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Matthew Ryan: Provoking Conversation With Brave and Honest Music
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
In the last year, Little Brother Radio — on 9 p.m. to midnight every Saturday on WBOI 89.1 FM — has become a vital part of the Fort Wayne music community. The weekly broadcasts have allowed local and regional bands to be heard by thousands of new listeners. Tune in and you'll hear everyone from Sankofa to Vandolah and Metavari to Zephaniah. They truly champion the spirit of independent music, which is what makes Matthew Ryan such a natural fit for their 1st anniversary concert at C2G on May 16th.
Matthew Ryan, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter, has about as much interest in thoughtless, bland music as the LBR crew and has sought to write songs that deal with love, loss, regret and the silver lining for the 11 albums that he's released in as many years. He has a gift for boiling things down to their essence and never losing focus. His care and craft for writing songs that deal with the human condition began with his debut album, May Day, in 1997 and carries through to his latest release, Matthew Ryan Vs. The Silver State. In between those records, he has released four other proper albums, along with three self releases and one UK only collection.
His songs are always alive and breathing, seeking to find truth and offer hope. His last few releases have gathered him mountains of critical praise and he's beginning to be recognized for the true talent he is and no longer standing in the shadow of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Ryan Adams.
His newest batch of songs reflects the way he seeks to live life in this modern age. Bravely and honestly.
Fort Wayne Reader: So, are you on tour right now?
Matthew Ryan: Right now I'm at home. I'm managing myself. It's kind of a good thing because I've had to plan things to elongate the process, so I can handle my slow, purposeful way that I do things. The tour starts on May 1st and we're also working on a June tour and getting to the UK, but right now I'm handling things myself and it's a double-edged sword. Luckily, I think I have the constitution to handle it. I don't get emotional about good or bad things, really, as far as the business side of things. But, right now I'm home handling that part and, to be honest with you, I'm going a little crazy. The record's actually doing really well right now and there's just so much coming in. There's been a lot of reasons why I've had such a punctuated career. I don't want to fail because I mismanaged it and I feel like I can't quite keep up with everything. But, that's a good thing.
FWR: Do you think that's going to change and you'll get someone to help you manage it all?
MR: I've had people offer, but there's a way I want to do things and there's a way I want to treat people. My philosophy, wrong or right, has been that you don't treat anybody like a chump. Nobody. Whether it's the waiter or the waitress or the bartender or some famous journalist or some actor or the guy that's delivering your mail, you don't treat anybody like a chump. And so, many times with people in this business, managers, in particular, can tend to be so abrasive and they can tend to be particular about who they choose to give energy to. So, I'm real sensitive to that and, wrong or right, I'm just trying to find that guy or girl that I genuinely believe sees the world much like I do.
FWR: I hear what you're saying. Sometimes the way things are handled by managers causes you to get completely turned off.
MR: I know and I had to learn the hard way. Particularly in the younger days. I wasn't being represented quite how I thought I was. It wasn't parallel to what I was writing about. I just want something to be as pure as it can be from top to bottom. Side to side.
FWR: You're talking about the A&M years?
MR: Oh, yeah and even since then. It's not just A&M. It took me a long time to kind of realize that I probably need to handle some of this stuff myself so I can get the story as I see it out there. Rather than all the manipulation and the hijinx and the hype and the silliness. I believe a story, an honest story, is ultimately meaning more. Always.
FWR: You mentioned that things are taking off really well. Are you talking about press and reviews and late night talk show appearances?
MR: All these things in their time. But right now, sales wise and awareness wise, we seem to be achieving a lot of the things that a lot more money back in the day couldn't achieve. Maybe that was just the arc for me and I don't know where this record is going to end up. But, it's my belief, without sounding like a slogan or to sound overly earnest, it's music for people that are looking at things and wanting things to be better. I can't help but think there's a lot of us right now feeling this way and I wanted to offer a record that spoke to those hard monologues that we have with ourselves and with the people we love and with our enemies. I don't mean to go all Barack on it, but this was something I was working on before the election started. I don't want to sound like I'm borrowing from some political thing. It's not where I'm coming from. This has been something that I've been working on for the last few records and I've been trying to express and now I feel brave enough to express it.
FWR: Even when there's a sense of 'gloom and doom,' your songs have always offered that sliver of hope and a path out.
