Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Mischa Pearlman meets Matthew Ryan, a songwriter with 17 years of experience, hoping his latest album, Boxers, might reach a littler further than his previous ones.
It’s a Monday afternoon in Manhattan, and it’s almost raining. The air is heavy, the sky caught between daytime and night, late summer and early fall. Matthew Ryan sits outside a cafe on the Bowery, across from the venue he’ll play later that evening. He smokes a cigarette before and after his coffee — a triple espresso — and you can hear both those things in his voice as he speaks. It’s similar to the hushed and husky, grainy and grizzled whisper that has defined his songs since his first record, May Day, was released in 1997, and which still floats and drags through Boxers, his 14th album, with just as much guttural defiance 17 years later. As he talks, his eyes — a mesmerizing combination of vivid green, gray, and blue — don’t just look at you, but into you, as if searching for and striving to reveal some universal truth out there in the world.
Which is exactly what his music has been doing for almost 20 years. Boxers is no different. Yet, made with a full band, it does make for a subtle yet powerful musical shift for the Chester, Pennsylvania-born songwriter, one that follows on from a trio of somber solo albums — Dear Lover, I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall, and In the Dusk of Everything — released between 2009 and 2012.
“That’s what I’ve been hearing,” he chuckles. “And it is. And it should be. Essentially, I made a series of records by myself with a theme that I wanted to follow, which was initially a good idea. And I enjoyed the whole process, so I’m not trying to undermine the work that was done by those three records. But by the end of it, I felt kind of like an actor that — and this sounds really goofy — had fallen too far into a role. I just thought I was done.” He pauses, the roar of New York traffic adding an accidental weight to his words.
Yet they’re heavy on their own. For the entirety of our conversation, he chooses his words carefully, selecting each one with the meticulous precision of a poet to ensure that what he means is what he says and vice versa. When he says that he was done, he’s not being dramatic. He means it. That sense of uncertainty and finality came in the last days of November 2012, at the end of seven dates on the road with The Gaslight Anthem. The New Jersey band had personally invited Ryan out, but Ryan didn’t just play a supporting role. At each of those seven nights during the headline act’s encore, Gaslight frontman Brian Fallon invited Ryan onstage, and the two would perform “I Can’t Steal You”, from Ryan’s 2003 record, Regret Over the Wires. At the first of three New York shows, Fallon readily acknowledged the influence of the man standing next to him. “I’ve stolen a lot from this guy over the years,” he told the 3,000-strong crowd, with a smile as wide as Ryan’s when he heard those words.
Despite that and the added attention that endorsement brought Ryan — not to mention the critical acclaim that had been heaped upon the severely stark, sad, and beautiful songs of In the Dusk… — something was still missing. Something wasn’t right.
“Going home,” explains Ryan, “I was like, ‘I don’t think I want to do this anymore.’ I think in some weird way, [it was] because getting to know Brian and the gang reacquainted me with a notion that I’d forgotten, and at that point it didn’t feel quite possible anymore. And so I was kind of keen on taking a break and seeing how long that break was going to be.”
As it turns out, it didn’t last long. The following summer, Ryan was invited to support Paul Weller at his six gigs. And so Ryan went out on the road again. The break he thought he was going to take didn’t materialize because Ryan felt inspired again. He needed to start writing.
“It’s weird how stuff like that works,” he says. “You can get bogged down in your own faults and the mistakes that you make. That’s not a comment on the work, but more a comment on how we go about doing what we do with our lives. So anyway, long story short, after the Weller run, I kind of got excited again and started to think that I did want to make another record, but I didn’t want to do it in singular fashion again. That may work for painters or screenwriters or poets, but I don’t know that it necessarily works for rock ’n’ roll, and I felt really, really, really far from rock’n’roll by the end of those three records.”
As such, Boxers is Ryan’s deliberate and concerted effort to find his way back to rock ’n’ roll. Produced and recorded by Kevin Salem in his Woodstock, New York, studio and recorded live by a troupe of musicians that included Fallon on guitar and longtime collaborator Brian Bequette on bass, it’s a record full of renewed purpose and energy, a record made up of bruised and beaten characters who refuse to give up. That’s something captured perfectly by the defiant gang vocals of “We won’t quit!” repeated over and over again in “An Anthem for the Broken” as the song surges towards its urgent climax, but that struggle — or, rather, the fight against that struggle — is present on all the album’s songs, as well as all of Ryan’s albums that preceded it. Boxers is certainly one of Ryan’s least tragic albums, but there’s still a mild tragedy that pervades, a sense of melancholy bubbling beneath the skin of each of them.
