Interview: Matthew Ryan

Photo by Chad Cochran
Words by Daniel Rourke

Matthew Ryan's career has been somewhat of a winding road. The Pensylvania-born singer has gone from releasing his debut record on a major label to a DIY artist with two decades under his belt. 

Along the way, Ryan has shared the stage with household names such as Paul Weller, to upcoming punk outfits such as The Menzingers. But despite the impressive touring CV, it was Ryan's ability to write a sincerely beautiful track that began to turn heads, and it was within his songwriting that he struck up a friendship with The Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon. 

Several years on, Ryan is now gearing up to take to the stage with The Gaslight Anthem on the UK leg of their 'The '59 Sound' ten-year anniversary tour, a tour that will see him play in front of some of the biggest international audiences of his career. We caught up with Matthew Ryan to discuss touring with The Gaslight Anthem, his career, and his side-project, The Summer Kills

Burn After Writing: First of all, you’re gearing up for your UK tour with The Gaslight Anthem at the end of the month. How are you feeling about it?

Matthew Ryan: I’m excited. I’ll have my band with me, The Northern Wires. I was a fan of Gaslight before Brian and I became friends. When it came out, 'The '59 Sound' was one of those albums that restored my faith in the language of rock 'n' roll, so it’s beautiful and a bit surreal to be embarking on this adventure with them. They’re a good gang and while I’m bummed that The Flatliners couldn’t make it, I’m thrilled Dave Hause has joined the bill. We’re all friends, so there should be a great spirit in addition to the beauty that’s undoubtedly already anticipated.

BAW: You’re no stranger to big venue tours with big names, having previously toured with Paul Weller, Badly Drawn Boy and Tommy Stinson. How do you approach tours like this, is there anything you do differently?

MR: I have chosen a road where integrity and a stubborn engine of ethos come first. I’ve been very fortunate that a lot of bigger artists over the years have been so kind to invite me along and introduce me to their audiences. Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams were supporters that brought me along very early in my career. I learned then that even though you’ve been invited, you’re still a guest at someone else’s party.

Audiences have a special relationship with the headliner they come to see. So I view our role as an opportunity to participate in something beautiful, and maybe widen the sense of community. And while I won’t be the drunk guest that tries to take over the stereo, I will make my case.

My lean in these situations is always intended more as an invitation to these songs and this work that has maybe slid under the radar of the humans in the room. My goal is always to offer something loud and beautiful with heart, a mind and some fight, particularly when the band is with me. When solo it’s a bit trickier. I’m always happy when The Northern Wires are with me. I love the noise we offer together.

BAW: Obviously, you’ve played with The Gaslight Anthem in America in the past, you’ve also worked with Brian Fallon on some of your records. How did your relationship with the band come about?

MR: Brian tweeted out some of my lyrics around seven years ago, as he’s prone to do because he loves a lot of music. This was just before 'Handwritten', a mutual listener named Rachel messaged me about it because she knew I liked Gaslight. So I responded to Brian and then he responded and so on… a friendship was born.

He immediately invited me out on a tour with Gaslight. The timing was quite miraculous, the way our friendship developed. We’re both driven by heart, then mind. Purists to an extent, when it comes to what art and music are capable of. It’s a hard time for that kind of engine, it has been for quite some time now, so we need our blood brothers and sisters. I met the rest of the guys while out on tour with them. They’re a good gang of humans, all of them sweet and smart. I’m gonna love getting to see them play again together every night.

BAW: Your musical career has spanned over twenty years, and those years have produced many highs and lows. How would assess your career so far? Would you say you are currently in your best moment?

MR: The best moment is always the next moment, particularly that moment when your intentions are in-tune with what you’re seeing, feeling and doing. We have to live mile to mile, we have to live it all, the good and the bad and even the boring. But the best lightning is at the intersection of intimacy, fire, love, community and good work. I don’t really like talking about the past, other than to say my road has been winding for reasons.

I never wanted my life to be some singular sales pitch, I have responsibilities to ideas and people other than myself and I’ve stubbornly insisted that I’ll live this life as an artist. Sometimes I land a punch, sometimes life does. So, it’s come with a fair amount of angst because I believe in the work I offer. I’ve never released anything that I didn’t feel was part of the process, some necessary expression. How it’s received isn’t up to me, but I trust the story I’m telling. A long story should have mountains and valleys, these things take time. I refuse to be disposable. We should all refuse to be disposable.

BAW: I’d like to take you back to 1997 if I could. You’d been signed by A&M records and set to release your debut record. Then the Universal merger happened, and it is said that the roll-out of the album somewhat dwindled in the labels interests. How did those events impact the rest of your career?

