Listening to Matthew Ryan‘s music is always a profound experience. There is something so strikingly real and compelling within the beautifully potent sound and voice of the Pennsylvania born singer-songwriter, something that engages with listeners as much as his words, wisdom, grace and all around humbleness. And it’s like an ultimate fuel for the soul that he shares with us fellow humans.
Matthew doesn’t hide his excitement about bringing his music and his band, The Northern Wires over to the UK, Ireland and Europe to join The Gaslight Anthem on their reunion tour in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of The ’59 Sound. And as Matthew is no stranger to the majority of this audience, I am sure that him and his band will receive a great welcome at each show.
A special headlining gig is set to take place at the Borderline venue in London on 30th July, and if you also wish to experience Matthew in a more intimate setting, make sure to catch one of his solo shows, starting on August 1st in Brighton.
I caught up with Matthew before he journeyed across the water to talk about the upcoming tour, music, life and the fire within…
Eva: You’re about to join The Gaslight Anthem for their ’59 Sound Anniversary tour through the UK and Europe. What’s your level of anticipation for going on the road with TGA guys, Dave Hause, and playing for the UK/European audiences?
Matthew: I’m very excited. It’s surreal and I’m grateful. I made a lot of promises to myself many years ago when my career got so uncertain. I haven’t been to Europe with my band since around 1998. I’ve wanted to bring the guys with me for a long time. I love playing solo shows because they offer a special intimacy. They’re so pure. But often, when opening for a great rock n roll band and you open solo, it feels a bit like boxing with one arm tied behind your back while the other arm is carrying a small aquarium with a little too much water and a single delicate fish in it. I’m excited to finally share the noise my friends and I make. My band is called The Northern Wires. We’ve all played together in some fashion for about 20 years. And not to mention Gaslight and Dave. I love them both, the whole gang… I can’t hardly wait to borrow a phrase.
You will also be playing a number of solo shows across England after the Gaslight tour. What can people expect from these more intimate shows?
I’ve been experimenting a bit with the solo shows, you just always want there to be a certain cinema. The great thing is I can pull from a much larger section of my catalog than the band can, so while I tend to have a skeleton of a set that I work from solo, the feel in the room can dictate where the show goes emotionally and theme wise. I look at solo shows like they’re a more organic and moody play, there’s always a story being told and a kind of depth of field. Band shows are a bit more like the movie with the full color and noise of a gang. But both essentially lean for the same things: An honest experience, some beauty and smarts and heart, some intimacy and lightning. Music has to offer a sense of shared experience and possibility, it has to have some fight in it. The good kind. I look for that no matter the situation when I get the opportunity to play for some fellow humans.
Are there any places in particular that you’re looking forward to playing/visiting during both tours?
Well… I’ve never been to Ireland. Not once yet. So I’m really excited about Dublin and the whole experience of stepping onto the streets and earth where my family is from. A friend once told me that if every American that said they were Irish went there, they would sink the island. That’s pretty funny stuff. But you know, that’s where my family is from and Seamus Heaney and Phil Lynott and The Pogues and U2 and Glen Hansard… And so many beautiful humans that have contributed so much language and noise and hope to this hard and beautiful experience called life we share. I’d be excited to go there if I were a martian, being a distant relative to Ireland only makes it even more romantic and profound for me.
Your latest album Hustle Up Starlings, which was produced by Brian Fallon has been out for over a year now. Earlier this year you have also released a stripped back version of the record called Starlings Unadorned, and most recently an EP that features different versions of Summer Never Ends – one of your favourite tracks off the album. When you think about the so far journey of this record, how does it make you feel?
I find that most things I set out to do imbue a sense of longing. We always start out with an idea, and then we get to know the arc of our efforts. Life is all things, all experiences. From wild lightning, to grave disappointment, to boredom and wonder and exhaustion. It is always and only our job to remain curious and hopeful that more beauty can be found in what we do, who we do it with and what happens. I love the story of Starlings. I’ve enjoyed walking beside it, the whole process. But I can feel a new story leaning in to be told. And that really excites me.
You always speak highly of people you collaborate with and it seems that you have a special bond and relationship with each person you work with. What’s your favourite thing about collective creativity?
The absolute best thing happens between us. I say this as somewhat of a loner, or introvert. While I love my quiet time alone, my absolute favorite moments are those shared with others. Their talent. Their humor. Their kindness. Their creativity. Their generosity. And in return, I hope and try to offer some of those things back. You see, we all observe this experience from this quiet and loud place inside of us. There’s great comfort in the intimacies of shared perceptions and agreements and discussion and creativity. It’s our ability to see the benefits of collaboration and shared concentrations and even (simply) just welcoming the diversity of each other, that make us special. It’s in music that I found we make more interesting things together, more durable things. And even some drama and friction. But when there’s a shared understanding of collaboration and respect, “it” almost always benefits from a gang circling around and committing to the work of solutions or beauty or even noise.
You’ve been writing songs for many years and your music and lyrics are known to genuinely stir the emotions of your listeners. What keeps your passion for music and songwriting alive and what or who inspires you when it comes to staying true to yourself and your art?
