Audrey Ryan Runs with Wonder: Dishes and Pills
By Travis Morris
There used to be an Alaskan dream, one that yelled for Budweiser bottle silence and tried to crawl in our beds. That dream, of course, has since been forgotten—let’s just say it was our “Intuition” to stop believing. But Jewel, she had an idea, she had an image—but it’s just too bad that the artistic integrity she once strove for was unachievable. It takes talent to achieve such. However, Audrey Ryan is what Jewel wished she could have been. Audrey Ryan’s deft songwriting, empowered by her novel music and genuine, fresh lyrics, defines the word musician in the same way Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning defined painter.
In Fall 2007 Ryan released her second full-length album entitled Dishes and Pills on UK label Folkwit Records. Her previous releases include two EP’s and a debut album called Passing Thru, which is exactly what Audrey Ryan is not doing. If she is passing thru, then her shoes, accordion, guitar, and banjo are all wet with paint—leaving splatters and footprints of authenticity like a musical blueprint in venues across the United States and abroad. At each location she switches instruments like brushes, filling some ears with thick, stroke heavy lines as if during songs sprites crawl into heads and stretch accordions into soul-filling streamers. Ryan displays a musical vibrato unlike any I’ve seen yet. And to see her perform a song, is to see yourself write that song. Or at least hear someone you love tell you exactly what you need to hear.
Because Audrey Ryan’s songwriting is so good, even if she is pulling and tugging on an accordion or picking on a banjo and stomping her tambourine adorned foot, the music is just as moving live as it is on her phenomenal album Dishes and Pills. You could hear T. S Eliot slur it or an eight year-old spray it, but it’s still “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. ” Audrey Ryan’s music is, well, perfect. She is honest, she is ready, she is the new Americana. After hardcore, emo, indie pop, a resurgence of opera rock and Kanye West, Audrey Ryan makes more sense than grunge coming back, more sense than concept rock, and more sense than conglomerate hip-hop. The apparent individuality of her music makes for timeless listening, whether in the muck of maturity or the recollection of age.
“Simplify” from Dishes and Pills is slow and steady, just what it ought to be, simple. But the twangy guitar which introduces both the song and the accordion, does not suggest the impact that follows. It is as if Ryan has planned this out on many layers of presentation. Simple music that mellows into each instrument, which in return welcomes the raucous introduction of cymbals, and although overpowering, the clanging seems to represent the lyrics’ revelations. “I want to simply my life. I don’t want each day to be a fight. Well I may never get it right, but I just want to simplify my life. ” From the slowing down, we (Americans) could all do, what might be exposed to us could be astounding. Perhaps peace of mind, as Ryan suggests in the song.
On further notes of simplification, songs such as “Ukalalee Song,” named just as it is played, on a ukulele, sounds a type of campfire harmony and philosophy. Juxtaposing a he and she in the lyrics of this song, Ryan establishes a question of control. What exactly is it that we worship? Marijuana, alcohol, anti-depressants? Things that make us lose our minds yet can assist in finding sanity. It’s really control that becomes the conundrum in this situation. “It’d be so hard/ with no SIM card/ to continue her vast communication. ” Are Blackberry addicts similar to potheads? Maybe. But it is a good point that Ryan makes.
Though I’m not sure if Audrey Ryan’s songs are soon to flood radio stations, or even will the way they sound, I do know that she is building a monument for all the dying music trends. She honors influences of great songwriters past but makes a brighter light for a century in dire need of a breather. Ryan does so in songs like “Babies,” “People” and “Messing Around. ” She sings of the pressures the American Dream choked on—each of these songs protesting the sad, rushed and abusive funeral. In “Messing Around,” she says “Life in the free world is people dressing pretty and bitching. It’s cars and condos, barbies in bars, dogs and windows. ‘You’re reaching an age where you should really get married and bear children. ‘” Ryan’s honesty tends to dawn in her songs like a three year-old says fuck: quite frankly.
That honesty makes her title song “Dishes and Pills” an anthem to independence—from marriage, from expectation, from monotony—and it makes the song absolutely pristine, the way things ought to be. It sounds as if an old music box is being turned in the corner. Someone is turning a crank to get out the carnival plucks of mediocrity—as if to say this is my curtain call, the show is over. And with lyrics like “And I don’t want to see you anymore than you want to see me. And I don’t want to be you anymore than you want to be me. ” This circus or carnival or whatever show it might be, is definitely over. Ryan makes no excuses in her songs. “Dishes and pills are ruining me,” she sings, and instead of playing out the same what we should have done, what we could have done tune, Ryan admits “Well maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t matter cause we just don’t get along. ” That’s a bravery that even R. Kelly couldn’t bring out of the closet.
