He has been compared to Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, yet the very prolific singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan has eluded pop stardom. Since 1997, almost annually, he has released a new album, and 2010's Dear Lover delivers his most cohesive and enjoyable set to date. The following is an interview with the artist.
Mike Ragogna: Why is your best album, Dear Lover, not on a major label?
Matthew Ryan: Oh man. Mike, I appreciate hearing that. My goal was to always keep getting better. I think part of what destabilized my career early on is that I didn't feel like I'd created a great piece of work. It's a process, something I read recently in a Seamus Heaney book called Preoccupations. Heaney is a great Irish poet, but he had this one book where he writes about other people's poetry. It's absolutely amazing--some of the most amazing writing about poetry. But there was a quote in there that says "What would an artist be without influence? What would an artist be capable of without influence?" We can't help it now. I mean, when you look at our culture and how immersed we are, our influences are a constant thing.
So my goal has been to acknowledge my influences and hopefully over time, create my own dialect. Early on, I was aware of where I was coming from. Maybe part of me felt bad about it. Maybe part of me felt like I was stealing. Maybe part of me felt like I wanted to make great music, but I didn't feel like I was making great music yet. And so I think as far as why Dear Lover is on my own label? It's because I believe that I'm getting better, 'cause I've been approached by several labels over the years, large and small, and it always comes down to the same thing: "Oh you sold less records than we thought." You know, and the case for artist development kind of...
Mike: ...fell by the wayside.
Matthew: So I became determined to do my own artist development.
Mike: Like Lucinda Williams.
Matthew: Yeah, yeah. And I'm not saying that I fully bloomed, but I believe that I'm starting to find my own language in this. Where that's going to lead takes a lot of faith, and it takes a lot of heartbreak at times. I fail as often as I feel that I succeed, but I'm just trying to do the best work that I can do. And if I stop feeling that I'm getting better, then I won't do it anymore. I'll have to find something else. Because I couldn't imagine being that frustrated, you know?
Mike: Is the art of making the record or the art of writing the song, or a combination most important to you?
Matthew: It really is all of it. Something very cool, lately I've been getting a lot of students and professors asking to feature my work in their literature classes and then asking me questions. I just had a student send me a bunch of questions for a thesis she's working on about this very same kind of thing, and she asked the same question. It is the entire experience from birth to release, like allowing a song to leave the studio and kind of go have its life. You know, I feel a great amount of honor to be part of people's lives like that. That you can be part of the cinema in each person's life is complex, and all the things that we go through, and for somebody to say, "That song says exactly how I feel" or "That says exactly what that event meant to me." You know, that's powerful stuff. You know in some ways it's like the process of writing for me can be a number of things. It can be frustrating. It can be beautiful. It can come quick. It can take forever. But the whole process, trying to nail it down, make the music feel like the lyrics sound.
Mike: With the way that culture has gone or is going, do you feel like there's less and less opportunity for intelligent lyrics in pop music? What do you think has happened to pop culture as it relates to an artist's work?
Matthew: First of all, as far as where a writer comes from and how a listener receives something, there is no such thing as chaos, Mike. There are only a limited number of things that happen in our lives. The names change and the scenery changes, but within what we experience as human beings, there's really only a limited number of things that can happen. So when you tell the truth about these things that happen, or at least you try, you know, I mean that's what the arts for. To try and be as honest as you can, more honest than a father can be to a son. More honest than a mother can be to a daughter. More honest than friends that say, "Yeah, that was beautiful." "That was s**tty." I don't feel that I'm imposing my story on others.
What I'm really trying to do is try and communicate in what is an essential conflict, I think in being human, regardless of the time that we live in, you know? The big questions. The big challenges. I'm not trying to make my work more meaningful by talking like that. It's just what I believe. Otherwise, I couldn't say what I said if I thought it was a diary 'cause that's ultimately, I think, useless stuff. I don't like diary writing. But speaking my belief, without sounding like a curmudgeonly critic, I think what's happened is what was once a passion for the arts has become entertainment, somewhere along the line, and no one person makes this decision.
