Matthew Ryan – Autumn of discontent
The first and easy answer is Jimmy Webb, a wish to avoid being shadowed, albeit in name only, by that songwriter. The heart of the matter is, as usual, elsewhere. “I don’t like to talk about this, but I have a family. I try to keep rock ‘n’ roll and all that away from their life.”
He stops, then repeats: “My blood-dad was a songwriter, and there was a certain apprehension on my part because of what I had heard about him. My dad, as it turned out, is a good man who has done the best he could. I don’t even want to talk about that. What the fuck has happened? Did you spike my drink?” Ryan laughs with a deep, scratchy release, much closer to the voice on his records than the charming, New England-accented kid heard in conversation. Ryan is not a kid. Both voices make you believe he’s telling the truth.
“Changing my name gave me the ability to go up in front of people and sing these songs,” he concludes. “For a long time it was in a basement or garage. It felt dishonest to me at first, especially when the songs are so autobiographical. It’s still not easy, but it’s easier than it was. Who I am in my personal life, isn’t really all that different from my music. You can’t look in the phone book and find Matthew Ryan because he doesn’t exist. In a way it saves my humility, it keeps me straight. In this town, you get a lot of that thing where you don’t know why someone is being nice to you. Then you give them your card and the whole vibe changes.”
He looks down at the tape recorder, stops, waves at the smoke in the air. “This is really personal, you know.”
The songs on Matthew Ryan’s first record, May Day, took shape in 1991 and were finished five years later. The last, “Certainly Never”, was written as it was being recorded. The opening song, “Guilty”, is an angry young man’s warning: “Here comes the razor of doubt, here comes the falling out…Here comes I hate you and I’m giving back all that you gave to me.”
His band rocks with what he calls “that ragged glory,” and the density of his songs can be venomous (“the couple in the corner, they’re the reason why I hate rock ‘n’ roll”), can seethe with humor (“I feel like Tom Waits singing Diamonds And Rust…as pathetic as a junkie who knows what he does”), can chill (“If you’re looking for me to make you feel…I’m looking for that too”). Sometimes, though rarely, he can forgive: “I had returned like I swore I would/To right some wrongs and sing my song/And share the luck that every man should.”
“The Lights Of The Commodore Barry” is the most lovely song on May Day, an aggressive, dark, but also protective debut. It’s the only song to directly mention his home, Chester, which Ryan finds “draped and dying in his arms.” But the return to heal, to sing, to share is just a fever dream. Awake, Ryan finds he holds nothing, and it’s his drunk body that is draped and heavy in his brother’s arms. He’s not ready yet.
“At that point I felt more like a thief,” Ryan says of his first record. “I didn’t really think I could do it. I just wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to be as centered and truthful as I could be. There’s a low stock on that sort of thing. Those are the things that last. With that in mind, that’s what shaped it. No hocus-pocus. Just good songs played well.”
Even with a heady push by A&M, a bit of radio play for “Guilty”, and a fair amount of touring (including an opening slot with the Freddy Jones Band), May Day has, in three years, sold around 12,000 copies.
“I thought I was gonna get dropped,” he says. “I was fine with that. I was ready to move on. I was bored. I wanted to go to an indie and put out a record a year. I mean, three years? I’m through my twenties and I’m gonna put out two records?
“This record could have been out two years ago. The system is just very slow and ugly. I’m not a priority, as far as, ‘What’s he gonna do next? He could make us another five bucks!’ I just went into a studio and started making a record and whoever was gonna release it, was gonna release it.”