“I think,” says Ryan, “life is a mild, if not thorough, tragedy. And so every story ends. And so all the characters on the record operate knowing that maybe they’re hanging by a thread or that maybe that there is an end in sight but that they’re willing to fight against it. You know, the old Dylan Thomas. I think there’s something beautiful and liberating in acknowledging you only have so many plots in your life, and you should make them all matter. That’s what all the characters on the record are dealing with, and they’re also starting to reject some ideas that I think are important ideas to be rejected. Sometimes you can tell a really big story by telling the smallest stories, and part of my hope was to do that.”
It’s something that Boxers definitely achieves. It’s a record that, through its characters, gives glimpses of the life and ideologies of Ryan himself, but which also extends its reach into the darkest heart of humanity and society, plowing the same sad depths that Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen have before him, stripping back the skin of the working classes to reveal the fragile, brittle, and often bitter bones beneath the flesh that somehow hold everything together. Ryan certainly channels himself — his thoughts, his feelings, his philosophies, his heart, his soul — into these characters, but whereas before, especially on those last three records, his songs were more about personal, introspective ruin, Boxers turns the focus back outside. It’s the sound of the world crumbling around many different, damaged lives, their personal situations surrounded by a politics and a society that only serves to damage and destroy them.
“I didn’t write about these people to exploit them,” says Ryan, in a way that makes it clear that these are true stories, real battles. “I wrote about them because I care about them, and I care, particularly here in the United States, about the working classes. And I stress the working classes, because there’s a lot of people that may not understand that they are actually part of the working class. So I wanted to write about them and their struggle and the amount of complexity going on there. There’s parts of myself in there, but this is more written about other struggles I see that I think, honestly, are far more interesting than my own struggles.”
Those struggles — both his and other people’s — have always burned within Ryan’s songs. Whether personal or universal, political or emotional, the sense that life has always been something of an uphill journey for Ryan has haunted the quiet majesty of his songwriting from the beginning. His songs have always been about the underdog, about roads that lead not necessarily to dead ends, but to the wrong places. They’re about overcoming the ache that throbs deep within all of us just from being alive, the joy and fulfillment of being in love and the abject emptiness and sorrow that follows in its absence. Listen to any song from any Ryan album, and you hear, without any shadow of a doubt, that he means every damn raspy syllable. His work has always confronted those emotional injustices, as well as the inherent social ones that flow through his body of work and through both his life and the lives of the characters within his songs.
“That was always kind of my engine,” he says, “although I didn’t understand it. You have to understand, I’ve watched family, and I’ve watched friends go down horrible roads for hundreds of reasons, some valid, some not. But catastrophe is always avoidable. I think there’s always been a part of me that wanted to understand why people dug the holes they dug, and I guess in some ways I always wanted to offer a line, offer a rope. And I think when I was younger I was doing that, but I didn’t realize it. And actually, I would say one of the scariest parts in my adventure was when I started to realize why I was doing what I was doing. But then once I came to terms with that, I found it liberating. I feel like I’m really getting down to the work of it now.”
That realization came at the same exact time Ryan was questioning whether he would continue making music, and it was perhaps that double epiphany that caused the musical and philosophical shift that Boxers embodies. Much less wounded and fragile than the vast majority of his output, the album is still sad, but at the same time emboldened by an underlying yet dominant air of defiance, both musically and lyrically. It feels like Ryan is looking back with hindsight and distance at the circumstances and emotions of the songs, rather than channeling them in the here and now. While the songs are just as heartfelt and honest as ever, it serves to offer a sense of extra strength in Ryan himself, but more as the artist who exists outside of the songs, as a writer and performer, rather than within them as a voice and an idea.
“It was with Dusk…,” he says, “that I realized what I was writing about. And I finished it anyway. I gave it its due, and then I was worried at the end of that that I was done. Because once you know, it’s a very dangerous place to be if you don’t handle it right. Thus far, knock on wood, I feel that I’ve come to terms with it. And I’ve found that the characters are getting richer. Not financially, obviously” — and here he laughs heartily — “but I feel like I’m just getting started. We hear of these sorts of things all the time and a lot of artists saying — and maybe it’s true for all of them, I don’t know, I can only speak for myself — but I’m just getting started. We can’t buy time and all that stuff, and I felt lost for a number of years, but I feel as good as I ever have about where I’m going and what I’m doing. If not better.”
You can hear that more positive mindset in all of Boxers’ songs, and with this particular set of musicians. While social critique and commentary have always permeated his discography, it was often more in terms of setting than subject. Here, however, it’s one of the salient themes and one delivered with more purpose than ever before — its beaten-down, brokenhearted characters don’t just exist in a ruined, broken America divided by wealth, race and class; they’re a metaphor for it.