It may be partly influenced by capitalism. So you start to shape it, I mean somebody like Lucinda is not going to give you want you want. Hopefully, she's going to give you what you need. That's the difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment gives you what you want. The arts give you what you need. Now whether you're willing to receive that is a whole other issue. So I think we've reached a point where we like to think, we...I'm just going to say 'I'...I used to think that culture was this weird constant. But it's amorphous, and everything that we do creates reactions, you know? The way the marketing really took over in the eighties. Start with Christmas in the twenties, in the early last century, the way marketing just took over. It's changed the way people perceived the world. So, in some ways, I look at it as though you have this constant need that you can't define because you're told that you want this. I think that the arts suffer under that. But because the arts still exist in the way that they do--and by nature it's subversive--I think people will eventually respond and start looking beyond Justin Bieber. I'm sorry, I mean, I wish him all happiness in the world, but I'm just tired of, you know...what is he,12?
Mike: The marketing of a product. American Idol and Disney do the same thing. Miley Cyrus. She's talented, but does she deserve a kind of Madonna status?
Matthew: That's a whole other issue, man. They way that they market the children as adults in this country, we should be ashamed of ourselves because marketers know what they're doing. They're playing on the guilt money. You have children, and you're working your ass off, and you're doing everything you can to keep a decent roof in a decent school district, and God willing, you can afford private schools... you don't have the time to be a father or a mother. So what do you do? You buy them things. So what do marketers do? They target you for guilt money. They target the kids. And then the kids get it from you.
Remember that orca whale that killed the trainer? You hear all these people trying to say why the orca did it. It was against his nature to be an aquarium for 15 years or however long it was. The great irony is that we create an aquarium around us where there is all this frustration that we can't define because we're not living within our nature. I'm not saying l want to live and eat berries out in the forrest, but we've created a lot of invisible masters that we're serving, and I think there's a step back where we can still be modern, and we can have these things. But we're not the proverbial rat in a maze.
Mike: There was an outcry to kill the orca. It made it more valuable.
Matthew: My guess, it was an accident. But that's neither here nor there. I feel horrible for the woman. I don't mean to use her as some innocent bystander in my metaphor you know. But it's what we do. It's like we consume, we consume, we consume, but we don't really digest.
Mike: Then, if the arts are going to survive, who do you think are the patrons of the arts that are going to get us through?
Matthew: It's a responsibility of artists and listeners. With the way that corporations are dissolving...I think what's going to happen, ultimately, is that our lives are going to get more centralized, more localized, but our commerce is going to go worldwide. Because you can basically get anything in a heartbeat, but all your essential needs will happen in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Nashville, Tennessee. Everything else will operate worldwide, which will make for an interesting economy. We haven't adjusted yet, particularly here in the States.
Mike: You're based out of Nashville?
Matthew: I am. I live in Nashville. I just bought a house, well actually, it's been two years. Bought a house just west of Nashville with a little bit of land. I've never lived like that. I've always wanted to. But it's only like ten minutes from downtown.
Mike: Do you have a group of musicians that you hang out with?
Matthew: You know, I'm very friendly with a lot of people. But I tend to be a bit of a loner there. For me, it's a weird thing. I think I'm kind of in between peer groups. For the most part, I hang out with my brother and some friends of mine that are like more in academia than I do other artists.
Mike: I imagine that helps to keeps one's music from becoming generic or derivative.
Matthew: The conversations are better. Even people I like will ask me, "Well, so what's going on?" "Well, I'm doing this, this, and this." But I really don't feel like comparing notes. I'm doing what I do, and you're doing what you do. Can we talk about culture? The difference between art and entertainment? These sorts of things are what I want to talk about.
Mike: Interesting things.
Matthew: Actually, it's funny 'cause I was reading the Lucinda article, there was this headline that caught my eye: "What Women Really Want From Men." I really need to know this!
Mike: You're 38 now, right?
Matthew: Yeah. All of a sudden. It's so weird, man.
Mike: Well, if it helps, I'm only like 16 in my head.
