The first thing you need to know about RYAN Playground is that she's a Pisces. She would probably insist that her love for alpacas is more important, but I beg to differ. The astrological sign has a tendency to be calm and laid back, something that the Canadian artist gives off immediately upon interacting with her. For this interview, Ryan and I are sharing a basket of french fries at a table in the lower level of Flower Shop in the Lower East Side on a hot summer night. Ryan has just gotten back from an expedited shopping spree at NOAH and Only NY so she's eager to show off all of the new t-shirts and socks that she copped.
If the attraction to streetwear brands wasn't a clear indicator, you could say that Ryan is a tomboy. However, she's never felt comfortable being categorized with labels of any sort. Ryan grew up in Laval, a city located in the southwestern region of Quebec, the only child of musical parents who taught her how to play instruments at a young age. She started off singing songs with a guitar and then switched over to the electronic music scene into her adulthood. Ryan is more than a musician though--she also broke into the modeling scene when she moved to Montreal as a teenager.
Twenty-something years after her parents gave her a musical foundation, Ryan returned the favor to her parents by asking them to play on some of the tracks that will be featured on her long-awaited debut album. The tentatively self-titled project picks up where the 2016 Elle EP left off, but steers in a completely different direction as Ryan goes back to her organic roots. Today, PAPER is premiering the latest single "Almost Died." Ryan told us that the song is about "the vulnerability that comes with bonding over shared issues and the intense connections that can result."
While you stream the tender, guitar-drive tune, scroll down and learn more about the woman on the other end of the speakers.
The last time I talked to you was when your Elle EP came out which was about a year ago. I'm sure a lot has happened since then so let's start from there. What's been going on in your life in the past year?
Well, I moved apartments which is always a change in life, to find yourself in a new space. It's quite an inspiring space because it's a very old building and a huge building with, like, columns and stuff and big rocks that used to be for deaf and blind kids. It's quite dark; apparently there was some weird stuff that happened there, but I didn't really know before I rented the place. Once in it, I was, "Shit, this is weird." I think it's inspiring to be in the building.
After that what's been inspiring is that I've been traveling a little bit. I've been to Paris and Texas for the first time, which was really nice. I've been buying a lot of instruments as well, which changed my way of doing music. I bought this guitar that I'm in love with, so I'm basically doing all my songs starting with the guitar, so it definitely did change my sound. I bought a bass, too. I just went back to my roots, because as a kid that's what I used to do, play guitar and sing.
Are you self-taught or did you take classes to learn how to play instruments?
I got my first guitar when I was like five and then I started to mess around alone. I got some classes later when I was like eight or something--I did it for two years and just learned like AC/DC songs and stuff like that… Learning how to do a solo. The theory never really went into my brain, it just went like in and out cause I didn't want to base my music around theory. So I guess it's more self taught than anything else. When I was a kid I used to hear a song and try to reproduce it. I remember when I was doing my guitar classes my teacher was like "Read the tabs and try to learn the solo" and I was just like "I don't want to read the tabs, I just want to hear it and do it just by hearing the solo."
Tell me about growing up in Laval, Quebec. How did it shape or influence who you are now?
Well, I grew up in Laval. In the suburb, and I was living in some kind of loop...How do you say it?
Is it like a cul de sac?
Yeah, with a park in the middle. So everybody around was my friend and we would just hang out, skateboard, and play sports and stuff. Most of them were boys, so I grew up with boys. I wanted to just be better than them, so I guess that shaped me a little bit because I always wanted to stand out from the boys and nothing for me now is a boy thing, you know? Growing up and skateboarding kind of shaped what I was listening to--I was really into punk and funk music. This is the core of how I started to do music and my love for different types of music.
When I moved to Montreal when I was 16, my interest in music changed. I got introduced to electronic music and dubstep, the other extreme. I spent a year listening to dubstep intensely and then just stopped. That's pretty much how I got shaped. I traveled quite a bit modeling when I was teenager, so that inspired me too. I think the modeling part, there's something in the modeling that makes you feel very in control and you want to break the walls, so that's kind of been a recurring subject and the feeling that I wanted to talk about.
You previously said that "Prolongation" was inspired by a life-changing moment that happened to you and made you realize that you weren't being your true self. I was hoping you could explain that and elaborate a little bit.
Well, it's kind of like what I was saying before about control. I'm a controlling person. It's because I'm an only child and I grew up doing things by myself. I'm used to doing things my own way and I didn't really want people to tell me how to do them. I guess that's stopped me somehow from being my true self, which is kind of what I talked about on "Prolongation." For me, it's all about opening doors and opening the right door. Don't limit yourself with locked doors that seem to be scary.
I also struggle with that as an only childl and being so used to having that alone time and everything feeling very structured. Even in the past year, I've had to just learn to go with the flow, which is so the opposite of how I normally am. Music is my way of just dropping all of the walls and doing whatever I want, talking about what I want.
