With 14 albums and nine novels between them, singer/songwriter Matthew Ryan and author Michael Koryta make one prolific mutual admiration society. We put the two artists together for a conversation about Ryan’s latest album, In The Dusk of Everything.
In The Dusk of Everything is your 14th album. A long road, a lot of great work, a lot of different directions. Obviously, you’re doing what you love. Even in that scenario, though, producing consistently good work is a grind. It’s hard. What keeps your energy up, what recharges you, pushes you on toward a new album with the same passion and love you felt for the first and the fifth?
Matthew Ryan: First off, I wanna say how cool it is to do this with you Michael. I’m a fan of your writing, your stories. You’re an artist as well, so it will be interesting to see how far in we’ll go here. This first question alone is demanding with that intimate knowledge of just how hard the good work can be. As you know, it’s not digging ditches in the desert. But sometimes it feels that way. Truth is that my work comes in waves. Creativity and genuine inspiration illuminate something. [Leonard] Cohen said [“If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”] I spend most of my time living, experiencing, observing, thinking, feeling and probably drinking a little too much coffee or tequila sometimes. But the great work comes from really inhabiting life. There’s a lot of conflict in just being human—so much beauty and disappointment. I move through my life as honestly as I can. Every few miles I sit down by the side of the metaphorical road and write 10 or 12 songs. Those songs lift me above any trials or nagging doubts I may be under, or feel have accumulated. It’s just what art does. It does it for me, so I assume it will do it for some others. So as long as the songs keep coming, I’ll keep feeling like a phoenix in some fashion about once a year.
Koryta: In “And It’s Such a Drag” you sing, “Now you talk about the past like it was just some waiting room.” I feel—and maybe I’m miles off here—that a lot of your songwriting is driven by consideration of how you ended up where you are at the time pen is hitting paper. Themes of regret and a quality of the haunted are frequent visitors, which is one of the reasons I respond so deeply to the work. Can you talk a little bit about the way looking backward is important to moving forward in your work?
Ryan: That’s true Michael. It’s not something I set out to do, but that’s the space that inspires me. I’m fascinated by this essential truth that there are only a limited number of experiences as humans. Remove the superficial, like technology and wealth and skin color, break it down to things like longing and loneliness, desire and hope. It gets pretty cinematic and heartbreaking. Yet each of us navigate our lives in these epic plots. Volumes of struggle, boredom, love, fear, hate, violence, tenderness, quiet and victory. Our hearts are so simple they’re complex. There’s something beautiful about that. And while you’d think that that knowledge would connect us, somehow it seems to drive us apart. There’s something in there that scares us. I mean, what really motivates betrayal or selfishness? How do you define peace or happiness? Contentedness? I’m looking for some great resolution that’s probably never gonna be found. But through music I feel I catch a glimpse of it sometimes, and that’s what keeps compelling me to move forward.
Koryta: Wow, that’s fantastic stuff. Love what you’re getting at with the essence of the human experience and existence there. I’m interested in the idea that you are searching for a resolution, as you put it. Can you expand on that a bit? Are you talking about the macro or the micro there or both?
Ryan: Well, it’s offered as true in my work that the micro threads out to the macro, and vice versa, it’s all connected. The themes, the reasons we do what we do are essentially the same. There’s a collective beauty and a collective madness and the origin of either of those things is blurry. But we are peace and chaos simultaneously. By accepting that idea into my work I’ve found a wide and potent metaphor to wrestle with. As far as resolution, it’s the only deduction I can make. Why else would I continue to mine this kind of dark romance? I can assure you it illuminates me, it’s not a painful process. Well, at least most of the time when the words seem to just appear. I’m sure as a writer you understand how alive that flow is, it brings a beauty to everything. And I mean everything.
Koryta: Okay, let’s talk about the sound of the new album—In The Dusk of Everything is a beautiful, spare album of soft songs. Is that move, toward a more folk-influenced place, a long time coming?
Ryan: With each collection of songs I allow them to dictate to me what they want to feel like. In my mind, words are the scene, while the music is the weather. It’s almost funny because it seems the more that I plan an album, the further it drifts from my control. My work is defiant that way. But these songs came so quick, so precise that they felt done for the most part almost immediately. I wished I had recorded them at the moment they were written. I wanted them to stand before listeners as naked and as raw as possible in their distilled beauty. It’s like a woman stepping out of the shower, no make up and water still on her shoulders. Few things are as elegant as that. The last thing I wanted to do was to dress them up in some goofy outfit that would betray their divine palette, so to speak. This kind of album won’t be for everyone, but what does that matter? The truth is that real beauty requires no lighting or manipulation. I hope these songs pass that test. For me they do, and that’s why the record sounds and feels the way it does.
