I am scheduled to interview the musician Matthew Ryan for his upcoming album Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State. We agreed to meet at the Corner Pub in Nashville, which is located next door to the shop of famous country music clothing tailor Manuel.I am scheduled to interview the musician Matthew Ryan for his upcoming album Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State. We agreed to meet at the Corner Pub in Nashville, which is located next door to the shop of famous country music clothing tailor Manuel.
I show up early and take a seat in the back of the pub. It’s still two-for-one drinks, so I knock back a couple of local Yazoo beers. Ryan’s publicist calls; he is running late. The pub continues to get louder and smokier. I guess people do go out the day after St. Paddy’s day. I am worried that it is going to be difficult to tape the interview in the current location.
Eventually, I see Ryan roaming around the pub, and I flag him to my table. We shake hands.
“I think this place is going to be too loud,” I tell him.
“Yep. But finish your beer,” Ryan says in his quiet, graveled voice.
As I take my last few sips, I remind Ryan that we met about a year ago in Charlottesville, Va. He remembers me, and we catch up.
We then head over to Noshville, a popular Nashville deli located a stones throw from the Corner Pub. Ryan recommends getting a booth away from the crowd. He orders a coffee, and I order water.
I tell Ryan that I am a lawyer, and he seems fascinated by the law. He asks if we ever talked about “reason without passion” in law school. I’m not too familiar with the concept, and I realize I would need to think about that that theory before I spoke upon it. We did talk about the American legal system. Notwithstanding all its faults, I tell Ryan that this is the country I would want to be in if I got in trouble.
Ryan is extremely thoughtful and cerebral, although he gets somewhat emotional when talking about the current world.
“Can I turn the tape recorder on?”
“Sure,” Ryan says.
Have you heard about this new project that American Songwriter is doing? It’s a website called American Songspace-it’s an online community for songwriters. Also, there will be an industry side where the industry and publishing companies can start their own accounts and come in and monitor the new and emerging talent. And there will be chances for songwriters to collaborate together online and there will be live performances online. Do you feel like this would be well served with the songwriting community?
Matthew Ryan: I think that’s such a simple question; it’s an easy question but it’s a hard question to answer because [of] where we are culturally. I have a lot of friends who that would be really useful for. Particularly, I think, for younger songwriters and people who are into collaborating and these sorts of things. It’s a great idea. But I think one of the great challenges of new media is connecting human beings to other human beings. And I’m talking the relationship between artist and listener-the relationship between…human-to-human. I mean, there seems to be a disconnect between what’s going on in the virtual world and what’s going on in the real world. I think the challenge-whether you’re an artist, a writer, a songwriter, an A&R person, a listener, a consumer-the challenge is to make these things more human. If it does that, then it’s done a great thing.
Right. Well, for this magazine-this magazine’s obviously about songwriters-and there are a lot of subscribers to the magazine who are based in the middle of nowhere, in tiny towns, and they don’t really have a voice and I think some of them feel like this might be their way to get their songs out. I know its different living in Nashville.
Well, it doesn’t matter where you live. I guess if I were to sum it up, it’s a two-part answer. I think it could be absolutely beautiful and useful for some people, but what I’m talking about is almost a greater issue of intimacy on the Internet and so I’m really answering the question you didn’t ask.
Elaborate on the other thing that’s been on your mind.
What I was just talking about: this lack of intimacy in the virtual world. It seems that we’re really getting challenged to distinguish between entertainment, information, wisdom and experience, you know? And it’s a deluge. It’s like Leonard Cohen said once, and I’m paraphrasing, somebody asked him to describe the new world, or the modern world, and he said there’s been a great flood. And some people are grabbing hold of signposts and telephone poles and the water is just going and going. But every once in a while two people grab a signpost near each other and they look at each other just before they rush forward.
And that’s what that led me to wonder about-you know there’s something beautiful if you think about Greg Brown, the great songwriter from Iowa. If you think about the scene [in Iowa] he came up with and it nurtured him. I don’t know if you remove the physicality of that scene, and the contact, and the eye-to-eye thing, and the women, and all the things that come with a scene, you know, the art-that sounded really misogynistic, but, you know, I didn’t mean it that way-there’s just something you just can’t…I don’t know if can be recreated in cyberspace.
I think it’s a beautiful idea man. I would just encourage, whatever we got to do to make these virtual communities more intimate. Of course if it’s a music community immediately it’s going to be more intimate. But whatever we can do creatively as in the design to create more intimacy, it’s going to be important to whether it really works or not.