We have to understand that what we do with our lives is a form of travel. There are only resting points, no destinations as far as I can tell. The whole experience is a process, an opportunity for more curiosity and growth and experience. To observe and participate in the beauties and trials each of us get to know. We are lucky to be here. We are lucky to get these moments over and over again to define a sense of gracefulness in all this friction and the unknown. And so there’s the big question mark… But that’s not the point of life even if it’s something to be considered. The point of life is living. I lean on Leonard Cohen a lot, the things he said. His songs. The roads he chose. I only look to his story for a guidance towards my own paths that offer lightning and a kind of in-tune-ed-ness. This isn’t a life of mimicry. Cohen once said: “Poetry is the ash of a life burning brightly.” I absolutely love that. It’s one of my missions, to live. Everything else follows that mission. Be a good engine. Try and be something worth admiring. Each of us, always. Even when it’s hard. So… for as long as I’m compelled to write and sing, then I will write and sing. As long as it feels like fire.
What can you tell me about your latest side project with Hammock, The Summer Kills?
Well… For me it’s a love letter to the big music. While I came up in more the broken and organic approach of folk and punk. And my chords and structures are dedicated to the ethos of empowerment through simplicity. I always loved the atmospherics and cinema of bands like Ride, and House of Love, Joy Division and Eno. Unforgettable Fire. This Is The Sea by Waterboys. I could go on and on. That music that felt so mysterious and otherworldly, yet it’s like gasoline to that part inside of us that’s always there. The sound of romance and heartbreak, simultaneously. Sigur Ros touches some of that for me too. It’s as if there are chords in our disappointments and awe or the movement of light. I really could go on and on.
The Summer Kills was born of a collaboration. This time with my friends in the wildly beautiful and ambient instrumental duo, Hammock. Their music is what quiet feels like. It’s the sound of air moving over the skin of that person that lights you up. It’s deep and romantic and sorrowful. To get to write lyrics and melodies to the music they created for Summer Kills was such a beauty. It’s one of those collections that grows with you the more time you spend with it. It’s a purposeful and wide collection, over 60 minutes in length, moving through each scene with purpose, patient. It’s not meant to attack you like so much music does. It hopes to surround you like water safely to your shoulders. I hope more people find it. It’s out there everywhere we go for music. Spotify, Bandcamp, Amazon, iTunes…
I remember you sharing a great article after Scott Hutchison’s death that spoke about the sad events of a number of musicians committing suicide, but also about the wonderful effect someone’s music can have on people. How do you feel about addressing and spreading awareness about mental health not only in the music industry but in general?
Mental illness is a human issue. Here in America, one of the hardest things to do is to get help when you’re struggling. It disgusts me. We have a responsibility to each other. Each of us knows a darkness. What’s that great saying? Be kind for each of us is in the midst of a great battle. Aristotle said it, I think…
Life is precious. All of it, the whole experience, for all of us. We live in a time where the work of advertising and marketing and the flood too often looks past our real complexities and challenges. I fear it compounds the loneliness, it messages something that’s not particularly useful to our real interiors. We have mistaken the stuff of economy and fake empowerment for the stuff of culture. We have to lean more towards culture, it’s in there that we find art and language and intimacy and great food and each other. It’s in there we find the maps that bring a real sense of belonging and community, and not being alone. This monster has touched my life personally, and I have no issue talking about it. I see no shame in our struggles. What happened with Scott broke my heart. Medicine is making some advances but the issue is bigger than that. We have to remind each other and ourselves that we’re together in this. That there’s always beauty ahead. We love you. We gotta say that to each other. I know it’s not simple, I know the water gets deep. But we gotta keep trying and keep swimming and offering land.
What does the musician-fan relationship mean to you?
I don’t think of listeners as fans. I prefer to think of them as listeners and probably more importantly, fellow humans. I’m so grateful to those that welcome my work. They’re the reason I get to keep doing this for a living. It almost seems a funny notion now, to make honest music and hope for an honest living from it. But I’ve been fortunate so far, the listeners keep the lights on. And in return I try to offer them some lightning that I found, and then I hope it’s worth the beauty of their time, that it makes for a good companion that stretches onward with them. I never wanted to participate in salesmanship or fakery. Don’t get me wrong, I love drama and some pop music. I love the feel and discovery and thrill of so much music. But I never wanted to participate in the business of self-obsession, to have a singular goal in one’s life… It requires a certain detachment from all the other beautiful stuff to participate in that kind of effort. Music and life is too special to me, I wanted it to remain intimate. Those that participate with my music make me feel that’s possible. And for that, it’s hard to even describe my gratitude.
So after the tour and once back in your homeland, what are your plans for the upcoming months?
Thank you for the questions! I have more shows that are solo and with the band sprawling and bit into autumn. More will be announced when I get back from this tour. There’s a lot of beautiful stuff coming. But I also feel my creativity starting to tap me on the shoulder again. When that fully blooms, I shut everything else down and just concentrate on that. I love those periods. It’s like hope, life and quiet gets restored. It’s coming. And again, I can’t hardly wait… To borrow a phrase.