“I come from a working-class family,” he continues, “so it’s rooted in the things that I care about from the very beginning, and I believe that it’s part of my job [to address those issues]. It’s not necessarily a part of my job to educate people or to preach to people, but I do think it’s part of my job to try to compel more empathy for what each of us goes through. I don’t know how anybody could look at the world and think that life isn’t tough, and that the choices we make collectively don’t have consequences, and some results, but all you have to do is take a brief look at a history book to see things can get pretty shitty if we’re not in touch with what our motives are and what the outcomes are and all that stuff. That doesn’t mean that things aren’t funny and things aren’t beautiful — of course those things are always available. But, like Cohen said, at 2.30 in the morning after everybody went home, it’s not that funny, is it? Sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes you feel connected and sometimes you feel disconnected, but I think there’s a giant question mark on all of us, and it has to do with why and how long and what next? In the most thorough sense, and the thing is, we can’t let those questions…”
He pauses, his eyes continuing their search for that elusive, impossible truth about everything.
“We have a responsibility to the now, and we can’t let those sorts of questions dictate…” He stops again and almost smiles. Eons pass as people walk by, each one living out their day in a different way, unaware they’re part of this moment.
“See,” he starts back up, “these things can start getting into a place I prefer not to talk about. I’m not a political scientist, and I’m not an economist, and I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist or any of those things. Artists are trying to describe something that’s indescribable, and that’s all I’m trying to do, over and over again, and hopefully it means something. That’s all.”
Ryan Webb was born on November 7th, 1971. He moved from Chester to Newark, Delaware, with his family when he was 15. In his early twenties, he changed his name to Matthew Ryan in honor of his older brother, who was going down one of those horrible roads — in 2006, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. That same year, Ryan collaborated with Neilson Hubbard, Bequette and others to form Strays Don’t Sleep. “For Blue Skies”, a song from that project’s one and only album, a self-titled effort, directly addresses his brother’s predicament. “What you couldn’t do, I will,” Ryan sings in a beautiful, broken whisper. “I forgive you.” It’s no surprise that the shadow of Ryan’s brother, both before and after his incarceration, looms large over his career, and, given the name change, is impossible to separate from his music. It’s also no surprise that he’s not particularly given to talking about it. But how different does he think he would be as a person and a musician and a songwriter without his brother and what happened to him?
“I don’t know,” he sighs, and it’s a sigh of sadness and uncertainty rather than frustration and exasperation. “That’s like asking if you could have green eyes somehow. My experience is my experience, and I think the job of a human is to take whatever punches and try to turn them into something beautiful and useful. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I would assume that without those heartaches…” He stops. A few drops of rain fall from the sky. “Something about pain connects us to something, and I think that it’s useful. Now with that being said, there’s no reason to indulge in pain, or to allow it to beat you or to win, but there is something about pain and conflict that connects us to each other in a way that … I mean, we have entire theologies built around the idea of suffering. That’s what I was talking about earlier with the big questions. That’s what I was trying to get at.”
Ryan’s work is heavily inspired by conflict and many shades of sorrow, but he says, quite adamantly, that he’s happy. To talk to him is to realize, despite the heaviness of his words and how entrenched in sorrow his songs – and especially those last three albums – actually are, that there is a lighter side to him, that he isn’t just his songs. One of the many things that Boxers does is bring that duality to the forefront. The first record he’s made since relocating to Pittsburgh in 2012 after 17 years in Nashville, its shift in both tone and temperament symbolize the change effected by moving cities.
“I just loved the way that it looked,” Ryan says of his new home. “It’s a very severe, haunted, cautiously optimistic, slightly pissed-off place. And still feels of its own place. There’s a few places in America that feel that way, but Pittsburgh has that, and it was time for me to get out of Nashville. I’d spent a few years essentially with an aquarium on my head, so it was time to move on. I don’t know if Pittsburgh is the final stop, but right now, getting reacquainted with winter — like real winter — and autumn and everything about it really resonates with me. I love it. And great people. A little gruff, but I like that. Life will make you gruff.”
Indeed, Pittsburgh almost perfectly matches the ragged, rugged resilience of the 43-year-old, and the grizzled, blue-collar bones of its skeleton are apt for Ryan and his work. Having spent years in decline after the steel industry collapsed in the early- to mid-1980s, the strikingly beautiful city managed, after years of regeneration, to bounce back. It’s still an underdog, but people are — once again — taking notice.
The comparison to Ryan’s career is easy to make. That 1997 debut, May Day, was released on A&M Records, but the major label dropped him after his second record, 2000’s East Autumn Grin, failed to sell as many copies as they had hoped. While critical acclaim has followed Ryan constantly from those first two records all the way to now, it’s never been matched by commercial success, and for a while now, he’s been releasing albums independently in a very DIY fashion. There is, though, an undeniable boost in momentum with Boxers, which has been released digitally and which will soon be followed by a physical version. Much of that, Ryan is happy to admit, has occurred as a result of his encounters on the road with The Gaslight Anthem and Fallon’s subsequent involvement in the making of the record. Fallon’s beaming onstage praise of Ryan back in 2012 probably had something to do with it, too.
