Written by: David Porter
All photos by Geoff Tischman
As a card-carrying member of Generation X (and that card is an AARP membership card), I wave a very particular flag atop my fortress of music, and one of the stars on that flag belongs to Matthew Ryan.
I came of age as a music lover during the Eighties, and my heroes were, and still are, artists like The Alarm, The Blasters, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Prince, The Replacements, The Smiths, Springsteen, U2, The Waterboys, X…while diverse in sound and presentation, each brought something to the fore in their work, an urgency, a commitment, a sense they were communing with like-minded souls in whose hearts their work would find homes. C.S. Lewis said, “we read to know we are not alone.” These bands served this same purpose. Feeling lonely? Not singing along to Morrissey on “Cemetery Gates.”. Not dropping a needle on “Hold My Life.” Not grinning as Strummer tells you, “Socrates and Milhouse Nixon/both went the same way/through the kitchen.” Their albums were, and still are comfort and company, necessity and sustenance. Possibility.
Now Springsteen of course reaches back to the Sixties, as this was when he began writing and performing with bands like The Castiles and Steel Mill, but these other artists so dear to my heart also reach back to this pivotal decade regardless of their age. The Sixties gave us a naïve and hopeful idea that rock music could change our lives, and the world, that it was worthy of our passion and devotion, that it was on par with any other art form – film, literature, photography, etc. That this is about who we are, what we believe, what we want to achieve, what kind of world we want to see take shape before our eyes, beneath our hands…that it is wholly necessary and, once lit with its great fires, we can’t live without it. And while a number of great bands succumbed to cocaine and synthesizers and other forms of Western decadence in the Seventies, hence the eruption of the Pistols and their brethren (“no Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones!”), the Eighties, particularly here in the USA, were home to an impossibly fecund punk and Americana music scene, to a revival of the kind of integrity and sense of purpose that seemed to blast from the music of the Sixties like psychedelic coins shot from a lucky Atlantic City slot machine.
Which brings us to Matthew Ryan. It wasn’t enough that May Day, released in 1997, was a near-perfect debut, but when I saw him at Café Du Nord in San Francisco he covered The Waterboys’ “We Will Not Be Lovers.” His version packed all the wallop of the original, and I knew we were fellow travelers. In the more than twenty years since May Day, Ryan has produced album after album of the kind of rock music we bastards of young were weaned on: earnest and honest, impassioned and propulsive, melodic and, above all else, thoughtful. As Hamlet tells Horatio, “there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In the context of a rock and roll song, perhaps this means some things hurt more than cars and girls? That the speech of the heart is inarticulate? More than two decades on Matthew Ryan continues to rock the Casbah.
Ryan’s got a new maxi-single out, “On Our Death Day” (he says it’s not as dark as it sounds), which also includes a Leonard Cohen cover and B-Side, “And It’s Such a Drag” (there should always be a B-Side). He’s also got an ongoing electronica collaboration, Summer Kills, with Nashville neighbors Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson of Hammock (we’ll spend some time with them this summer), and he just appeared at the Word of South Festival in Tallahassee, FL, with Joe Hill. We haven’t spoken with him since the release of Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State, back in 2008, so we sent him a stack of questions via email and, as expected, he rewarded us with a slew of generous, thoughtful responses – he put his heart into it, of course. He just goes marching on. Hear his sound, hear his voice, he’s growing stronger… “There’s always a good fight and beauty available,” he says. “part of my mission has been to dismantle mythology and still be lit up by mystery.”
Stereo Embers Magazine: May Day was released in 1997, over 20 years ago. How do you feel about it now?
Matthew Ryan: I wish I’d been more emotionally prepared for what was required. I’ve often suffered a bit from the “taking things too seriously” mind. I laugh a lot more these days, and I see the humor in my own plots and defaults. But back then I didn’t like my life becoming a marketing campaign. There were more graceful and constructive ways to handle my discomforts. I let a lot of people’s hard work down because I couldn’t seem to solve that puzzle in me. If narcissism isn’t the death of art, it’s definitely the death of a wildly important part of our humanity. I’d prefer to stay human. The business of music baits you into thinking what you’re doing means everything, that success defines your usefulness. Maybe it’s a uniquely American (and/or capitalist) quandary.
But when I hear a song off that record, which I sometimes do in various situations, I have very complex feelings, feelings that probably need not be expressed here, except to say that part of my mission has been to dismantle mythology and still be lit up by mystery. I love doing this for a living. I found a community in music that’s so beautiful I keep looking for it. And I’ve been lucky to discover it’s anywhere and everywhere. Is that vague enough?