Matthew: I got it in my head that I wanted a pair of Doc Martens again, so I went to try to get some. There was this really cute 16-year-old girl--I don't mean that creepily, but just a really cute 16-year-old girl--selling the Docs. I was like, "There's not really a pair here that I like." I like the old school, simple Doc Martens, but now they're all like, I don't know...the latest ones have completely a different style. Anyway, I was like, "I'll just try them on." I put them on, and...the poor girl. They looked ridiculous. I was like, "I'm too old for these. What am I trying to do?" She was kind of, "Oh no they look great." I said, "You don't know. They don't look great. Trust me. It happens faster than you think. You will see!" She was so nice about it, but they were horrible.
Mike: With Dear Lover, I love what you did with the third song, "Some Streets Lead Nowhere." It's probably my favorite song on the record. It almost seems like that was the principal theme of the record.
Matthew: Yeah, it was the first song recorded for it.
Mike: What was the recording process like?
Matthew: It went from like absolute elation to the darkest parts of Moby Dick. Honestly, I started it myself and did the majority of the work. Like I recorded the first 80% of the record alone. It's a funny thing because I've had contentious relationships with studios before, and so my thought was, "I'll do this by myself, and there'll be no contention, there'll be no conflict, there'll be no whatever," and it was still there!
Mike: What did you record it on? Pro Tools at home?
Matthew: I actually started it on Pro Tools, and then put it away 'cause I didn't want to look at the files anymore. Ray Kennedy, Steve Earle's engineer and co-producer for a long time, suggested that I try a D16. It's just a little 16-track hard disk recorder that is amazing. There is no compression. There's true sound, absolutely, like what goes in is exactly what comes out.
Mike: How does that work?
Matthew: I don't know. I don't know the mathematics of it, but you know there's a noticeable difference. It feels more organic, even if it's not necessarily an organic sound. Well, a weird thing happens once it goes in Pro Tools. I know they've gotten better at this, but in the version I had, it was noticeable. The difference between the guitar when you would play it in the room, and then when you would record it, even if the mike placement was good, you would hear a degree of "well that's not what I played." With this, I feel like it's all represented.
Mike: Who are the other people on your album?
Matthew: Well, once I felt like I really found the center of the song, I would bring in Molly Thomas, who's played violin with me for years. She played on "Your Museum" and a couple of other songs.
Mike: Did you experiment?
Matthew: I played accordion for the first time on this. I've never played accordion before, but I wanted to hear it, so I tried it. Played some violin, too.
Mike: Which songs is the accordion on?
Matthew: "City Life" and "The World Is."
Mike: Which song has the violin?
Matthew: The end of "The Ghost Story." Molly Thomas came by and was really supportive. She kind of saw when I was in the dark on it a little bit. And then Billy Mercer came by and played bass. My best friend Brian Bequette played some accordion and some bass. David Henry played some cello on "Some Streets Lead Nowhere." Everything else, pretty much, is me. I hope I didn't forget anybody...usually guys like this don't get called out.
Actually, the mastering engineer made this record listenable. I mixed it myself, and I did the best that I could. But Hans DeKline, for anybody out there who's looking for a great mastering engineer--I'm not kidding, Mike, if you heard the mixes versus the record...I just don't know how he did it. I didn't want anyone else to have their hands on it. I just wanted to try and do the best that I could. It's funny when I listen to the mixes now, it's like, "Holy s**t. How did he do that?" I'm serious. He may as well have been a player on the record. Hans is great.
Mike: Yeah, it's a really sweet sounding record.
Matthew: I just wanted to challenge myself. You can't make music thinking, "This is going to be the best thing I ever do" or "I'm going to make a masterpiece." You just can't do that. But what you should be doing is not placing any limits on what you're capable of, let the chips fall where they fall. So that was the goal. In the past, budgets dictated that there was only so much time. Budgets dictated which the players were going to be the players, and we were going to do the best we could. Some really good songs suffered under those circumstances. I did the best I could with this record. I'm proud of it because I followed through with it. I think some of the songs on there are as good as any, but I know there are shortcomings on the record. Even with the opening track, there are some different things I could have done, but I just tried to tell the truth as best I could at the time.
Mike: You've been called "The Ultimate Whisperer." Leonard Cohen is one of your influences, right?
