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Archive of the Matthew Ryan Category

The Dear Future

It’s a perfect autumn gloom today. It has that moodiness and color that makes autumn so cinematic. I’m driving to meet some friends and for the first time in a long time I hear myself on the radio. Just that quick, the first track from Dear Lover, “City Life,? is playing on the radio. It’s a rush of proud achievement. A labor of love, it was often a persistent game of pin-the-tail on the elusive weather of music.

Everything we do is about casting. From recording records to marriage, chemistry is everything. Good casting allows people to flourish as naturally as possible in situations. I can be proud of what I’ve done with Dear Lover. It was an act of will, but I didn’t do it alone. I’ve operated under the radar for years, I’ve scratched my head and hovered so close to the ground that crashing seemed inevitable. I’ve even had record company executives (who will remain unnamed) tell me my career was over. It’s still not clear where my career is ultimately headed. But it’s never over until you yourself decide it’s over. No matter what you do for a living, living is an act of faith and brotherhood. The new world has leveled the playing field and opened the gates for all to rush in to create and listen. We live in amazing times.

On Tuesday, October 27th, I released Dear Lover digitally. The speed at which things move today is amazing, and it may be the greatest challenge we’ve ever known. Every part of our communities are being challenged by a deluge of news, politics, entertainment, loneliness, hype and hope. Is it even possible to digest it all? What suffers in this storm of culture and zeitgeist, what flourishes? Frankly, I don’t know. But I believe that connectivity means more than it ever did.

No matter what happens with Dear Lover, at it’s core is a gang that has rallied together to offer something meaningful to friends, listeners and strangers. It’s an amazing cast of people I find myself surrounded by, so much heart and talent. When I heard “City Life? on the radio I was reminded of all the things that create the entire story of Dear Lover: Molly playing the violin in one take on “Your Museum.? Laughing at 6ft 4 Brian Bequette playing that goofy lime green accordion all clumsy and great on “The World Is.? Rod singing all low and rumbling with sunglasses on because the southern July sun was burning through the room. Scott and I gathered around a mic, bluegrass style, for “City Life? (him on mando, me on accordion). Monica Hopman, my friend and publicist for years, deciding that she’d hunker down and start a company with me and go on this new adventure releasing my records. Clay and I drinking until 4am trading bass solos on “PS.? And maybe the most miraculous moment, hearing for the first time the transformative mastering job that Hans Dekline did to my very earnest mixes for Dear Lover.

All of this is between the notes of Dear Lover. That’s what I would wish for you as well, because it’s getting harder to get people to slow down enough to really listen. We don’t know what the outcome for our work and dreams will be. The very least we can do is have a great time doing it.

Listen to “City Life.?

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Building Boats

With my commitment to EM nearly over, I wonder if I offered anything useful to you readers out there. I hope that I have. Next week’s blog will be my last. My assumption going in was that many of you probably understand the technical aspects of recording, sequencing and mixing about as much as I do; many of you probably understand it even more than I do. So I decided in the beginning that I would try and encourage you to try and distill your truth as best you can.

I finished making my latest record, Dear Lover, a few weeks ago. And with the speed of things now, it will be coming out shortly. The process of making Dear Lover was like none I’ve experienced before. Mostly made by myself, it was a marathon of hope, work, beauty, frustration, elation and even some despair. The final result has made me an impossibly proud father of sorts. I followed my gut until my gut was completely at peace with what I created. And now has begun that process of allowing the record to be received by listeners, friends, critics, advocates and strangers. The process of releasing a record is far more nerve-racking than the process of making a record.

All I can tell you is that when you record a song, you’re building a boat. The first person that’s gotta be able to board that boat is you. Once you’re satisfied with what you created, you gotta let it float away. I know how this may read, but let me try and be clear, the thing about songs is that you never know how many people are gonna come along and travel along with you for a while. Could be one, none or a million, and it’s amazing you know? Because regardless of the circumstances or the room you built that boat in, if you built it sturdy enough, it will welcome as many people as are willing to come along.

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When I was recording “PS (Protest Song)? for Dear Lover I was thinking about John Lennon. I’m not a Beatles fanatic, but Lennon is top ten for me. He’s one of the bravest artists we’ve had. “Mother,? “Beautiful Boy,? “Imagine,? “Help? and “How? are all very painful yet liberating mainlines to the human condition. It’s my belief that the more personal a song is, the more universal it gets. Honest music is not for everyone. But Lennon was one of the best at turning vulnerability into heroism. And in his songs, people found a community almost like no other. That’s how I see it, and I wanted “PS? to try and drag that flag as well.

We live in a time of constant movement. Subtlety is often over-looked in our snappy compressed culture. I’ve made it a point not to succumb to the crackle and hyperbole of so much of the deluge. At times it’s made for hard sailing. But I believe that it is more important than ever to stand by the convictions of our imaginations.