SEM: Even 20 years on, “Guilty” is still a barn-burner, and I don’t say this lightly – a few months ago I went back to Paradise Theater, one of my favorite albums from junior high, and I couldn’t get through it (I will say, though, that Breakfast in America remains flawless and peerless). Maybe, as Ashford and Simpson put it in “What You Gave Me,” “time has a way of showing us the things we really need.”
MR: Time does in fact have a way of showing us the things we really need. Isn’t that beautiful?
SEM: How did you come up with the cover for May Day?
MR: I was working with Pam Springsteen and Jeri Heiden on the concepts. Pam is a great photographer and human, and Jeri is a great designer and art director and human. It was early in the morning when they came to my house to capture some images for the artwork. It was damp and early, one of those days that feels like a hangover. I suggested the idea and Pam loved it, so we went out front. Pam captured beyond whatever primitive thoughts or ideas I had with it, and Jeri made it into the cover. I love collaboration and openness like that. They are wonderful, talented people.
SEM: May Day is a great album, a great debut album and a great breakup album. Those of us lucky enough to stumble upon it were astonished. How hard was it to follow up? Were you terrified? Exhilarated? Both?
MR: I had just been through a bunch of turmoil. A separation in my private life, and all the people I loved working with at A&M were let go when the label was merged with an even larger label. The feeling was I was only gonna have one shot on this new version of A&M Records. So rather than try and be something that was going at the time, which wasn’t in my nature or want anyway, I tried to make the most durable and ignited and expansive art I could with people who made me feel anything was possible. Trina Shoemaker recorded, mixed and produced East Autumn Grin, with me throwing vague but desperate and excited descriptives at her while we worked. The guys played their hearts out. And I have to say, Tom Whalley, Teresa Ensenat and Philip Feemster protected me and tried to help me as best they could so I could see my intentions through, though it’s clear to me now that I’ve always suffered a bit of pointing my own gun at my own foot. Trina did a wonderful job, the whole gang did, but it’s a dense album, and it didn’t do particularly well moving through the chaos of those times. But I have no regrets. The album has aged well. Its themes were spot on. I grew up listening to a lot of different types of music which I enunciated on East Autumn Grin. Alt Country (the genre into which May Day was welcomed), felt too restricted to me, too narrow. I love American music, all of it, and so much more…So like I learned from The Clash, I only let in what I love. I tried to make it make sense, and I trusted that those who that needed it would find it – over time, people seem to continually find those songs on East Autumn Grin. That’s been a warm and recurring reward.
SEM: It’s obvious, and well-documented, how music has changed since May Day. We’ve seen the fall of the CD, the rise of streaming, the return of vinyl…can you give us a more personal overview? Can you make a living?
MR: I do make a living right now. And I’m so grateful for that. But unless I grow my story in some meaningful ways, particularly in touring, I don’t know that I see a sustainable way forward. That keeps me up some nights. There is a waltz required that I haven’t had the talent or luck to navigate. So I’m trying to invent my own waltz. I love people. I take the human condition seriously. I’ve spent a large part of my life now trying to put it to a melody. Not that the effort owes me anything in return, but I keep hoping that we as Americans start to lean more toward culture and our shared interiors, rather than toward products and escapism, en masse…pop culture has different motives than art and intimacy. And surely laughter, simplicity and a glide across the surface of things play an important role in this experience we are all doing our best to navigate. But we can’t allow pop culture and speed and the sale crush our intellect or deceive us into thinking we are not complex. I know how indulgent all this might read, but there is real magic available to us in our collective experiences. I’ve always felt the arts play an important role in this: I don’t think it should be subjugated to the stuff of cult. I feel it should be celebrated. I’ve trailed way off from my own story in what I’m trying to say here. I don’t mean to imply I’m offering the kind of lightning that can solve these ills, but I’ve always felt there’s a humanitarian cause inherent in the arts and music, and it’s part of my motivation. I don’t see giving up on that – and it keeps me up some nights, too.
SEM: Do you see any real gains from promoting your work via social media, or does it feel like a shot in the dark?
MR: I love when it feels like an extension of our humanity. That’s when it feels particularly useful to me.
SEM: I read an interview with Paul Weller a while back wherein he said one of his best moments during his time in The Jam was a night after a show when the band was driving home up M5 (I think) and he realized they’d made it, or were starting to. Do you have a similar story or stories?
MR: I genuinely don’t feel like I’ve made it yet. I love to read Paul Weller had that experience. I love to read this about anyone. I’d love to feel that way some day. To me that means there’s no wolves at the door. That sounds nice. Seriously.
SEM: Is there anything about the current state of music that pleases or displeases you? And what do you and your compatriots predict or hope for?
MR: Ha! I think I answered much of this is a roundabout way a couple of questions up. But if I were to hope for something, I would hope we could start to dismantle those things that separate us, that we could start to understand the most important work we do is that which brings us together on a rock hurtling through space that may be bigger (or smaller) than we might ever imagine.