If creation had a voice, it would sound like Audrey Ryan. It would sound like Irish violet, it would feel like century old planks burying the sea in a dock, and it would grow inside us until philosophy looked like our blood. Audrey Ryan has a voice drowned in a cold Northern creek—not nasal, not dirty, just washed in clear water like a polished stone. Beautiful.
Boston’s Audrey Ryan is willing to accept the label “singer/songwriter,” but there’s more to her thick compositions than just a girl and a guitar. Her sort-of lo-fi pieces are quirky and carnivalesque but not hokey; she’s a multi-instrumentalist who brings all manner of additions (“kid megaphone, weird harp thing,” according to the liner notes of her most recent full-length) to the mix. Her voice is equal parts powerful and awkward, giving life to lyrics about which you could say the same — in the best possible way. -Pittsburgh City Paper
Passing Thru (2004) press:
“Ryan is an intriguing new singer. She grew up in Bar Harbor, Maine; studied at the Sydney Music Conservatory in Australia; and now lives in Boston. She is a jazz-pop artist whose influences would appear to range from Joni Mitchell to Edie Brickell. And she has a high-pitched voice with original phrasing and backup that includes her own impressively syncopated work on electric, acoustic, and classical guitars, as well as her standout violin lines, which lift a song when you least expect it. Her band boasts a vibraphonist who provides jazz textures, though the main motif here is welcomely skewed pop. Ryan has a literary sensibility, writing about the isolation of the computer age, overbearing friends, and the nostalgia of childhood . She can get heavy (title track addresses the transitory nature of life), but also has an endearing oblique sense of humor, as in “Espresso Bean,” in which she blames her fast driving on caffeine. She also has a political side- the song “Talk” bashes the corporate suits who “try and take over Islam”. Most of all , the melodies glisten at their best. This is a subtly effective album. Let’s hope we hear more from her…”
-Boston Globe (Steve Morse)
“On her debut album Ryan sifts through decades of musical influences in an attempt to create something unique and engaging. Upon first listen, the disc sounds anything but formulaic. With its liberal use of jazz progressions, quick temp shifts and a vast sea of musical influences, the album has myriad sounds and reflections. Ryan and co. combine folk, funk, jazz, Latin and soul in the course of 13 tracks- a pretty ambitions undertaking. Ryan is obviously a well-schooled musician, displaying versatility and efficiency on both guitar and violin. A seasoned singer, she slides through the diverse material with ease…Backing Ryan on the album is a band of technically impressive musicians. Casey Abrams supplies short, punchy bass lines that play off of Peter Kelly’s agile kit work remarkably well. Al Marra’s distinctive vibraphone work nicely augments Ryan’s vocal inflections. Littered with electronic textures ["Watch"] is a big departure from the rest of the cuts on the record. It seems like the best fit for Ryan. While other compositions are good, her material is most engaging when injected with the odd chord change or rhythmic shift. As an emerging artist, Ryan still has plenty of time to develop a sound all her own. If she successfully reins in her obvious influences, chances are she will do just that.
-Seven Days (Scott Taylor)
“Introspective lyrics, jazzy/retro-esque progressions, and angular riffs that craft an infectious brand of eclectic tunes. This is they type of music that could definitely cause a big stir on the college radio airwaves and earn some well-deserved attention…”
-Shut Eye Records
“Long live jangle rock, which is in fine flower on Passing Thru, the debut DC by the Boston singer and songwriter Audrey Ryan. Her lifting voice resembles that of the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, and some of the slower tunes on Passing Thru (“Watch”, “Nothing Left”) recall that group’s dreamy languor. (Gorgeous vibraphone work by Al Marra makes for even more dreaminess). But Ryan, who plays the guitar parts and a dolorous fiddle, composes in various styles, so there is also muscular funk (“Slick Chick, Sly Fly,” a terrific song about a self-destructive friend) and a handful of Latin-tinged songs. One of the latter, “Run”, has a furious Afro-Cuban beat and a political lyric: “Modern Western cowboys setting out with their new hit list/ Eyes set on oil, unaware that they’re the terrorists.” Another Latin-inflected song, the wistful “Say Can You,” has a finger-picked guitar part and a winding melody that conjures up the memory of “Girl From Ipanema,” and is there a more pleasant memory?”…
-Isthmus (Madison, WI)
“Here are twelve original songs from a funky cool jazz folk rock goddess. Sometimes her soprano voice sounds like Joni Mitchell’s jazzier periods, but other times it takes on the flat effect of a modern singer-songwriter. Most of the tunes are structured around her percussive guitar chord progressions in groovy minor sevenths and other unexpected treats. She also plays violin and is joined by a great band that can’t decide on any one genre, and that’s okay by me. Most of her tunes are more about the feel than the lyrics. The words are more like snapshots than a full movie – you’re not always sure what the plot is, but the images are sharp.