Do you sort of have a process that you follow when making music? Do you write the songs first and then create the music or is it more spontaneous?
Most of the time I never really force myself to sit down and write a song. Often, I will feel something that I don't even know what it is, but it makes me want to sit down and open Logic Pro and then I will start to record. I'll just stay there for hours forgetting about anything, or I will just close the project, or probably delete it. It's very spontaneous, there's no structure.
Can you talk me through your upcoming debut album? When did you decide that you had the material ready for that record and how long were you working on everything?
It's always hard for me to point out where it started and finished. I guess the first song that made me feel like I was working on the project was "Prolongation," because I felt like this was the sound I wanted to go for. It really reminded me of the old stuff that I listen to and I felt a connection with this type of sound. I used to only let myself do guitar and voice songs because I wanted to prove to myself that I could. With this project, I just lost control over that and if I wanted to do just a song with guitar and voice and telephone effect or whatever that sounds like, I did.
This project was about feeling free. I worked on it for a year. I know there's some people that do, like, 30 songs and then select 10, but for myself, I start a song and if I feel like it won't work, I just abandon it. And if I finish it, it's because I know it's good. So most of the time, songs I finish, I know they're going to be part of the project. I think the last song I did, the most free one, the guitar was super distorted and proved to myself I could do whatever. It's all about taking the time to be.
What is the name of the album?
I think it's going to be self titled. It used to be called Somewhere In Between and that was about--'cause it talks about this on the album--feeling some kind of grey zone but feeling comfortable with that. Not touching the extreme necessarily, but finding comfort in the natural grey zone of life. But then this title was taken by some artist. I think it's for the best because it was a very specific thing that was associated with this album and I don't think that it needs to be that specific. It's just about being free and it's very personal to me. I want to present myself to people, so I guess self-titled.
I imagine it's hard enough to write a song, record it, and then put it out in the universe for people to consume, but how do you go about performing them live?
Honestly, it's the biggest struggle for me right now to put a show together because there's so much of myself that I wrote about in those songs that it's hard to reconstruct them into a live version to present to people. Initially, I liked my songs to be super minimal and to provoke and connect to a feeling of simplicity within people. This kind of simplicity is also very emotional for me.
Touching on Secret Songs, what has your relationship with Ryan Hemsworth been like? There's two Ryans.
Yeah, we call ourselves Ryan squared. It's such a nice relationship, kind of like a big brother. It's very special. I feel secure around him and he's been such a great mentor and supportive of everything I do. The relationship evolved naturally by being in touch. Last week, I went to Toronto and I stayed with him and we spent time together. I was a fan of Secret Songs before I met him, so I'm not forcing myself to be happy to work with him.
What is one of the most valuable things that he's taught you so far?
That's hard because there's a couple of things. I remember the first time we hung out together, I was telling him that when I was playing DJ sets I was a little scared to play my own songs. I felt like people would be bored or say it's not party enough, that people wouldn't necessarily feel it. And then he just said, "Being weird is a part of what you need to do and people will follow your vibe because people are there for you and they're there to discover new stuff. You don't want to just give the same experience over and over again." That was super simple as a thing to say, but sometimes to have this kind of thing said by a person you trust and admire for his work is very inspiring. Since this time, I've kind worked on a bunch of edits and remixes in my sets of songs I like and trying to make my sets more personal.
You're really putting yourself into your music and sharing these very personal experiences, but then to some degree I very much feel like you're a private person. As an artist, how are you preparing to become more of a public figure? How are you coming to terms with people wanting to know everything about you all the time?
It's definitely a question that I have in the back of my mind. It's definitely something that stresses me a little bit, because I wish I was more metaphoric in my way of talking about stuff that happens in my life or my songs so that I can just play around with the words, but then it's very just like "This is it." I see stuff very black and white, but it's quite general for the public. I think I'll just let people come to me and if people have specific questions then I'll see if I want to open up or not. I think there's ways of opening up without saying everything. Opening some doors, but not all the doors. I think I'm quite good at doing that. I'll judge when it's going to be happening.
I don't know if it's just like being an only child but also being independent, but I tend to be more comfortable with myself. People are like "We had no idea you were going through these things, why didn't you tell us?" I just deal with it on my own.
Exactly. I deal with it on my own. I have some very close friends that help me to deal with situations. I don't feel the urge to share situations and feelings with people in general, but I do within my songs. So, if some people feel something particular about a specific song then I obviously don't mind talking to them.
What have been some of the most meaningful reactions to your music?
As simple as people listening to my stuff and saying "Wow that really inspired me to continue and try new stuff." It's super simple, but it's very meaningful. If I can help someone to just be confident about what he or what she wants to do, it's very rewarding.
Image courtesy RYAN Playground.