SEM: We spoke back in 2008, after the release of Matthew Ryan Vs. The Silver State, and I’d like to excerpt a few things from that interview and ask you to revisit them. “Idealism is beautiful,” you said, “and maybe it assumes too much, but I’d rather live there than in cynicism and fear.” Are you still living in idealism, now that we’re living in cynicism and fear?
MR: Absolutely. Idealism is a clear picture of what is possible. We must always be leaning in its direction while knowing we may never reach it. I am convinced that by leaning toward it things get better. There is no disappointment in that, just hunger, and it’s good to be hungry in this fashion. I’m greedy for hope and more hope and more inclusion and happiness and well-being for all of us. Life is hard, and to impose more ugliness through fear and hate and anger and cynicism is a crime against our humanity. As far as I know this is all we get, this right here, this awareness and presence, and we should be committed to offering the tools and the smoothest waters possible to as many as we can. And through that type of work and notion, a kind of greater experience here can be felt and experienced, one that can then hopefully reverberate.
SEM: “I try and write useful songs,” you told us in 2008. “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.” Are the things that daunt you now the same as they were back in 2008, still hanging around?
MR: Writing songs through a lifetime is like building a language with new dialects and layers and information. I’ve often said I believe the arts try to share the wisdom we’re not born with. I guess that’s always motivated me – I’m not particularly interested in things that only kind of convey plots. My engine remains constant. I found in rock and roll and poetry and art the things I couldn’t find anywhere else, except maybe in love. In turn, as the truth imposes itself and I pay attention and get hurt and learn and grin and persist, it comes in the ways it does, sometimes so slowly, sometimes as generous lightning. I try to keep it pure and useful. It’s not something I can describe, it’s something I feel. And when I feel “that,” it suggests others might feel it as well. So, as I continue, those are the things I share. Those are the things that make me feel really alive. As far as what daunts me now versus 10 years ago or longer? I guess it’s always been the same thing, the distance between the world I (and we) know and what’s possible. These interiors that gather like storms and influence and impose upon each other something so obvious, yet we can’t put a finger on it. The scars and the sublime, the coexistence of all of this. I find myself amazed at this great story we recognize and participate in and yet can’t put to bed. I’ve come to love it all, as painful as so much of it is…I’ve come to some conclusions. But I suspect it’s better for each of us to figure those things out. I’ve probably been writing about this the whole time.
SEM: “Owen, Rimbaud and Seamus Heaney. They’ve saved my sense of humanity more than a hundred times.” Anyone else you’d like to add to this list?
MR: Raymond Carver. My friend and mentor, Jack Spencer. My friends, Brian Fallon and Kevin Salem. Brian Bequette and Doug Lancio. My wife. My boys. My family. A great cup of coffee. A crisp but warm sunlight. A perfect night. New glasses. All the great songs. All the great movies. All the great poems. Leonard Cohen’s “You Are Right, Sahara”. Small acts of generosity or kindness I see in my movements in the world. When someone wins and you can see in their face the work and spirit of some cause greater than themselves. Martin Luther King Jr. Graceful beauty. A real smile. An uncluttered room and great design. A homemade meal. A drink served with a sense of welcome. Furniture made to last…I mean it. All of this saves my sense of humanity. Over and over again.
SEM: Can you talk about the effect having a family has on your writing, recording and touring?
MR: I have tried to let my family have their own lives while I do this. Not because I thought (or think) I’m famous or something, but because it was always their choice to be included in or exposed to something that feels public. I wanted them to have their own lives, their own stories. We artists tend to act like black holes. I was aware of that and tried to do all I could to protect them from that. Our lives together are beautiful, we all take our privacy seriously.
None of us trust the Internet with our real lives, and I don’t think anyone should. It feels like the whole machine is designed to extract something from you, to discern a need and then figure out how to get you to pay for something. Yes, there are other parts of this tool that are useful. But overall, we should cherish our intimacies more, protect them more – or at least let them only exist in sacred places. My family has made everything in my life deeper, more meaningful. Funnier and more important. I’ve always sought balance. I always wanted to be there and do this, to find a way to do both well. I’m pretty certain I’ve failed in some ways at both things. There were big events I missed, broken arms and victories, and those things come with a sorrow. Things always get missed. I love music and adventure, but my family has always been first. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
SEM: How did Brian Fallon come to produce Hustle Up Starlings? How did he help you put the album together?
MR: Being an artist can isolate you. You’re observant by nature. And often, you feel what you’re observing. It takes a long time to understand your feathers. Those things are probably a condition of being human. All of us. Our hearts are delicate and strong. Simultaneously. But something happens to us when we put it on the line via melody and chords and language. Our voices…however…whatever…you create or do.
