Band To Watch: Ryan Power
From the vibrant enclave of Burlington, VT comes an artist one of you called the North Country’s “best kept secret.” Verily, after spending the last week with Ryan Power’s latest release I Don’t Want To Die, and seeing the reaction it gets from heard-it-all friends, it really is pretty weird that more people aren’t aware of what he’s doing. So let’s help change that, because this is music with a fairly prodigious talent at play. The style’s impossible to peg with a catch-all genre tag, so let’s start with “exploratory-pop,” and get you started with a pair of tracks:
Here’s one to take:
Ryan Power – “I Don’t Want To Die”
And another, to stream:
Ryan Power – “I Don’t Care”
Those both come from I Don’t Want To Die, an LP Ryan started selling at shows a bit ago, getting its official release 4/3 via NNA Tapes. (He’s prolific; there are four earlier LPs streaming as well on his site.) It’s a good, shifty listen. Ryan specializes in sticky melodies with an air of theater and drama, with the pristine, malleable voice to match suit. He can be dourly existential, he can be flip. The album’s compositional sense, evidently honed while studying music at UNH, dips into Prefab Sprout-informed R&B, jazz-informed guitar runs, Scritt Politti-informed synth, and just generally outre experimental-pop. The songs modulate terrifically and syncopate strangely; the vocals harmonize and arpeggiate around catchy melodies. There’s a lot happening!
It’s a refined restlessness that recalls older, pre-Rise Above Dirty Projectors (particularly on the track “Rag Rug”). As it stands, Ryan tells me he isn’t so familiar with that music, though coincidentally, and fittingly, he also has a song called “New Attitude.” Instead it’s Prefab Sprout, Chris Weisman, Ariel Pink, and others that inspire Power’s weird, soulfully experimental earworms. I asked Ryan a bunch of questions about what all is informing his approach, and where it’s all going — all of that is here, along with five songs by other artists that Ryan identified as a proper primer to where he’s coming from.
STEREOGUM: This music has lots of independent spirit and vision, yet also feels very studied and refined. Do you have any formal music training? How did you start playing music, and what teachers or records evolved your style?
RYAN POWER: When I was 11 my sister’s boyfriend would bring his guitar over and play songs. My brother and I were quite intrigued and our parents bought us a little Harmony guitar. I remember trying to pick out the guitar part from “Hotel California” and when I showed my sister and brother they told me it sounded like the bass line. I learned about music this way. By ear.
I studied music theory at the University of New Hampshire. We analyzed sections of classical pieces from tonal to serial. We also practiced ear training. I remember almost tearing the arm off the desk when I couldn’t place a certain interval. I never really learned how to sight read very well (made my eyes twitch). I took jazz guitar lessons with a guitarist from Maine named Tony Gabory and those were very enlightening.
STEREOGUM: We did an AREA CODES feature on your hometown. How much do you feel that scene has informed your music? Has its musicians or venues helped you incubate and develop your approach to music making?
RYAN POWER: Burlington, Vermont is a wonderful town to began a musical path. The musicians are very supportive of one another and there’s enough of a local audience to give you energy to grow. My performance style has been informed by local acts (friends) like the Cosmic Matrix and Son of Salami. Seeing them perform their songs karaoke helped me to break away from the guitar/voice performances I had been doing.
STEREOGUM: Do you set out with a conscious set of reference points in mind when creating Ryan Power music, or is it a more organic expression of whatever you’re “feeling” at the moment? The music moves around so much, it feels like certain specific genres and production/compositional ideas are referenced by the music. To the extent that is true, what artists and movements do you find inspiring?
RYAN POWER: I would say it’s a combo, but I usually write my best stuff when I’m “feeling” like shit. No new news there …. I love music that shifts around melodically, harmonically, and structurally in a pop context. My ear is open and gets bored easily. I love Scritti Politti, The Roches, and Prefab Sprout.
