I spend the better part of my days having typical conversations, in a typical world of ‘checking in and out’. For that reason I have key people in my life that I go to so they can push me beyond the mundane and trigger the art within me. On Earth Day nonetheless, I sat down virtually with Ryan Star, hoping and craving that he would indulge me with an “atypical” conversation rather than just another interview.
“I’m a fan of not-typical – like you – I’m not interested in checking in and checking out and checking in…” he says which elevates my confidence in the ‘interview’ format I chose for today’s conversation. In this last month as the winter slowly comes to a close here in Muskoka (it takes a while in these Canadian parts) and spring starts to peak out from the dirt I start to ponder new indulgences into my own creativeness. I’m not one to share my ‘art’ in the traditional sense; I don’t give it out willingly like a musician shares music with fans or a painter having a show at a gallery. The ebb and flow of creating in any medium can be a struggle. I’ve always been curious how Ryan stays inspired to write songs and create his ‘art’. I ask about his people and how it seems from my view that he surrounds himself with artistic characters:
“All the colours and the people come into my mind of who I’m thinking about….I like the uniqueness and specialness of people, when I watch Seinfeld and Kramer comes in the door like that and rockin’ through – in real life people are ‘like that fucking guy, the neighbor is so annoying’ – well I love it, I embrace that, that’s different, that’s fun, that’s special – it keeps it fresh. With my friends, the people I surround myself with, they are atypical, they don’t fall into that standard, but the other thing is they aren’t off-the-wall crazy creative where they can’t function in reality creative”
“the creative ones pop up and I use them – but more importantly I’ve learned from an early age that just because the guy has a Grammy or a credit or whatever to his name doesn’t make them better than my friend who lives next door who’s just fresh and doesn’t care. I see talent in people and when I see that, I try and harness it”
This attitude is genuine and ‘very refreshing’ (tm Kramer); if I had a Junior Mint nearby I would have offered one to Ryan. As an artist I truly believe that Ryan has an interesting way of seeing his world, it has a huge influence on how he has developed his craft over the last three albums. I don’t believe he sees anything he’s done as a mistake “I willingly did things outside of my comfort zone to test the boundaries of what I’m willing to do and who I’m willing to be as an artist.…I went far and it was interesting. I now understand that. But I like this more and I’m going to stay in this world more. Legends can tell you that it’s the third record that they realize who they were. It takes a second of going left and right until you finally bowl that strike.”
Ryan describes what he is doing now with Angels & Animals as a “modern version of Elephant”. He speaks passionately saying “I call it Nineties 2.0 – I’m proud of bringing back a rawness in such a computer world, try to bring back the heart, the same reason why kids want to hear records on vinyl, bring back the experience of listening to music. I didn’t sign up to play musak or just one single, I didn’t sign up for that……I didn’t make this record thinking I should go play the game.” As a fan, and one that follows closely, I will speak for the lot of us – we are glad Ryan isn’t playing the game – we want to hear what he wants to play.
Ryan goes on to say “the cool thing is I have you [fans] on the other end…when you are first starting you do it for yourself. Then you do it for the potential audience, and now I have an audience – it doesn’t matter small or big, I know who I’m singing to now.” I interrupt and let it be known that we want him to do it for him – that’s what we want to hear. Ryan poignantly jumps in and says “but at least I know what you like and it helps me get confident in what I like, because what you like happens to be what I like. It’s very simple and it’s awesome….a lot of this record was done like that. The rule was – if we think it’s good – it’s good. If I like it, that’s it, I like it. There was no editing, no 10 takes, you have one take to get this, but I’ll give you three takes.”
The refreshingness continues and I long for a Junior Mint.
He is very much a visual artist who translates what he sees into his music. ‘This is How I See It’ is one of those sayings that is a constant reminder to me and one that pops up in my life often – it is the title of the biography of artist and photographer David Hockney, who has been a huge influence on how I look at my world. Environment will influence and impact anyone’s life – creativity, mood, and general well-being, whether it is the Canadian Shield, or the pristine lakes of Muskoka in my case, or the Manhattan skyline Ryan gets to see every day, or the street art flanking the buildings in Brooklyn.