Leonard Cohen said poetry is the ash of a life burning brightly, and I believe it. You have to live first. But this insistence that this mysterious work feeds us as well, it’s a hard equation to solve. Narcissism. Self-obsession. Fear. Financial instability. Despair and elation. The trench to trench of it all, the day-to-day. I don’t know any more if deliverance is available to us. I used to think there was some permanent high place available somewhere down the line in our experience, somewhere down the road. I’m not so sure anymore. Each stage is a kind of acid test we have put to bed, that we come to terms with. All we really need is love and friendship, that’s the real fuel. That’s oxygen. Everything else is almost contractual.
My friendship with Brian has steadied me and lit me up. And it has very little to do with music. Sometimes in our lives we come across someone who is carving a similar spear. Ours is driven by a kind of idealism, an insistence that as dark as things can get, they don’t have to end that way. There’s always a good fight and beauty available. This is horribly vague, but I hope it offers some intuitive sense of what I’m getting at. We all have these people in our lives who come in and there’s a mutual deepening of an understanding of the world that emerges in their presence. It’s a mutual experience. Maybe it’s just that someone helps you feel less crazy or confused. I found that with my wife as well. I’ve been lucky to have quite a few friends with this resonance. Maybe we all do? Maybe it’s what I look for, a willingness to go deeper, a bravery? I’m just not a fan of small talk or the surface of things.
Making Starlings with Brian was something I wanted to do. And he wanted to do it, too. I trusted him. We agreed this was no vanity project, there was to be no laziness. We both wanted something special to happen – we believed our guts and our friendship would insist on it. He’s a wildly talented and intuitive human. To be honest, I feel like I got over a little. He gave it all he had, as did the whole gang in the room with us. It was a special experience. That’s two in a row with Boxers and Starlings. Boxers was more of a rough and tumble experience, Starlings more transcendental. Both have forever changed what my expectations are when I’m in a room to make music. I’m so grateful both Brian and Kevin Salem have come into my life.
SEM: You wrote all the songs on Starlings, but how did you gentlemen work together to create the versions on the album?
MR: Brian pushed me. A producer hadn’t dug so deep into the songs with me in a long time. He would insist that some songs could be better, that they weren’t quite there yet. And again, I trusted him. It was fucking difficult, my ego kicked in a couple times…but there were wins like “Run Rabbit Run.” It started out as a sloppy punk-folk-fist-in-the-air via my acoustic – there was a whole ‘nother section to the song he scrapped, and it was for the better. He has this intuitive compass, he’s measuring things by some emotional history. Not necessarily by formulas or formats, but by something more mysterious. I do the same thing. It’s the first time I’ve worked with someone who shares this thing that’s so hard to describe. After weeks of looking for it I sent him a phone memo of a more meditative version of the song that excited me, it finally felt right. This was just a day before we started recording. It spoke clearer. He said immediately, “There it is, I can hear it now…I know what it wants to be.” I don’t know if we won every battle. Songs evolve over time – they can be as stubborn as we are. But I know from start to stop our hearts were in the right place. The whole gang’s were.
SEM: What was the recording process like?
MR: There’s something that happens when a band is in a room playing together, breathing and leaning together. The recordings always have an air of immediacy to them, even if the weather is languid. They live longer. We have to be careful with technology – it’s only a tool. When I listen to Motown, or to Dylan’s first records with a band, I can’t get enough. They have spirit. They have a sense of communal revelry. That what I want to feel. Both Boxers and Starlings were done that way.
For Starlings I recorded demos and shared them with the whole gang. The demos were purposefully rough, impressionistic. I wanted the guys to make the music their own. I love the generosity of self musicians share. Brian inhabited those demos and guided the band to what he was hearing. There was a ton of non-verbal communication, all feel. It was fascinating to watch. Doug Lancio was the engineer, and he’d start picking up on where Brian was headed, and he would start adjusting the sonic language to where it was going. We’d perform the song as many times as needed until there was this vibe in the room, this unmistakable sensation. I’d sing every time; Brian, Brad and Bequette would play, and eventually we’d all agree: there it is.
SEM: Half the time I listen to your albums I want to cry. It’s like you’re always veering between anthem and elegy. And sometimes your anthems sound like elegies (“Hustle Up Starlings” comes to mind). I think this line from “(I Just Died) Like an Aviator” sums up the geography of your work: “Our guts are born in that fiery trench/between hurt and hope”. How do you balance the exuberance and the sorrow?
MR: Ha! If our efforts in the arts are a truthful distillation of really living, then those things, in some fashion, are always inherently present in our snow globes.
