On November 9, singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan served as guest DJ on WYEP-FM’s The Coffeehouse, where he discussed artists and songs that influence or inspire him, as well as his new album, Boxers. As it was also his birthday weekend, he seemed all the more introspective, looking back on the music that has moved him over the years.
Adam Kukic, 91.3FM, WYEP, Pittsburgh: For your first selection, you’ve chosen Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and I gotta be honest, that’s one of my favorite Cohen tunes ever, so I’m curious to hear why you’ve selected it.
Matthew Ryan: To me, Leonard Cohen may be one of the most visceral writers that we’ve had in the last part of the 20th century and here into the 21st.
For me, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” illuminated something to me about [my first] love. And it was humbling and beautiful. She happened to be a blonde, and he talks about the sleepy golden storm … but to me, music and art communicate a wisdom that we’re not necessarily born with … and Cohen was my first entrance into that.
I found the Songs of Leonard Cohen in my folks’ collection and was going through the drama of a first love. [I] heard “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and everything changed. And my reasons for music went from things that were fashionable to a desire to be shook and moved.
The lyric that you cited there, “her hair upon the pillow” … for me, it’s often the little things that kill, those little reminders, those little images or glimpses, and that’s totally one of those. And you mention your first love, correct me if I’m wrong, but on your new album Boxers there’s a song that harkens back to first loves or first heartaches …
[Chuckles] Oh, yeah, a composite of first heartaches.
You’ve chosen “Bob Dylan’s Dream” — that’s a great Dylan choice and I think it falls off of a lot of people’s radar, even though there’s some amazing covers out there … several artists have done their interpretations of that one [Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, Bryan Ferry].
Well, what a song. A beautiful dissertation on a sense of community and wild hope. And we were talking a little about nostalgia while it was playing, and I think nostalgia can be important because it can reconnect you to a sensation. And through that reconnection, maybe push you forward to seek it out again. I think that’s why it’s important, that song is a constant for me, it’s something that’s never too far away.
It’s amazing how true poets can just attach themselves to your memories. I wasn’t alive when that album came out. And during my youth, it’s not like that song was one that I was listening to, but when I hear it, man that takes me back, and it’s like it was always there as a companion.
I would venture to guess even a Viking would identify with that song ….
And those were some pretty hard people …
I’m sure they had moments of revelry with their friends around a fire before pillaging the next town [laughs].
Alright, your next choice is Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” off of Nebraska … in the Springsteen canon, this is one of those essential albums. So what can you tell me about Bruce or this song in particular?
I could go on for a day or two about Bruce and all of these guys and what they meant to me, but specifically about Springsteen … he’s a rock‘n’roller with intelligence telling amazingly clear stories.
But like we were just saying about Dylan, the human story is the story regardless of what surrounds us and what technologies. It is really about intimacy and family and brotherhood and hope and love and despair … and so, once an artist taps into that, you have these canons of spiritual communication or whatever you want to call it, that I do feel applies across all of human experience. Whether it be 2,000 years ago to 100 years from now. I think that’s the role of art, it reminds us of what we’re capable of.
AK: For me, growing up, Born in the USA, that was my earliest experience with Bruce … and it stuck with me. But it took an English class, American Bards, American Songs and our teacher Buddy Hendershot (one of the biggest Springsteen fans I know) to really demonstrate how Bruce’s songs are poetry, and the storytelling is just phenomenal. Next up, you’ve chosen The Replacements’ “Skyway” … a perfect selection for a Sunday morning.
It’s a funny thing, I’ve been a Replacements fan for the better part of my life, a Westerberg fan, a fan of the whole gang … and that song, I’m an intuitive listener, so if I’m moved by something, sometimes I don’t necessarily know why.
I remember hearing that record, and we didn’t have Google when I was a kid … I didn’t know what a “skyway” was … and it wasn’t until probably 10 years later and my first trip to Minneapolis and I went, ‘oh, that’s a skyway’.
So, I took it as this metaphor, not this literal place. But what’s amazing to me about “Skyway” (as much as I love the punk elements of The Replacements and that urgency and freedom that they are capable of offering and sharing) … that song is in some ways a cliche, it’s a song about two ships passing in the night and it is absolutely beautiful.
It’s about a guy who sees a girl walking through the skyway and wants to meet her. He sees her a few days in a row and decides he’s going to try to meet her up in the skyway … so he goes up there and looks down and she’s standing down on the street where he was. And it just breaks your heart- it’s beautiful.
I read a review that suggested it’s a sonnet. So there’s definitely a poetry to that. But I love that you referenced a time before Google. Because I remember looking at lyrics, and it didn’t matter what they actually were talking about, it was what it meant to me at that time, and my interpretation of that … and then ten years later and my, ‘oh, that’s skyway!’ moment happens. But that also then it gives the song a whole new life … the internet is great, we can find all of the information we need, but then maybe because we do find it, it also takes away some of our creativeness in the process…
And curiosity. Curiosity leads to creativity, to try and understand what is evoking something or pulling from us. The Clash did that for me as well, because there were so many references to things that I maybe didn’t know about [at the time] … it provoked me into trying to fill in some of those gaps that I didn’t understand. Even by calling a record Sandinista, which to a young American at the time, I didn’t quite understand the importance of it. I think that’s what smart good music does- it pulls you forward and engages your curiosity and illuminates your life.
I saw that you’ve been listening to Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros’ Streetcore a lot this week on your Facebook or Twitter feed, so it doesn’t surprise me that you’ve selected a song off of that album to talk about, but “Redemption Song” isn’t a Joe-penned song, this is a cover. So talk with me about Strummer and your song choice:
Well, Strummer was another one that’s kind of become a companion for me through the Clash and then his solo work. And Strummer, from what I know of friends of his and people that have come into my life that we have in common … Strummer was always operating out of love and generosity. He was human [too], but that was his mode. And me being more of a wallflower, or more of a quiet type, I just think that that is beautiful.