STEREOGUM: What contemporary artists are making music that inspires you? Do you feel like you are part of any particular “scene” of artists, either geographically or stylistically?
RYAN POWER: Ariel Pink, Chris Weisman. I went to UNH with Chris and learned a lot from him. He’s an amazing songwriter. We fight like brothers and love like lovers. He now lives in Brattleboro, VT. I feel a connection with some of those melodic mutants down there like Kurt Weisman, Ruth Garbus, and Blanch Blanch Blanch.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any overarching ideas for where you’d like to see Ryan Power go, stylistically? And how about in terms of a career?
RYAN POWER: Stylistically I’m always wanting to reach the alien territory. Sometimes I get stuck in certain orbits (Scritti), but eventually I want to make the music that scares you half to death and realigns your chakras at the same time because it’s so achingly empty and beautiful. A new sense.
In terms of a career I feel pretty blessed so far earning a humble living helping others make records (see below). It would be nice to do some more touring and see different parts of the world. Maybe earn some money through my songs, but in this day and age of free information I don’t even see how it is possible. I’m not against it, I just don’t understand how it’s going to work. Does anyone? Q: Is Spotify going to pay my rent? A: No.
STEREOGUM: Do you keep any other jobs to subsidize your music-making, and do they inform your music practice at all?
RYAN POWER: I have a studio up here in Vermont. It’s the old Dan Archer Studio where Phish recorded Lawn Boy. I record bands and mix records for a living. Just, just enough to pay the bills and eat well. Sometimes I wonder if helping others make music actually takes away from my creative energy, but the truth is I’m a slow burner when it comes to writing songs. I hope some of the things I learn/hear while recording help me as a musician.
STEREOGUM: The stylistic richness in your music suggests a varied musical history. Have you played in many other projects?
RYAN POWER: I started a band with my friend Dan Snazelle (snazzyfx.com) when we were 13. We were called Quantum and our influences were REM and The Cure. We recorded an album on 4 track and distributed it throughout our middle school. We were hip, no bassist. I then became infatuated with Jimi Hendrix and I’m sure he, his guitar playing and his crazy album production have had a huge influence on me. This lead me into blues music. I joined a blues band with my dear friend Jason Sperling who is one of the best blues guitarist I’ve ever heard. He taught me so much about music and feel and story telling. Quite a musician.
From there I played in some dorky funk bands in college and then once I got to Burlington I joined a Pavement type band called Rock and Roll Sherpa. We were really good. I played drums and helped arrange the songs. It was a blast. Too bad we were all alcoholics. The two songwriter were very talented, Aaron Hornblas and Alan Beauregard. It was so much fun playing with them. I also played keyboards with a band called The Cush (Burette and Gabrielle Douglas). They moved up to Vermont from Texas and blew the town away with their psychedelia and synthesizers. From there I started putting my own bands together to perform my music.
STEREOGUM: Where did you record I Don’t Want To Die?
RYAN POWER: I recorded the majority of I Don’t Want To Die in a barn apartment in Shelburne, VT. I was house-sitting for my friend for about a year and a half in a beautiful, exposed wood, very unique dwelling with a woodstove and outhouse. I self-released it in 2010.
STEREOGUM:Are you working on new material? What direction is that taking?
RYAN POWER: I’m slowly working on new songs. I have about half an album finished. It’s similar to I Don’t Want To Die in some ways. Writing on the keyboard, trying to find new combinations of keys to strike with my limited technique. I haven’t met any aliens yet.
STEREOGUM: Any plans to tour or come to NYC?
RYAN POWER: I plan on putting a band together in the coming months to tour sometime in the spring. I’ll be playing solo in NYC sometime this winter.
As per BTW custom, I asked Ryan to create a five-song mixtape that he would give to someone as a primer to the world of Ryan Power. Dig in, here:
Prefab Sprout – “Wild Horses”
Scritti Politti – “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Her)”
The Roches – “Big Nuthin'”
Judeee Sill – “The Pearl”