SEM: I think “Battle Born” includes some of your best lyrics:
On a dark lit night
In the throes of another fight
I heard a song made me feel alright
Made me wanna explode into light
I don’t know if there’s more than this
A loud guitar, some comfort or a kiss
All I know is that it’s the shape of a fist
And it’s pounding inside your ribs
Isn’t it amazing to be here, now, and still feel this way? To still be gobsmacked, as the Brits say? To be able to spend half a day in a record store, or even longer…
MR: There’s only two things that mean everything to me: to be arrested by a song and to be arrested by love. I look for it all the time. I’m rarely more disappointed than by ugliness or a bad song. They infuriate me, such a waste of what we’re capable of.
SEM: Many of your songs mention battles, boxing, fisticuffs…these images show up quite often. I think this is what rock n’ roll is for you – no prisoners.
MR: This is life, the struggle to remain hopeful and idealistic against all knowable information. To remain in and for love when you’re heartbroken. To keep your fists up and to keep leaning, particularly as you go further and the big question marks regarding yourself and all that you love impose themselves upon you. We can’t be delusional. We must remain clear-eyed. Our hearts depend on the possible. I believe when we contribute hope and the fight for hope, we contribute something meaningful. Useful. It may be a thread through all of us and time…yes, I understand the weight of that. I’d rather be on the hopeful side of history.
SEM: “I’ve loved a woman with everything I have/And I pray to god I’ll give her more good than bad” from “Hustle Up Starlings” reminds me of “Cautious Man” from Tunnel of Love: “Now Billy was an honest man/he wanted to do what was right/He worked hard to fill their lives/with happy days and loving nights.” It’s funny how we have such a Manichean view of what we do, how we “tally up” our relationships. We want to look back at our marriages and see we filled our spouses’ lives with happy days and loving nights. That we gave them more good than bad.
MR: I believe we can see in the eyes of those we love the “tally.” We can even see it in the eyes of strangers. It’s there that we measure what we do. We should hope we like what we see in the eyes of others. And if we don’t, we should work towards lifting burdens. Damage and pain have long arms. But so do hope and generosity.
SEM: I love how sound of “Hustle Up Starlings” seems to build, but never break, throughout the song. It reminds of The Verve a bit, that big, billowing sound. There’s a majesty to some of the songs on this album, particularly “Hustle Up Starlings” and “Summer Never Ends,” which is an outstanding album closer. And they stay with you: they seem to do what I want them to do, though you sing on “Hustle Up Starlings,” “I love a song that doesn’t care what you want.”
MR: That’s beautiful to read in an interview question! Doug and Brian handled those reigns, though I always sat with my lance and bullhorn in the shadows vibing and willing the outcomes. Ha, we all did! Luckily, we all share similar roots and dialects, so the battles were rare and short and generally only about making the songs better. It was a beautiful collaboration all the way around, Bequette and Pemberton as well, none more important than the other, including Hans DeKline who mastered it. I love the way our hearts and experiences make noise when we collaborate.
SEM: In “Hustle Up Starlings” you sing, “the things we love will one day disappear/First slow and then so quick.” It reminds me of The Sun Also Rises, when Mike Campbell is asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Which is exactly how it feels, I think. Hustle up, starlings, we’re running out of time. Every day is numbered.
MR: My hope here was that maybe if we accept the moving and the passing of all this, we could commit more to the intimacies of our moments here. So much of our culture is about speed and multitasking and instant judgment now, the hustle. There’s been progress, we mustn’t be luddites, but not everything amounts to progress, and we have to understand what steals our time and experience these days. So much of it creates dissonance, yet it’s only a tool – we’re giving too much power to a tool, and it’s strange and counter to our best, most rewarding experiences. We need time to figure each other out, to understand our own lives. Chaos hides the forest from the trees. We are pulled in so many directions. The busyness of life was always stealing something; now it feels ruthless. I don’t know what’s beyond this that we see and know (and sometimes come to take for granted), but I know our commiserations and experiences in these moments together are transient – they should be savored. They will be taken from us because this is the nature of our now. But we shouldn’t surrender them. We should lean into them while we have them.
SEM: When I listen to “Closing Time” I also hear a bit of “Here Comes a Regular.”
MR: I’d never thought about that. But a friend shared with me recently that the shape of the flower is always above the seed. It’s a concept that made sense when he said it. So I guess it’s always there. “Here Comes a Regular” is an early love of mine. There is a rejection of something, and the acceptance of and lean toward something else in both songs. So that definitely makes sense.
SEM: There’s an address to Paul Westerberg on “Battle Born:” “Aw Paul, why’d you disappear? Was there something ringing in your ear? Or did you just grow tired of tears?” He owes us nothing, I guess, but with every year he doesn’t put out a record…I just keep wishing he’d stayed in the game and kept swinging for the fences. Maybe even that level of fame is just too much bullshit. Maybe he just wanted to be home with his wife and kid. He just walked away.
