“A Great Song Is Like A Declaration Of Independence…”: An Interview With Matthew Ryan
Matthew Ryan Vs. The Silver State
A man can be destroyed but not defeated.
– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Released on 00:02:59 on April 1st, Matthew Ryan Vs. The Silver State may be one of the best American records of 2008. Ryan, one of the more passionate practitioners of heartfelt, no-frills American rock, draws from his usual sources on MRVSS, including the Clash, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Springsteen, Paul Westerberg, U2 (through The Joshua Tree) and the Waterboys. You may also hear echoes of the Alarm, the Call, John Hiatt, Manic Street Preachers, Chuck Prophet, Stereophonics and even Cactus World News. “Our goal was to make a pure rock n’ roll record,” Ryan writes in the liner notes to MRVSS. “I believe we achieved that.”
Though steeped in the roaring melodies and Americana of Eighties rock, Ryan shies away from keyboards and synthesizers, crafting the sound of MRVSS with acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins and violins – imagine the E Street band stripped of much of the contribution of Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons and the late Danny Federici. Ryan recently told Soren McGuire of Americana UK, “It amazes me what guitar and drums, a melody and a violin can accomplish. I was just excited by those things again.” As a vocalist, Ryan is a great singer in the vein of Exene Cervenka, Greg Dulli, Bob Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Westerberg – the beauty of his singing reveals itself in its sandpapery strain, in its honesty and in the force of the personality it conveys.
Born in 1971 in Chester, PA, outside Philly, Ryan moved to Newark, DE, during high school. He cranked up his Clash, Replacements and U2 albums (most likely on vinyl), dyed his hair black, laced up his Doc Martens and began playing in local bands. He moved to Nashville in the late Nineties, where he secured the tutelage of Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. Ryan released his powerhouse debut, May Day, in 1997, and has since become one of the unheralded heroes of American rock.
If Ryan and fellow former Young Philadelphians Marah are acolytes of Cardinals Springsteen and Westerberg, then Ryan’s hymnal would include songs such as “Atlantic City,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Here Comes A Regular,” “Johnny 99” and “Sadly Beautiful,” while Messrs. Bielanko and associates would be bashing along to “Alex Chilton,” “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” “Kiss Me on the Bus,” “One Wink at a Time,” and “Sherry Darling.” Ryan travels darker, more introspective roads than Marah, leaning toward Westerberg’s quieter, pensive compositions, blending Darkness on the Edge of Town with Nebraska. Yet in its conception and tone, MRVSS is closest to Magic. The backdrop for each record is an America slogging through an illegal war and sliding into a pernicious, unrelenting narcissism. As Bob Marley sings on “I Shot the Sheriff,” “one day the bottom will drop out” – on these recent releases, both Ryan and Springsteen seem aware that we are in the midst of a new dark age, or at best at its gates.
MRVSS begins with “Dulce et Decorum Est,” the title of a Wilfred Owen poem written during WWI and the first half of the Latin aphorism, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.” Thus, like Magic, MRVSS weaves the US occupation of Iraq and its concomitant doom and misery into the context of the album without addressing the occupation directly. The song is reminiscent of Blonde on Blonde, with Eamon McLoughlin’s fiddle marching through the mix. “Heroic in a falling way,” Ryan sings. “For some of us it goes that way.” The following song, “American Dirt,” is the closest Ryan gets to British New Wave. It’s as propulsive as an early Clash song, punctuated by piano and awash in haunting backing vocals, and it conjures a mood of devastation and regret similar to “Last to Die” on Magic: “Honey, I swear it’s not my fault/they shut us down/the big door was locked…I’ve been spitting out American dirt/all that money can buy…” In the third verse, Ryan references “The River,” another Springsteen tale of loss and dread, when he sings, “a silver cross on tan wet skin…”
“It Could’ve Been Worse” is one of the finest songs on the record, a eulogy for a small town punk with a pregnant girlfriend who leaps to his death from a bridge. The most narrative-driven song on MRVSS, Ryan sings to a boy who “listened to the Clash/You learned to never ask/Where your Daddy was,” who “got scared when she started to show/One more thing you’d have to let go.” It’s the album’s “Local Boy in a Photograph” or “Backstreets,” and it features some of Ryan’s most precise and lovely lyrics: “Her blonde hair was a setting sun/her mascara was born to run…” Like “Local Boy in a Photograph,” “The River” and The Replacements’ “Little Mascara,” it’s a complete tragedy rendered within the confines of a rock song.
