By Zach Schepis
A dusty tumble and clap, the familiar thump of a stand-up bass sings reverie alongside jangling guitars. The voices are sweet yet melancholic–belying more than a hint of heartbreak and wistful desire. It’s the kind of music that guides you by the hand through your own memories, tinged in sepia-hued retrospect.
It’s also a bit like a damn good glass of whiskey, with a warmth and burn that can suddenly make everything seem clearer.
Rylan Stowe is a songwriter’s songwriter–a creative who never steps to the easy roads of contrived transparency, yet manages to tap into truths we all share. It’s a sense of the familiar and unknown that renders his blend of roots music into something comfortable and inventive at the same time. He’s been at work recording his first EP to tape with Adam Vaccarelli at Retromedia Sound Studios, which should be ready for ears this summer.
In the meantime, Stowe shares some insights into his songwriting process.
Photos courtesy of Rylan Stowe.
BreakThru Radio (BTR): So tell us a little bit about how you’ve arrived at your band’s current incarnation. From what I understand, it’s been a long road with a changing cast of musicians.
Rylan Stowe (RS): A long road with many a tire lost along the way, but the fellas I roam with now have followed me through two years, three bands, and more than a few personal potholes. I’m no stranger to the curse of the ever-changing line-up, but Padraig [O’Connor] and Robbie [Dresden] are mainstays as far as I’m concerned, a musical brotherhood I’m extremely grateful for.
I joined my first band in 2001 and willingly spent most of my teens in its various configurations. But by graduation I was burnt out and so began my five year hiatus from music. Despite my relatively short time on this side of the dirt, my band endeavors since could fill a novel, but here’s the abridged version from 2010 on…
The Stowecks formed in 2013, growing from a quintet to a seven-piece and rebranded as The Sundown Sideshow. Nine months later that act was reduced to a quartet called The Rushing McCallister’s, and after about four months that configuration underwent more personnel changes than Spinal Tap did drummers before ultimately dissolving in November 2014.
On New Year’s Day 2015, I returned to music as a solo artist, enlisting the support of Padraig and Robbie along with another previous band member, Chris Idell. It’s never been better.
BTR: What are some important lessons you’ve learned from these musical changes, in regard to being both a bandleader and songwriter?
RS: I’d say that being a “bandleader” means “best communicator” and “leading” doesn’t mean “dictating.” I have to trust the creatives I’ve chosen to associate myself with to some degree of collaboration. To disregard the trial period of an idea because “I” didn’t think of it is to potentially miss the opportunity to elevate the material to a higher musical terrain.
As a songwriter I’ve found that if I write songs that hold strong, even when stripped down and devoid of musical embellishment, the tune can outlast any personnel configuration as long as the foundation sound is one I alone can create.
The oldest, yet most broken rule in the book: Don’t date band members unless you’re hard up for a “breakup” song.
BTR: I definitely agree with you on that. Speaking of songwriting, what’s your process like? Is it a practice you find yourself returning to, or is it something more sporadic?
RS: Honestly, there’s not much of a process beyond getting in my car and driving around the rural back roads of my county with the radio off. Absence of sound bores me so I’m forced to create the tunes I want to hear. That’s how all my songs start: on the road. Once I get a cornerstone line of verse, I begin building a poem around it and when the words are refined, I pick up the guitar to hear the music.
I write something every day. It’s a constant exercise of thought.
BTR: What kind of headspace were you in for the writing of your most recent EP?
RS: It was a bit varied. “Red Pillow” is about a breakup, “Easily” was inspired by Jessica Lange’s performance of “The Name Game” on American Horror Story: Asylum, “Twirl” was written during a period of hopeful longing, and “The Quiet Crow” was penned out of damned desire.
BTR: How about your favorite track off the EP, or one of the most meaningful?
RS: For my favorite, I’d have to go with “Twirl,” because it sounds exactly like I heard it in my head when it was first written.
However, the message within “The Quiet Crow” holds the most relatable meaning to me because I think almost everyone has had or will have an encounter with their own quiet crow–someone who leads you on only to devastate you–and yet you still hope they pick on the remains of your tattered emotional state.
RS: Harsh, yes, but a true and familiar reality of the human condition. Silly creatures, we are.
BTR: Your lyricism blends a mix of storytelling, poeticism, and humor. What are some elements, lyrically, that you think contribute to making a great song?
RS: For the kind of music I try to create, it’s vital that my use of vocabulary can clarify an emotion within the metaphor presented. Lyrically, I avoid structure at all costs. I don’t like borders. Writing out of the typical pop structuring allows far more creative exploration than being forced to round back to one line for the lowest common denominator. That may sound pretentious, but why keep reinventing the wheel? There’s enough of that going on.
Attempt to do something unique and see what happens. Staying away from real names and time-stamped lingo or references unless an era is being conveyed also helps if you don’t want the song to be irrelevant in 20 years. Focus on emotion and universal description, I guess.
BTR: Plans for 2015?
RS: The EP is set to drop on July 18 on iTunes and Amazon with limited physical copies. We’ll be at Jimbo’s as part of the Jersey Shore Music Festival on May 15. We have a packed summer of shows and recording dates. At this point, my plan is to get the music in the hands of new fans and the right industry personnel. I’m hoping that the full-length album will be ready for Christmas 2015!