“PS? is a protest song against hopelessness. I know, it sounds maudlin. But listen, watch the adverts between shows or the banners on your favorite web pages. It’s every where. This essay is too short to dissect it all. But a quick glance around and it seems there’s an epidemic of sadness and anxiety out there.

So my thinking was that every song should be infused with an immediacy inspired by it’s theme. On every level, a song should circle it’s mood and cause. It’s cumulative effect is defined by all the parts working in concert with each other. From the guitar, to the words, to the drums, bass and the organ; music has to feel above all else. “PS? had to be a grinding hope, a determined line in the sand. I played the guitar part for two days straight. I refused to lean on editing, I wanted to get it so that it dealt in beginning to end absolutes; love it or hate it. Admittedly, a more skilled guitar player probably could have gotten there sooner. I swear my fingers were left with burning dents on the tips for at least three days afterwards.

All of this is not to turn my own efforts into a monument. But to encourage anyone reading this to consider using your tools to not only record, but to feel as well.

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The 14-Track Rule and the Call For Immediacy

When I first sat down to begin recording Dear Lover I set one simple definitive rule:

Every song will be fully realized with 14 tracks or less.

So many times in the past I’ve felt that the reason we were knocking up against 32 tracks or more in a session was because we hadn’t found the parts that spoke clearly enough. If you’ve been there, you know what a frustrating sensation that is. Studio costs and schedules often only allow for short window for creativity. To work so hard only to find there’s nothing quite musically unique and/or sturdy enough to hang your song on often begins a litany of acts of compensation. Since I was already determined to capture the source for the root of each recording at home alone (as I mentioned in an earlier essay for EM), it seemed reasonable to set a track limit.

The track limit was one of the most important decisions I made because it forced me to delete and record over performances or ideas that didn’t feel like they were raising the bar. It was tempting to bend the rule from time to time. It’s takes a brave faith to delete problematic parts before you’ve found their solution. But so much of this record was intended to be a proverbial jump off the cliff for me. And it became a bold provocation to my own imagination to out due myself whenever I hesitated for fear I wouldn’t eventually invent or discover the perfect part. So I’d follow my gut and take a deep breath, press delete and go back to the drawing board.

Another reason I leaned on the 14 track rule was that I really don’t consider myself an engineer so I had to think ahead to mixing. I have a great respect for what engineers do. At their best, engineers are a perfect blend between heart and science. They make what could be impressionistic into definitive sonic weather. To be honest, I get nervous trying to EQ and mix 4 tracks, let alone 14. But since Dear Lover was intended to be as singular an expression as possible, I wanted to enjoy every level of responsibility that making an album offers. Luckily I found that forcing myself to make clear and sturdy statements with ensemble-minded performances made for tracks that immediately felt like they wanted mix themselves. So many of my favorite songs on my previous records were rough mixes, so my mode here spoke directly to encouraging a vigilant call for immediacy with my ears and gut as the only measuring stick.

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The Strummer Cannon

I always wanted to be in a band. I love the gang mentality of a group of people creating their own path through adolescence and into adulthood. I loved it so much that I spent the first half of my career insisting that I was in a band. I would gather friends and for the most part with each record, that gang I put together would define the spirit and sonic identity of the album I was making. As I went forward in this mode, I felt further from what I intended or thought my work would feel and sound like.

Now none of this is to say that the work we created wasn’t good. But I think most of us can agree that there’s a very unsettling dissatisfaction that comes with anything that we project or internalize that starts to feel like artifice. It’s not unlike growing out of a marriage, or laughing at younger pictures of yourself in some now antiquated trendy clothes that time has proven silly. We grow and some of the things we thought when we started out prove to be true, while others prove to be false. Maturity in my opinion is defined by our ability to identify our weaknesses, then to maximize them into strengths.

For me, the making of Dear Lover has been as much a personal journey as it’s been a musical one. When I started making this record I was inspired and haunted by something Joe Strummer said. I can’t recall it exactly, but I have internalized it this way, that “as long as there are others to blame, you’ll never learn nothing.”

An idea like that is a bit like a cannon. It spits you out over every memory where you failed, just missed or fell short. And once you’re offered that kind of objectivity, you get the opportunity to see what that means in your own life and/or ambitions. It doesn’t necessarily encourage you to be a one man show or tyrant. To me it means that we are complicit whether we like it or not in the outcomes of all of our endeavors. That we have to define not only ourselves, but try and allow for others to define them selves as well. Allow your compatriots to play to their strengths. The trick is understanding their strengths as well as your own.