When asked about the ‘art’ that Ryan gravitates towards outside of music:
“Lately it is street art, and we talked about creative persons and this is someone that didn’t fall into my lap – I had to will to find this person. His name is Pixote…he’s a street artist around Brooklyn and if you come here you will see his shit everywhere (themrpix on Instagram). Every building has his tag. It’s not what he is painting, it’s how he’s doing it and where he’s doing it. There is something to it…it’s very tribal. I literally looked up one day and thought – I have to find this guy. Next thing I know he’s doing the art with me on the album and has become a friend. It also turned out that he was in a rock band that opened up for my band Stage years ago, the connections were pretty incredible.”
Pixote is the epitome of underground NYC subculture, and Ryan has gone back the basics with Angels & Animals releasing this album without major label support: he says ‘the music consistently follows my environment more than I create the music’. The artistic connections between these two artists goes beyond the inner 12-year-old boy and his skateboard. They are both purists with their art forms, indie musician and elusive graffiti artist. The collaboration on Angels & Animals has these over-lapping subcultures creating a raw version of the rstar entity that jumps back to ‘elephant’, and at the same time launches Ryan Star miles forward.
What is good and who decides? I’m in the midst of an ABC Playlist project and how could I not ask Ryan to contribute? As my list is a work in progress there was no harm in skipping ahead to R – for rstar. We decided that he’d give me five songs – what he’s listening to…what he can throw at me in this particular moment. Of course he defers to songs on the cover challenge and we agree those are a good start but he still needs to give me five. Here they are….
R is for RSTAR
- Frank Ocean – Bad Religion
- The National – Fireproof
- Bon Iver – Perth
- Band of Horses – No Ones Gonna Love You (although he gave me the choice of this or Is There A Ghost – both equally great songs)
- Matthew Good – Strange Days “for the Canadians” he says. We had a lengthy discussion about our mutual love of Matt Good. Strange Days is the song that led Ryan to MG (not his favourite, which he never did divulge)
And the songs from the cover challenge if you aren’t familiar with it…..
- Tori Amos – Crucify
- Pixies – Where is My Mind?
- Pearl Jam – Black
- Tool – Sober
- Lorde -Team
- Chvrches – The Mother We Share
- Bastille – Overjoyed
- The 1975 – Chocolate
- Imagine Dragons – Demons
- Leonard Cohen – If It Be Your Will
If at the end of the cover challenge Ryan says ‘fuck it I’m covering xxx’ then you know that he took to heart my granting him permission to rig it. Blame Canada – it’s been done before!
The challenge talk turned into full-on music chat about The Pixies and the fact that they were one of the first bands I saw live way back when, loving the music we grew up on and trying to engage the younger generation. Ryan says “I’d love to talk to the 16-year-olds right now and get them into cool shit” and he speaks with excitement about showing his younger cousin the way with artists like Jeff Buckley. The generational connection we have is clear – we like many of the same artists, support the same causes (see dog rescue information below), and we see the world around us uniquely. Perhaps this is the Gen-X way of living in 2014? The years in which we came of age shaped us all into the people we are now – connecting us all with the music, art and lifestyle from our past. Nostaglia is present, and when you experience the full circle – second time around effect – you see how it was the first with clarity and the phenomenon of ‘enlightenment’ is very refreshing. (I just couldn’t help myself with that one)
The conversation turns into an all-out Canadian geography lesson explaining the location of cottage country and the venue “The Kee To Bala” where Matt Good plays every summer. “I love Matt, he’s my favourite. He’s amazing. I chatted with him on the phone for a few hours. He knows more about American politics than I do. We were talking about him producing some songs off Songs for the Eye of an Elephant and then I went on a TV show. Sliding doors, you know” GAH!!! Imagine that, a MG/RSTAR collaboration. Maybe someday? A girl can dream…..
“You need to say ‘Ryan wants to come hang’ next time we are in the area. We’ll make a detour, I really want check it out….I need to get a gig at The Kee, that would be sweet” is how Ryan closes the conversation.
I’m holding you to that, Mr. Star.