“She’s just baring her teeth before she bites,” snaps blues singer-songwriter Bart Ryan. With his new song “Half Way,” premiering today, the Los Angeles-born storyteller compiles various relationships together into a slow-burning crackle. “Oh, did you get your heart broken / Who cares in the end,” he later sings over waves of steamy electric guitar.
Ryan has a knack for baring his wounds, and with such smoldering instrumentation, the emotion simply wrings from his soul. Clocking it at nearly five minutes, “Half Way” depicts “a couple different women I’ve known ─ beautiful, compelling… and dangerous,” he tells American Songwriter over email. Musically, the track ebbs and flows with a haunted, yet earthy, atmosphere that seems to sink into the listener’s eardrums.
“I worked on the guitar parts for a long time to get them right. I wanted them to be dreamy but have weight,” he says. “Tone and space… tone and space.”
“Half Way” samples Ryan’s forthcoming new record, Starlight and Tall Tales, one which is expected to be immensely intimate. “I wanted to make a really personal album, but one that other people could relate to. And I really wanted to take the time to get every note and every word right,” he remarks. “There is some really personal stuff in these songs, but it’s not unique to me. ‘Half Way’ is one of my favorites on the album… 80 percent tragedy and 20 percent comedy. It’s not hopeless, but it’s hopeless adjacent.”
With plenty of time to write on his own, the record became something much more than even he could have predicted. “I took a lot of time to make this album, and while I had terrific input from other people, I did most of the writing and recording alone. I dug into every note and every word until I was good with all of it.”
Consuming plenty of poetry and catalogs of titan songwriters also fueled his approach, too. Notably, the Nashville musician dug into the work of Emily Dickinson, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, and The Beatles, among countless others, and the impact was undeniable. “How to paint a picture is one way to describe it. How to choose the right word at the right time. Also, how to tell a story in three minutes,” he reflects. “Shakespeare can write five pages to make a point if he wants, but in a song, you might have to do the same job in four lines. In fact, sometimes it’s more powerful to say less. If you paint the picture right the listener will fill in the details with more impact than if you said it out loud.”
During the recording process, mixing engineer Preston Tate White swiftly took on co-producing credits, exchanging and offering up fresh ideas, soon elevating the record to the next level. The give and take between White and Ryan was a necessary creative through line on the record, permitting Ryan to uncover even richer and more dynamic layers.
Across 10 tracks, Ryan plays six different guitars, choices born out of a willingness to listen to what the songs themselves craved, as well as an adoration for guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. “Well, I wish I could say the ghost of Jimi Hendrix comes to me in my dreams and tells me, but it’s not that cool. It’s really just having done this for a while; I usually have a pretty good idea what guitar I want for what part,” he explains. “Other times, I’m not sure, so I’ll play two or three different guitars and see what fits best in the track.”
On a song like “Bring Out Your Joy,” Ryan found that the song was “going to be built around a Strat from the beginning. On the other hand, for ‘The Healer,’ I tried playing the solo and a number of the other guitar parts on different guitars and just whittled it down to what sounded good to me.”
Often, finding the right balance of melody, tone, and musicianship only sprouts from meticulous exploration and attention to detail. “I was in full mad scientist mode for this. In fact, I got a bad case of mold poisoning in the middle of making this record and just stepped away for a few months while I healed up,” says Ryan. “When I came back, I tore the whole project apart and re-did a lot of it. I would never recommend mold poisoning as a creative tool, but I think it improved this record.”
Collaboration not only with White but long-time collaborator Jim Evans proved to be vital to the process, as well. “Preston is great and really brings a lot to the table, and Jim [also] added a lot, another really easy guy to work with with great ideas. I roughed out a lot of the grooves with Jim, and did the final assembly and mixing with Preston.”
When it comes down to it, songwriting is like piecing together an emotional puzzle. “When you get the puzzle right, the listener feels something. You feel it, too, and you know when it’s right, or more accurately, you know when it’s not. This album has been an amazing experience, a real rollercoaster. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done, and it seems other people agree. But it was a hell of a journey. I’m proud of it, and I’m good with the whole thing. That’s not the most common experience for recording artists. Maybe I just got lucky. Maybe all the cosmic dust just fell together right for this record. Or, maybe I’m getting better. Who knows? I’m already starting to think about the next record.”
Bart Ryan’s Starlight and Tall Tales arrives September 18 on Blackbird Records.
Listen to “Half Way” below.
Photo by Bob Tigert