“I heard Chris Rock once say that his comedy came from profound sensitivity,” Matthew Ryan tells me during a recent career-spanning interview. “That if he didn’t find comedy he would not be able to deal with what he believed to be his ability to feel what people around him were feeling. And I really identify with that.”
Ryan, a Pennsylvania-based singer-songwriter who has spent the last two decades inspiring countless songwriters with his distinctive vocals as a forefather of the alt-country scene, privately struggled with that sense of identity for years.
“I’ve spent a really long part of my career so far being paralyzed by my sensitivity,” he says. “I’m not saying that there weren’t good songs written or there weren’t good recordings made but I couldn’t quite stand by or tolerate what I was feeling once the work was outside of myself. So I followed that mode for a very long time — too long. It started on my second record, and it didn’t end until Boxers.”
Boxers, his 12th proper studio album, came out in 2014 but by his own account seemed his most unlikely of albums, if only because he’d intended his 11th to be his last. “With Boxers my choices were simple because the record before was, by design, planned to be my last record,” he explains. “I didn’t want to do it anymore. [But] something happened between In the Dusk of Everything and Boxers where I decided that I had to stand by my work in a way that felt more like redemption rather than some form of … I don’t know if I can describe it. But I think the difference is that in some ways I rediscovered the commitment to my work and my characters that I had on my very first record, that I hadn’t had for a very long time.”
Ryan’s currently on the road for his Fall tour, built of a mix of house concerts and venue shows throughout the eastern half of the country. One of those will be a Friday night house show right here on Indy’s north-side, in Carmel.
“Generally what I do is in towns where I maybe had a hard time growing over the years it makes more sense to do a house show,” he says. “Indianapolis traditionally has been a tough city for me, to be honest. But what’s funny is I have some really good long-time listeners and supporters there, so that’s one of the beautiful things about today. Listeners will open up their homes to let you not only have that experience, but to help you continue to do what you do.”
After two decades in the business and a dozen albums, one thing Matthew Ryan has plenty of is experience, and on both sides of the coin, as a major label signee and an independent. That, he says, can be a double-edged sword, though he insists there’s little mystery in why he’s remained inspired to create albums which differ from each other throughout his career.
“I don’t know where I got the idea that that was important, as an artist, but it’s not a shell game! You know what I mean?” he laughs. “It’s just trying to locate weather that feels right to songs that have presented themselves, and it’s really not ‘one size fits all’. But that’s definitely been … I wouldn’t call it an issue, but I can’t think of anything more boring than [insert voice here] to the same record over and over. That sounds like a sentence of solitary confinement.”
Isolation comes up frequently in conversation, particularly when discussing the one song he wishes he could take another crack at recording.
“I have never re-recorded a song, because I rarely have any interest in retreading things,” he told me. “But there’s one song that haunts me, and that’s because I really think it’s one of the best songs I’ve written but I don’t know that the presentation allowed it to be what it could be. And that’s “All That Means Nothing Now” on my album I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall. It’s frustrating, because the guitar part on that song is so sturdy, and usually I’m such a utilitarian player, I wish I would have let that be more of a spine for the song. Plus I was self-recording at the time. That was really invigorating when I did Dear Lover but by the time I got halfway through I Recall Standing I started kind of hating myself quite a bit. It was a very lonely experience. I can’t see me ever wanting to do it again.”
I ask him if it’s a lonely experience recording alone because of the lack of someone to bounce ideas off of.
“Even just the non-verbal stuff,” he elaborates. “When you feel that ignition switch go on between a group of people, it’s not even necessarily about propping each other up but the sensation of being in a room with people when something special happens. Not to be crude, though it is crude … it’s the difference between masturbation and sex! Rarely do you get done masturbating and say ‘wow, you did a great job! Great finish!’ I think loneliness is becoming an epidemic, particularly here in the West, as we isolate ourselves more and more in technology. And I kind of felt like with I Recall Standing that’s where I hit a wall very quickly with my relationship with technology. I was spending so many hours confronting one-self through a screen. I was like ‘there’s something wrong here, I do not feel more alive through this process!’”
As someone who has worked to hone his live performance as a way of connecting with audiences and encouraging two-way communication, Ryan says he finds it to be disconcerting how much of a distraction our technological devices have become at live shows.
“I’ll be honest with you — I hate it,” he says. “every once in a while I’ll check, especially if I asked when I played a new song ‘please don’t upload it,’ and people upload it. That kind of rubs me the wrong way, because I’m trying to share something with the people in a room. This isn’t a broadcast! And it never translates, man. It never translates. Please! Just put the phone down and let’s feel something together. I don’t say this as an attention-whore. I’m not even all that comfortable with an audience’s attention anyway! What I don’t understand is why people feel so compelled to remove themselves from the experience, as if they’re gonna save the experience for later. I don’t think people realize the conflict of energies when you participate in something like that.”
He chooses to focus on what he can do, which is encourage those people at a live performance to remain open for that sense of community and connection.
“It’s a funny thing, because when I watch a performance of somebody else I can be moved by what a performer is doing,” he explains. “But what moves me more is when I see an audience member moved, when I see them helpless with something that has been moved in them. That’s just true of my experience. You can’t go into a situation thinking of ways to move people, but I can look for those moments where we all collectively feel something. And there is a difference.”