“Nostalgia starts with a finger picked guitar part and is gradually joined by other instruments. Pictures fly by – “politics of the popular, she was so cool with her namebrands jeans rolled up high.” Yeah, I remember all that. The words for “Watch” are a bit sinister. I love how they contrast with the happy 60s style arrangement with the Fender Rhodes and heavy back beat rock drums. “Espresso Bean,” touting the evils of that brown brew, has a groove as deep as an old Earth, Wind and Fire tune (sans the horn section).
There’s the number about the friend with a dangerous edge (“Slick Chick Sly Fly”) and the beatnik cool “Say Can You,” complete with congas. What really makes this disc different is vibes player Al Marra. He’s on most cuts, sometimes in the background, but he starts “Red War,” misleading you into thinking it’s a soft number. But then a slightly fuzzed guitar slams in, with the first lyric not far behind, “You want blood babe and I wanna bleed.”
“[Passing Thru] is a lyrical album with unique, multi-faceted sound that’s hard to pin down in a good way. The funky, laid-back grooves of Passing Thru are laced with Ryan’s sweet but mellow harmonies and her honest, raw and cynical lyrics…” (excerpt from full article)
-Ellsworth American (Deb Cad)
“With a voice that’s reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Ryan delivers her musical message with a fine band…Ethereal and folk based, Ryan makes the most of her enchanting melodies with mesmerizing passages and her airy vocals…” (excerpt from review)
“The musical style is a mix of pop sensibility with a good dose of jazz thrown in. Ms. Ryan’s singing style has the sweet touch of melancholy female vocalists from such bands as the Sundays and SixPence None the Richer, but with a tendency for skat and improvisation…” (excerpt from article)
-Bar Harbor Times (Craig Idlebrook)
“This Boston-based singer/songwriter adds a couple twists to the usual singer/songwriter-with-band recipe…the loping, free groove of the opening title cut introdues Ryan’s airy soprano and violin playing, as well as Marra’s vibe work. She fares best on more standard folk-rock like “Nostalgia,” which begins with simple acoustic picking and builds into a buoyant wash of guitars and close, Indigo-sounding harmonies, or “Alien Nation” and “Talk” which recall Tracy Thorn and Everything but the Girl…”
-Charleston Daily Mail
“Audrey Ryan is inspiring rock on the folk/funk tip”
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DISHES & PILLS PRESS (2007):
“A lush, beautifully arranged slice of indie pop, “Dishes & Pills” is the work of an intelligent songwriter and composer with a clear vision of the music. There are elements of baroque ’60s pop such as The Zombies or the Beach Boys, but her clear musical contemporaries are ambitious, sensitive, smart songwriters such as Sufjan Stevens, John Vanderslice, and Feist.” – Bangor Daily
“Theatrical, quirky, feels orchestral while remaining stripped-down; the Decemberists with a female singer — a very good thing.” -Mass Live
“A genuine weirdo, Ryan’s songwriting and vocal style also might remind one of more modern female artists from Bjork to Shivaree to The Softies, and the menagerie of instrumentation is more out on the lunatic fringe à la the Dresden Dolls or Daniel Johnston. It’s a truly enjoyable musical schizophrenia that you could listen to 50 times and still hear something different each time.” -Valley Advocate
“The result is a sprawling epic of indie-folk ingenuity. Structurally, her tunes are pure pop. But she infuses her arrangements with a jazz sensibility, expertly decking out the tunes with all the bells and whistles — quite literally, in most cases. Her work here more closely resembles the experimental folk orchestrations of Sufjan Stevens. Like Michigan’s eclectic tunesmith, Ryan excels at crafting quirkily diverse soundscapes that augment her intricate wordplay. Also like Stevens, her real strength lies in her subtly engaging songwriting; despite the wealth of aural delicacies found on Dishes & Pills, one gets the feeling that these songs would be just as effective if stripped down to guitar and Ryan’s charmingly expressive voice.” -Seven Days (Dan Bolles)
“Ryan’s inventive songwriting, which adds surreal sounds and multifarious instrumentation to a solid folk-rock core, keeps all 14 tracks sounding mostly fresh and original. The wildly diverse instrumentation peppers each song with new trinkets of spacey and intriguing sound that dangles like fish bait around the listener’s ear. Her highly personal lyrics are also absorbing. Although most of the songs have a lighthearted feel, the words are often cynical and self-deprecating, addressing topics that range from cancer to dead-end relationships to pills, marijuana and booze. Some of the songs are heavier than others, both lyrically and musically, but the imaginative spirit never wanes” -The Wire
“quite similar to Aimee Mann, she melds a pretty voice with gently eccentric instrumentation popular in the contemporary indie scene (accordion, glockenspiel), producing results both ambitious and likeable.” -Portland Phoenix
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INTERVIEW: CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL
If you knew anything about Audrey Ryan’s background, you might figure her song “Alien Nation” is a reaction to being a stranger in a strange land. Ryan knows something about that: she spent the better part of two years backpacking around Africa and Asia, where she says she seldom encountered anyone her own age.
