Kelley Ryan is that rare musician and songwriter who is perfectly happy to just live in her studio for hours on end, experimenting with sounds, laying down music and vocal tracks of inspiring, breathtakingly revelatory and intimate song craft for its own sake.
Yes, she takes those masterpieces and shares them with the world through her albums, but the contentment and fulfillment for her is from the creative process – to the point where she rarely performs live.
Her most recent release, the seductively enthralling album Telescope, is recorded in such an almost quiet and cozy vibe that is sounds as if Ryan is sitting right beside you, as her voice takes on a whispy, ethereal tone. For her worldwide network of fans – and those who will soon become fans – it is an evocative recording, one that will earn multiple listens in order to grasp its full emotional depth.
“I am trying to sound grounded and solid on this album. I do try to almost pose the song within a single emotion or a single thought and hone it down as simply as possible without being too boring. Instead of taking my ideas of going off into space and going loud and big, I prefer to go in down deep into subtlety and quiet,” Ryan said from her home in Palm Springs, where she spends half her year. The other half is spent in a sleepy rural setting in the Irish countryside near Cork.
“It’s meant to be kind of intimate, like I am signing right to you as an individual listener. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I was putting the songs together. For me, anyways, a lot of times when playing live that aspect gets lost because maybe the person in the audience is looking at the person on stage and they are feeling a one-to-one relationship. But when you are on stage and you see a bunch of people out in front of you, to me it’s so confusing because it’s more about that one to one. So I go out of my way to make the record the way I did with Telescope because I want that personal connection with each listener.”
Ryan’s music career is prodigious and eclectic and stems back more than 20 years when she was writing and recording a more harder edged (yet no less evocative) sound under the banner astroPuppees. Since 2010, not long after moving to Palm Springs, she and her producer/co-writer/friend Don Dixon noticed her music was become more sedate and acoustic oriented, and he convinced Ryan to release any new material under her own name. And this is what she has done ever since.
“I have never wanted to be a pop star. It’s always been about the songs for me. What I have always wanted is to be able to play and write with people and work with people that I respect. I think songwriters and musicians are the biggest groupies of all because they want to be able to hang out and work with their peers, which many of us believe is the ultimate thing for your creativity. And I have been doing that for 20 years, so I do feel like I got what I have always wanted,” Ryan said of her overall approach to her music.
“Anybody who puts work out there and feels satisfaction in releasing it – that’s good, and that’s kind of how I have always felt. To me, it’s never been about the commercial aspect of it. The concepts of money and sales are so far outside my realm and always have been. I do it because I feel compelled to do it as part of my existence. It’s my life. I am a studio rat and I use my studio as I would my guitar to write the songs. Success to me is about putting the record out. Telescope is my eighth and I feel like every time it’s a little better and a few more people get to hear and that’s great; that’s all I am looking for.
She compared her decision to eschew touring and playing lots of live shows to how a visual artist works.
“I make records. Making records and playing live are opposite urges to me. It’s great if you can be bold and some people can do one better than the other. Some can make a great record and be just terrible live, and some people are the opposite. To me, an album is a thing that you record and put together for people to listen to whenever they want to, without you as the artist sitting there waiting for them to clap for you. It’s a better and more intimate way to connect with people. It’s like I say to people who advise me to go out and play more, why don’t you get the painter who painted that great painting you love to come out on a stage and repaint that painting for you. To me, it’s the same thing as playing your album live,” Ryan explained.
“It’s something that’s been done – the work has been completed. It’s like a love letter, it’s a diary or a book. Sometimes I think people who get caught up in both performing and writing, or make a record solely so they can go out on the road and perform it, limit their own creativity in the studio. Because the focus is on playing the songs live, they’re not going to do a lot of stuff that they don’t think they can recreate with their guitars, bass and drums.
“For me it’s all about intimacy and connection. I am a simple songwriter and try to just communicate through my recordings. Like, to me it’s so wonderful to think that you were sitting there in the rain in Ontario, Canada and listening to my record. That’s just about as good as it gets for me – way better than sitting on a stage and singing and having everybody clap. I know that’s sort of against the grain of most musicians, but it’s the path that’s right for me.”
Ryan grew up in Oregon, the daughter of a radio DJ who eventually ended up owning his own small radio station. So music was always an integral part of her life, and she was able to regularly dip into her father’s record library for inspiration and entertainment.
“He bought me my first guitar when I was 12 and I fell in love with it. And my God there are so many artists I have been influenced by over the years. My very favourite person in the world of all time is Ella Fitzgerald even though I don’t really sing like her at all. When I first started playing and writing I pretty much fell into that golden triad of Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell and Carole King. I soaked all of that up and at 19 went to Los Angeles and I got a job at Capitol Records and then I got a job at a publishing company. I married the boss and we have been married for ever and ever. I am married to a human jukebox, so I never lack for music,” she said.
Each song on Telescope has its own unique flavour and sees Ryan collaborating with many of her musical pals.
“The song Real Gone Girl I actually started to write with my friend Jesse Valenzuela who I have worked with before, and he is in the Gin Blossoms. They are doing a new record which Don Dixon is also producing, and I started out writing this song with Jesse for that project. But then they decided to change course a bit, but Jesse thought it was a great song and that I should finish it and record it for my album. So I finished it up, changed the pronouns and slapped it on Telescope,” she said.
“Save Me I wrote with Kimm Rogers and she is a wonderful musician. She and I were emailing and chatting online, we never actually got together in person, and we wrote the song that way. We were just going back and forth with theories about basically how crazy everything is and what’s life all about. So the song is asking does one these philosophies, one of these religions, one of these ideas eventually come and save us. All of them have good ideas, but which is the ‘one.’
“Broken News is the first song I wrote for the record and in fact I was going to call the record Broken News originally. I was flying back to New York from Ireland for the mastering sessions with Don Dixon and Marti Jones who also helped produce the album. A whole bunch of us buddies always get together to celebrate the completion of an album and it was Nov. 9 and we were all completely devastated by the result of the [U.S. presidential] election and how horrible it was. Broken News was going to be the name, but all of a sudden we have all this real broken news, everything was ‘breaking’ news. I thought people were going to think the album was political, so I decided not to call it Broken News,” she said.
“But the song itself started with a melody. A friend of mine’s mom was ill and she was taking care of her and I loved the melody and thought it suited that situation so that’s what the song is about – it’s a love song about a love that’s just so pure. It’s the most pure love song on there and maybe the most pure love song I have ever written.”
Ryan is happy with the results of her creative labours and is excited for people to hear Telescope. She is at a bit of a loss to explain how people are discovering her music, although it is played on some satellite and internet stations and has been lauded by some music bloggers. Regardless, she is happy that people are listening and as long as they are, and as long as the muse keeps so persistently pushing her forward, Ryan will continue to write and record music that is undeniably riveting in its honesty, memorable in its melodies and insistently charming.
“My music is definitely not for everybody. From what I can see I don’t have a specific demographic. I have a lot of music pals instead. Every record has seemingly done better than the previous one and for some reason Telescope has already done better than anything else. And that’s funny to me because it is such a quiet record than all the others, especially now when everything in music and life seems so loud. But I guess they’re looking for that sort of quiet stillness,” she said.
“They are finding it and I am glad they’re finding it.”
For more information on Kelley Ryan and Telescope, visit www.kelleyryan.net.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.