“I’ll tell you,” beams Ryan, “that was beautiful. And I’m not the type of guy who revels in these sorts of things unless they resonate as true. That was beautiful. Because, in a lot of ways, my career has often felt invisible, and I’d become a fan of Gaslight’s not knowing those things, and to hear [Fallon] say that and to see, no matter what certain institutions may or may not say about the trajectory of my career, if I were an influence on work that I think is beautiful, and I do think what Brian and Gaslight are doing is, then that’s a pretty beautiful reward. And it was … I don’t know. There’s something that goes on. It’s like we’re all just trying to find each other.”
You can hear in Boxers’ songs that they did find each other. Whether or not the record transforms Ryan’s fortunes, it’s testament to the power of brotherhood and solidarity, of not letting the things than can fuck you up and knock you down do so. Maybe that’s the quintessential difference between this record and everything Ryan has made before. Here, he’s not succumbing to the pain that inspired these songs. If you listen to any of his songs, that movement toward positivity might seem surprising. “I don’t suffer for my art,” he says at one point during the conversation. “I suffer because I’m human” — but it’s the culmination of everything he’s been through, both in spite of it and because of it. That sense of distance and hindsight makes all the difference.
“You have to work,” says Ryan, “within the world that you know to gather and to defeat the things that are trying to defeat you. And those things aren’t outside of you, necessarily. The other day, I was sitting at a light — and this is going to sound a little cheesy, but hopefully it’ll make the point of what I’m trying to say — but I was sitting at a light and this woman was walking across the street, probably in her late 50s, and it looked like every sorrow that could be experienced was on her face and was pulling it down. If we accept those things as the truth, and we don’t insist on some other experience for the things that challenge us, then it will win. And I think too many times we let temporary things define us forever. I think sometimes we try too hard to insist something has meaning beyond what it already meant. And we do that in so many parts of our lives. But as I was looking at this woman and seeing how disenchanted, defeated, hurt she looked, I was thinking to myself that the very thing that did that to her made someone else beautiful.”
There’s a seriousness to Ryan’s eyes as he speaks, their infinite swirl of color intense and soul searching, open and introspective. His coffee is long gone, and there’s a cigarette waiting to be smoked. Later that night, at the Bowery Electric, Ryan plays songs old and new to a small but devoted and wholly attentive crowd. Outside, it never quite rains, but inside it absolutely pours. Even the new songs sound sad, because they feel so real and close to the bone, steady streams of sadness that rip raw the fractured lives contained within them. Perhaps at one time, Matthew Ryan was one of those lives — and perhaps parts of him are still there — but look at his smile as he plays, and it’s clear there’s some kind of salvation and redemption on offer here, a reminder that tomorrow is always a new day. Because, more than anything else, Boxers is a bruised and beautiful reminder of that. It’s a stunning document of the human condition, a moment in time frozen and captured by the power of friendship and camaraderie that has the power and ability to affect and maybe even change other lives and other times a truly inspiring piece of art that already exists outside the confines of its medium, which continues to fight and rage against the dying of the light on behalf of the listener, the album’s characters, and, maybe most importantly, for Ryan himself.
“We made the record,” he says. “We experienced that. We had an amazing, resonant time together. It’s something that I’ll value all the rest of my days. It’s what I always wanted rock ’n’ roll to feel like. And for whatever reasons — being on labels, being near broke — none of those concerns imbued this work. All that mattered was what we were doing at the time we were doing it, and I’m so grateful for that. Now, I’d like to see how people feel about the record, and I would also like to be able to take out a band and offer it in yet another manner, because I’m finding that I’m enjoying all this so much more. The chances are, with the environment being what it is for music, there’s no way of knowing, it’ll do what so many good records are doing — they kind of come and they go. But I would be lying to say I wasn’t hopeful that maybe there’s something about this record that will connect with people in a way that will give it a story beyond the expected. That’s what I would hope for.”
It seems that that’s happening and that Matthew Ryan is getting ever closer to the truth he’s been seeking for almost two decades. Does he think he’ll ever actually find it?
“I think,” he answers slowly, “that we will find what we’re looking for. I’m just not sure we’ll be conscious of it.” There’s a pause. He smiles, then lets out the most hearty of laughs. “I think I’ve just blown my own mind.”
Mischa Pearlman is a writer based in New York and London. He has written for NME, Noisey, and others.