MR: I don’t know how useful this part of the conversation is, it’s like mourning the wagon once the combustion engine took hold. It was a hard time, harder than people might understand. I went from a good living to virtually nothing the following year, it was just after my second album came out that things got really weird.

The short version is that my first album was stunted because of the merger, then my second was killed because of a change of leadership. I had a family (still do), so after it all went down I had to do something, so I tried to work a regular job. I was never built for that life, the 9 to 9. I admire those that can do it, and I marvel at those that love it. Genuinely, I was an awful employee. This was something I knew about myself from very early on. My mind is always feeling something and trying to make music out of it. So, after that happened, and after I got my heart back in order, I decided that for the sake of employers everywhere and for my own sense of possibility and fire, I would commit to the life of an artist.

I decided that nothing can stop a great song, and I set out trying to write the very best songs I could. My instinct was that if I offer great songs, everything would be ok and this idea still drives me. Now it’s been a bit like building a ladder one rung at a time, but things are better now than they were, and the work seems to keep finding light. Often I just find myself amazed and grateful, none of it makes any sense, but it’s a beautiful way to spend a life.

BAW: You tell stories of pitching your latest album to friends, and said friends being unresponsive. How did you take that experience and mould it into something positive?

MR: I’ve probably answered this in a few different ways already, but listen, we all gather information about our stories and where they’re headed from how we move through the world. Cynicism is a form of defeat. We mustn’t be idealistic or delusional either though, but we can willfully work towards every moment that makes us feel truly alive. That’s all I’m doing.

This work is mysterious, and the “rewards” are nothing compared to that moment when poetry visits and something like lightning exists where it didn’t before. Whether writing or in a room singing for other humans, this is strange and beautiful work, at times it is absolutely absurd but it’s like participating in the evolution of hope. I love it. Nothing that’s happened has changed why I do this. That’s my invincible summer I guess, to borrow from Camus.

BAW: Of course, the rejection that came from that experience led to you self-releasing your latest album, 'Hustle Up Starlings'. What was that process like?

MR: I didn’t feel rejected, I’ve been self-releasing albums since around 2009, and essentially DIY in my creativity for a very long time, since right around 2000. It’s hard work, and very humbling at times, but I have friends and people that help to make it manageable. I’m not an entrepreneur so I try to keep it simple: Make the work honest and beautiful, make it with fellow artists and musicians that fire me up, then share it and offer to places where it can be found. To me, the best music completely speaks to your complexity in the great moments as well as the hard ones. That’s what I strive for.

Too much of our culture wants to make our interiors black and white and easily divided into a demographic opportunity for some form of extraction. That’s the hope of consumer culture, art should not participate in that. Art has to communicate with something else, and it has to be received via something else. So, therefore, it has to be understood that art travels slower, and the beautiful stuff happens when someone needs that song that doesn’t lie to them. That’s what I hope to offer. That’s what the music I love offers. Those deeper waters require more heart, less salesmanship.

BAW: As mentioned earlier, your career has spanned over twenty years, and in those twenty years you’ve been compared to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Paul Westerberg, and Ryan Adams. Your tour-mate Brian Fallon has received similar comparisons to Springsteen and it’s fair to say it took him some time to get comfortable with those. How do you take those comparisons?

MR: I view rock 'n' roll as a louder brother to the folk tradition. There’s a dialect and noise being dragged and changed when each of us picks up a guitar, and then there’s the confluence of limitations, indoctrination, culture, rebellion, and the clashes we’re experiencing in our times and our stories, big and small. Our roots are our maps. If a comparison is spot on, I welcome it because it’s true. I love a lot of music and I let what I love in, it’s all sharing lightning. But we have to be careful with comparisons, both as listeners and artists, it’s only a point of reference I guess. It shouldn’t define expectations.

BAW: Away from the project under your own name, you also front The Summer Kills. How did that come about?

MR: The Summer Kills is a beautiful, filmic collection I made with my friends in the ambient band Hammock. It was a labor love. It’s out there to be found on all the usual sites, Spotify and Apple and on and on. I hope people will spend some time with it, it feels like Terrence Malick met Raymond Carver’s more hopeful pen to me.

BAW: Finally, what does the future hold for yourself following this tour?

MR: There’s some more touring in the US coming up and it looks like that will stretch well into the fall. After that, I hope to settle into life and writing and some quiet in the early winter. I just moved back to Nashville from Pittsburgh after a six-year vacation. I’ve been so busy, I don’t quite feel settled in yet. So, winter is always good for some quiet and it’s starting to feel like a new album is coming. A certain mood starts to imbue by concentrations when the songs start their thing. I’m looking forward to that.