I think he was our generation’s Dylan, in a way, just miles beyond most of his contemporaries…we were lucky to be in the presence of that magic. I think we’re all still astonished we found that band, and having those albums still feels like being armed against the worst of it. Everything helps me live – the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley…but has anyone ever put a song together like “Bastards of Young” or “I Will Dare” or “Swinging Party.” Only some of us understand. Some people will tell you they wish they’d made it to Woodstock or that they’d seen the Beatles live or that they wish they’d seen Zeppelin…I’m just glad I was in my teens and twenties when the Replacements were making records and touring, that I got to see them live and read about them in actual, printed magazines.
MR: I’ve never met Paul. I try not to meet many of my heroes for the reasons we all might understand. If Paul is happy (or happier) now, then I’m happy for him. I’m grateful for all he offered. I found it when I needed it. Pop singers represent something aspirational. Artists offer a resilient and sublime torch, as ugly and beautiful as life itself. I was a teenager when I heard him for the first time, it was a revelation to hear someone that conflicted and certain, badass and wounded. There are a hundred reasons for almost anything. There was a time when I couldn’t understand him walking away. I don’t feel that way anymore. The things that keep us alive change. I hope he’s happy above anything else. Hell, I wish that for all of us.
SEM: In a Facebook post last July you wrote: “I had my reasons for choosing this photograph for the cover of Starlings. It remains a durable message for me. Both light and dark, about intimacy and the things that happen… From 1 to 2 to 7 and all the way to (and between) all of us.”
MR: It’s a photo my friend Jack Spencer had out on one of his tables in his workspace. It was immediate – I knew it was the cover for Starlings. The original is in color. I felt awful suggesting he make it black and white, but the green tones in the original didn’t quite feel like the music. Jack was kind enough to explore the black and white idea, and when he got to what you see now, it felt perfect. It implies so much about the songs. Intimacy. Family. Explosions and space. The mundane. Some like to sit and watch the world burn…my friend and recent go-to designer, Joe Maiocco, found a way to impose my name and the title on it without lessening the cinema.
Daniel Lanois’s 1993 album, For the Beauty of Wynona, has one of my all-time favorite covers. In some ways, in that way that art is a kind of murder, I’m always trying to find something as beautiful and as resonant with my work as Jan Saudek’s photo is with Lanois’s work. These threads go through us forever, always pushing us to try and be clearer, more cohesive. And to honor of our history. Jeri Heiden also designed the cover of For the Beauty of Wynona, among so much other beautiful work.
SEM: Do you have an image in mind as you’re writing and recording, or is the cover sort of a summation once you’re done?
MR: When we’re lucky, the cover art is the emotional snapshot of all you’ll hear. It’s something I look for once a collection has imposed itself and has then been realized. It’s one of my favorite parts of the process, but it’s harrowing when the image hasn’t come or presented itself. Putting myself on the cover is often the last thing I want to do, so I’ll look and look and look…I’ve begrudgingly put myself on the cover a bunch because other, more impressionistic cinemas just hadn’t revealed themselves within a reasonable amount of time. My least favorite cover is East Autumn Grin. There was a picture Beth Herzhaft, the photographer, had taken of an empty room at The Ambassador Hotel, and it should’ve been the cover. I know why I hesitated, and I regret it now: that record is about empty rooms.
SEM: What was the impetus for Starlings Unadorned?
MR: I didn’t actually play much on the recording of Hustle Up Starlings. I wrote the songs and the chords and the outlines if you will, but I gave the fellas full reign. I trusted them to make a collective noise I myself couldn’t reach, and I loved watching and feeling those guys inhabit that space. As can be expected, some tonal information changed, and I had to essentially learn the songs, which I did after we were done. I enjoyed the process of digging into the nuances Brian and the guys created so much that I started recording them as I went. Once I finished recording the solo versions, I felt they kind of widened the screen for the album, kind of like a ragged and intimate counterpoint. I set them aside thinking I might do something with them someday. I’m so grateful to the listeners who continue to welcome and purchase my music; their gifts make it possible for me to keep sharing these offerings.
SEM: Is there a point when you have an idea for an album, and then you’re writing songs specifically for that album, or do you just write a number of songs and then pick and choose?
MR: I wish there was an easy answer for this. It’s always like moving furniture in a dark room with holes in the floor – it’s a beautiful process, as long as I don’t try to insist on certain things. I mostly welcome it and wait. But when the good ones come you know it. And they almost always bring a gang.
SEM: You have a knack for great opening tracks (“Guilty,” “3rd of October,” “(I Just Died) Like an Aviator)”. What do you look for when you’re picking an album-opener?
