Interview | Ryanhood talk ‘Yearbook’, the folk duo’s first-ever independently-tracked record

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©2010 C. Elliott

Fresh off their whirlwind week at Folk Alliance, Tucson, AZ folk-duo Ryanhood was gracious enough to field my questions about their 6th studio album, entilted Yearbook. Ryan and Cameron talk about the past, present, and future of their band, as well as their brand new album, out today. Visit ryanhood.com for more info!

You mentioned something in your email, about how the record is a “suite of songs about being young, growing old, and making peace with the passing of time” and in looking at your tour history, it seems you’ve really hit touring hard. How has life on the road, or your lives in general, influenced your songwriting?

Ryan: I was recently looking through an old photo album, filled with old touring photos, and it brought back a lot of memories of the growing pains and aches that we had as a band in our first years. It made me a little sad to see these photos of us in all these amazing places, touring through new states for the first time, meeting and playing with our heroes… we should’ve been having the time of our lives. But, I remember that inside we were going through a lot of struggles just associated with learning to tour together, write together, play together, live together, and learning to trust each other. And on top of that, learning to enjoy the ride that we were on instead of being fixated on this idea of ‘making it’. And then I was thinking about how incredibly grateful I am for where we are now, for how well we’ve learned to work together, write together, play together, and how much trust and love and respect we have for each other at this point. One of the biggest impacts that has made is in our writing, which has become increasingly collaborative. Historically, our most collaborative songs have been our most popular, and so I think it bodes well for our future.

In looking at who you’ve opened for also, including Jason Mraz, Train, and Needtobreathe to name a few, one can’t help but be impressed by what you guys have accomplished in that way. You can hear that type of pop-sensibility those acts have honed in, and it’s something you guys have harnessed in your own music, in your own way. Is that something you’ve developed over time or something that has come naturally?

Cameron: I think it’s both. You naturally want to try to write like the people and bands that you love and look up to, but you’re not always good at it right away. It takes work to learn how to say more with fewer words, to learn how to write really compelling metaphors that also have very singable melodies. Sometimes that stuff just comes to you, and sometimes you have to work really hard to coax it out.

Ryan: I like that you said “in your own way” because that’s been perhaps the most important part of it for me. Trying to be original, to say something new, to play something differently. The term pop tends to paint a picture of the same few chords being recycled over and over with some slightly different lyrics. Cameron and I are always quick to point it out to each other when one of us is borrowing a rhyme, or a musical phrase that we’ve used in another composition. Or even just using something that sounds cliché. It’s really helpful to have a partner who you trust who will force you to grow and evolve.

In reading about the band, you’re discussed a lot in terms of being “genuine” or “authentic;” what does that mean to you guys? Is it a conscious choice, lyrically or otherwise, to let your music reflect something “true” about yourself, or, does it come from something/ somewhere else?

Cameron: I can only speak for myself on this, but it’s important to me to be intentionally self-revealing. There’s a quote from Dan Millman’s book “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior” where he says that what we’re after is not invulnerability; where we play it cool and therefore never get hurt. What we’re after is ABSOLUTE vulnerability. If I show people the most glossy, puffed up version of myself, they end up showing me only the most glossy, puffed up versions of themselves too. But if I show what’s real in the songs that I write and in the way I speak between songs, the result is usually that people share what’s real about them… “I’ll show you my heart, you show me yours.” I don’t want to be anyone’s personal therapist, but I do love sparking those kinds of inward reflections in our audience.

Ryan: We had someone recently say to us after a show… “You guys seem so comfortable in your own skin.” And I was really proud of that compliment, because that’s something that we’ve worked really hard at, as individuals and together, on and off the stage (mostly off to be honest). I know there are people that prefer things to be masked and hidden and ambiguous, and I used to want to be that, because it seems much cooler. But I’ve come to realize that where I find the most peace is being myself, and believing that’s good enough.

 
Back to the music now: in addition to that pop sensibility, though, you can tell by the arrangements and instrumentation on the record that you both take your musicality very seriously and are both very accomplished in that way. Can you speak to toeing that line to making something “hooky” or “catchy” lyrically while continuing to showcase interesting instrument arrangements? Do you have a role model musically in that way?

Cameron: As a general rule, Ryan is most interested in making sure that what we create is musically interesting, creative, and invigorated from some new place; whereas I’m most interested in making sure that it’s lyrically creative, revealing, and insightful. But I think we both have moments not only of respecting the each other’s interests, but actually delving into each other’s domains and writing some pretty great stuff. Ryan has written some lyrics that have made me cry, and I think I’ve surprised him with a tasty guitar lick more than once.