“Jane, I Still Feel the Same” is the most beautiful, haunting song on MRVSS, a restrained lament that falls somewhere amongst “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Skyway” and Marah’s “Walt Whitman Bridge.” It sounds like Nick Drake, had Drake found himself writing songs in an Eastern Seaboard bed-sit, instead of in Hampstead, and the lyrics read as if they were cribbed from a journal entry, mournful and confessional in the manner of Lori Carson’s Everything I Touch Runs Wild: “…all the days that I’ve been sleeping through/Awake to remind me that you’re still…not…here/And you’ll never be again…It’s been 4 years/It feels like a hundred…You were a good thing/In a world gone wrong.”
“Killing the Ghost,” which references early U2 and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” is a counterpoint to “Jane, I Still Feel the Same.” Ryan sings with bitter resolve, “I will carve you from my life…I’m cuttin’ it close/I’m killing the ghost.” “Drunk and Disappointed,” arriving after a number of quiet and mid-tempo tracks, is the album’s most full-throated rocker, reminiscent of “The Dead Girl” from May Day. “Closing In,” the final song on MRVSS, is elegant, doleful, melodious pop that peels some of its sheen from the last two U2 albums, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and its lyrics are as hopeful as any you might find on a Matthew Ryan record: “Step by step now/Day by day/Here we go again/The hits come on still/Maybe we’ll never win/But we’re closing in/We’re closing in.”
Like all great rock n’ roll, Ryan’s is the music of a fervent, lifelong believer. “Idealism is beautiful, and maybe it assumes too much, but I’d rather live there than in cynicism and fear,” he told us. He was kind enough to reply via email to a series of pesky questions before going on tour, and we are extremely grateful.
David Porter: Now that it¹s been more than a decade, how do you feel when you look back at May Day? How do you feel when you hear it? What would you say are some of the most salient differences between May Day and MRVSS?
Matthew Ryan: I love that record, and all that it showed me. It was an amazing time. I felt like I had a weekend pass to the kingdom. It wasn’t mine yet, because where I’m from, you have to earn those things. But I got to look around a little. I liked a lot of what I saw. Some other things weren’t what I had in mind at all. So as luck and fortune would have it, I’d be setting sail and building my own future soon enough. Truth is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I gotta say, though, somehow that record, those songs sound more cynical to me than what I’m doing now. Maybe it’s because all the “business” that surrounded that record has influenced my sense of things, but I definitely feel more bright-eyed and innocent these days. Because these days everything that happens, every success is the result of my hard work and the hard work of my close friends, with whom I surround myself.
DP: In a recent interview with Soren McGuire of Americana UK, you remarked, “That’s always what you¹re doing as an artist, just trying to make it sound confidential, honest and epic.”
MR: I believe there’s two kinds of writing – fantasy writing and useful writing. I try and write useful songs. I believe words should be personal without crossing that blurry line into diary writing. Because ultimately, I think songs should provoke us to confront the things that daunt us. These things can hang around entire lifetimes, they can oppress. A great song is like a declaration of independence. Songs are amazing melody and words. Melody is the sky and air; words are the sun on your skin. Melody is the gun, songs are the bullets. Songs are all those things.
DP: In the same interview, you said, “Sometimes a truly great song can become immortal.” Can you give us your list of immortal songs? If someone were to compile his or her own list of immortal songs, and they planned to include a few Matthew Ryan songs, which ones might they choose?
