Falling Leaves and Autumn Artistry
Autumn is Ryan’s favorite season, and he just gifted the world a stellar collection of songs called Fallen Ash & Embers. It’s quiet, somber, and reflective, but the EP stands defiant against the current state of affairs. Ryan is, as always, interested in reaching the heart and mind of the listener, but this release is also interested in what’s next. How will the listener’s interpretation of the music and words shape the world?
It’s heady stuff, but most art is just that. Ryan and I talked about the seasons, burn out, the stakes of being a DIY artist, and… even a little bit about Pat Benatar.
NewsWhistle: The last time I reviewed something of yours was 2017’s Hustle Up Starlings. So, what’s been happening since then?
Matthew Ryan: There’s the stuff of life… I’ve always felt that on some fundamental levels it’s important to keep our lives separate from our public offerings. There’s a lot of information in the songs themselves, but it’s not diary writing. We moved a couple of years ago from Pennsylvania back to Tennessee, and I toured about five years, on and off, and luckily I had experienced burn out once before. So, I knew what I was feeling. Last October, I got home from the last tour in support of Starlings, [2016’s] Boxers and Starlings kind of blurred together. It was essentially almost five years of touring, three times in the UK, a couple of times in Canada, all across the U.S., and that may not sound like a lot to people, but I strongly suggest that if you don’t think that is a lot just get in your car, and do it for a few weeks. I was burned out, so I made this decision that I was going to come home, and just focus on being creative. This year I’ve just been releasing songs, and collections of songs, as they come. It’s not going to be my mode going forward, but I have to tell you, Chad, it’s been an incredibly healthy way to live.
NW: How would you describe your music? How does it sound?
MR: That’s a great question, and you can probably answer it better than I can. It’s a bit like that movie, Memento, where every time I create something I don’t gather any previous information from what I thought somebody heard… I can’t really talk to what I think people hear. What I hope they hear is somebody that has no interest in salesmanship. I have zero patience for it. I have no desire to pretend that we’re supermen and superwomen. We’re beautiful and fractured creatures that do the very best we can. I read, years ago, this quote by Seamus Heaney that I took to heart. What he said was, “great music is the music of what happens,” and what he meant by “music” is all the dissonance and harmony, and the way we move through our lives, but I took it literally that great music is the music of what happens. That’s what I aspire to, and while I can’t anticipate what one hears, I hope that what they feel is being communicated is some sort of lean for some kind of persevering honesty toward the better.
NW: See now, since you sort of asked me what you sound like, I would just say, “It’s only rock and roll, but I like it.”
MR: I appreciate that, man. There is a new song that I wrote called “The Ballad of Rock and Roll” that kind of speaks directly to what you just said, and that will be out at some point. I do love what you said there. If only I could be so concise!
NW: As for Fallen Ash & Embers, and your music in general, weather seems very important. Can you talk about that?
MR: You know, man… Everybody has got their favorite season, and the season that tests us. I’m always surprised to meet people who absolutely love summer. I find summer to be a necessary obstacle to autumn. I love winter as well. I grudgingly accept that spring and summer have to happen, so that plants can regenerate, and we can eat. I would venture to guess that, for me, autumn is such a connected time because so many big events in my life happened in that time of year. As we move through our lives, we sort of collect anniversaries, and those anniversaries tend to ignite us or break us open.
NW: The first song on the new EP, “Are You the Matador?” is pretty striking.
MR: Life forces you to try on different hats and clothes and masks, all in an effort to find out exactly who you are. Sometimes you have to be willing to see who you are in the context of something that is seemingly beyond your reach. With that one, a few of the new ones are collaborations. That music was created by my good friend, Doug Lancio, and it couldn’t have happened in more magical or easy of fashions. We had done that last tour together, where I finally realized I was done touring for a while. When I got home after a couple of days off, I wrote that poem, “Are You the Matador?”. I went over to Doug’s and he had this incredible noir-ish Spanish music, and it was almost as if we had been in the room together. I told him, “I have a poem that I think will fit with that.” At the moment he wasn’t necessarily offering it to me, but I gave it a shot, and we both loved it. It’s humbling, man! My career and presence is, you know, subterranean. It allows me to enjoy these experiments. I’m lucky that I have a bunch of listeners that are supportive, and they want to experience things that are not to be expected.
NW: Is “Matador” a quiet protest, or even fight song?
MR: There is a thread that runs through these songs. I wish I could give you an easy answer, but the bottom line is that self-radicalization is like mental illness. When people self-radicalize with information, they are not willingly acting “crazy.” They’ve gone down a road that they believe to be true. I think what that kind of activity lacks is curiosity beyond one’s own perceptions. “Matador” is an indictment of narcissism. In that way, it is somewhat of, I wish it were easier to explain, it’s almost like a black comedy which in some ways is a protest. I don’t want to dehumanize people who have self-radicalized themselves. It’s a fine line, and I don’t think it crosses into any kind of mean spiritedness. I’ll never forget. I was dealing with a crazy person in my band at one point, and my best friend [Brian] Bequette said, “crazy never asks themselves if they’re crazy.” Narcissists and self-radicalized people never ask themselves if they are self-radicalized. A fundamentalist doesn’t ask themselves if they are a fundamentalist. Unfortunately, with the way people engage with information these days, there are lot of people who are not asking themselves if they have been self-radicalized. If perception is reality, and the world is what you see, you should be more curious about the world that you don’t see. We are profoundly lacking in curiosity.