MR: I love movies that feel like a time and place, a distinct moment, like when weather comes in – emotional period-pieces, I guess. That’s what a song can do, too, and that’s what I lean toward. Most of my albums work like plays or films: they open with a conflicted revelation and progress towards resolution. I don’t tend to know the opener until they’re recorded. There’s a lot of magic that makes a song. So far, it’s been obvious every time. I mean, if you’re gonna lean in to tell someone you love them, you’re not gonna open with a burp. The right words come when we’re inspired. So do the right songs.
SEM: If you ever record a covers album…
MR: I love so much music that’s an impossible task. But straight off my head two songs come to mind: “Over the Hillside” by The Blue Nile and “Storms” by Fleetwood Mac. I love Stevie’s voice, and that song is amazing, everything about it. I identify with it. Reminds me of people I know. I’ve also always wanted to do a Social Distortion song – I’ve got a soft spot for “I Was Wrong.” “Skeletons” by Rickie Lee Jones as well, and “Our Father’s Sons” by The Gaslight Anthem. Frightened Rabbit released a song not long before we sadly lost Scott Hutchison, “Fields of Wheat,” and I’d like to take a swing at that one someday as well. And my friend Jeff Finlin has a song called “I Killed Myself Again Last Night,” and I would love to take a swing at that one, too. There are so many beautiful songs out there, you’d think there’d already be enough out here, but there never will be as long as we have so many wild hearts full of so much disparate weather.
SEM: You’ve toured with some incredible artists, including Rhett Miller and The Gaslight Anthem. I imagine it’s a big thrill to play with musicians whose work you love, particularly as you get to see them play a few times over the course of the tour.
MR: I love when it’s beautiful. And I certainly love the friends you mentioned. Paul Weller was a thrill. Music has offered me some of the most ignited and surreal moments in my life. People are beautiful when they’re in a room together feeling something together. I’m talking about the artists and the listeners. All of us. That’s all that matters. That’s all I ever look forward to, that feeling when we’re actually together in a room, feeling those giants we’ve all got inside, together.
SEM: What’s it like for you in a world without Tom Petty? Pat DiNizio? I think, like you, these are two artists who stayed close, and true, to their influences. Their hearts were on their sleeves, and I think this is what your musical heroes have in common. You are unabashed about your influences – a champion for them, actually – and I think it’s one of the things that makes listening to you so pleasurable and so worthwhile. It’s a bit like sailing on a mythical sea from colossus to colossus.
MR: And Leonard Cohen…and Prince and David Bowie. Aretha Franklin. Percy Sledge…with all of them leaving so recently, I feel a pressure to do better work. I say this humbly. I love music, I love what it gave me. I love how it widened me. I feel it’s important to honor those who brought this gift into my life, into our lives. A great song with an honest voice is an education and a comfort – it’s lightning. That I can act as a kind of humble ambassador to what I feel is great work gives me a sense of purpose. I’ve never been into it for myself, though I’ve struggled with some of the things that many in any endeavor do. But the work of those I love is with me for as long as I get to do this. I’m grateful beyond words. I get to do my part in passing it on. I feel there’s been a shift in the last couple of decades, a kind of indoctrination into measuring one’s value solely by the omnipresent market. This imposes a different set of skills. Entertainment is not necessarily art, art is not necessarily entertainment, and we must understand the difference. Survival is the goal, not immortality. To me, anything other than that gut compulsion to ignite and be ignited is the antithesis of what art should lean toward. It’s a humanitarian cause first and foremost. A lean toward sanity and joy in this quiet (and sometimes loud) constant that makes very little sense in the middle of the night. I feel a pressure to do the best work I can for that sacred relationship between a person, the air they’re in and the sound they’re welcoming. I always felt that pressure. Even more so now, though, as our heroes from a golden age leave. But they leave behind amazing maps and compasses. I’m so grateful to all the talented people who gather and gathered to make all these noises that lead to something like stairs for our hearts and minds.
SEM: Mixing pop and politics, as Billy Bragg put it, is perfectly fine with us. As long and loud as you like.
MR: If you’re asking me about Trump, it’s been a fucking nightmare. An absolute disembowelment of faith I had in human nature and so many of our fellow citizens. We gotta keep pushing him out. Slowly. We’ll win. There’s a certain exhaustion that can settle in when these themes, these darker impulses that insist they represent power or strength reoccur. These battles we’re confronted with, it’s something from inside of us. Sometimes it bubbles up into a collective fever, manipulated or fearful – they’re like storms, primal and cunning, ruthless, but capable of being quieted. Anger feels real, but sometimes it’s just fear: it takes strength to be a good human, it takes vigilance to not succumb to our darker parts. I’m not saying we’re monsters; I’m saying we’re imperfect.