“Over The Hillside”–The Blue Nile
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ In the Wind” –Bob Dylan
“Here Comes a Regular,” “Unsatisfied”–The Replacements
“It’s a Wonderful Lie”–Paul Westerberg
“Straight To Hell, ”“London Calling”–The Clash
“Ramshackle Day Parade”–Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros
“Fisherman’s Blues,” “Be My Enemy”–The Waterboys
“Let’s Stay Together”–Al Green
“Where the Streets Have No Name,” “One”–U2
“Famous Blue Raincoat,” “The Future”–Leonard Cohen
“Love Letter”–Nick Cave
It goes on and on. I look like a raving misogynist, judging by this list, so (and I mean it):
“Back On the Chain Gang,” “Middle of the Road”–The Pretenders
“Lonely Girls,” “Essence”–Lucinda Williams
“Goodbye”–Emmylou Harris (written by Steve Earle)
I can only consider and hope that someone somewhere would include one of my songs on their list. Truth be told, that would be one of my goals.
DP: Can you talk about living in Nashville?
MR: I live on a hill that faces away from Nashville, just on the border of the next county. I love a lot of people in this town, but I find the physicality of the house I chose to buy says all I need to say about Nashville. I like to visit – I just don’t do well in a constant state of competition. I’m competitive with my own dreams – those are the things I put my energy towards. But Nashville is a very interesting city; it has a lot of soul, but it tends to measure itself by things that I don’t think really matter in any infinite sense. Plus, since Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams moved away, well, you know…I miss those two. My best friend moved away a couple years ago as well. I miss him, too. Something about Nashville keeps scaring my friends away. Maybe that’s why I’m a bit suspicious of this city.
DP: In the February 5th Think Press release announcing MRVSS, you are quoted as follows: “I want everyone to win. I’m wanting to make things better than they are.” Please elaborate.
MR: If I could say anything, I’d say it’s not patriotic to be a lemming. I’m not a political scientist, but I think it’s clear we’re becoming slaves to our economy. Economies and stability are important, but they can’t be dependent on the numbers an hour from now. We should think more long term in an inclusive, worldwide fashion that takes into consideration all the ways that humans interact and depend on each other. This is romantic, I can own that. But we also have to allow for tolerance, and that’s as much of a realist as I can be when it comes to these things. I do not hate George Bush. I hate his policies and his administration’s policies. Now many will say they are serving the overall good by keeping the wealthy infrastructure wealthy. But it is the middle and the working classes in societies that keep the engine running; in fact, those classes are the engine – there should be some progressive conscience and legislation that looks out for and rewards the engine. Trickle down economics is flawed, particularly in a global economy, if you have any interest in preserving your middle and working classes, protecting your engine. That’s what my gut tells me. We need more imagination and soul in government. The world can be dangerous, so can ideas. But we have the gift of history to lead us away from destructive migrations in politics. Idealism is beautiful, and maybe it assumes too much, but I’d rather live there than in cynicism and fear. It seems clear to me we’re going have to be pro-active immediately. We’re going to have to understand and respond to the reality that corporations and economies may benefit from short-term gains via fossil fuels, but fossil fuels represent an almost literal and potently symbolic dead end.
DP: You were a solo artist for about eight years before Strays Don’t Sleep (Strays Don’t Sleep, 2006). Would you like to be part of a band again? Will there be another Strays Don’t Sleep album or a similar project?
MR: I wouldn’t rule out doing another collaborative record with someone, but Strays will probably never happen again. I’d like to work with a female musician. Johnette Napolitano and I almost recorded a collection of gospel and folk songs a few years ago – I wish we would’ve done it. But I’m open to anything that makes me feel alive.
DP: Seamus Heaney is one of your favorite poets. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is also the title of a legendary Wilfred Owen poem, and you quote a line from A Season in Hell on the inlay card for East Autumn Grin. Can you write a bit about Heaney, Owen and Rimbaud, and about some other poets you love, and how their poetry comes to bear on your lyrics?
MR: What can I say about those guys? Their imaginations are nuclear. I’m humbled by what they do with words and the architecture they employ – I’m writing chicken scratch next to them. They’ve saved my sense of humanity more than a hundred times.
May Day (1997)
East Autumn Grin (2000)
Dissent from the Living Room (2002)
Hopeless to Hopeful (2002)
Regret Over the Wires (2003)
These Are Field Recordings (2004)
Strays Don’t Sleep (2006)
From a Late Night Highrise (2006)
Matthew Ryan Vs. The Silver State (2008)