NW: Reflecting on the lyric “are you a third thing?”(not the matador or the bull), that makes perfect sense.
MR: It’s funny. This brief collection I am about to offer is the most Randy Newman collection of work I’ve ever done. The great thing about Randy Newman is that he is like a great actor. He is able to tell you without telling you that he is being ironic, or that there is a dark comedy going on. I kind of lack that humor in my delivery, but there is a part in these songs that is trying to understand this madness. I put less and less meaning on my life online. I really think that we are at our worst there. I think it is destructive not only to those who participate, but those who read. Even on levels in which we think we are doing good work, I think it operates dangerously because it is the opposite of intimacy. The voices in our head are no longer our own. I am very, very curious how we are going to move past this.
NW: That’s a scary thing to ponder.
MR: We have a lot issues that need to be confronted, but as far as our shared humanity, and our participation in a working economy and a sense of loyalty to each other’s well-being, the number one thing that is destroying the glue is this way we are processing information alone while embodying other peoples’ voices. We’re reacting, and we’re living in dissonance.
NW: Skipping ahead to the last track [at the time of the interview], “The Last Event,” and the line, “we’re just boats that sink while falling in love with the ocean” is just devastating. It’s like the musical version of On the Beach.
MR: That’s a beautiful thing to say, and it is what I would hope to hear, not because I want you to be devastated, but sharing a song like that is very difficult because there is nothing getting in the way with what it is saying. There is no shell game or heroics. If we’re lucky, our songs can intimate our relationships with hope, relationships with romance, relationships with trust, and our relationships simply with each other. One of the threads in this short collection is our own undoing with our inability to reevaluate our constitutions. I’m talking about our internal constitutions.
NW: The second track, “Warm Lightning,” is gorgeous, and seems like a real uncomplicated, lived-in, and realistic love song. Is it the “happiest” song of the bunch?
MR: [lots of laughter] It is! I can assure you – it is.
NW: There’s no shortage of pain and weirdness in the world, so a song like “Warm Lightning” reassures you that maybe we’re not so far gone.
MR: It’s the only thing that matters, man. When you say that, I don’t hear you just talking about “Warm Lightning.” I hear you talking about songs like that. I remember first hearing [Neil Young’s] “Unknown Legend,” and being so grateful that it existed because it felt pure. “Everybody Hurts” by REM. Those pure songs that speak to the uncomplicated parts of what motivate us. It’s how we achieve the things that motivate us where things get complicated. I included “Warm Lightning” because love and our commitments to each other, whether you’re talking about two people or a family or you’re talking about a country, it’s the only thing that matters: to have an interest in the well-being of the other. That is how this works, the only way this works. We are villainizing each other as if we don’t breathe and eat and occupy a small rock hurtling through space. It’s absolute madness, when the only the only thing that matters are the commitments we make to each other and honor.
NW: What do you think about the place of art in this time in history?
MR: I think we are at an intersection where entertainment and ideas of empowerment through success are being misunderstood as art. Art has no interest in those things. I’m not saying the artist doesn’t, but art itself does not have an interest in analytics or engagement. Art hopefully exists in a place where it visits somebody who is capable of writing it down, and then singing it and sharing it. Almost more importantly is a listener hearing something and thinking to themselves, “that’s exactly how I feel.” That’s what art does. Entertainment and fake empowerment is really just about extraction… And it’s about escape. Not all art is dark. We live in a time where we have generations that have been targeted and marketed to to have certain expectations about what they think music is or what they think is a book or what they think is a story. That’s not to say that some of those books and some of those stories and some of those songs don’t lean on some of the great truths, but something happens when it is offered to create profit.
NW: In general, though, in terms of the marketplace and art, and how they interact, is this a glass half-full or half-empty time?
MR: I think when things are out of whack, you have an opportunity to right things – R-I-G-H-T. You have an opportunity to adjust things. It’s always a glass half-full. As long as you’re here, it’s a glass half-full. I believe that art is a humanitarian cause, and maybe that is because in some way rock and roll and punk rock and great songwriters like Leonard Cohen saved me.
NW: Given what you said earlier, do you have plans on touring in support of Fallen Ash & Embers?
MR: At this moment, I don’t. I’m just really enjoying living and creating. Being a DIY artist requires an incredible amount of detail to a lot of moving parts that really are boring. I’m not whining. I’m just saying that by not touring I have so much more space to live and be present and be creative. I’m really enjoying it.
NW: Last question to tie everything together, what’s your favorite Pat Benatar song?
MR: I’ve got to say that I don’t think I knew how good of a song it was when I was a kid, but I think “Love is a Battlefield” is a great song, man.
NW: You’re the best, that’s a great song.
MR: I’ve gotten the impression that she is an actual bad ass.
NW: I think you’re right! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, and I hope that we can talk in the future.
MR: Thank you, man. We will. Take care.
Fallen Ash & Embers was released October 4th, and is available on Amazon, Matthew Ryan’s Bandcamp site, and wherever else you are looking for great digital music. Please note that, being the cheeky monkey that he is, he added a fourth song, “Avalanche of Stars” [featuring Kate York and Mack Starks], to the EP as available on Bandcamp.
- Ryan Portrait – Credit: Mike Dunn;
- Album Cover – Credit: Joe Maiocco; and
- Avalanche of Stars – Credit: Joe Maiocco.