Sunday, June 05, 2011

Somerville musician Audrey Ryan: A singer/songwriter in the Paris of New England

Interview with Doug Holder

Somerville musician Audrey Ryan: A singer/songwriter in the Paris of New England

Well Audrey Ryan thought I meant that the Paris of New England is meant for Boston--but of course I meant Somerville, Mass. But I can see her point. And this multi-talented artist fits well into our creative milieu on the banks of the Mystic River. On Ryan's website it states:

"Audrey Ryan is a one-man-band multi-instrumentalist whose music is quirky and genre-bending. She tours regionally, nationally, and internationally supported by Folkwit Records (UK) . She has opened for Suzanne Vega, They Might be Giants, Josh Ritter, Ra Ra Riot, Grace Potter among many others."

I had the chance to chat with her recently:

You grew up in Mount Desert Island in Maine. Now you live in Somerville...what brought you here? How do you find the "The Paris of New England " in terms of a home for artists of all stripes?

I never knew that Boston was the "Paris of New England" but I like it! That's what I'm going to tell people from now on when I'm touring in Europe...Anyway, I was born and raised in Maine and still spend my summers there, I own a small house there (more like a seasonal camp...), vote there when I can, have my car registered there...I guess you could say I'm still a Mainard in many respects, except that I live here in Somerville 10 months out of the year...But to answer your question: I moved here after college because my father is from Haverhill and I had family, specifically my now deceased paternal grandmother, who wanted me to live nearby. Plus I had a lot of friends already in the area, which helps when you are starting out a new life in a big city, to have a built in base of friends and family. And plus I love Boston, and more specifically the Cambridge & Somerville area. Always have. I actually spent 3 years of high school at a boarding school up in North Andover, MA (Brooks School) and used to take the commuter train in every weekend and jump on the red line and head straight for Harvard Square, sometimes Davis. So I moonlighted here as a teenager and was quite taken with it, considering I'm otherwise a small-town girl from an island off the coast of Maine.

To answer the second part of your questions; I think the Boston area is a great place to be an artist in that there are plenty of us, and you can also get to dozens of smaller markets within a few hours, which is key as a touring musician. Being based out of Boston I can still gig regularly and maintain a fanbase in Portsmouth, Portland, Burlington, NYC, ect...which is ideal. If you live on the West coast or in the Midwest it's a lot harder, as distances are further. One great aspect of living in the congested East Coast...

You traveled through Africa, Asia, and Australia. How important is travel for the maturation for a musician...the lyricist?

I think my early travels in Africa, Asia, and Australia were mostly pertinent to my development of character and as a "worldly" human being, having taught English in a small tribe in Africa for a year and backpacked around dozens of countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. I guess you could say that I have more experiences to draw from than people who have never left the continental USA. Not that that makes me a better songwriter per se. But it has given me the gift of flexibility when it comes to touring, in that I've traveled so much for music and just for the sake of traveling, that it comes easy to me.

Plus I have all these friends who are getting older and have the travel bug because they never traveled when they were younger, I don't really have that issue.

As for lyrics, I recently wrote a song called "Ganges" which is about my experience in Varanasi, India when I took a boat several times out into the Ganges and watched people bath themselves and wash clothes in the river when a few feet away there was a funeral pyre with a body burning as part of a religious tradition. Years later that experience still sticks with me, I'm glad I was finally able to write a song about it...

I know, as a poet I always carry a small book around with me to capture things--fleeting conversations, interesting snippets of things I am reading--and later I revisit it--and maybe get a poem or essay from it. What's your process?

I've filled a few dictators with bits and pieces of songs. Melodies & lyrics. I refer to them later on when I'm writing. I find songs create themselves in my head when I'm least expecting it. Like driving on the highway after a weird weekend in NYC or after a show in the Midwest. Usually it's somewhat nostalgic. I don't always have the right process for capturing those moments, because they are so random. All I know is that I need to record it or write it down before I walk into a store and hear other music that then dilutes what's in my's the oddest thing but it happens to me every time. That is why having a dictator handy is pretty much invaluable for capturing thoughts.

Do you compose the music first..or the lyrics first?

Music. Almost always. I find it fascinating that it's different for each artist. I remember reading something about Sheryl Crow writing lyrics first always, and I was so surprised because she described a process almost opposite to mine. Maybe that it is why my music sounds nothing like hers! Actually, I think it's because I'm more of a multi-instrumentalist when it comes down to it. I work in notes and melodies. The words usually come later when the music stabilizes a bit enough to sing over. Plus I use loops. I mean, it's pretty complicated sometimes to write a loop song you can actually sing over, sometimes I'll write a song and can't even figure out how to make a melody over it...then I start over again...