Matthew: Oh yeah, yeah. You know, up until Pulp Fiction in the nineties, it wasn't particularly cool to be a Leonard Cohen fan. I think this tour he just did, really solidified him with people. Of course, when Jeff Buckley recorded "Hallelujah," I think that really opened him up to a whole new generation of listeners.
Mike: That song's been covered by too many people lately, it's getting a little out of hand.
Matthew: I did hear that Cohen put out a press release asking people to please stop recording that song. I heard he honestly did, like, "Enough's enough."
Mike: There are so many other Cohen classics.
Matthew: I remember being a kid and hearing "That's No Way To Say Goodbye" and realizing that there's an epic book of heartbreak when it comes to men and women.
Mike: He had a particularly inspired version of it.
Matthew: Well, the thing that really inspires me about Cohen is that you don't walk away from it feeling bad. You really shouldn't. You don't walk away from his work finding it depressing at all. I don't know when it all started, but I think we do live, particularly now, in an instant judgment society, so it doesn't matter if you're an artist or a mechanic. You've got to state your case over and over again in as dignified a fashion as you can. I think Cohen, if he's anything, he's the king of dignity. He's been incredibly patient with his work and with the audience. When I went to go see him last November, it was hands down the best show I've ever seen. And I've seen what I consider great artists. But Cohen was on a whole other level. It literally felt like Van Gogh walked you through a painting. That was beautiful. That's not to dismiss some other artists that I think are great, but Cohen's work transcends intimidation. You can't be intimidated by it. It only inspires because that's how good it is. A lot of work will provoke you to do better, but with him, you're more in awe of it, at least as far as I'm concerned.
Mike: Do you feel any of your work comes close to something that you would consider influential pieces?
Matthew: What I would say is that--I mean this honestly and this is going to sound really ballsy--I've written songs I believe that are in that class. I have never sung a song as well as Cohen. And there's a difference. Cohen achieves a freedom you either work to achieve or you're born with. Lucinda, as well, achieves a freedom. I guess you earn it somehow. And I'm not there yet. Now lyrically--and like I said, this is with all due respect--I would never try and line them up because there's bad music, there's good music, and there's great music. And I think I've written a few great songs, I only wish I could sing them better.
I want to contribute. Part of what frustrates me is that sometimes, I can't see the growth of my work because I'm more worried about whether I'm actually contributing to the time that we live in. And the way that you contribute is--whether it's Barack Obama or Bono or Leonard Cohen--to have a positive influence on humanity, so you have to have the ear of people who are willing to listen. And it has to be more than 12 people...unless you're a militia.
Mike: I disagree with you in that every time I've heard a group of your recordings I think you phrase them exactly right. I can't picture somebody else singing it like that. I think your material does reach those levels at times.
Matthew: When you hear Steve Earle sing, "Goodbye," I think there's the freedom that I am looking for in my work that I find in the writing and in performance, but I don't find it in the studio, whether I'm alone or...it's a tough thing. It really is a bravery that I guess I just have to continue to strive for.
Mike: But it's not evident in the end result. You're only hearing it because you're so close to it.
Matthew: It's frustrating though 'cause you know the difference. I remember Chris Rock saying that he finds his comedy through absolute sadness because he's so sensitive, and he has to laugh at it. I know that sounds really dramatic, but I think if you have a certain sensitivity and a certain awareness, you can feel when people are getting it, and you can feel when people aren't. But that has nothing to do with what you asked. I feel like I've written songs that are in that class of great music. I only wish that I could be self-possessed enough to offer it fearlessly, which is something Lucinda has talked to me about. I'm not saying that to drop Lucinda's name. I'm not saying that to try and qualify what I do, but Lucinda has reached fearlessness, and it's a real inspiration. I know that she's right when she says that.
Mike: She is certainly pretty fearless. With the new record, do you have any prized songs that you want to steer the listener towards over others?