Alright, well let’s talk about you. You just got back from South by Southwest (SXSW). How was that experience?
This was my first time there in eight years. And I have to be honest; I think maturing a little bit and not expecting too much from SXSW-I had a great experience. I met a lot of people I look up to, other artists…
Who did you meet?
I met Mick Jones from The Clash; that was pretty cool. But above all that, you know, my thoughts-I wasn’t going to do it again this year, and not because I’m anti-social. Maybe I didn’t want to go because I’m pretty self-important, and I like to be able to talk to people-on an intimate level. It’s like what we’re doing right now-we’re talking, you know, and there’s no static in between our conversation other than some dishes here and there. A lot of times when you get in a big group situation like that…a reunion of sorts…you don’t ever get that kind of intimacy in a conversation and I hate that.
Yep-my wife’s from Austin. I’ve been there a bunch, but I’ve never been to SXWS. My gut feeling is that it’s gone corporate. It seemed almost too big just from reading the press accounts about it.
Well, if you’re sensitive at all-and I am-and I was looking around and I saw a lot of people probably more like I was eight years ago. People asking: “What am I going to get from this? How’s this going to change my life?” And you know those guys at SXSW are doing the best they can do; it’s not designed to be a monster or to be cold. Yet, when something gets that big it starts losing sight of the fine print. And the hardest thing for me is to watch a lot of hope go to waste because people can take that stuff too personal. Doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day? I had a great experience. I had a great show, and I got to see my friends that I’ve known for years. So those were the people I spent time with, and that’s what made it fun.
You have a new album coming out in April and it’s got an interesting title. Can you tell us about the title and explain why you decided to name the album what it is?
Man! Man, I had so many beautiful titles for this record and they were all so cinematic and evocative, and I thought, you know…it was the hardest thing to go with something so simple.
Well, what does it mean? What is The Silver State?
Well, the Silver State is Nevada. And I came up with the idea before I rationalized or intellectualized the idea. It is getting to know myself the way that I have. [Laughs] Hopefully, that’s what we all do in our lives. You start to understand what’s driving your engine, what’s motivating you, you know? I started to realize that I can be a bit contrary and I can be…for years I was really sensitive to the fact that it felt like a lot of people that were paying attention to what I was doing saw this cynical music. And it wasn’t, and it’s not. But I had to realize also that I am conflicted. I’m one of those people that if you ask me to do “this” I’m going to do “that.” So with my band, I mean it really is a boxing match to make a record. Even to build a song. So I thought it was more honest for it to “Matthew Ryan vs.” something than “Matthew Ryan And The…” because in any community there’s got to be friction. But there also has to be the ability to listen and there also has to be the ability for tolerance. So at the end of the day, you know, that’s why it was versus. Now, versus the Silver State-the Silver State is Nevada. And I’ve intellectualized this at this point. I thought of going with the Empire State or other various logos for States.
What about the Volunteer State?
I thought about the Volunteer State, but it didn’t feel poetic enough for me. The thing about Nevada is it speaks to a lot of central American ideas. And even if you think about the particularly modern American ideas-though I talk around that for hours and maybe it would make sense-but basically what you have is you have a desert. And then up in the middle of the desert comes Las Vegas. And so then anything can happen.
Anything can happen in the middle of nowhere?
Well, that would be more optimistic than what I was going for. Basically, what we’re looking at with where we’re at as a country is that I think we’re starting to wise up and understand that-I want to be clear about this…it may take me second. These ideas apply to individuals; who we are as a community or who we are as a citizenry is the same thing we are as individuals. And these things all play out. This isn’t a political record, but I think we’re starting to wise up to why we operate the way we do. We’re a fairly educated society, so we understand history and we understand the dangers of imperialism-it is dangerous. But some would argue that if you retract, then you’re kind of writing your own obituary. But I think we’re gambling right now with our future. I think we do that in our own lives, and I think we’re doing it collectively. We’re becoming acutely aware of what’s possible. That’s a long answer to a short question, but I hope it has some sort of ethereal sense that it’s worth the fight. So I guess it is Matthew Ryan vs. An Uncertain Future in its tightest, shortest thing.
That makes sense to me. Let’s move on to another subject, just because we’re in Nashville. Do you listen to the radio at all?
I like a bunch of satellite stuff.
I was actually referring to terrestrial radio not satellite.