Finally, 11 records into my career, I have completely embraced the beauty and versatility in being a solo artist. You see, by letting go of the band albatross, I have finally allowed myself to go completely towards the music I hear in my singular imagination. I still bring friends in to enhance my efforts, but I don’t saddle them with reading my mind or even worse dwelling in some car chase of artifice. By defining myself completely, it helps others to know exactly who they are in it.

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Waiting for Ricketts on Groundhog’s Day

I remember working on my first album for A&M Records back in 1997 with David Ricketts. For those who aren’t aware, David was half of the great David & David. What sealed the deal were my love of “Welcome to the Boomtown? (released in 1986); “Smart in a Stupid Way,? an unreleased, Ricketts-produced D & D song; and an eventual meeting with David Ricketts in Hollywood during the late autumn of 1996. Things moved pretty quick once David and I talked. Travel was set up, Bearsville Studio was booked, songs were tightened up and pre-production was barely even entertained. Everything moved real quick, that is, until we got in the studio.

Working with David was one of the great educations of my career. But at the time, I didn’t know it. He drove me absolutely crazy. So much consideration. So much quiet. So much listening. I was in my 20s, and thought frenzies alone made for creativity. I looked at making records as an extension of the fever process of writing that I knew at the time. But David would more often than not just sit there listening, barely talking to me or Jim Ebert, our engineer. He wasn’t cold, or aloof, or acting as he was directing some earnest, unironic version of Waiting for Guffman. In fact, he was very warm, funny and present. He just didn’t seem to be “producing.? And as I recall, he didn’t play a single instrument for the first two weeks. I didn’t understand, and it scared the hell out of me. But the further into the making of the record we went, the more clarity, spirit and precision developed.

Over the years David and I became friends, and our adventures in the studio became even more sublime. Because what I’ve come to understand by working with him is that there’s an undeniable clarity with music that comes when you know the subject matter so intimately. Those initial days and hours at Bearsville were not exercises in quiet criticism, or an attempt to deconstruct me like some rock ‘n’ roll marine. All that listening was David’s process to distill and define the strengths of what we—myself and the band—were doing in the tracking room. Once it was understood, he felt that he could contribute and possibly further enunciate the language I was trying to communicate.

So today, if you were standing outside the door of my studio while I’m self-producing, it would probably sound more like Bill Murray’s Groundhog’s Day than a record was being made. Stop, listen, rewind. Over and over again. Eventually, you would hear me play. But only after I’ve heard what’s already there. If you listen close enough to what you’re doing, you can hear what your gut has been trying to tell you. There are melodies and rhythms to be defined and exposed just listening to an acoustic guitar or piano. Generally, the instrument used to write a song has all the information you need. Listen to how you’re hitting the strings. What’s the feel? Listen to the harmonics as they develop over the progression. Is there a melody? I bet there is.

Thanks for teaching me to listen, David.

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At Every Stage

This week’s essay is a fairly short and simple but potent observation, that has steered my recordings in more profound ways than probably any technical skills or mathematical trickery, no doubt. I believe, that the goal of any recorded song is to imbue the world and those willing to listen with a more cinematic relationship with their lives and their environment. Your living room looks different at dusk, and even more different in the middle of the night. Traffic at rush hour sets a different tone than headlights at 4 am on a Sunday morning. The view from your window at Christmas in contrast with the view in June. Time and change is a constant. Music is the great enhancer.

At every stage of recording I burn rough mixes and listen in my car while driving around doing errands, circling the city on the 440 loop or cutting through the countryside that surrounds my home. It begins with the source of what I’m creating, the bare bones of an idea. Sometimes it’s just a guitar part or an acoustic and vocal take. Other times it’s a keyboard and drum machine bit. It doesn’t matter how far along the recording is or how cryptic the music is, I just want to try and find what it’s gonna bring to the world outside. And above all, I want it to multiply, heighten the experience of living. By listening to what I’m creating outside of the studio, it helps me to understand and define more clearly what I’m offering to listeners.

Recently a friend of mine and I were driving to an afternoon BBQ. She asked if I could play anything I was working on. I’m really not good at these situations. I tend to over analyze the air while some one’s listening to one of my songs with me sitting their. But she’s a good friend and artist herself, I trust her opinion. So I put on Your Museum, an Irish influenced ballad with a lot of ambiance and violins, almost a waltz, perfect for early dawn in my opinion. So we drove through neighborhoods and traffic, people moving and living. All and all a thoroughly mundane scene that we all know very well. So the song ended a mile or two before our destination. I turned off the stereo. She was quiet for a second then she said, ” did you see that guy mowing the lawn back there?” I said, no. She then says, ” well, with that song playing, it looked like the most heroic and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen a man do.” And then she laughed. I did too, because I knew exactly what she meant. And for a minute I felt like I really accomplished something.

