Songwriter Matthew Ryan doesn’t pull up in a limo. He doesn’t ride over in a new sports car. He doesn’t even get dropped off by a cab. In true rock star fashion, Ryan comes sauntering slowly down the street, brown UPS hat, brim slightly rolled, pulled down to shade his squinting eyes from the sun. It’s a beautiful fall day, he notices as he draws closer to The Red Rooster, a new café at the corner of Murphy and 46th in west Nashville. There’s not a cloud in the light-blue sky and a gentle breeze is blowing through the trees, rustling the mostly-green leaves as they show their earliest shade of rust. He’s been at home spending a short five-day break off a national tour with his family. In fact, he’s just finished mowing the lawn.
“You never really get used to it,” the 32-year-old Ryan says of life on the road, as we sit on the patio, cars rolling by intermittently on a lazy Tuesday afternoon. “I miss my family so much it makes me sick sometimes, but this is how I make a living and it’s what I do best. The truth is, for them, it’s better, too because if I wasn’t doing this I’d be miserable. I’m always reminded how much better this life of playing music makes me feel.”
And Ryan has been feeling better these days. He’s happy with his career and his home life and his music. And he’s been touring with friend and lap-steel player, Kevin Teel in support of his new album, Regret Over The Wires. But Ryan wasn’t always so at peace with his life. Over the past few years, he went through the kind of difficult personal journey that makes you question everything. Before recording his previous album, Concussion, Ryan was dropped by his label, Interscope. It wasn’t so much losing the deal that bothered him. It was the uncertainty of his future.
“It wasn’t a jilted lover thing,” Ryan says. “I felt more betrayed by myself in the present. I was trying to make this record called Water To Burn [that originally featured a few of the tracks that ended up on Regret], and it just didn’t feel right at the time. It wasn’t true to where I was at. I felt strongly that I needed to make a record like Concussion. I had these songs sitting around that I had turned my back on, and I wanted it to be as lethargic and as disengaged and disjointed as I felt at the time. I went through a period where I felt more and more outside of myself. Like I was viewing myself in situations and viewing the decisions I was making. And when you make a decision you’re going to do something with your life, and you go after it and throw everything into that car and head down that road—and you find out the road you were on, maybe it’s not a dead end, but it’s trouble … I went down a road that I believed was my future and it turned out to be harder than I could have ever imagined.”
After the quiet, sad Concussion was released, Ryan spent about three months working in a warehouse, trying to put his music in “a cryogenic freeze.” But the more he tried to let go of music, the more it meant to him. He started listening to his Clash and Replacements and Dylan records, and most importantly, music started to move him again.
“I think anybody—particularly in your 20s—you go through this period where you think you have the world by the ass,” he says. “Then you start taking your hits. And what really measures you is what happens after that. You’ve got to try and find the hope and elegance in your struggle. The most important thing about happiness is not measuring your happiness by the outcome, but by the moment. And I had to slowly, not only recognize that, but also believe it.”
With Regret, Ryan started to feel more up to his future. More up to just putting his head down and walking forward with a little bit of the elegance he was talking about. This fresh perspective helped inform the songs on his new album, which is considerably more of a rock record than Concussion.
“It’s a little more raucous, more driven … and hopefully more beautiful in a sublime way. It reflects how I’ve changed and how my worldview changed between those two records. I feel more optimistic now than I ever did. Unfortunately, with me there was a sense of entitlement. Because I believed, growing up in Chester, Pennsylvania, and all the trouble that was, all the crime and all the fights and bad stuff that comes from growing up in an impoverished area—of course the next 50 years will be smooth sailing, you know what I mean? In some ways, that upbringing informs the fact that I lived through all that disillusionment. That doesn’t mean its going to be all tulips and gold records from here on out—what it means is that you’ve got to value the struggle as much as the failures and successes.”