Ryan: I’m always trying to push us to be left of center musically, and I think our partnership is good because without Cameron, I would probably be way out there. But he pulls me back to the center a bit, where there’s actually an audience [laughs], and at the same time, he’s usually up for going on musical adventures with me. Most of the artists I listen to (Chris Thile, Béla Fleck, Chessboxer, Julian Lage) are really adventuresome and creative players, and I would be happy breaking even just a fraction of the ground that they are.

Overall, your songs have a sort of theatricality, or maybe rather an intricacy to them; something that feels different from other folk-pop groups. The Lumineers brand is much more stomp focused, decidedly less complex musically, and your sound doesn’t quite have the arena feel of a band like The Head and The Heart; your music is nestled in the great pocket between those two, feeling all at once focused on storytelling and intimacy while not being afraid to wield a big musical stick as well. What in your story as a band has made that possible?

Ryan: It’s a mix of our influences really. But I would say that when we first formed, we both felt like by being two guys with acoustic guitars, we were going to have to fight this image of a guy sitting on a stool, softly strumming, staring at his feet, singing sad songs. It’s been our mission from the beginning to break that kind of stereotype, and bring humor, dynamics, passion, joy and energy to our performances. To not just assume that a song will do the work for you, but to really put on a show.

Cameron: Someone who was an early mentor to both of us, the folk singer Livingston Taylor, told us that “Passion without discipline is yucky.” And so we try to walk the line between wanting to be energetic and exciting and engaging, and also to play with precision. There’s a part of me that wants to go out into the crowd and be Bono and have Larry Mullen Jr. pounding the drums behind me. But who we actually are is two guys with two acoustic guitars who get on stage and get emotionally naked in front of people and hope they’ll follow suit. Sometimes you can only do that with a loud kick drum and a finger-shredding guitar solo, and sometimes you do that with the quietest of harmonies.

 
Can you tell our readers some of the things, artistically or otherwise, that you were doing or listening to or “consuming,” if you will, while you were making this record?

Ryan: We met and played with an incredible amount of amazing ‘folk’ artists over the past year, many of whom are flying just under the radar. Freddy and Francine, Justin Farren, The Bombadils, The OK Factor, Run Boy Run, just to name a few off the top of my head. Meeting and hearing these groups absolutely inspired my work on this album.

Cameron: We listen to a lot of comedy, a lot of podcasts, and sometimes, comedy podcasts. My favorite comedian, Mike Birbiglia said something like, “If you’re not telling secrets, I’m not that interested.” And that connects with me, because, in art and life, I’m most interested in hearing what drives people from inside, from underneath. I think, for me, getting a counselor — and beginning to think through and explore a lot of the ways the things that happened as a kid inform who I am now — was one of the biggest influencers of the songs that I contributed to the album.

You know, you start exploring yourself and you realize that a lot of the darkness that you see in the world, the wars, violence — general meanness — it all exists right here in me too. And you start exploring those places and you realize that a lot of those things you got from when you were a kid, and that they’re just defense mechanisms against a world that’s scary and out of your control. I think it helped me to gain some compassion for those broken or dark areas in myself, and then, in turn, to begin to extend that towards other people. That, to me, is the link between the intensely personal nature of an album like Yearbook, and the big picture of the world and politics. The problem is not “over there”. It lives right here. And if I can have compassion and understanding for myself around those things, I can have compassion for others too. And that remakes the world, one person at a time. And I stole pretty much all of those ideas from Richard Rohr. So, my answer is Richard Rohr.

Finally, what makes this record different from some of your other releases and what makes you proud about it?

Ryan: We bravely decided to track this entire record on our own, a first for us. Which meant acoustically treating spaces in our homes, investing in some nice recording equipment, and most of all, trusting that we had the experience and instinct (from past records) to know how track it. Which means trusting we know how to put the microphones in the right places, and how to coax out our own best performances without a producer telling us when it’s right. And I’m happy to say we were right in trusting ourselves and taking the plunge. It turns out that 12 years of experience as a band, and a previous five albums worth of studio experience trained us well for this.

It’s incredibly empowering now to know that we’re now capable of doing this again moving forward. It’s creatively exhilarating. There’s something I like about all of our past records… each has it’s own unique little thing. But I feel like this album has the best part of each of our previous albums. It’s got the heart that I associate with our first album, the fun and bounce of our second, the sonic shine of our third album, the passion and rawness of our fourth, and the discipline of our fifth. Perhaps that’s too self-analytical, but I take great joy in finding these connections between our past and present, and being forced to accept that there’s no way for us to be where we are now without having gone through every single one of our past experiences. And I’m grateful for all of them.

Words by: Joey Frendo

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