Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Personal Battles

Ryan mixes anger, reflection on debut LP

By Michael McCall

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  On "Chrome," an insidiously quiet song that rests at the center of Matthew Ryan's major-label debut, the Nashville-based rocker asks questions any thinking person eventually has to confront. "It's not the things that I can't change that bother me," he states in a raspy, introspective voice. It's not the things he doesn't know, nor is it the fact that his lover has walked out on him. After all he's been through, the thing that gets to him is the simple fact that he survives: that he has a heart made of chrome, a heart that endures everything it encounters. At the same time, Ryan recognizes that this very heart sustains him, giving him the spirit to try again and again.

This sort of tortured inner conflict runs throughout Mayday, a title that suggests celebration or distress but instead reveals reflection and discovery. In its way, Mayday goes against most '90s rock trends: The music is as sturdy as it is moody, and the lyrics are serious and well-crafted. Rather than distance himself with irony or angst, Ryan attempts to touch the listener's soul by baring his own. These days, daring to be both commercial and credible may be the biggest risk any young rocker can take. Yet Ryan takes it.

"I don't want to be a local hero," the 25-year-old singer says, sitting in a sun-splashed house on Murphy Road. "I have a lot of grand ideas of what I want to be." His influences are certainly grand: Ryan grew up in a home where his mother and stepfather constantly played albums by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen. "My dad would put on Blood on the Tracks on Christmas morning," he says with a laugh. As his own tastes developed, the Pennsylvania native was drawn to the British rock of the Psychedelic Furs, U2, the Waterboys, and the Blue Nile. In his own way, Ryan's style merges the lyrical ambition of his parents' favorites with the tense, guitar-based dynamics of the English and Irish bands he enjoyed. "The influences are there," he says, "but I do believe that it's no longer about imitation. I don't wish to be any of those guys, but the connections can be found."

When Ryan moved to town in 1993, he'd only written four songs. But he came here during a time of self-discovery brought on by personal trauma: He'd just ended a stormy relationship that had lasted since high school. Leaving behind college studies and plans to become a schoolteacher, he moved to Nashville to reunite with a father he barely knew. Once here, he began to chase a new dream. "I cut everything off," he says. "I changed everything. I realized how easy it is to become voyeuristic and live vicariously through television or through other people who are going places. I did not want to do that with my life. I wanted to go down this road and see where it would take me."

When he resettled, he started writing voraciously; it was as if he'd finally vented a creative urge that had been building for years. Like thousands of other young songwriters who move to Music City, Ryan introduced himself by playing solo at writer's nights in various clubs. But Ryan's songs stood out; the brooding arrangements and vividly precise lyrics gave his work a distinctive character that many newcomers couldn't achieve.

Within a few shows, Ryan had drawn enough attention to form a band of fellow travelers; after a few more shows, he attracted experienced hands who recognized his potential. Among his first champions was drummer/producer Craig Krampf, a Los Angeles transplant and rock veteran who has recorded with Kim Carnes, Alice Cooper, Art Garfunkel, Steve Perry, and dozens of others. Krampf took Ryan into the studio and joined an early version of Ryan's band, which the singer named the Caustics. The combination of Krampf's credibility and Ryan's powerful presence gave the young rocker a quick citywide profile that few newcomers ever achieve.

Some of the songs from this developmental period have surfaced on Ryan's debut. "Watch Your Step," the second song on Mayday, was "one of the first songs I wrote," Ryan recalls. It's a poisoned note to a lost love and the album's angriest purge. Ryan begins by recalling his lover's parting shots: "There were problems," he seethes. "You said there was something wrong with me, and they were deep-seated, they were deep-rooted, and I must have pushed them away." The singer then observes how his former partner has changed since their breakup, how she's walking with a new lover and with a rose in her teeth. He recognizes the look, and he wonders whether he should warn them both about how she'll change as the relationship evolves. When the dark clouds come rolling in, "remember to watch your step," he sings as the waves of guitars start to build. "You can take it on the run now, babe, because you're going to throw it away."

The song sets verses filled with simmering guitar dynamics against moody breaks drenched in darkly melodic cello. It's in these moodier moments that Ryan's angry words are tempered with contemplation--and it's this balance between untempered expression and quiet self-reflection that gives Mayday its power and its depth. "I realized after it was done what a romantic record it is," Ryan says. "It's obvious in a lot of the songs that something has gone awry. But it's romantic in that sense of it being better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It's all about cycles and evolution. I'm in a better relationship now, and I can see how we use other people to discover things about ourselves."

Ryan is particularly keen at expressing the ways in which lovers get lost in their own feelings, and how those feelings affect the way they see the world. "Here comes the razor of doubt, here comes the falling out," Ryan sings wearily on "Guilty," the album's opening cut and its first single. The song goes on to describe how relationships rarely erupt; instead, they slowly disintegrate, overtaken by anguished disillusionment. He describes what people think and say, how they get sick of crying, how they say they're going to quit trying.

"Guilty" is currently gaining enthusiastic airplay on selected rock radio stations across America, building excitement for the Oct. 7 release of Mayday on A&M Records. The record company has high hopes for Ryan's success, but the artist knows Nashville's rock 'n' roll past is dotted with dashed expectations. For his part, he'll be happy if he just gets a chance to develop over the years. "We're in a time of immediate gratification--everyone has satellite televisions and microwaves," he says. "It's against our nature to allow things to evolve. But I'd appreciate that opportunity, and I'm going to do everything in my power to get that chance. I'd like my songs to be heard now, and I'd like the chance to keep getting better at this."

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