Spirited #3 [Archive: Museum of Innocents]
Interview with Audrey Ryan
by Amanda Maciel Antunes
Audrey Ryan is living her own American dream. The one-woman-band has replaced quintessential grown-up wants and needs with concert tours, recording sessions and a music career. When Audrey’s not honing her craft in Boston, she is taking her spontaneous lifestyle and eclectic musical sound on the road. Hailed as an avant-rocker front-woman, she has the steam and enthusiasm to live up to the hype. We talked about being one of most personable artists imaginable, growing up, having beers with Beth Orton, and moving on. Admittedly the musician’s life is not for everyone, but it certainly seems to suit her just fine.
I want to get a feel for where you came from. I know you started at a young age; have you always wanted to perform?
I’ve always had music in my life. My parents played music, Dad guitar, Mom organ and piano. It was a musical household. I haven’t always wanted to perform but I’ve always wanted to play music in some capacity, over the years performing has just becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life because it’s the only way to share your music besides recording.
And where did you live with you parents?
I’m originally from coastal Maine, Mount Desert Island; it remains a large part of my identity. I still live in Maine every summer for about ten weeks, I have a small summer shack there, and that is where I do most of my writing and decompressing from city life. It’s what I look forward to all year long, that time to myself in the place I come from.
I always have my mouth full when describing you work, because you play solo with so many instruments and manage to sound like a full band. How would you describe your work?
I call myself a multi-instrumentalist, one-man-band, singer-songwriter. That is the short version. I play lots of instruments, sometimes at the same time, like I loop guitar and then play drum parts over it and then sing. I also play accordion, banjo, ukulele, piano, synth, violin, ect…As for a genre, I’m somewhere between folk, experimental, psychadelic, rock or anything in between. Early influences include Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bert Jansch, John Fahey, and Bob Dylan. Modern influences include Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead, Wilco, and Arcade Fire. I think of myself as being “eclectic” if anything…
What’s it like to be a rare one-show-woman in the music business?
It’s certainly interesting, some people assume that I must not work well with others and that is why I’m a solo artist…that isn’t true. I work fine with others. I’ve played in several bands. I play solo because the “one-man-band” model is where my music seems to thrive the most. I create a band sound from one person; I love that concept. Plus I get to tour way more than I would if I was in a band. And even better yet, because it’s just me, I actually tend to make money instead of lose money like most bands. So it’s a musical model as well as a financial model.
In your music you express the emotions a lot of people internalize – that’s got to be hard. Are there some things that you feel like you have to hold close to your heart instead?
It’s funny, when my music gets ‘personal’ people are either drawn in or shy away. Most people are drawn in by personal confessions within the lyrics. But my Dad on the other hand, hates my personal lyrics and prefers the vague references that are generalized. It’s kind of funny how people interpret that emotion and what it means to them, let alone what it means to you. Music can be really cathartic if you let it be. If you write a really good song about a feeling or emotion, or about a breakup or a tragedy, you get a lot off your chest. But if all my material was like that it might be too much. So it’s here and there throughout my records.
You’re also compared with Joni Mitchell and Aimee Mann. In my opinion, yes, you have a little bit of both in your performances, but I also feel that your performances have this ‘First Time’ memory scanner every time, there is something about it that puts me at ease. Is it something you’re aware of?
I’ve been told many times that I have my own sound, whatever that is. Of course, that is my goal, to be original, find my own sound, and not just be a watered down version of someone who is already famous. I’m aware that music hits people on different levels, not everyone gets what I do, but people who do get it tend to say that it has ambient moments that remind them of a dream. Other people think it sounds like a movie soundtrack (guess it depends on the movie)! In any case, I think I’ve veered away from the normal and safe, and tried to explore ideas and challenge myself with new instruments and song structures that are not conventional, even if the result is sometimes weird.
I think originality and creativity goes hand in hand with what you do. Do you feel creatively fulfilled or are their other endeavors, talents, or aspirations you feel you need to explore?
I like to write and that is my other way to creatively express myself. I usually write autobiographical stories about traveling and such, it can be really fun, also cathartic. Otherwise, music is definitely my medium and outlet, it’s quite frankly what I’m best at.
You just released “Thick Skin,”it’s your third album correct? Your CD release party was a huge success, I was overwhelmed by the sounds of the full band you gathered around you. I think it was the first time I ever saw you with a band. It was really beautiful. Is “Thick Skin” really about relationships you had, or do you channel the work outside of your own experiences?
“Thick Skin” is about a lot of things. More specifically loneliness, nostalgia, and of course, relationships. There are a lot of songs about coming to grips with being at a point in your life where things just are not panning out and you have to either become jaded and bitter, or get over it and move on. A lot of my songs have been about that over the past couple years, cause the music business is more than tough, it’s punishing sometimes. It makes no sense, you can give everything you have into it and it will spit back on you. So some songs are just about my own personal process of finding a way to love music whilst simultaneously hating the music business, and building a lifestyle that wouldn’t make me miserable. Once again music can be really cathartic in a life process like that. I think I’m almost on the other side of wherever I was, because I’m a lot happier now, and I genuinely like the music I make, and I don’t really care what other people think anymore.
A lot of your work has themes of loss, breaking apart, nostalgia and of course, hope. It’s obviously something that’s really important to you, and probably helps drive some of the dialogue of the work. How do you feel your process and the themes in your work have progressed over the years? Do you usually come up with a theme for an album early in the writing stages?
I don’t usually have a theme for records. I generally just pick a song title that fits the overall mood the most and go with it. I’m not the kind of person who sits down and writes ten songs that relate to each other. I write when I’m inspired, the songs come from different places. The most they’ve related to each other is on my album “I Know, I Know.” They were almost all loop songs, so there was a similar musical theme throughout. I think I’ll do that again soon because I like that concept. But the theme is more likely to be musical than lyrical, I can’t even explain how I write lyrics, it’s an odd process of finding a concept each time.
What’s your favorite place that you have been on tour so far? And were there any star-struck moments while touring?
I love playing in Paris but that’s just ‘cause I love Paris. My star-struck moment happened in November in Dublin, Ireland when I played a show with this guy Sam Amidon, and the special guests that night were Beth Orton, Glen Hansard, and Damien Rice. I met and hung out with them all, drank beers, and they all said they loved my music. It was really gratifying to have people who have had a ton of success in the music business tell me they like what I do.
What do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment?
Touring internationally, making several records, writing hundreds of songs. I guess just growing constantly musically has been my biggest accomplishment, as where I started and where I’m at now are night and day. I’m such a better musician now than I was then and it’s because I never gave up or settled for a certain sound, or got lazy and made boring records that I thought other people would like.
What song do you think everyone should hear?
I just listened to Joni Mitchell’s record “For the Roses,” which I hadn’t heard in years and I fell right back in love with her and her lyrics. There are so many good songs on that record but listen to “Barangrill” or the title track; they are all amazing. I truly believe she is the best singer-songwriter of all time.
Now, say the first thing that kind of comes to mind, cool? What makes you innocent?
My staggering love for my home state, Maine, I love Maine like I love my family. It’s such a large part of my identity and where I find my inspiration. It keeps me young to love where I’m from, all those memories and nostalgia, all that connection and history. I feel a lot of innocence when I’m in my small house near the ocean and take a walk in the woods or on the shore and have no expectations, no ambition, no agenda. That’s the best feeling I know.