Don Ryan Interview



Don Ryan is a singer/songwriter whose compositions are delectable cocktails of ageless beauty and gritty discord — a hypnotizing blend of classic Americana and gypsy jazz with a more modern, psychedelic-folk sound. This is a brand new spin on old music. Ryan’s landscape of jagged sound stands out against the airier tones of the NYC/NJ folk scene in which he thrives; but as dark as his jumbled and oft-foreboding lyrics can be, his melodies are every bit as resonant. 

Ryan’s aggressive approach to his guitar playing has been noted as an “exercise in fretboard mastery” that is presented “with such an ease and nonchalance that it is easy to miss just how clever and crafty his songwriting chops are”( Such command of the instrument was something Ryan learned in his youth. At age twelve, he was taught to play the guitar by a mortician’s son in his town’s local funeral home–sometimes learning with bodies only feet away–an experience that undoubtedly fueled his penchant for the dark and rather eccentric.

What's your songwriting process? I have kind of a weird approach to writing. Sometimes I'll just get lucky, and the first thing I play when I pick up the guitar will be something that catches my ear. But for the most part, I have a generally strange writing routine. 

I usually start with a process that I half-jokingly refer to as "guitar yoga". I'll just start to place my fingers in strange and completely random contorted positions all over the neck of the guitar, improvising oddball dissonant chords and melodies. I don't do it for the sound, which is usually just musical nonsense. I do it to disrupt my sense of melody, to essentially get myself working from as far outside the box as possible. 

It becomes very hypnotic and meditative, and sometimes I'll just sit there for a solid hour or more just playing dissonant nonsense chords and melodies. But more often than not, something in the midst of the chaos will catch my ear. Sometimes a chord, sometimes a melody, sometimes a riff idea. And then I'll go to work on that. 

Another thing that I tend to do is simply play random chords, and I'll just hum meandering melodies over the chords. Quite often, something will eventually hit my ear that I think might be worth exploring. 

And then once I have something in terms of chords and melodies, I'll work on putting it all together in terms of song structure. Will there be a key change on the bridge? Will there be a pre-chorus, or just go straight into the chorus? Will there be an intro, or should the vocals come right in at the beginning? Etc. 

Once I have all of those details more or less worked out, that's when I tend to throw the lyrics onto a song. It doesn't always work this way, but it's my general process. 

All that being said, though, I never sit down to do any of this stuff with the express intention of writing a song. I never try to force anything. I just try and let the ideas come to me, rather than chasing them down. And sometimes they don't come, but that's fine too. It never feels like a failed effort, but more of a mindful, meditative experience.

Who inspired you to make music? Ever since I was little kid, I always had this bizarre connection to music, especially melody. I remember being very young, maybe four or five, and my mom was singing "You Are My Sunshine" to me. I started to cry, and told her not to sing it anymore. The same thing happened some time later when she sang "Oh My Darling, Clementine". I remember that occasion quite vividly. She was singing it as she was dropping me off at daycare, and I just erupted into tears, to the point that my mom had to pull over and spend the better part of a half hour calming me down. 

At first, she just assumed that it must have been her bad singing or that maybe I just wasn't a musical kid, but in hindsight, I now know that it was actually just the beauty of those melodies that made me so intensely emotional that I couldn't process it at such a young age. 

But as far as someone inspiring me to actually play music myself, that would be without any question, my old guitar teacher, Dennis Kimak. It's kind of funny -- I only started taking guitar lessons when I was a kid because my mom had suggested it to me as an idea. And I said, "Yeah, that sounds good. Whatever." More or less to just appease her. 

But when I arrived at Dennis's house for my first lesson (which was actually Kimak Funeral Home in Carlstadt, NJ -- his family owned the local funeral home in town) and I saw this guy play, I knew I was hooked. To this day, I have not sat down with a better guitar player than Dennis Kimak in my entire life -- and I actually once had the honor of jamming with Zakk Wylde, which I don't bring up merely to name drop, but to illustrate just how great Dennis is. The moment I met Dennis Kimak, my life changed forever.