Koryta: I feel as if this sort of music, the more musically spare ballads, requires a high level of confidence. If you don’t believe in your words and your melodies, you can’t hide it behind the wail of a guitar or a killer drum riff, you know? You’re a little more exposed. Is there anything to this? Could you have written in this vein 10 years ago?
Ryan: I’ve written these types of songs before, but they were always used to fill gaps. I’ve wondered at times if the couple in “Sparrow” aren’t the same people in “Beautiful Fool” off of my first record. I believe they may be. Which is interesting to me. Probably only to me… Hahahaha… But you know, a little further on down the road with a more profound sense that some intimacies should be protected with an absolute vigilance, things are fragile—careful what you let in, or let out. I think listeners got the impression initially that I was more of a rocker than I actually was. And a part of me wanted to live up to that for a while. I love The Replacements and The Clash, they’re part of my vernacular. Anthems and distorted guitars set me on fire, make me wanna punch a hole in the ceiling. But you have to write what you’re writing. You gotta trust that thing that guides you. That’s what I did. This record, this collection is a mood piece from beginning to end. It occupies a space that is unique to my compass. There’s really no knowing where it’s headed next. But right now I’m appreciative of these songs, this feeling of having captured a particular hue of light.
Koryta: I’m as qualified to offer the following opinion as I am to fly jets, but that won’t stop me from doing so. (TSA always stops me from the latter). I listen to songs on this like “And It’s Such a Drag” and “She’s a Sparrow” and I think that you sound almost more natural, more at home, with the folk-inspired album. What did it feel like to you? Smooth fit, or were there awkward moments settling in?
Ryan: Ha! I felt like a beautiful woman coming out of the shower, I got to look in the mirror and take it all in. And of course I chose to air dry.
Koryta: You’re a veteran, been at this a while now, and yet I’m always impressed by how enthusiastic you are when discussing other musicians, whether it be a long-time influence like Steve Earle or more of an up-and-comer like Brian Fallon. How important is the work of other artists to what you do? I’ve found that nothing sparks my excitement to get back to my own work like coming across a book or a song or a single sentence that makes me think, “damn, I wish I’d written that!” Is that part of the process for you, as well?
Ryan: Art offers a sense of community. It can comfort, inspire and push you along further down your own road. When I sense someone’s work is hollering from the same ditch, or a staircase nearby, I’m helpless to it. All I ever want is some pure version of a truth, a truth I can believe in. Brian with Gaslight Anthem, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen… And there are those you haven’t maybe heard of, there’s a guy named Collin Herring or my friend Jeff Klein. Or the fella from Glasvegas or The Constantines. It goes on and on, this particular fire. Of course it doesn’t only exist in music. But music is like setting off an M80 in a room where people are caught up in minutia. It should make you jump up and engage with the present. That’s what I want from music, I want it to shake me into action. Oh, and The Clash, how could I forget? I don’t wanna be told how awesome I am or how damn good-looking I am, or some other junk operating via vanity. There’s nothing wrong with escapism or pop music, but I want music to tell me that I may be fucked but there’s still hope, there’s always hope. I want music that really understands the human conflict and still insists that you persevere. Because in my mind, that’s the truth. A cursory look over the last hundred years of history tells you we have a perverse migration towards damage. Great rock ’n’ roll, great art understands that that’s true, but always insists that tomorrow could be different, better.
Koryta: In that vein—give me a couple things you’ve heard recently, the past year or so, while you were working on In the Dusk of Everything, that you wished you’d written. Album, song, a single sentence?
Ryan: I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve been hearing lately. There’s an intensity surfacing again. There’s a band called Zulu Winter that I feel has a certain longing about it. Or “National Anthem” off of Gaslight’s new album. There’s an upstart named Bob Dylan that has a great song called “Roll On John” on his new record that I find irresistible, beautiful. “Conversation 16” from The National’s last record is great, as well as “Afraid Of Everyone.” There’s so much music I love. Movies, books, photography and poetry too. But one line that really hit me hard again this year (probably rattled back into me from the vulgar polarizations we currently endure politically, economically and socially); one I really wish I’d written and offered with such a perfectly simple melody and just a touch of blinding humor is Randy Newman’s “I just want you to hurt like I do” from the song of nearly the same phrase off of his record Land of Dreams. That line pretty much sums up so many of the big whys, it’s staggering.