Oh OK. Because there’s a lot of digital radio I’m liking. But, there are some good stations in America-WRLT [a local Nashville radio station] is a good station; I know a lot of the people there; their hearts are in the right place-they’re trying to play good music. But we’re seeing this challenge right now with new media versus the more analog parts of our culture-for lack of a better word-like, where’s the relevance now? And they’re struggling to understand that, and artists are struggling to understand it. I think all of us-anybody that does anything with their hands-is trying to understand where we exist in this kind of new ether-world.
You have toured with a lot of great artists. Can you tell us some of the artists that you’ve enjoyed touring with and what you’ve learned from them?
I think it’s weird. Because the two things I’d say are absolutely contradictory. My two favorite artists that I’ve toured with so far-and some of these people have become friends so if any of my friends read this and I don’t mention them, I don’t want them to be pissed off [laughs]. But my two favorite artists-for different reasons-were Starsailor and Lucinda Williams. And the reason why is really simple. Lucinda is a living, breathing statue, a monument of what America’s music should be: dangerous, beautiful. She’s amazing, moody, and incredibly affectionate at times. Starsailor, what I learned from them…
They’re [Starsailor] still pretty young, aren’t they?
Yeah… I think they’re probably hitting their late-20s by now. It was amazing with them because the importance of the show started to make more sense to me by watching them. We were travelling in clubs probably about the size of the room we’re in. They weren’t enormous, but they were respectable clubs.
This was in the U.K.?
No, this was here in the States. I think they’re much bigger in the U.K. Very respectable as far as an audience goes. Long story short-they brought their own lighting and fog machines. And I’ll be honest with you-those songs absolutely came to life because there was cinema.
One of the things I’ve learned is that Iggy Pop did not care what your day was like. He didn’t care if you were in the mood for him or not. He was going to challenge you to make a choice about what he was doing. And you could hate Iggy Pop for the rest of your life having been to one of his shows-maybe you got hit with a microphone [laughs]. But it was cinema. And the interesting thing about Starsailor, and the reason I connect those things is the songs weren’t bad during soundcheck, but it wasn’t cinema until the show, when the lights and the fog machines started going. And all these things were like a camera on the back of an eagle’s f@#$ing back! And it was beautiful.
What about Lucinda?
Now, Lucinda, a lot more like Iggy Pop, is kinda more sexual, more tactile, more dangerous. But the thing I learned from Starsailor was that sometimes… there’s a reason why Night of the Hunter looks the way it looks, if you watch that film. Because there’s an emotionalism in cinema.
Well, you’ve also toured with Steve Earle, and I know he is influential with most of the readers of American Songwriter. In fact, he was on the cover a couple of issues ago. What have you learned from Steve? He’s kind of settled into his own niche in the music industry.
If I could model myself after the career of people it would be some hybrid of Lucinda and Steve. Steve’s amazing. First of all, his songwriting tends to get overlooked these days-he’s an amazing songwriter. I studied to be a schoolteacher, and I would be in there with these kids and they would say something that was so pure and so genius that it would blow my mind. Because they had no influence beyond a moment of clarity of what they were trying to say and the language that was available to them. Somehow, Steve manages to do that at his age. And that means to me that his affection, his love for American music is wide. And not only is it wide, he’s capable…he’s gifted.
Well said. Steve’s son, Justin, is making a splash in the industry. I believe he played at the American Songwriter party at SXSW. Did you happen to catch his show?
I didn’t. Justin’s funny-I’m friends with Justin. And he’s really starting to come into his own. It’s weird-if I’m being honest-and I don’t know if Justin or Steve would feel this way-I feel like some sort of illegitimate child [laughs] in between the two because the relationship between Justin and me has gotten interestingly…he’s just one of those guys. We won’t talk for weeks and when we do it’s always like there was no space. And he’s really come into his own. And I always admire when the son of an artist really starts to establish himself. Jakob Dylan and I are acquaintances, and I got to say Jakob’s handled it well.
Now that’s a shadow.
I don’t know how he deals with it.
Didn’t he [Jakob Dylan] start out as a painter or something?
I honestly don’t know. When I met him we were already musicians-I didn’t know him before all that. But he and Justin-that’s a shadow-and it’s brave. And to me as a human, I have as much respect for them as humans as I do as artists. Because believe me, it’s hard enough coming from a working class background and saying, “Hey Dad, I don’t want to work at Scott Paper.” For me rock and roll is what the NFL or the NBA is to a lot of other kids. But to step out from under Bob Dylan’s shadow or Steve Earle’s shadow or Richard Thompson’s shadow with Teddy Thompson…I respect that.
