Michael, and probably adding on — but the gist of what he said was, “In the moment when I sang that song for the first time, I had honored it for myself. After that, when I sing it, I’m singing it for us.” My experience on High-Rise — and any experience I’m going to have — isn’t unique as a human. It’s just, maybe I’m capable of expressing some sort of wisdom through devastation or whatever.
Looking at it that way, it becomes a little less emotionally self-obsessed. Because every piece of art should speak to a community, to a universality. I think that’s what I’m doing — I believe that’s what I’m doing, and that thing that Michael Stipe offered me kind of clarified that. ‘Cause before … man, I did — I personalized that. Maybe it was ego, maybe it was self-obsession, or maybe it was just fear that I was the only one feeling the things I was feeling, but it would put me in the fetal position often onstage. Now that’s not really something I go through. Now, music is subjective, and there’s gonna be songs that some people, some nights, aren’t going to want to hear, but then there are other songs — the one you would least expect to resonate will kind of explode. And you have to be willing, as an artist, to take that risk. Because if it pays off and people feel that and they come to it without manipulation, it can be a pretty beautiful thing.
I’ve heard other artists talk about that. David Wilcox and Randy Newman both have talked about it — not only how far out to push the audience on that ledge, but when to pull them back a little and make them laugh.
For me, that’s been a very, very … I mean, I’m more familiar with Randy Newman, although I’ve heard of David Wilcox. Newman has an incredible sense of humor, and I definitely … I’d like to think I’m funny. (Laughs) But I definitely struggle to understand that pacing. I will often, you know, drag people straight into the abyss, completely unknowingly, didn’t mean to do it. And it’s a strange sensation when you feel it, not coming from yourself, but coming from the audience! (Laughs)
Randy Newman has a song called “So Long Dad” that’s from a son to a father, saying, essentially, “You didn’t have time for me when I was a kid, and now that you’re old and you need me, well, I don’t have any time for you.” He’s talked about not being able to play that one live because it’s just too much for the audience to follow him through. He still seems a little confused by it.
(Laughs) The one I think about from him is the one from Land of Dreams — “I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do”! You know, you do run the risk of it turning into Jonestown, but you gotta be willing to take that risk, you know?
So Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State has been finished since last summer. Are you already on to writing the next album?
Um, yeah, I’ve been writing, but this record has been a real neat experience … I hate that phrase. I don’t know, man — I’m probably more excited about this record than I was when I finished it. I can’t be objective, and I know that. But to me, I have a feeling that for a lot of people this record will be as meaningful, if not more meaningful, a year from now. For me, it’s been an incredibly durable record — I don’t know if that’s because of the subject matter, or because of the way I wrote these songs. I just want people to understand that in these songs the “I” is more of a “we,” although I say “I” a lot. It’s … oh, man. It’s just been a really durable record for me, and I have a feeling that’s how it’s going to play out in the real world.
I love how, in the press kit, you say that these songs “speak to where I’ve been, where my friends have been, but not where we’re going … I want everyone to win.”
You know, I was watching Nightline the other night, and there was this debate at Yale about porn. It had Ron Jeremy debating with a Christian conservative fellow, obviously against porn. And Ron Jeremy, obviously for porn. And that’s neither here nor there — it was all sensationalism — and I was a little disappointed in Nightline, actually. I thought, “Why are we spending 30 minutes on this when there are so many more things to talk about?” Like a war, you know? But anyway, the Christian conservative fellow was saying — and it’s a valid point — that porn raises an expectation from sex that’s nearly impossible to achieve. And then they did a Q&A with the audience and a woman stood up and said, “But isn’t that what all entertainment does today? Why should we single out porn?” As if, you know, porn is the only thing that gives us false ideas of how to live.
And for me, I hate it when — I don’t pay as much attention as I used to, but I hate it when my work is written about as if I’m the only one who’s had a hard experience. It is a lie to everybody. It’s a lie to everybody to pretend that life isn’t hard. Life is absolutely beautiful, but if you’re going to achieve anything in your life, you aren’t going to have it handed to you. And even if it looks like you’re having it handed to you, you’ve got a whole other set of issues you’re dealing with. You know, wealth, and the working class, and privilege, and hope, and ambition … we’re pretty complex animals. My work has always wanted to say that you can do those things, but it isn’t gonna be easy, and you’re gonna have to put your head down, and you’re gonna have to get your knuckles scraped. But it’s worth it, and I hope this record more than any of ‘em says that clearly. I think it does. I certainly hope that people don’t dismiss it as if I’m saying life sucks.
It certainly doesn’t feel that way. And in fact, that message of hope runs through all the best rock ‘n’ roll — you know, that hope of redemption. It’s pretty much the bedrock of someone like Springsteen’s music.
Yeah, and anything else that takes you off your course, any other diversion — it’s just that. It’s just a diversion.
Yeah, and I’ll tell you, man, you know, that’s probably been the hardest part of my creative life, is the instability, and not being able to feel like I had a creative home or that people had my back. That may sound wrong, but I think it applies to all occupations. You don’t give your life to a construction company that isn’t going to have your back come Christmas, you know? And art, music, it’s a scary proposition, because it deals so much in the ethereal. And I get that, but the label thing has been the hardest part. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you can’t get arrested. One of the things I’ve been saying to friends and in interviews lately is that I’ve clearly gotten to the point where I can’t tell if I’m being faithful or I’m being foolish. But at the end of the day, writing a song is the most electrifying thing I can do with my life, and I want to share that.
I want to create a presence for those songs, because I grew up thinking that “Little Mascara” could save the world. I thought “Unsatisfied” was the most liberating song I’d ever heard. Or … oh, man, “Straight to Hell” by the Clash. That was a song that I thought could dismantle racism. These are the types of songs I’m trying to offer, and it’s scary, because I don’t know if I’m up for it. I don’t know if I’m that good. But I know that I haven’t ever recorded a song that I didn’t think had that ability. I may have failed and been emotionally unavailable when I recorded it, or I may have made a production choice that alienated people, but I can tell you that it’s almost ridiculous how naive I am. Every moment that I’m trying to do that, I feel like I am doing that. I feel like the songs can be important beyond economics.