Koryta: We share a lot of favorites—Gaslight Anthem and The National among them. I’d toss “Terrible Love” in there from The National as well. Speaking of lines we wish we had written: you generously offered a quote for the epigraph of my last book. So, first off, deepest thanks for that. But you tossed one out in an e-mail exchange recently that was perfect for the book. We were talking about the change of seasons, and you said, “Autumn is my church.” And I cursed you for it immediately, because it would have been the line of the book had I been able to steal it in time. Please explain what you meant by that, though; I’d love to hear it in your words.
Ryan: Melancholy is the opposite of joy. And while I love joy, it doesn’t seem as constant or as available to me in my daily life. Melancholy to me implies the knowledge of something else, the duality of living. Autumn is so rich on every level. Visually, aromatically, the wind and the promise of winter. A chill when the sun goes down and those impossibly red leaves that look like they were dyed in blood. I appreciate summer, particularly the dress of women when the weather gets warms. But let’s face it: There’s nothing cool about flip-flops or shorts that come halfway down your calf. All that green and heat is exhausting to me. But if autumn were a song it would be Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My,” so defiant in its explosive beauty, not unlike Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I have so many memories attached to autumn. Again, it operates with a certain duality. If I weren’t such a realist I’d probably lean for Spring. But we don’t move in reverse.
Koryta: The epigraph quote I used was a line from “Return To Me.” I write with music playing, and I need to find music that matches the moods of my characters. That was a song that almost seemed to come from the character I was writing at the time, it seemed like his personal anthem. And I just think that kind of kinship is incredibly cool and incredibly unique to music. Because we all have those songs that we hear at the right time and we think, “Oh my God, this song is coming for me, coming from me.” They take on a really intimate connection; they work on emotions on a deep level. Is that something you’re seeking when you write—audience connection—or are you thinking largely about personal connection and then hoping that someone out there in the audience will share the emotion?
Ryan: Michael, your using of the lyrics to “Return To Me” in The Prophet meant the world to me. I have a strange amnesia about the work I do. I simply don’t think about it in my daily life. I really tend to think of it as vapor, particularly in the current culture and my story so far. That’s not a sad statement, it’s probably a form of coping or even managing my ability to remain instinctively creative. Even still there are few things that light me up as brightly as the confrontation of the intimate knowledge that my work has moved someone, or been part of the cinema in one’s life. Your reaching out to me about that lyric was one of those moments. For it to coexist with your story now somehow widens the depth of humanity art can inspire. In many ways, that’s all I would want for my work, to be there when one needs it and maybe even enhance one’s ability to feel what’s really going on inside. My process is fairly selfish; I don’t think about the audience when I’m being creative. I’ve said it a hundred times before, I’m just following trails to the most honest destinations that I can find. If a song doesn’t feel useful to me, or it doesn’t illuminate something for me, I don’t sing it. When a song or album is done, though, it still isn’t complete, I believe listeners and/or those who engage with art complete its potential energy. And that happens in people’s rooms and homes, cars and headphones. It’s a mysterious thing how a song can crawl inside you and make you feel 10-feet tall. All kinds of songs can do that—happy songs, sad songs, even songs with no words. That’s the work of art, to remind us of our limitless potential in both euphoria and despair. Books do that too. So do paintings and photographs and movies and poems, even architecture and nature. It’s everywhere, and the more we let it in, the bigger we become.
Koryta: I really, really appreciate that. And I agree 100%, too, because to me the fact that a song seems to hit the interior life of a character in a book widens the experience. And it helps the story, honestly. I think I understand more about a character when I can give them a soundtrack. So talking about this, about inspiration, tell us some wellspring we might not anticipate for you. What art has most effected your own? Is there a song that has its root in a movie, a book? What artistic inspirations can you point to with In the Dusk of Everything?
