A Rising Star Feature
by Melissa Minners
I recently had the opportunity to review Strange Town, an album by Chicago-born musician/singer/songwriter Ryan States. Reading into his background and listening to his music, I was intrigued. States seemed like a very well-rounded individual with a very clear view of what he wanted to say in his songs and where he wanted to go with his music. His life is as diverse as it gets, performing in the Ringling Bros. circus band as well as creating his own music, performing in musicals, theatrical productions, jazz tours and creating music for television commercials. So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to conduct an interview with Ryan States and learn more about the man behind the music.
How did you decide that a career in music was what you wanted to pursue? What was the defining moment that made you want to perform?
In high school I knew that I wanted to be in music. At the time I had no idea what a broad idea that was. Through the years I've learned to focus on my strengths and find ways to bring that out. I'm the youngest of eleven kids so there was a period where I was automatically the center of attention. Where every little stupid thing that you do is cute and hilarious. I'm still trying to get back to that. But then, as the youngest, you get used to being alone and independent. By age fifteen everybody had moved out and I was essentially an only child. So maybe that explains how I became so comfortable being a hermit - working alone for hours and hours.
Describe your sound / music style.
I'm musically schizophrenic. I want to make every album in a different musical genre. Strange Town is more classic rock and southern rock. I try to have a hook. I tend to be more pop than anything. I've been compared to The Fray, Michael W. Smith, and The Church. Also Rufus Wainwright, Ben Folds, Elton John...
Where do you get the inspiration for your song lyrics? How do you decide what kind of music you want to accompany your lyrics...or does the music come first and the lyrics next?
Whatever is eating away at me. Something induces a mood or a feeling in me. That's the first part. Then I try to take what's on my mind and distill it down to a small idea or thought. Lyric writing is a very short form, so you try to express a feeling rather than detail all the complexities of what you're thinking. You could try to make a thousand word lyric but it wouldn't sound very musical.
I wrote "In The Game" when I was staying in my sister's basement in Utah. I had finally moved to New York City but had to leave after a few months. Strange Town is basically about me feeling sorry for myself. That's what the blues is, right? There's a lot of disappointment and longing, but the album also has hope and determination.
Strange Town was also a rejection of everybody telling me to write happy feel-good music. I think the whole music industry was given that charge. After 9/11 sad songs were pushed aside. I need to hear feel-good music just as much as the next person. I've always looked to music for escapism but I think it's equally therapeutic to address the pain. To just allow yourself to feel the sadness for a little while. You can't fight sorrow by turning a blind eye to it.
As a teenager I wrote the music first and then searched for words, which were just an imitation of someone else's lyrics which I probably didn't understand anyway. In an effort to grow as a songwriter I try to stay open to new experiences. I must have heard that Charlie Parker quote because I knew that if I hadn't lived it I wouldn't be able to express it through music. I didn't start dating, men that is, until I was in my mid-twenties, which is probably why I didn't understand what most singers were singing about. I was very naive when it came to relationships.
For the past ten years all of my songs started as lyrics. But now I want to return to starting with the music first. I think something organic could come out of it. Phrasing and repetition that might not have occurred to me with just a pen and paper.
Most musicians who have revealed their sexual preferences rarely sing about them. In other words, it's rare to find a song in mainstream music which focuses on homosexual relationships.
I agree with that and I find it frustrating as a consumer. Sometimes it's really ambiguous or just a mirror image of straight music. But it shouldn't just be straight music with the pronouns flipped. Our community has unique stories to tell that haven't been heard yet. And if a gay artist likes nasty "do me, girl" music, then sing "do me, boy". No need to feed a double standard. If they don't play it at the club or on the radio, who cares. The future of music is niche marketing not in the big universal hit song with all of the meaning watered down. I'm not going to castrate my music to try and fit in.
Half of the songs on Strange Town have 'out' material in them. I wanted to tell my stories the same way straight people do, unselfconsciously. It's about my life, not about being gay. I didn't hide my gayness or highlight it. There's no homo in homogenous. (laughing) When I hear radio music I need to translate it. But I don't think listeners should have to translate one-hundred percent of the time.
Knowing how hard it is to break out in the music industry, what makes you keep coming back for more?
I'm a musician, I make music. I can't help it. If I want to legitimately write-off my tax deductions then I have to make an honest effort to be in business. I'm very pragmatic about all this... But then I sincerely believe there is a place for what I'm doing. I know that there are people who want to hear songs like this. So I will make it available and hopefully they'll find it. I admit that there is a competitive side too, at least on the production side of things. I want to put the majors in their place. I just put out something that major labels haven't bothered to give us. And I did it on my mac in a train yard.
Of all the songs you have recorded, which one has the most meaning to you and why?
"Under The River" still haunts me because it's still true. Coming from Texas and moving to New York City and going through the tunnel is like a metaphor for birth. I have such a strong desire to live in a pedestrian city instead of being disconnected by cars. The desire to be part of several different communities that matter to me. To be back north where the trees are thick and the dirt is dark, not like clay. And even though I'm still estranged from the city while touring year-round with the circus, my heart is still in the city. And when we perform on Long Island the circus train travels under the Hudson, under Manhattan, through Penn Station and under the East River. And the following week it's in reverse. So I keep moving back and forth but never sticking. I'm literally looking out my bedroom window and watching my dreams fly by. Both times I moved to New York I had to leave before I could find a day job with enough hours to support myself. All I want is to be a New Yorker. I don't care what I have to do for a living. The song touches on the economic injustice of a healthy, hard working person who can't support himself.
What sort of message do you hope to send with your music?
Sex, bicycles, and rock and roll! I want to do what Michael Jackson and John Lennon did, write songs about peace and love. I'm assuming that's still legal. I want to take the spirit of folk music into other genres.
I don't have any regrets but I resent how long it took for home recording technology to get this good and affordable. I could have been doing this years ago. I have to play catch up now.
Any upcoming plans?
I want to do a remix record of Strange Town. I have three unreleased albums of past material that I want to touch up and release. I also have new songs that need to be recorded.
Any information you would like your fans to know about you that hasn't been revealed previously?
I'm single again... I used to make gourmet Mexican food for celebrities in Chelsea.
I canít thank Ryan enough for his honest and elaborate answers to my questions. Iím so glad he was willing to share more of himself with the G-POP.net readers out there. Hereís hoping weíll hear more of Ryan States to come. Until his next album is produced, we can satisfy our curiosity by visiting his website at http://www.ryan-states.com/home.html, his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ryan-States/53322286958 or his MySpace page at http://www.myspace.com/ryanstates.
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