Over the Wires : Matthew Ryan

As I noted late last week, today is the first installment of Over the Wires, a new series where I find myself fortunate enough to share correspondence with musicians, folks in policy, writers, and just about anyone I think would be interesting to hear from.

I first heard Matthew Ryan's music in 1998 or so. I was at a friend's apartment in Brooklyn, and before we even exchanged greetings he was raving about this new artist. We sat down, and I was introduced to the beautiful songs that make up Ryan's debut, May Day. Every song on the record resonated, but there were a few that still stand as some of the most powerful songs I've ever heard, most notably "Chrome" ("It's not the fact that you walked out, that bewilders me. It's not the sleep that I can't steal, that wires me.") and "Lights of the Commodore Barry". And although these are my favorites, as a whole, this is one of the best records of the 1990's.

I've bought everything Ryan has released to date, and it was this year's Matthew Ryan Vs The Silver State that once again reminded me that the unison of storytelling and rock n' roll is what makes Ryan's music so enduring. Just like Springsteen, Dylan and Drake, Ryan has a keen ability to make songs more than just songs. They bring you inside the world of others and even one's self and fill the listener with imagery, understanding and honesty.

Over the Wires : Matthew Ryan

You've been on numerous labels, both big and small, over your eleven years releasing records. Given the current state of the music industry, how has the landscape played out for you?

Well, things are quietly, slowly getting better. My live show in particular is seeing growth. Which is beautiful, because that's where the real intimacy is. I believe good music is as relevant and valuable to people's lives as ever. I know it is for me. The only thing that bothers me today is the cultish nature of so much music. I grew up thinking that good music could and should overthrow pop music from time to time. It should come up from the underground and win by virtue and honest resonance or new creativity. That seems even harder to do these days. I feel it's important for music to unify and connect people. I'd like to try and figure out how that can be possible again. Today, things often feel too segmented or exclusive or simply niche. I always liked how music identified or connected my thoughts to others as a listener and an artist.

It seems that you've perfectly bookmarked your career to date. In a sense, your debut and your latest are both major creative accomplishments. How do you view your overall catalog?

Hmmmm. I'm both proud and disappointed by my work to date. I want to write the great American novel. I thought I could write and sing a song for everyone. Sometimes I feel that I have, but then I'm daunted or dogged by the notion that the world doesn't want it or need it or even worse that marketing is the sole god of relevance today. I don't know. I have only wanted to do exactly what I meant to do every time I sat down to write, or sing or step into a studio. In some ways I'm always trying to save the world. I'm eternally optimistic. For me though, every record has a thread through it, every record is conceptual on some level. It's the songs and what excites me at the time that makes them sound one way or another. My hope is to only capture or express their weather as best I can. I just hope people continue to find my songs, I hope they continue to somehow find them inside the enormous avalanche that is entertainment and art today.

How did the political atmosphere over the past year or so play into the writing on Matthew Ryan Vs The Silver State?

Well, I started writing political songs, overtly political songs for Regret Over The Wires just after the 2000 election. I'm not a fan of trickle down economics. I'm also not a fan of inherited opportunity. I believe society is best served by a well-educated population; competition and innovation is then at it's optimum. I'm also not a fan of fortunes made on scarcity, war and disease. We're gonna have to re-think how we live, how we consume. Our role as American consumers make us complicit in so much that undermines the world's and our own well-being, safety and health. It's time we realize consumption is a political activity. Engaged and informed consumers won't make the same decisions. Sustainability has to be a priority. I also don't like the notion that some lives are more important than others. In America, wealth gets you better health care, a safer car, a better school, a safer neighborhood. Marketing and political science has divided people into simple categories that can be targeted and manipulated. It's disgusting and doesn't serve a greater good. People are complex, every one dreams, I'd like to see a world where everyone has a shot and a voice.

How do you feel about albums vs. singles in today's world? MRVSS plays like a collection of rockers and ballads, and sounds like it should be listened to as a whole.

Hmmmmm. I understand why it's like that. But I wouldn't just read a page or a chapter from a great book. I want to absorb the whole thing. I want to wonder what happened to the characters the days after the story ended. The cynical or despairing side of me might say that marketing has won. But people are so inundated with information and crap, it's sensory overload, it's a great flood while a blizzard unloads every day. The world today is so quick now, things that offer the most saccharine or explosive are the things that break through. I think art and entertainment are at war. Right now entertainment is winning. But there's no real peace there. Art will win again eventually.

Who are your favorite artists making music today?

Joe Henry, Joesph Arthur, Lucinda Williams, Frightened Rabbit and The Constantines.... And by the standards of what I said above, Katy Perry of course.

What did you think of the election?

I thought it was beautiful. Absolutely inspiring. And now the real work begins. But I have to say, one thing that has frustrated me during this period between presidents - the news is finally completely engaged. And there's this palpable anxiety and countless segments every night on what will Obama do to fix the mess we're in. I find this wildly annoying because where were these fuckers when they should've been riding Bush's ass for the last 8 years while all this great undoing was getting done? I mean, why was our press so silent? Hell, why were we so silent?

What are your plans for 2009?

I'm currently writing. My hope is to have a new record finished by February, early March. Hopefully the new record will be out by fall next year. I have a pretty ambitious idea for how I would like to release this record, so we'll see. As far as the rest of the year, I'll continue to work hard. I'm sure there will be some surprises, some successes and some heart breaks... But you know, that's how it goes. I love new years.

Ryan's homepage