You know, it’s funny, I want to be careful here … The Grateful Dead and Bob Marley, [they] always seemed a little impervious for me, sort of like a cultural thing, that I couldn’t quite understand. And I think that, in some weird way, I never really got Bob Marley … he never really made sense to me. And then I heard Joe’s version of “Redemption Song” and all of the sudden, it was illuminated to me. And to me, that’s just an extension of [Strummer’s] generosity and his welcoming and his sharing of the things that he loved.
I’m ashamed to say I that I didn’t hear how great of a song it was until I heard Joe Strummer sing it and now, I joke with my friends, I’m on a Bob Marley kick … thanks to Joe Strummer, and it really is beautiful.
Cover songs … they’re always interesting, especially when it’s an iconic song … ‘oh my gosh, how can somebody approach this song’ … but how we get exposed to new music sometimes is simply that … an artist that we respect and love and hold in high regard, and then they share something that they are inspired by in a great cover form …
Isn’t it amazing how an act of love resonates as opposed to an act of ambition? Sometimes artists cover songs in order to gather more attention for themselves, and then sometimes artists cover songs to gather more attention for something that they love. And I find that I’m attracted to love rather than ambition.
So, what can you tell us about the inspiration behind your new album Boxers and the song that we’ll be listening to, “Until Kingdom Comes”?
I got in a mode for a few years where I was making records alone … for the most part … in my house. And I grew tired of songs that sounded like defeat. Not only from myself, but in music that I was listening to. I think that melancholy can be misunderstood sometimes. My friend Brian Bequette had said something to me, “Sometimes you have to speak not to be understood but so not to be misunderstood”. And that was something that always stuck in my head. It’s a nuanced thing.
My becoming a “singer-songwriter” was almost … I had made decisions in the mid-2000s that were more financial in nature. I wanted to continue doing [music] but it was difficult because the industry was collapsing in so many ways … and that wasn’t just me trying to navigate that, we all are, writers, radio stations, music lovers, we’re all trying to navigate this new intimacy that we’re dealing with via the internet.
[Becoming a solo singer-songwriter] was initially an act of self-preservation, and it became a life where suddenly I was driving everywhere alone, and I was making records alone, and I was engaging alone via a glowing screen, this extremely lonely and isolated sense of things was never my intention. I grew up loving The Clash, Bob Dylan & The Band, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Replacements, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Blue Nile, these were like little gangs, or bigger gangs as the case may be … and I wanted to feel part of a gang again, and I wanted to write about the gang that I cared about, and that would be the people that I wrote about on this record… and there’s parts of myself in there, too.
So I wanted to make a record about perseverance. It had always been a subtext in a lot of my [earlier] work anyway, but I wanted to make it clear, I wanted to enunciate that. I think that we live in a culture that is beautiful and has a lot going for it, but right now, I feel we are overlooking the complexities of the working and the middle classes in our country. We’re too busy selling them things instead of investing in them. And I wanted to make a record that spoke to what I think is the spine of our country, specifically. And I wanted to do it in a way that told smaller stories, that hopefully, spoke to a greater anthology, a collection of short films, whatever metaphor makes sense.
That, and also had just bought a new Gretsch electric and I plugged it into my AC-15 and I loved the way that it felt … and I loved feeling the floor rumble with the chords … and these were the songs that came. The first song that I wrote was the opening track “Boxers” and that led on and on through all of the songs that came, and I love it.
You also have some wonderful companions on Boxers, could you tell us about them?
Well, first of all, one of my oldest friend in the world, Brian Bequette, played bass. Kevin Salem whom I had admired for years from afar, I loved his record that had come out in the ‘90s, Soma City, well Kevin played on and produced Boxers. There’s Joe Magistro, whom I met through Kevin, and loved his drumming.
And then of course, Brian Fallon [who played guitar on Boxers] is from the Gaslight Anthem. It’s hard to talk about somebody who you’ve become good friends with … I liked his band before I also knew that he liked my music and that my music was part of his process of discovering music, part of his musical genetics. I didn’t know that until we had gotten to know each other a couple of years ago.
And it’s just a great gang of guys, that we just really had a lot of fun playing in a room together … and it kind of harkens back to “Bob Dylan’s Dream” … I find that my favorite moments in my life are shared with others. And in some ways, this record was a full on musical lean in all aspects, from top to bottom, from seed to tree, was an expression of community.
It definitely comes across on this album. What can you tell me about “Until Kingdom Comes”?
You know it’s funny, the other day I woke up thinking about boats and how each of us are launched, not as perfect boats, but what makes us beautiful is our ability to deal with the flaws and the holes and to still float and to create our own maps.
The song isn’t really indicative of the [sound of the] record, but as far as the story that we’re telling today, people are persevering even when we don’t realize it. And I think it’s dangerous to make assumptions about what makes up the load that each of us carry, and I think that it is in those challenges that we can find our shared humanity, and those aren’t just slogans, it’s what I’m trying to communicate through this record.
There’s that great quote that says “Be kind, for all that you meet are in the midst of a great battle” and it’s true. Marketing might tell you that this makes you feel good and you should buy that, or if you drive this car, you’ll feel better, and like I said, those things can be beautiful but they’re not ever going to solve the interiors of what we deal with … music and perseverance and hope and love and community I think are the greatest salves for that and that’s what this song is about.
If you’d like to read more about Matthew Ryan’s latest album Boxers, check out my review, “Blue-Collar Nostalgia: Matthew Ryan’s Boxers“