Climbing out of mental blackness is an arduous task ─ and it’s certainly easier said than done. Singer-songwriter Ryan Courtney, known professionally as Trenton, offers up his new song “Find a Way” as a salve for emotional and psychological unrest. Drums march along with swirling force, and his voice rings out as bells in their belfry.
“Find a Way” has been on his mind for years, only now finding its way onto paper. “The words in this song are the self talk that has reminded me over the years that your circumstances and environment do not have to keep you down and define you long term,” Courtney tells American Songwriter. “Someone else’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality.”
“They could set your ship ablaze / Lock you inside their cage / But you’re gonna find a way,” he rallies on the chorus.
It’s an anthemic and cathartic release that could not have arrived at a better time. With an ongoing global pandemic, and most still reeling from a tense presidential election, music fans need all the hope they can get. “The current state of the world reinforced the song for me significantly. I’ve seen so much determination and courage from other people,” he says. “What made me want to finally finish and release this song is the current state of things. If this song could help even one person push forward or heal, then all of the work creating it is worth it. Heck, it’s worth it just with how the song has already impacted me, personally.”
Courtney began writing the song nearly 18 months ago, and much pop’s piano man Leonard Cohen, he “re-wrote the lyrics three times with tons of different verses and variations. I rarely ever do that, but this song needed that. I played every instrument excluding the drums,” he explains, noting his good friend Graham Bechler swapped programmed drums for the real thing to “make the song more human.”
“Find a Way” means much more to Courtney than the listener might anticipate at first. The Nashville musician lost his father to suicide when he was very young, a moment in define that has left fingerprints all over his life. Expectedly, his journey out of such tragedy took nothing but time. “I wallowed for quite awhile at first. My new self-proclaimed identity at the time was ‘the kid whose dad had killed himself.’ I latched on to that for longer than I’d care to admit,” he remembers. “But eventually my focus changed. I started to accept all of the existential questions floating around in my 17-year-old head. From those questions I started noticing the good again ─ in people, in music, in the slow unfolding of each season and in the overall mystery of existence. A part of my heart felt like it was starting to open, and I’m not sure if that would have ever happened to begin with if I hadn’t lost my dad.”
Previously, Courtney had only tinkered around with songwriting in very early learning stages. Personal catastrophe soon pushed him further into the craft, as a way to process, cope, and heal. “The music obsession had definitely started by then,” he says. “I was in a band in high school, and I remember my dad would help us carpool to shows that were sometimes several hours away. The tragedy gave me clarity with what I felt a big part of my purpose was. It made me feel like I should go for it.”
Even now, there will be moments of grief that wash over him like the ocean’s tides coming in. He can’t stop it; it just is. “It can come out of nowhere, sometimes years down the line. Usually, it’s this strange mixture of a deep joyful gratitude for the memories I’ve had with my father, and also sadness for the absence,” he reflects. “Some kind of hidden memory pops up and triggers it; random ones like his support of my childhood obsession of yo-yo’s and Dragon Ball Z, or remembering his enthusiasm for his map and coin collection and coral reef fish tank.”
Experiencing such immense loss so early on instilled within him a greater appreciation for life than most others. And he thinks about life’s severity quite often. It is “not in a depressing way,” he stresses, “but as a reminder to cherish each day, as cheesy and Hallmark-y as that might sound. It’s one of the major reasons I’ve had the courage to pursue music and art as a long term career to begin with. There comes a moment at least once a day, where I think about the fact that none of us are here for very long; so doing and creating what I believe in, is in both my best interest and for the family and friends in my life.”
“I’m a better version of myself when I’m living how I feel I am meant to live, and doing the things I feel I am meant to do,” he continues. Seneca the Younger’s essay “On the Shortness of Life,” written sometime around 49 AD, gives him greater understanding on what it all means. “I feel like I’ve underlined almost every page in that book.”
As clouds of heaviness often surround him, Courntey finds stillness to be a proper medication to break the fog again. “The times I’ve experienced despair in my life, all I want to do is distract myself until it goes away. But it never really goes away until I face it and sit with it. I’ve also found that the ‘self-talk’ going on in my own brain affects virtually everything, especially if I’m in a state of despair. I used to be so mean to myself without even realizing it. Just being aware of how I’m speaking to myself has helped immensely.”
Songwriting has naturally given him plenty of healing power through the years, of course. In addition to his solo work, including 2017’s Promised Land EP, the storyteller has landed cuts on such TV shows as “Degrassi,” ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” and MTV’s “Teen Mom.”
“I can’t speak for anyone else, but music aided in healing me more than anything. It didn’t heal me in and of itself, but it created an environment of inward openness that I needed. People have reached out to me in the past, strangers sometimes saying that one of my songs has helped them through dark times,” he says. “At that point it’s no longer ‘my song.’ It’s not about ‘my artistic vision’ or my annoying ego. It’s serving a greater purpose at that point. It humbles me and makes me want to hug a stranger.”