Matthew: Well, the thing is I was really trying to make a short film of sorts. Music is a kind of auditory film, if you will. The things that are on there are all on there for a reason. They're all meant as scenes. So they're all integral to the overall story. Now that the record has existed for a bit, I have a little more objectivity. I can definitely say there are songs on there that I like more than the others. It's not because I think the other songs are bad. It's just that I find that my theme gets supported by the last two songs. The redemption for the record is in the last two songs. And that's ultimately what I want people to understand. Everything else is leading up to the closing. At the end of "The Ghost Story," you get the entirety of the conflict but you also get resolution. That's not to say that the songs before are worse. They're intended to kind of lead you into what happens next. It's not a concept record. It's really just meant to be like scenes gliding into each other. But of course with language and melody, you have an arc to the story.
Mike: It is like a story, isn't it. You really focused hard on this one.
Matthew: You know, conviction and perseverance is a decision. It really is. That's what those songs kind of conclude.
Mike: There are a couple of records that do that as well. Are you a Tom Waits fan?
Matthew: I am.
Mike: His album The Heart Of Saturday Night is one of my favorite albums. He technically ends it with "The Ghosts of Saturday Night," but he actually ends the album on the song before. The last song is the cleanup. Why I was thinking that this is my favorite Matthew Ryan album is because it's not set up like a concept album, but by the time you reach the end, it feels like you've been on a journey.
Matthew: In some ways, yeah. Have you seen Cinema Paradiso?
Mike: Many times. I like the longer version.
Matthew: I watched the original edited version. It could have just ended at the funeral, but no, it was far more beautiful, you know? The point being that you have to go through something in order to feel something.
Mike: A few of your songs have frequented television. Which was the most surprising use of one of your songs?
Matthew: There have been some surprises, like when they used, "They Were Wrong" in some episode about jockeys. That was really strange. But I haven't really watched that show, so I didn't know really the arc of the story. It just struck me funny. That song's just about growing up Catholic. I grew up in an Irish-Italian neighborhood just outside of Philly. I feel real affection for these things.
Mike: What was your favorite use of a song?
Matthew: I think my favorite was for a show with Neil McDonough, the actor from Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. Well, he was also in a show for a little bit called, Medical Investigation on NBC. This was one of the most organic ones that happened, and it was a real surprise 'cause I only found out after the fact. I happened to have just gotten back from touring and had it on, and all of a sudden, my song, "Irrelevant," from my first record came on. This was only a couple of years ago. I was like, "How the hell did that happen? How is it that I don't know about it?"
What happened was that Neil McDonaugh was going through a rough spot and fell in love with the Mayday record. Apparently, he really identified with the cover of that record which is this funny picture of me in front of my house watering the lawn. His character was going through a divorce, and he was taking the ring off. They wanted to put on some standard type jazz record, but he's like "That's not what I would do. It's not what this character would do." He said, "No. He would put this on." So, he actually got the record out of his car, and brought it in. It was really cool to hear that. When it's something that genuine, that's cool. And there've been a lot of 'em. So I don't mean to just focus on that... Mark Schwahn, who wrote for One Tree Hill, has been an incredible supporter, too.
Mike: What's your advice for new or up-and-coming artists that are trying to find their way?
Matthew: I'd say when you start out, you're going to be naïve. And that's beautiful. More than likely, you're not going to be the exception, so you're going to get challenged. That can be beautiful too. Then you're going to have a choice. Give up or be brave. And you should be brave. That's what I would say. Because that's really the way it is, you know? You have to decide how much you really want it, 'cause it's changed so much, and it 's going to continue to change. So hopefully what happens is the artists persevere
Mike: Why, hello Molly Thomas who just coincidentally appeared in this Midwestern Mexican restaurant where I was interviewing Matthew Ryan. Are there any particular songs on this album that moved you the most, either as a player or just a listener?
Molly Thomas: I think "Your Museum" is my favorite. I love that song. It's beautiful.
Mike: Are there times when you played on this record where you became aware that the level of quality spiked?
Molly: Yeah, on that song, I REALLY enjoyed that one. It's sort of Leonard Cohen-esque. I felt Leonard Cohen kind of entering the room.
Mike: We had a discussion about Leonard earlier. If there was one thing you could tell Matt about his music, what would that be?
Molly: Oh gosh. Well I like his complexity in his lyrics and the simplicity of his music. The juxtaposition between the two. That speaks to me. I'm not as elaborate as he his.