Earl Ryan is a West St. Paul musician making “dirt road music” that evokes the rural Midwest. His latest release, The Dark and the Devil, came out February 15 and is available on all streaming platforms.
“Working on this album became something positive that I could put myself into to keep my mind off of the worry of everything else.”Earl Ryan
About Earl Ryan
Ryan previously made music with the St. Paul-based indie rock group Tricycle Thief, but after the band disbanded he turned to country and americana music, recording two EPs in 2020.
When not making music, Ryan is the director at a local nonprofit that serves people with disabilities. He’s lived in West St. Paul for 12 years with his wife and two kids. (And yes, his neighbors will recognize that Earl Ryan is a stage name.)
Talking With Earl Ryan
Here’s our interview:
Your album title, The Dark and the Devil, feels a little inspired by our past year of COVID-19 restrictions. What influence did the pandemic have on your music?
The title was not intended to be a direct reference to our current situation but without a doubt the pandemic has colored everything. I did put out an EP last year entitled, Dark, and that release was a song cycle intended to capture the feeling of pandemic isolation.
This new release, The Dark and the Devil, on the other hand is a lot different—the opening songs have an upbeat feel. I think working on this album became something positive that I could put myself into to keep my mind off of the worry of everything else. For this one I was just focused on telling good stories… putting forward strong songs and recording the best sounding album I could.
If anything, the pandemic put a little more pressure on me to stop wasting time. I had taken a long break from writing and playing, and I was starting to feel down about not having that creative outlet. I think the pandemic helped light a fire and I decided I needed to make time for this, because if not now when?
“Dirt road music” feels like an apt description—what are some of the themes and ideas you explore in your music?
My music is very directly inspired by the rural Midwest. When I came up with the idea for Earl Ryan, I had a really clear vision of what I wanted to do with it from the beginning. I had this sequence of photographs that I took at my father-in-law’s farm in South Dakota, and I had this idea that I wanted to write songs that sounded just like those photos. That sounds silly I suppose, but I really like musicians that bring a certain atmosphere and sense of place to their songs.
When I first heard Ray Wylie Hubbard’s song, “Dust of the Chase,” I felt like I was in it, driving down a dusty West Texas road. I wanted a little bit of that in my own music, but with songs set here in the Upper Midwest.
I grew up in a rural part of Western Wisconsin, a few miles outside of Roberts. When I turned 16, I bought a beat up pickup truck that barely ran and drove every gravel road I could find. Those experiences are still a part of me, maybe this project was an attempt to reconnect. That place and a lot of people I have known figure into the music quite a bit. As a kid I grew up around a lot of farmers, factory workers, truck drivers. There is a storytelling element to most of my songs and my characters are often folks with that type of background. The Twin Cities does find its way into this latest batch as well, you might catch a reference or two. The idea of the drifter and the lonesome highway are themes in a lot of my songs. Some of that comes from listening to traditional country music where you do hear a lot of those themes just as a matter of form. My characters are often reckoning with something, themselves mostly, choices they have made, places they are running from—there is a loneliness and darkness inside of that. I also just really like gritty characters with a bit of recklessness and a sense of humor—they are the most interesting.
What are the mechanics of recording during a pandemic? Is it harder to write or record songs?
Not harder to write but harder to record in some ways. My wife and I are both musicians and we record in our little home studio. Joan appears on some of my songs.
While the pandemic has meant more time at home, which should be good for a home musician, that also means we are home with two kids, two cats and a dog. If you know anything about recording you know that it requires a quiet space—the mics pick up every little thing. Trying to find a time when the house is quiet enough can be a challenge.
So we have had to get creative about that. A lot of times that means recording after the kids have gone to bed. My last album, Coyote, was recorded almost entirely between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight. I even recorded a few takes in my stepdad’s machine shed in Wisconsin. I set up a folding chair right next to an old tractor and recorded guitars that way. Really poor acoustics but it smelled like a garage and garages are really good for the creative process.
You’re not playing live shows right now—how does that impact you as a musician? Are you finding ways to compensate or connect with people in other ways?
A hilarious meme a musician friend shared on Facebook says: “I miss playing shows for two people and the captive bartender.” I am a very part-time musician. Playing music isn’t my day job, so the pandemic hasn’t had the kind of impact on me that it has on other musicians.
There are a lot of musicians out there that depend on touring for their livelihood—the pandemic has been terrible for them and for our local music venues. I recommend that all music heads out there do what they can to support bands that they love, buy a record, a ticket to a virtual show. That’s important to do.
I am more thankful than ever for technology. I am blessed to have a number of friends who are great musicians and there are several songs that I recorded with the help of those players, including some musicians I just recently met along the way. In normal times I would have loved nothing more than to get together in a room and work on songs with these folks, but due to the pandemic that was impossible. Yet I was still able to connect and collaborate with them thanks to file sharing and the internet. The title track to this release includes some amazing steel guitar work by Mike James, a multi-instrumentalist out of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Technology has made it so much easier to work collaboratively with folks at a distance. If we didn’t have that right now I don’t think any of this music would have been possible.
The biggest obstacle for a small-time musician like me is always the same—just getting people to hear it at all. Not being able to play live does make that more difficult. Live shows are an important way to get your music in front of people (even if it is just two people and the bartender). I would love to do some small shows around town this summer, but we’ll have to see.
The best way to support is to listen on whatever streaming service you use. The Bandcamp site has been a great way to connect with people who are supportive of independent musicians. You can follow an artist on Bandcamp and send a tip to an artist if you like their music, which helps offset the cost of producing and releasing the music.
Tell us about your grandfather—you describe him as an influence and play his guitar. How did he impact this album?
He was a huge influence on me as a person. When I was a kid, my grandfather was a larger-than-life sort of character. He was quick with a smile and a story. He read a lot and had a devotion to Martin guitars; he could tell you everything about Martin from the first guitars they ever manufactured up to the present.
The acoustic guitar I play belonged to him. It is a 1978 Martin Dreadnought. The guitar was born the same year as me, and I’ve always thought that is pretty cool. I started out on bass guitar when I was 15, but when my grandfather gave me that Martin in the late 90s it sparked a real interest in learning the six string.
He passed away years ago and I really cherish that guitar now more than ever. Grandpa was a fan of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins. When I was younger, I didn’t have an interest in country music at all. Like a lot of people I didn’t know that there was an entire world of country music outside of the pop country on the radio. Now I sometimes play Hank and Cash songs on that old guitar and I wonder if he ever played those same songs on it? When I started writing Earl Ryan music it was not lost on me that I was turning toward a style of music that was closer to what he himself might have appreciated, the type of music he bought that old Martin for. I like to think that he would have enjoyed some of these tunes.
You talk about music that captures the feeling of a place, so I have to ask—what kind of music captures West St. Paul?
Thanks to Early Ryan for sharing his thoughts with us.
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