MR: That's always been my intent. One of the hardest things that I saw happening, as your work gets digested by the gatekeepers and the writers and the world, is that sometimes your intent isn't clear and sometimes it gets mistook and that can be devastating as an artist. I know that my goal was always to say, whether it's in the Irish tradition of 'Oh, the world is trouble,' it's better than the alternative. The goal has always been, and I think I'm getting better at it; the goal is to say 'It shouldn't be this way.' That stuff is simple enough, but we lose sight of that in the fog of war and the fog of our lives and the things that we want and the things that we don't get and the things that we wish for and the things that we work for. More often than not, anything that you earn, you have to earn. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm responding to something that you didn't say, but we're dealing in some monumental cynicism.
FWR: Absolutely. Everything these days is coated with a layer of cynicism and irony beyond irony. I can't even figure out what's genuine anymore. I can't figure out what I'm supposed to care about.
MR: That is the fundamental issue today. That is so fundamental. It is what we're all going to have to start asking ourselves if we want to maintain something that resembles a genuine culture and a genuine happiness or at least some version of contentedness. In all the static and the flood of it, these are the conversations. What you just said is better than anything I could've said about it, because that's really what I'm talking about. I want to provoke that conversation and I want it to be obvious. I think that's useful. I mean, I'm not trying to put a cape on. That's not what I'm saying.
Yesterday, a friend of mine forwarded me the link on AOL where Springsteen endorsed Barack Obama. So, you scroll down in the story and it's a story and I believe Springsteen. That's a genuine thing for him. But, you scroll down and you look at the responses to this. Go there and look at the ugliness. It's my feeling that those aren't really real people. You can tell the difference. That is special interest groups. And this sounds like 'A Brave New World' or Orwell, but that is people writing what somebody wants you to think. You read that and you realize AOL is a platform to the world and people from anywhere can read that. And that's the impression they get of us? Are you fucking kidding me? I cannot believe that's real people. I cannot believe that's what they really think. And if it is, then it's a hopeless cause. My belief is that it's lobbyists with special interests. It's people getting paid $5 an hour to dismantle somebody else's agenda and push their own.
FWR: What are your thoughts on the 6 female teens that beat up another teen in Florida?
MR: I think that that is timeless. That's universal. The difference is that we get it shown to us over and over again. Violence and all the notions we have, these are things from the beginning to the end. I can only imagine. We've all done things that maybe we weren't proud of. Maybe we said things or we didn't allow other people their humanity in some sort of moment where we lost sense of that. I feel bad for the girl that that happened to, but I equally feel bad for the girls who did it because they will be confronted with this from now until the day they die. That is the feedback loop now that we're existing in. It's bad enough to deal with those things in memory. It's completely something else to have it in front of you for the next fifty years, if you're lucky. I don't know where the usefulness is in that. We live in an instant judgment society. That's what's killing art. That's what's killing music. It's what's killing dialogue. The speed of things is contrary to digesting ideas and consideration and these sorts of things. It's not the end of the world. My belief is we're going to figure it out. We're going to retract from some of this. But, of course, the goal is to minimize the damage. That means that you have to have people who are provoking the conversation before it gets too horrible.
FWR: There's a war going on overseas and an ongoing struggle between presidential candidates here in the states. Does the title of your new album serve to remind us of the personal battles we all face?
MR: I came up with some really ornate, emotional titles for this album that probably would've provoked a little more direct cinema, as to what I was writing about. But, the reason I went with "MRVSS" is because in my own life, I've kind of concluded that you get a notion and it turns into a dream. I'm the kind of person that I'm going to follow that dream until I either achieve it or I go down like an aviator. So, I guess in some ways, this is that. That's what the title evokes and, hopefully, there's a universal story there. That would be the hope.
FWR: The new album continues your direct lyrical approach, yet the music has a fullness and a depth that seems new and inspiring. Was that a conscious effort or was it organic?
MR: I think what the strength of this record will be, and hopefully it's something that I'll be able to maintain, or retain, is that there comes a point – I want to say this right. I wasn't born with that gift of armor. People get inside my head and I can be at the mercy of the weather around me. That doesn't mean that I'm weak or defenseless. It means, I guess that, for a lack of a better way of putting it, I guess I can be pretty sensitive. I'd love to have a character like Tom Waits, where it kind of becomes your Pacino or your De Niro. But, that's just not who I am. I used to let some people inside my head and it kind of undermined my energy and my sense of self. With this record, I decided that it's not arrogance and it's not intended, like I said, as some sort of cape. My intention was to be exactly who I was and to say it exactly how I would say it. The players that are on the record are all friends of mine now for 10, 15 years and they're a supportive bunch and they really, really handed themselves over to it. They knew when I was being honest and they knew when I wasn't and I knew the same about them. We didn't put anything on this record that was dishonest. That's what happened. There's a danger in honest music, but that's a risk you've got to be willing to take in any part of your life.