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SM58: The Method Actor

For years I stood in front of a mic like a newscaster: controlled emoting, measured delivery and precise mumbled enunciation. And even if that’s not necessarily true, that’s more often than not how it felt. In my head in contrast, or at war with the lyrics, were a litany of short thoughts—don’t wanna distort, don’t wanna sound like an ass, don’t wanna go flat, don’t wanna over emote, don’t wanna go sharp.

Discomfort and self-consciousness are the enemies of freedom. A song should break beyond the circumstance it ruminates on; it doesn’t need resolution, or perfect mechanics or even a chorus. It needs conviction, and with that a song becomes free. No mic in the world can disguise, or make a singer sound committed or relaxed. All this isn’t to say that I haven’t gotten good vocal performances on my previous records. It’s just that it was always so hard to get to that spot where it just fell out. The list of mics I’ve sang through over the years is as long as my arm. And every engineer I’ve worked with had their reasons, legitimate reasons for the mics they used. For this record though, as I mentioned in last week’s piece, my goal was different.

Comfort equals confidence. So after trying a handful of expensive mics through a borrowed LA610, I reached for a Shure SM58. There’s something about the physicality of a 58, as well as the familiarity. Iconic really; Sinatra is black and white, Bono at Red Rocks, Iggy Pop propelling from a chord like a helicopter. The 58 is a workhorse of a method actor. It forces you to push through it, to clarify, to enunciate. 58s despise laziness. One sure way to sound crappy through a 58 is to go through the motions.

The first song I used a 58 for vocals on this record was The End Of A Ghost Story. This is a warts and all love song, late night resignations and hope on rainy streets. The other mics I used brought a prettiness. A rather annoying treatment because my voice isn’t particularly pretty. But the best art embraces duality. And for this song I wanted the words to rattle your cup and whisper in your ear. The 58 brought it and I never looked back. With some smart and generous EQ and sensible compression the throat, chest and language come alive. Sound is more than just mathematics. Sound is feeling, and when you consider the recordings of Smokey Robinson, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison you realize that feeling should be the goal with a voice.

All of this is not to say that a 58 will work for you. I hope that you explore what brings you that sense of intimate and real possibility. Don’t assume the latest technology or the latest cardioid condenser mic or simulator is the way to go. It’s not always the latest and greatest or the oldest or coolest. The 58 worked for me. You should look for what works for you, just be sure to find that balance between feeling and sound. And above all, make sure you feel like Mount Rushmore while you’re leaning into it.

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The Source

Last summer I read Outliers (The Story Of Success) by Malcolm Gladwell. Don’t get nervous, Outliers isn’t a self-help book nor is this a self-help essay. Gladwell’s book is an engaging dissertation on success outcomes and the mechanics of ambition vs. the notion of destiny. You see, in anything we do, there are different failures and successes in the designs and eventual outcome of our intent. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about music, painting, construction, love or investment banking.

What stuck out to me the most from Outliers was the concept of “good enough.” Yeah, that concept is often viewed as the harbinger of mediocrity in the studio or during the creative process. Our heroes inspire us to not only shoot for the moon. So much of music is the cinematic impression that the whole gives – all the parts purring like an engine, creating that hum of power and movement. Simple or complex, happy or sad; what we aim for is emotional weather. But sometimes we get caught up in details that have nothing to do with the overall feel of a song or track. We start twiddling knobs and messing with effects and inserting reverbs and on and on and on. These travels into the unknown can be useful adventures leading to discovery. Or, they can be diversions because somewhere in there you know that at some point you lost or obscured The Source. But the concept of “good enough” offers a freedom that I’ve found indespensible in the studio. It’s not a cop-out but an important sensory philosophy when recording because is there really a difference between a “good guitar track” and a “great one” when the performance is directly informed by the source?

What’s the source? The source is that thing, the lightening strike or sudden inspiration that leads you from an idea to something as real as a song or hook or chorus or beat or sonic emotionalism. We live in a time where technology affords most of us the ability to capture the source on “tape” the moment it arrives. Once the source is captured, more often than not it can be tweaked to be sonically “good enough.” How amazing then that our music can be infused with and by the initial excitement. It’s something we should be protective of, and it’s important to understand that that initial excitement is fundamental to the character of what we create and how listeners experience it.

Last May I hunkered down to record a fully realized record at home alone. What inspired me to do this wasn’t an ego trip or final push for absolute control. This is my 12th record, and I was motivated by the notion of the source. I can’t even begin to express how rewarding it’s been to work this way. Personally, I love the work of Brian Eno and the mixes of Tchad Blake and Flood (and so many musicians, producers and engineers). It can be daunting to be inspired by such experts and icons. But it’s been this philosophy of honoring The Source and presenting it to the best of my abilities that’s allowed me a real freedom to create.

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The Bus, EM's editorial blog, features posts from all the EM editors on topics related to gear, recording techniques and much more. It's also home to posts from a selected group of guest bloggers.


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