Our engines gather so much information, sometimes we misinterpret what needs changing. We are in the midst of the rise of something dangerous. Beyond the physical dangers of the kind of blindness and (almost) reptilian stupidity we’re currently enduring, there’s a pollution of the spirit, a collective disenfranchisement. Everyone feels misunderstood, everyone digs in, everyone feels an enemy. Trump is a diseased man. He infected his family and his associates, and now he’s trying to make our government a mirror of his hungry interiors. He’s poisoned rain seeping into poisoned dirt seeping into the water supply. He’s infecting our country. And the further in we go, the less I understand those who continue to support him. Our culture is careening towards something so toxic, something so loaded by all that we consume intellectually, spiritually and emotionally…it all seems weaponized, trying to extract something. Each of us digesting these corruptions and threats, ultimately alone, looking for answers and salve from it all. Some are turning to anger, some are suffering from depression and anxiety, some have resigned themselves to a defeated detachment. Some are journeying toward indoctrination and a kind of fundamentalism.
All of it amounts to isolation in plain sight. Strangely it all forms a vacuum, and power loves a vacuum. We have work to do. We must lean back into each other, towards intimacy and community and trust and fact and a sense of the common good. We are imperfect, and so are our systems and our philosophies, but we are at our best, at our most promising, when we are leaning for and with each other towards our better natures, toward inclusion and equality of opportunity and security and our great stories and ambitions. As old as our organized efforts are, there’s this presumption that wealth equals worth, and that the wealthy are worthy to lead, to make decisions. And I guess sometimes that can be true, but so can a poor man be worthy of an elevated station.
This marriage now of capitalism and culture and the aspirational worship of money is getting wires crossed. Conscience is what makes us powerful, leaning together is what creates progress. We have a responsibility to each other. Anything else is succumbing to the diseased or tumbling back to the medieval or to the Old Testament…I say those words (agnostically) on purpose. Inclusion, true lightning, is the only way forward. Our culture and our economic philosophy have entwined to the point of powder keg delusion. We see it in our politics, in our art and in our news. The profit motive above all else, above betterment and sustainability, above soul. We must separate these things. We must give those the boot who would exploit us like this. It doesn’t have to go off the rails. Trump didn’t break our culture – he’s exploiting the fractures. His ascendance is a symptom of something so corrupted and off the mark that a regathering of ourselves and what we hope for is necessary.
Our culture needs a renaissance: not everything or everyone is measured by what it earns in stock and dollars or the shiny two-dimensional half-story of brand. Our economic philosophy has to welcome and imbue notions of (secular) morality and sustainability. Our news has to lean on facts and betterment through information. Our communications have to insist on nuance and complexity. I could go on and on and on…I’ve hesitated to say any of this, and to try and tell the fullness of my thoughts here feels, even still, like I’m coming up short. There are so many angles and reasons.
As an artist though, I play a particular role in this, which is felt during periods of great dissonance. I guess that’s part of my job description, to express the weather of where we are, to encourage us once again that more is possible, to do as best I can to call a spade a spade. It’s mysterious work, and it’s not journalism or science or politics. It’s the creation of a melody and mood and language, a combination of the risks we’re taking, the dark comedies we entertain, trying to align the compass arrows of what we do together and alone…how to dismantle a bomb.
I consider this the work of a fellow human driven by wherever art comes from, and I guess I would direct anyone reading this interview towards my latest song, “On Our Death Day”. It’s the first new song I finished in our present situation. And though it is dark, it’s not as dark as it might appear. The death of an idea can be a good thing. It’s not a diary or a history book. And it’s certainly not only in earnest, but it’s about action. It’s not about revenge or dissolution – it’s not even really about Trump. It’s ultimately about love and us…and as Leonard Cohen said, “Love is the only engine of survival,” which I believe and have found to be true. I hope the song is useful.
SEM: I’d like to close with a Facebook post of yours: “I know this thing I do, these offerings, they’re dependent on a circular communication. Mysterious from the birth of a melody and words to how they’re received via transmissions of Polaroids, and finally in the ‘air’ in a room when at last we’re together…strangers, yet somehow a family. I know the use of that word is dangerous, implying all sorts of complicated things. But love and music and our interiors (and how they mingle in those privately public spaces) are complicated. I often call it lightning. For better and for worse. So maybe we’re weather systems, or maybe we’re a gang, or a species. Or maybe we’re just humans.”
MR: Makes sense to me. I stand by it.
(1997) May Day
(2000) East Autumn Grin
(2002) Dissent from the Living Room
(2002) Hopeless to Hopeful
(2003) Regret Over the Wires
(2004) These Are Field Recordings
(2006) Strays Don’t Sleep
(2006) From a Late Night Highrise
(2008) Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State
(2009) Dear Lover
(2010) Dear Lover (The Acoustic Version)
(2011) I Recall Standing as Though Nothing Could Fall
(2012) In the Dusk of Everything
(2017) Hustle Up Starlings
(2018) Starlings Unadorned