FWR: What were some of the records that you latched onto while growing up and do you listen to modern music or stick to the classics?
MR: I try and avoid sticking to the classics, but there are definitely what I view as classic records that are 'go to.' It amazes me how records on some days there's none better and on other days it just doesn't quite fit. Those are the records that I want to make. I don't want to make records for every occasion. I want to make a record that you need when you need. That tends to be the kind of music I go towards. As a kid, if I'm being honest, my first kind of loves were more of the pop English bands. Like the Psychedelic Furs with 'Pretty In Pink.' I even liked when they got poppier with 'Love My Way' and stuff like that. I loved his voice. He just sounded like a [phone goes silent].
FWR: I'm sorry. I didn't catch that. What did he sound like?
MR: A badass. [laughs]
FWR: In all honesty, Matthew, the phone cut out right then. As if it were trying to censor you.
MR: [laughs] But, on top of that, of course there was The Clash and Strummer. I just actually … I'm hoping they use it, but Uncut had invited me to interview Mick Jones. You just get to ask a few questions and so I sent in my questions and I tried to ask him probably ridiculously, stupid, cerebral questions. But, hey if this is my shot …
FWR: Take it! That's awesome. Have you heard his new project, Carbon/Silicon, yet?
MR: I have. I went and saw it at SXSW and he also just did a thing here. An invite only thing that I was supposed to go to, but my allergies were so bad that I basically cried alone that night and didn't go.
FWR: I'm sorry to hear that. How was the SXSW set?
MR: It's great. I feel bad for him on some level, because if I'm doing it and I'm looking at him and I can't look at him in the present, all I see is Mick Jones from The Clash, it's got to be tough. The funny thing is, he's actually still doing really great work. I actually feel horrible. I've actually wanted to write a short essay about my apology to Joe, because I was so in love with The Clash that I kind of ignored The Mescaleros. Now, after he's died, all of a sudden I've realized, actually, he was still doing it. On the tour we're doing a version of 'Johnny Appleseed.' There's a reason we're doing that. Maybe this is projection, I just don't want to be one of those guys that did a lot of good work and people didn't know it within the moment. In some ways, by honoring Strummer in that, maybe it says something. I feel horrible, because I was so in with The Clash for so long and those songs had so much history with me that I tended to not want to give it to The Mescaleros. Turns out they were great.
FWR: I've been there. You feel like the new project will tarnish the old.
MR: It's funny. I go through that with "May Day." I'm going to be honest, that album has a cult following at best, but the amount of people that write me about it is overwhelming, for one, and they always say, 'Your new work's pretty good, but "May Day" will always be the best.'
FWR: I love "May Day," but even I know that isn't true.
MR: I hope so, man. You can't be like, 'You motherf***er. Do you realize I've been doing this for 11 years and you just pretty much said the last 10 years have meant nothing?'
FWR: What an insult. And they call themselves fans!
MR: Well, you know. Again, it goes to that thing of there they are and that record hit them at a particular time. But, the funny thing is now I've been around long enough that I have younger people that are talking about "Regret Over the Wires" that way. There will be people who talk about this album that way. That's why I think it's like a critical mass for me. I've got to draw a line in the sand and that's my ambition and hope for "MRVSS." I don't know how an artist makes that case. Because we live in an instant judgment society often, once you're judged, you are that. Once you're that girl punching that other girl in that video, that's what you are. She could go on to be Mother Teresa on some level, but on some other level she would still be, 'Hey, aren't you that girl?' As humans, as artists and as ambitious people, all of us, we have to fight against that. We're more complex than that.
Little Brother Radio anniversary show
Matthew Ryan w/special guests Jon Dee Graham and Thundolah
323 West Baker Street
Friday, May 16, 7:30 PM
All ages. Tickets: $12 (includes Matthew Ryan VS. The Silver State CD at the door)
Tickets available from NIPR/WBOI at 452-1189 and Wooden Nickel North Anthony