How would you describe the music that you typically create? It tends to be all over the map. I've always loved the way The Beatles albums felt like mixtapes, and that's the way I tend to approach my own records. There's definitely a lot of Beatles in there, as well as other artists like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Beck, Queens of the Stone Age, and Elliott Smith. But there are also a lot of influences that are not readily obvious upon first hearing my music, like Pantera and Aesop Rock. Both have had a tremendous impact on my lyricism. 

Over the years, I've made some perfunctory attempts at categorizing my music, and the best I could come up with is some combination of Acid Folk, Psychedelia, Gypsy music, and Tin Pan Alley. But, as is often the case, none of these categories feels terribly illuminating to me. 

Who would you most like to collaborate with? 

My dream collaborations all seem to be with people associated with the Queens of the Stone Age/Desert Sessions crowd. All those guys are so brilliant. Obviously, (QOTSA vocalist) Josh Homme is an absolute monster talent, and he's one of my all-time favorite songwriters ever. 

But there's also (QOTSA bassist) Mikey Schuman and his long-time friend and musical collaborator in Mini Mansions, Tyler Parkford. Mini Mansions just exists on some whole other level -- they're truly on a trip of their own, and they're just spectacular. Their self-titled first LP had an especially profound influence on my songwriting. 

And then there's Alain Johannes, who is such a special talent, I find that description of him often defies language. He's just that good! He's a tremendous guitar player, an amazing singer, and a guy who writes music like no one else on earth. And not only is he one of my favorite songwriters, he also strikes me as such a genuinely interesting and kind-hearted human being. I've not yet had the privilege of meeting Alain, aside from a few Facebook messages over the years, but he would be my dream collaborator. 

What is the best advice you’ve been given? When I was 16 years old, I spent a good portion of my summer vacation visiting family friends in Los Angeles, Terry and Dan. They both had been very active for years in the LA music scene, and Dan not only hosted his own cable show that featured local and national metal acts, but had also had a brief stint as an A&R rep for CBS records.  

The whole time I spent out there was like a crash course in music like nothing I had experienced before. At the time, I was in a metal/hardcore band, and while I had extensively toiled over my guitar playing for years, songwriting was not something I had ever consciously focused on in any meaningful way. I just played whatever riffs sounded cool to me, and didn't really think much about building songs that were solidly structured. My band at the time would just have these songs that were kind of all over the place, with multiple breakdowns and half-time stomps that would suddenly turn into blazing fast thrashy grooves. 

One day, on one of our many, many excursions to Del Taco, Dan laid some brutal honesty on me, but he did it in the most sensitive way possible. He told me that while my songs were certainly inspired and ambitious, they lacked their own perspective and engaged in a little too much meandering. He then began to show me music, both heavy and not, that he thought would be beneficial for me to learn from. 

He seemed to legitimately feel terrible for having laid these criticisms on me, but I was blown away by how wonderful a gift it was that he had just given me. I began to intensely study songwriting, ripping apart albums of all walks of musical life, and continually improved and ventured out into new territory. 

One comment from our Del Taco "summit" still stands out to me. Dan told me, "When you're writing music, don't compare yourself to the band down the street, or the popular band in your neighborhood. Compare yourself to your favorite bands. Compare yourself to the very best. That's the goal that you should be striving for. Even if you never hit that mark, you'll still be such a better songwriter for having aimed that high." 

That may have been the single most important bit of musical advice I've ever received. 

What's next for you? Well, I've just released my second record ("Warwalking, Pt. 1"), which was my first release with Mint 400 Records, and it's been a fantastic experience thus far. I can't wait to get out and play shows at some point, though for obvious reasons it looks like that still might be a ways off right now. Neil from Mint 400 puts on incredibly fun shows that I've always admired as a fan, so it would be great to get out there and actually be a part of them! 

Other than that, it looks like we'll be releasing "Warwalking, Pt. 2" sometime in early September, and "Warwalking, Pt. 3" (the final record in the trilogy, so to speak) sometime in late fall/early winter. So that's very exciting stuff, and I can't wait!

-Sam Lowry


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