I want to talk about music publishing. Many people say that in this digital age, the way an independent songwriter, or someone on an indie label, is going to be able to pay their rent in the future is placements in television and commercials. You’re starting to see that trend now. You’ve had a few placements yourself. Can you talk about getting placed in a visual medium and how that’s affected your work?
Well, we talked about this a little bit earlier, and it concerns me, not only as an artist but as a lover of art in general. We have to understand that there’s an economy around art. There’s nothing romantic about desolation, you know, there’s not. It’s a really tough waltz with commercials. I’ve never believed in attaching my music to a commercial. I’ve wanted to attach my music to an idea. And I have to figure how to do that so that I can pay the mortgage and live with a reasonable amount of security…because nobody wants to be poor.
Although John Mellencamp is not poor, I’ve heard him, and others, make the argument that television now is his radio and it’s his way to get his songs heard. People say that a musician sells out by putting his songs in an advertisement. But if that’s the only way they’re getting heard do you feel that’s a legitimate argument, or do you feel they are sacrificing their art?
You can’t judge other people’s ambition-you can’t. I can’t do that. Whenever I was judging people by what they chose to do and what they didn’t choose to do I was spinning my wheels. For me, if it was the right idea, I would sell my song to Exxon-if it was the right idea. If I can attach a song to an idea that I think is meaningful then I have no problem with it. But that’s only me. I want to say I think that honestly the greatest future for income for an artist is a relationship to inspire an audience. If you accomplish that then all these other things follow. And that happens live, man. And that’s where it’s at.
Well let’s talk about live performances. You’ve got a tour set up for you new album. What kind of songs are you going to put on the set list? Is it going to be mostly the new stuff?
It’s tough, man. I love this new record.
Is your tour going to live band or full band?
I’m taking a risk. Financially, I’m not absolutely ready to take the band. I’m starting to get to a point where I make a good living on the road. Now, when you saw me last year-that was my first time in Charlottesville. The fact that anybody was there, is something that I can go “OK, that’s good.” It’s no different than building anything else. And I’m getting to the point where I can live comfortably off of touring. But I’m bringing the band, and it’s kind of like drawing a line in the sand. Again, it goes back to the idea of cinema. There’s something beautiful about being able to perform a song on the guitar. But for me I don’t hear it that way. When I hear it I hear everything-I want to hear everything because there’s the cinema. So we’re bringing the band, and I’m hoping to do hands down the best rock and roll show that somebody’s going to see this year!
Awesome. There’s something in the music industry that I’ve always thought’s been one of the biggest wastes of money for young artists if they ever want to recoup and start making royalties is a big enormous tour bus because it really sucks the money out. Those tanks ain’t cheap. And a lot of bands now-in fact most bands now-are travelling in their own van with the trailer hooked up for their instruments. Will you guys be travelling in a van or bus?
Well, right now my biggest frustration is that what I wanted to do was I talked to a clothing company who is interested in sponsoring me. And they’re an environmentally conscious clothing company which draws me to them. And what I wanted to do was I wanted to take either a biofuel van or a biofuel RV. Turns out they’re not making biofuel RVs yet-you can’t find them. So my point is that I’m starting to feel guilty: the hypocrisy in the utilitarian parts of this are so tough. But we’ll be taking a van. And I’m just trying to figure out how we can do it responsibly.
I thought I saw a couple of biofuel RVs a few years ago at Bonnaroo. It’s usually a physics student that builds these buses that run off vegetable oil or something. And I think you can even buy these buses on eBay. But they stop at the McDonalds, and they take the vat of oil and that’s what they run off. The bus smells like french fries, but they can cross the country for free.
Believe me it’s something we’re trying to figure out. I’d love to see for more middle-class, working-class artists-I’d love to see a way for us to do that. The expense of one of those buses is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t have that kind of money and some sponsors don’t even have that kind of money. But it’s something I’m thinking about. I mean, we’ve talked about it; we haven’t had the privilege of making these choices yet. If we do our work and our audience builds, we will act responsibly and act humbly. And because mainly there’s nothing in arrogance; there’s nothing in too much-there’s nothing in that. Nothing but danger, I think.
Matthew Ryan Vs. the Silver State is out April 1, 2008.