Ryan: Well, honestly with Dusk there were a handful of things that influenced what would become this collection of songs. Some of those influences were ethereal, some more direct. For instance, I have a friend named Jack Spencer, his photography is so human and spectral at the same time. The colors and uninhibited grandeur in his work and person had a huge affect on me and this record. I had just moved away from Nashville and I was missing seeing him on a daily basis, a couple photos he had given me before I left became particularly spiritually charged. But even more specifically was the score to Cinema Paradiso by Ennio Morricone. That film and its music has always moved me. And again my relocation away from the Nashville aquarium started to feel more like arriving rather than leaving even though there was a certain sadness about stepping away from people and a place that was such a huge part of my life. So I actually sat with my acoustic and played along with Ennio’s “Love Theme” from Cinema Paradiso. Something about that key and the changes, it’s a direct hit of the warmest lightning. “Sparrow” and a few others on the record are written directly in that key. I believe you could play “Sparrow” and “The Love Theme” together and something special might happen. Maybe! But there are so many things that go into songs. Some influences are more just human, I mean, this disconnect between so many people and ideas is nuclear with seeds for songs and stories, art and words. Much of Dusk came from trying to understand that disconnect and maybe offer some small version of reconciliation, some roadmap to unity.
Koryta: Along the lines of audience connection, let’s talk about performing live. When you’re writing the music, it’s a solitary thing. You no doubt hope for a connection but there’s no immediate feedback; it’s you and the work. Do you like taking it out there in the world and feeling the immediate feedback? And are there moments of frustration to it, when you play something that maybe cuts right to the core of what you wanted the album to say, and the crowd maybe doesn’t seem to feel it in the same way? I’m fascinated by this because it’s the dual role of a musician, you have to take the work out there and play it live once you’ve written it.
Ryan: Admittedly I have mixed feelings about doing shows. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when it’s beautiful. Sometimes you can feel the room expand with all that’s possible. And that happens with enough frequency to keep me road ready these days. But my songs aren’t for all occasions; they’re more like dusk in that they require listeners to see the beauty in duality. A lot of other music doesn’t operate that way and I think the audience has been conditioned to expect a certain amount of salesmanship. Now I’m confident in my ability to perform, but I’m not one of those that will do anything to get you into that car. For me it’s all about the songs and leaning for a pure experience with an audience. And sometimes that pure experience looks more like D-Day. More often than not I just wish I could get out of the bars and into small theaters where I believe the expectations from a show are different, where it’s more like seeing a movie or play where subtlety and poetry aren’t warring a din, so that a real sense of connectivity can emerge. That’s one of the reasons I keep working and pulling myself forward, I want to reach those rooms where beauty is more accessible. This is no slight on bars, I love a good bar, I just don’t wanna necessarily sing my songs in them. All of that being said, and I mean this genuinely, I’m lucky in that I have a smart and engaged audience that always shows up, even if they’re outnumbered at times by folks that aren’t fully enlisted yet.
Koryta: It’s been a rapidly changing industry in the time you’ve been around, to say the least. I think you came out around 1997? 1998? Curious what you miss about the way the music industry was then, and what you like about the way it is now? I’m assuming there’s something each side, but maybe not!
Ryan: I miss that feeling that there’s a gang of exceptional talents moving towards a shared goal. That’s been the hardest part of the new model; so much of it is online. It gets pretty lonely at times and it requires a certain self-obsession via social media that is really counter to my personality. Too often I just feel like I’m participating in the deluge. But I’m getting better at just leaning towards the things that feel good and productive. For the most part I’m my own engine now, and it’s kind of what I always wanted—to live or die strictly by the merits of what I created and offered without hype or silliness. I manage to make a decent living, and I still have this fundamental belief that I can write and sing something so pure and beautiful that it can overtake all the noise for a moment. I think that’s something worth fighting for, maybe even tweeting about every once in a while. But even further than that, I believe it’s becoming all the more important that we engage with our real communities, friends and compatriots. The Internet can be beautiful, but it’s vast and void of that timeless intimacy. There’s just nothing like sitting with someone over a drink talking about what’s on your mind and having them look right back at you with their breath nearby and their head nodding and responding to that look just behind your eyes. The other night I went and saw Steve Earle play, just him and a guitar. He started playing “Goodbye” and I got the chills. The whole room just sat there quietly listening, a few hundred of us. The place was warm and you could smell perfumes and laundry detergents floating around. I could feel the bottom-end of his guitar moving through my legs and the words were crystal clear. We were all really alive together, and it was beautiful. I wish there was even more of that in the music business today. We need to put the screens away sometimes, probably even more often than we think.