But in fact, the Boston-area performer says “Alien Nation” is a response to coming back home and working 9-to-5 for the first and so far, only, time in her life.
“I just thought, ‘Man, is this what people do their whole lives?’ ” says the 25-year-old singer, guitarist and violinist, who worked for a time as a research assistance at Harvard. “It was depressing at many levels.”
Ryan says that experience was hard getting used to, after more nontraditional positions as the manager of an art gallery and an English teacher in the African bush. She’s found a job now that suits her, teaching music at a private academy in Cambridge, Mass., but hopes to make it take a back seat to her music.
So far, so good. She and her band – drummer Peter Kelly, bassist/vocalist Casey Abrams and vibraphonist Al Marra – are currently doing a tour of the Southern United States with a visit to Charleston’s Empty Glass scheduled for Friday.
They’re supporting Ryan’s 2004 debut, “Passing Thru,” which is garnering some national attention for its jazzy pop: National Public Radio’s “Marketplace” has used music from the album, and two songs have been licensed for a “reality film” called “Cross Country” due later this year from CVP Films.
“I’m not really a good businesswoman, but I’m becoming one,” Ryan says with a laugh. “You have to be.”
A native of Bar Harbor, Maine, Ryan first spent time overseas as an exchange student in high school, visiting Kenya for a year. She returned to Africa after graduation to teach English, then went to Australia for several months to study at the Sydney Conservatory of Music, where she became enamored of the jazz influences that now percolate through her songs. “It just seemed so much more evolved, instead of just playing these three chords,” she says.
Australia, she adds, was “pretty luxurious. I lived on the beach. It’s just so much cheaper to study abroad.” But during her solitary backpacking travels Down Under and in Africa, “a lot of what I was doing was writing songs. So when I came back to the United States, the first thing on my agenda was to move to a bigger city, find a band, and get a CD out.”
Eventually, she returned, setting up base in Boston, recruiting a backing band with some collective jazz experience, and finishing off the songs that would comprise “Passing Thru.” One of those tunes, “Espresso Bean,” is based on a true story about a speeding ticket blamed on too much caffeine.
“It’s totally a true story. The embarrassing thing is that I was stopped a quarter-mile from my house,” she says. “I even tried the trick of slowing down and pulling into someone’s driveway – who I knew, of course. Everybody in Maine knows everybody else,” she jokes. “But the cop totally busted me.”
A name that comes up frequently when critics search for comparisons is the British band the Sundays, a point of reference that baffles Ryan. She hadn’t heard the group’s jangly, ethereal pop until numerous people had compared it to her own music, and she still doesn’t quite get the parallel.
“When people say (I sound like) the Sundays and Fiona Apple, I have no idea what they’re talking about,” she says. “I think it’s just them hearing a female voice. The only one that has any relevance is Joni Mitchell, because she really is a big influence.”
But Ryan also is looking in other directions. For an EP she’s currently recording with Chris Rochon of the electronic band King Calculator, Ryan is experimenting with backward loops and “cool post-production stuff” in emulation of another of her favorite acts, Radiohead.
“I don’t know if it’ll work out,” she says, “but if it does, I told Chris I’ll buy him a tattoo.”