For Folk’s Sake interview: Ryan O’Reilly


The first two times Ryan O’Reilly played his songs live, fights broke out. Both times he was 16 and both were in the usually sleepy county of Hampshire where he lived before moving to London to study. “At my first gig there was no microphone and I played completely acoustically,” he says. “This biker came in, as the waitress walked past he properly felt her up right in front of me and it kicked off. These lads just beat the shit out of him halfway through a song. I just carried on.” At his second gig at The Railway Inn, Winchester’s best live venue, another fight broke out. “There was me playing my heartfelt autobiographical songs about love and loss and these big lads kicking the shit out of each other.”

He started writing songs at the age of 15 and soon realised he was short of inspiration so, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s coming-of-age masterpiece On The Road, he took time out after his A-Levels to travel. “I found out I had a great uncle who emigrated from Ireland to Canada, so I went and stayed with him in Toronto for four months.” While he was there Ryan didn’t wait long before seeking out the local music scene. “I did all the touristy stuff then I found some open mic nights and played there and that’s where I met everyone.” He has kept in touch singer-songwriters Tyler Kyte and Nick Rose whom he met in Canada, and together they form the collective Blue Fox (check out their myspace). Ryan also recorded an album while he was in Canada, which is available on iTunes, although he says “I’ve never seen a penny from anything on there.”

Ryan’s brush with Americana or “Canadiana” has clearly informed his songwriting; he cites Ryan Adams and Neil Young as influences but is careful not to let other artists’ work influence him too strongly. “I tend not to listen to any music on the day before I write,” he says. “I definitely have written songs in the style of other people in the past, but I’m trying to move away from that now. When I first got to London three years ago, I played at an open mic night and the guy who ran it came up to me at the end and said ‘If I’d wanted to listen to Tom Waits I’d put his album on’.”

Since then Ryan has honed his own esoteric writing style. “I’ve been told by a couple of singer songwriters that I write in a very odd way,” he says. He starts with words and – having studied poetry at UCD and now in his third year of an English degree at Roehampton – counts his lyrics as a strong point. Most of his songs are autobiographical and he says the ones that aren’t “get usurped by the other ones that need to be sung. I think it’s probably self-indulgent. If you’re going through any sort of hard time it’s just a good way of getting it out there.”

The frustrations of the music industry have left 22-year-old Ryan weary. On crowd-favourite November – which he describes as “one of the songs I’m most pleased with recently” – he taunts himself with the line You’ll never change the world with your songs and your guitar/There’s people half your age and they’re going twice as far. “That line had been in my head for ages”, he says. “That’s the crutch of the song.”

The problem for Ryan, like so many bands, comes down to money. Studio time is expensive and so he feels that his recorded material is somewhat behind the polished live performance. He now plays with the Ryan O’Reilly Band for which he is joined by Tali Trow on Bass, Brad Thomas on Piano, Dave Granshaw on Drums and Spencer Cullum on guitar. “We’ve been getting quite a lot of attention recently because of the live shows, and it’s something that’s making me quite anxious. People will come to the show and then they’ll listen to the myspace and it’s completely different.”

But he’s not willing to compromise his musical integrity to get a record deal. An A&R guy who came to watch The Ryan O’Reilly Band’s live performance said their style varied too much within the set. But Ryan thinks the variation is a good thing and he’s not willing to bow to industry pressure. “I don’t want to be saying ‘please can I play for your lovely record label’,” he says. “For better or worse we’re going to stick to being quite a varied band. We have the Irish folk element and we have the Americana element. It it’s very harmony based and harmonies, luckily for us, are really in right now.”

They really are, and Ryan has found himself a part of the harmony-laden London folk scene having played with Jay Jay Pistolet, Cherbourg and Mumford and Sons. “I think it’s quite exciting to be involved in a scene it’s where things happen, you know,” he says. In February the band played a euphoric sell out gig in support of Cherbourg’s EP release, and they have been touring relentlessly. Today’s rapturous crowds react quite differently from the fighters of old. He jokes, “Ideally, I want the audience to stand in silence and turn to each other and just nod. No applause.”


See the Ryan O’Reilly band at one of the following dates:

Apr 7 Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club London
Apr 9 The Brunswick Brighton
Apr 11The Railway Inn
Apr 25 Camden Crawl @ The Lock Tavern Camden **3pm show**
Apr 30 Drift Portsmouth
May 5 Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club London
May 21 The Flower Pots Camden
May 24  Communion @ The Hanbury Club Brighton
May 28 The Platform Tavern Southampton
Jun 2 Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club Soho