Koryta: Beautiful. And thinking of how well-written that is, how well you just put me in the scene, I’m curious about a sort of chicken-and-egg question: what came first, the desire to write a song, or the desire to perform it in front of a crowd, to have that moment like the one you just described? Or is there no separation, did you feel drawn toward both of those elements equally from the start?
Ryan: The desire to create and the desire to perform are at times contradictory impulses in my world. One I’m a natural at, while the other I often feel a bit at odds with what is expected from a performer. Writing is a quiet event; I love it. Sometimes shows are big and quiet too, it’s beautiful when it’s like that. Creativity and the expression of creativity can offer a profound sense of possibility and peace. But I’m sensitive, and I don’t mean that in a hallmark way. I mean that regarding awareness, I see everything. That can make it hard when there’s a war going on. I don’t put myself above the audience. I consider myself part of their gang. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind being the leader of a gang but I also don’t suffer fools kindly, I can have a temper when it comes to that. It’s an insult when someone doesn’t get your art or is too drunk to engage and feels it’s okay to yell and laugh and generally put a tension in a night that should have none. The right thing to do is to get your money back and go somewhere else. I used to confront people that altered the mood of a room like this; it got pretty ugly at times, and the truth is I often made it worse with my ability to physically or verbally hold a grudge. Nowadays I tend to look past it and sing for those that are listening, but even still it leaves a mark on the night that just feels like it underachieved what was possible. It’s hard to sleep on those kinds of nights. But like I said earlier, my goal is to keep working and writing so that one day (hopefully soon) I can graduate into rooms that suggest a more sublime and cinematic event. I love bars; I just prefer to drink in them. It’s strange because it’s so subtle. In many ways I feel I’ve had to communicate a different expectation from a singer/songwriter’s live performance over the years. Not because what I’m doing is so different from others, but maybe because my intent is different from others. This isn’t a weakness or a lack of confidence. I have plenty of confidence in what I do. I guess I identify more with you and how you go about your business. My shows are more like book readings. I want the room to come along with me through all that high grass and those glimmering moments of absolute deliverance because my work is absolutely dependent on an audience’s ability (and/or willingness) to lean into the beauty that the ghosts that tie us together offer. So to answer your question, the song comes first. Performance second.
Koryta: All right, last one, I’m already cheating on the length here, but your answers draw more questions, man! I could go on with this forever. You hear a lot of writers talk about how they love writing, not having written. That the joy is in the journey. What’s your favorite moment of the process—first lines on paper, first time you hear a track played back at you and know it’s what you wanted, first time you hear the album in totality, or something else along the way?
Ryan: Michael, this has been wonderful. Even if only for you and I to have chatted like this. It feels good to discuss these things with a compatriot via a different medium. I hope people that have read this have enjoyed it as much as I have. The written word that’s not dealing in brevity or slogans seems to be getting pummeled in the deluge. I believe a renaissance is inevitable, but it’ll be interesting to see just how far things will go before that happens. Talk about a thriller! As far as the joy I get from my work, one of the reasons I keep doing it is because it delivers something at every turn, at every stoplight, down every block. The initial surge of a new song is lightning. The chords and an effortless melody, lightning. Recording is like filming an aural movie, that’s lightning too. The artwork, the unwinding of my own intentions. All of it deals in mystery and I just follow the trail. It’s all beautiful. Even in disappointment sometimes there is a glowing beauty. I’ve said it before: There is a part of me that believe art can save the world. I know how arrogant, even self-important that sounds. But I know this speaking from experience. Who would I be had I never heard “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” [by Leonard Cohen] when I was 15? Who would I be had I not read Crime & Punishment or The Great Gatsby? This list goes on and on and on of art the ignited me in ways that maybe only the most honest kiss can. I mean, just recently I heard Gaslight Anthem’s “National Anthem,” and there it was again. What is that thing that art illuminates and why is it that our culture seems to want to obscure it? I’ll tell you why: Art is unpredictable, and it’s capable of toppling walls and kingdoms. After all that we are told about ourselves, art tells the truth and remains absolutely fucking indestructibly beautiful. And that’s why I do it, and that’s why every mile along the road is a gift because I might just offer something that tells someone to keep fighting—don’t you dare lie down on the side of the road, there’s beauty up ahead.
Michael Koryta is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, most recently The Prophet. His last three novels, The Ridge, The Cypress House and So Cold the River were all New York Times notable books and nominated for several national and international awards. Matthew Ryan’s latest album can be purchased directly at matthewryanonline.com/store.