11/18/2013 04:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Absolute Freedom is Loneliness: The Life of Singer Matthew Ryan


At 41, grainy voiced singer/songwriter Matthew Ryan's career comes with a catch.

The issue for Ryan is not how to cultivate his mind, which he does whenever possible, but to find ways to free it from loneliness. In Ryan's case, as strange as it sounds, it's the loneliness of being faithful to his ideals that stirs problems. Not for him. But, well, for others.

Ryan's mind is busy without end. He is absorbed in his work. If he were a traveler, he would eternally be walking alone in the desert. Not desperate for people or conversation. Not desperate for attention. But, perhaps, ready for a bit more acknowledgment.

"I have a tremendous amount of faith in my work," says Ryan. "That hasn't changed. That hasn't changed since I was 20 or even 40. But I can't imbue the creative process with those thoughts of success or recognition, because if I did, I'd never do useful work. I choose creativity over all else. Creating something is rewarding and harrowing at the same time. It's about creating something beautiful that people can return to."

Ryan's catalogue is beautiful and extensive. Ryan's songs could not be any more personal, with tormented, self-expressive diaries such as "Time and Time Only," "Lonely Not Homesick," "It Always Rains When You Miss Her," and "I Hate Everyone." Devotion to musical practice for Ryan means picking out and cleaning the seed that is covered with the chaff of loneliness and darkness. The pain of this purifying loneliness and the bliss of being freed from it are special states understood only by those who have cleansed loneliness from their minds.

When it comes to revealing the deeply personal, Ryan sounds as if he's singing in the stripped down environs of his living room with no one else near.

"My words and music are a response to those things that move me and that I love," says Ryan. "You have to love your times. It's not about being current or relevant. I love music that seems to share one characteristic -- and that's honesty. Our sense of truthfulness depends on our own point of view. I'm my own engine, and I let in those things that move me. It really goes back to the creativity thing. I'm hoping to be creative as long as I'm here."


If Matthew Ryan's truths were mile markers, the road was paved in 1997 with "May Day," led to artistic transcendence in 2000 with "East Autumn Grin," and widened with "In The Dusk of Everything," released in 2012.

Ryan's vocals smooth the listener's faltering mind and the lyrics to his strongest songs are as illuminating as having a stranger provide a bright lamp when you are lost.

Often if you are too close to something you can't see its virtues. But in Ryan's case the more he sticks to his virtues -- such as the honest surrendering the soul -- the clearer his art becomes.

"I stick to what my gut tells me," says Ryan. "We make choices in life and I've chosen to do what I do. And I never feel more alive than when there is that certain magic in a venue, or when I'm sharing that experience."

There is an old adage that says 'Love is like war: easy to begin but very hard to stop.' Apply that metaphor to music and you can get a feel of Ryan's artistic pull, which includes the irresistible logic of trying to follow his own set of sensibilities.

"One of the mistakes I guess I've made in my career is that I've done whatever makes sense to me," says Ryan. "Not what makes sense to others. It's almost like a compulsion. I don't think about commerce. It can be deadly to let those types of ideas in."

Ryan's philosophy as a songwriter is simple: surrender to every arising thought, good or bad.

"Yeah, it's a mood, not a decision, it just sort of happens -- the songwriting. It's an intersection of clarity, no past, just a certain understanding in a particular moment. There are times when I try to write but I can't write. Art, I think, isn't something you think about. When it's available, I access it. Some of those thoughts just aren't going to be available twenty minutes from now."

Ryan's reality is predicated on his ability to capitalize on the lure and passion of a new perspective, the yank of a fresh opportunity.

"Reality to me is something that I think pulls me forward," says Ryan. "You know, I can't describe it in an academic way. There is a mysterious, three-dimensional angle to my work. Rarely are the events just about one thing. Humans are complex, but we operate in simple plots."

Ryan, who lives outside of Pittsburgh, in a "pretty river town," is alternately grateful and disappointed with his status. He realizes that where the sun shines its brightest, the shadow is darkest. He understands that the good signs -- the positive ratings of his records, the buzz generated from loyalists who hear the poetry in his message -- are not coincidental or random. He's worked hard at the craft. He works hard with the intention of evaluating -- and perhaps, most importantly, raising -- levels of self-awareness in his life.

Every now and again, though, on a calm night when he is watching the moonlight, Ryan feels as if something is missing.

"I don't know, but there is a part of me that wants more," says Ryan. "What I need to do is to spend time figuring out what 'more' means. It could be more cultural impact or more security, or more of something else."

Ultimately, art and life are deeply intertwined parallels, says Ryan. And some of those similarities include the need to find livable ways to move forward, the innate desire to lean toward balance and happiness, and unrestricted immersion in the beauty and depth of the moment.

Indeed, to Ryan, music is as much about the dedication of principles as it is about the acceptance of the fleeting result.

"Things are changing," says Ryan. "In some ways, as far as my career goes, it's exactly what I had in mind, and, in other ways, it's not quite so. I guess that is a great metaphor for life."