In an interview I read your lyrics were described as "words T.S. Eliot could slur." Was he an influence on your work? Are there any poets or writers that influenced you?

Which interview was that? I have no idea. I remember taking a literature class in college and reading a T.S. Eliot poem where a woman in London was eating out of a tin can, it was kind of depressing, but very powerful. I can't really say he's been a big influence although a lot of writers I've read are probably huge influences on my understanding of words and prose. But when it comes down to it my biggest influence musically and lyrically is Joni Mitchell, hands down. She is a poet and a musician, incredible lyrics, one of the best story tellers out there. After her I'd say Dylan, Neil Young, Bert Jansch. Instrumentally, John Fahey.

All in all I really value storytelling. I love books on tape because I'm always driving around in a car. I've been listening to "Life" which is Keith Richards autobiography. It's so good, I can't believe he remembers as much as he does about the Rolling Stones considering how many drugs his brain has endured. But I love hearing people's life stories. Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes") is a favorite story teller. Brings you right into his world. I love when a writer or musician can take you there with them, it's a gift.

You play a number of instruments, and your music is very eclectic. In a highly commercial market that loves to label people- has this presented a problem?

I guess it would be a problem if I was looking to be really successful commercially. Thankfully, I'm not. At this point in life, after almost ten years in the music business in some way shape or form (I started touring in college...) I just don't really care what other people think. I know that sounds bold and cliche, but it's more or less true. I'm not trying to be famous or to write pop songs that a lot of people buy into. I'm just trying to get the music that is inside of me out in the most organic way possible.

I think making art is one of the most important things about being human, if you have the chance to do so. But I think selling it, making money off of it, and being famous, is all pretty much just a pipe dream. It's someone else's definition of success. Not mine. I'm not saying that I never wanted to be really successful, of course I have. But at this point, I'm just satisfied that other people like what I do. I've had famous musicians (Glen Hansard, Suzanne Vega, Leo Kottke, Damien Rice, Beth Orton, They Might be Giants, Ra Ra Riot, Paige McConnell of "Phish",...) hear my music and respond to it more positively than I could ever have dreamed of; personally taking the time to tell me that my music is original and interesting. That's affirming enough for me. I don't need the general public to feel the same way...

Plus I've built my whole adult life around the friends I've made through making music. It's what connects me to other people in many ways, and for me that is the best marker of success.

In your writing,there is a theme of finding simplicity in your world--that at times is decidedly chaotic. Have you found that peace of mind? Have you cut to the chase in your work and life--gotten to the meat of the matter so-to-speak?

This question is the quest of my life: to find a balance. I can't say I've mastered it but I think I'm a lot more centered and happy now than I ever have been. It makes the idea of getting older not as scary, because with age comes a sort of ability to focus on what actually matters the most. I can tell you this: the music business is like high school all over again. Who is the popular cool kid, who is the hip indie hipster band (have you ever been to SXSW?...I've been 5 times...ugghhh....). I'm just not interested in any of that anymore. My simplicity is found mostly when I go back to Maine. But I think there is simplicity here in Somerville too. It's all about feeling connected to a place and people. I think I've lived here long enough to feel like I belong in some way.

It's funny that you say "peace of mind" because my friend Will Dailey has a song titled that and I sing with him on it when we do shows together. I know exactly what he means. My song is called "Simplify" and it's about the same thing. It's about making life less complicated and more focused on what is important. Getting rid of the stress when you can. As far as getting to the meat of the matter, I think as long as I'm challenging myself artistically and making music I think that is good and sharing it with people that care, I feel pretty satisfied. Plus I think love is big. I mean, Freud said this years ago, adult life is about work and love. You need both. You need to love what you do and to have loving relationships. Right now I have both, and they need my constant attention and nurturing to be maintained, so I'm just holding on tight.

* From "Dishes and Pills"

Dishes and pills
are ruining me
gonna smash the piana
and burn the TV.
Something yeah is wrong,
Real life isn't good for you,
real life isn't good for me,
and I don't want to be you, anymore than you want
to be me...

For more info go to

Here are Ryan's upcoming local shows:

Friday, July 8th @Milky Way, JP
(with Coyote Kolb)

Friday, July 22nd @Precinct, Somerville
(with Shoney Lamar)

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