Kelley Ryan, a singer-songwriter, who divides her time between Ireland and Palm Springs, California, makes modern tasty pop music. Often assisting her are Marti Jones, a great vocalist and writer, and Don Dixon, the legendary bassist and producer. Kelley is not only a talented musician, but also very pretty with a great personality. This interview was conducted in Ireland and Palm Springs.
TM: Cocktails is your newest work. How does this project continue the
evolution of Twist, your previous cd?
KR: In hindsight I can say that it is a logical extension of Twist in that its tone is more personal than ever. I love the idea of following a single thread of strong emotion, deep into its roots, and then trying to capture it with words, music and mood. Also, I was extremely lucky to be able to work with Don Dixon, Marti Jones and Jim Brock again. They “get it,” whatever “it” is; all three of them have an amazing talent for opening up and getting on the same page of whatever the song is saying. Tracing emotions down to their core to find out how they might sound if they were a song. That is the road I like to travel. Hopefully the next stuff I write will continue down that road.
TM: Lyrics or music first? Explain your songwriting process.
KR: It’s pretty simple: whatever works. I’ve done it every which way. Usually it starts with a melody for me. When that is established in my mind’s eye (or ear in this case) I can write the words anywhere, anytime. Melodies just circle inside of my head constantly. Looking for words. And I keep my mind open until I find the ones that I think fit the best. Words, themselves, are melodic you know.
TM: You are not always writing from personal experience, I gather, but from
observations or imagination; am I right?
KR: Almost always personal experience in some way. There is a major piece of my own experience in everything I’ve ever written. My struggle is to be true to the way I feel about it and express it without chickening out.
TM: Twist, your last record before the latest, Cocktails, is under your name, while your previous four records were by the “astroPuppees.” Why?
KR: Twist came out differently than the astroPuppees’ collection. I never really wanted to do anything other than showcase the songs, and so I would just write songs until I had enough for a record. I worked with lots of different people, like Jesse Valenzuela (Gin Blossoms) or Bill Demain (Swan Dive). We would co-write and brainstorm in my basement studio in Los Angeles, and I just wasn’t really interested in being Kelley Ryan. It was more about the songs and the groups of different revolving characters that they came over to record. So it wasn’t really totally about my perspective. Twist was actually going to be an astroPuppees record. I started from the get-go, co-producing it with Don Dixon, which I’d never done before. As we got going on it, he heard my songs that I was intending to be the core of Twist, he said, “I think this should be a Kelley Ryan record. It sounds different.” And I said “I think I wanna stick with astroPuppees. I just feel uncomfortable being ‘Kelley Ryan’.” But by the time the record was finished, it was plainly from my perspective, and it made sense. It was also so much more of a solid-core, group-effort. Dixon and I produced it from start to finish. Then Marti Jones is the consistent voice, other than mine, throughout the whole record. On the other ones, I had different girls singing. And Dixon was the bass player all the way through. I had various people playing bass before, including myself. Jim Brock did all the percussion. So it was more of a band than previously. The other thing was that I co-wrote one song with Marti, co-wrote one with Dixon and Marti, one with Dixon, and besides the one cover on there, I wrote all the words. So it really ended up coming from my own perspective. I was empowered to just go ahead, speak my own emotions and lyrics, not hiding behind an aka.
The working title was “About a Girl,” which is the first track. And although nobody necessarily has to get this, every song is about a woman or a girl in my life, fictional or real, who inspired me or was a heroine to me. There’s one about my grandmother, one about my aunt, “The Lady’s Daughter.” “Bridie’s Eyes” is about a woman who lives up the road right here in Ireland. She lives in a super old, little cottage, with the old Irish walls that are 3 feet thick. No bathroom. No running water. She lived with her dog Rose. Every day we would see her walk past our cottage here with a walking stick. She’d climb down the cliff to the beach, carrying a little sack-like thing, and she’d come up with driftwood that was her heat for her cottage. She was completely from another era. I could barely understand her when she talked. She’s always laughing. Her eyes were almost too blue. She was a walking song. I’d always wanted to write a song about her. In this case, Dixon had sent me a lovely melody, and as I was sitting outside playing it, Bridie walked by and I thought, “there are the words!”. I even tried to write one about the daughter I never had. It was so hokey that I couldn’t quite get it to be a song, so I ended up writing about somebody else’s daughter that I know. So Twist ended up being kind of love songs to women, or more specifically, I wanted to celebrate the ‘feminine side’ that we all have as humans.
TM: Did you ever play it for Bridie?
KR: She has Alzheimer’s. And, when you listen to the song, that is partially what it’s about. She started wandering around the hills here and people couldn’t find her. People in the neighborhood would kind of take care of her. So now she’s actually moved to a rest home, but I swear her spirit continues to roam the fields and cliffs around here.
KR: I went up to the home where she stays, and took my guitar and sang, and she was there. She was great. She recognized us. She goes in and out. But I didn’t sing that song.
TM: What has the reaction been to the record?
KR: I have never had as wonderful a reaction as I’ve ever had with this one.
TM: You went on tour, didn’t you?
KR: Yeah, a little mini tour a few places with Dixon and Jones and Brock in tow, and then a handful of just Dixon and Jones. We played in New York twice, Boston, Philadelphia, Ohio, and L.A. We did a show, that NPR radio show Mountain Stage, in West Virginia. It’s radio, Garrison Keillor-style, a big stage, awesome, a great place to see music. There’s five or six different acts, and you do five or six songs, and then you do a thing at the end. Larry Gross, runs it, he had a song, in the 70’s…
TM: Junk Food Junkie.
KR: He’s really nice. It’s in front of a live audience. They treat you like a king there.
TM: You live in Ireland three-fourths of the year and then in Palm Springs the rest of the time. And Dixon lives in Canton, Ohio. How are you able to collaborate?
KR: I’m a studio rat at heart. Some people like to get up and play and perform and sing. I love to hole up for days on end and make it sound good. Over the years, Dixon’s been my mentor. I have digital stuff, a little hard drive that I can take back and forth between Ireland and Palm Springs. I make a copy of it, throw it in my suitcase, and I have the same equipment in both places and Dixon has the same machine, so we recorded in his studio in Ohio, and Palm Springs, and most of the “after stuff in Ireland” ‘cause we did the basics with Dixon.
TM: What does Dixon add to the record?
KR: The overall everything. He usually doesn’t co-produce either, but takes the whole captain of the ship tack. It was really a three-way thing, because Marti (Jones, Dixon’s wife) is such a good friend. It was an amazing, wonderful two-year long experience. I take a long time to make records, but this was especially nice ’cause we just did everything we wanted to, when we wanted to do it, in very fun situations. Marti came out for a week to do half the vocals in Palm Springs, and then she came to Ireland a couple months later. We did the other half, and I went with Dixon and met Brock in South Carolina. We did the basics at Brock’s studio, actually, with Dixon’s equipment. We just did different mixes of stuff and kept getting together shaping it as we went along. Dixon plays bass on everything, but he also plays wine glasses. We would just do little mixes and put little weird noises on. I do the same kind of thing, so we’d just go back and forth and just keep adding to it, sort of like a paper mache.
TM: When does Dixon come into the picture, before or after the
song is completed?
KR: Dixon is one of my best friends, let alone a hero of mine in the recording studio, so he comes in with influence before, during and after. Most markedly, in my case, during. He is without a doubt the skeleton and spine of what I call a record. He contributes infinite amounts of his time, knowledge, talent and energy to whatever he happens to be involved with musically. He lends everything he’s got to your ‘cause’ as an artist, but steps back and let’s you be who you are. He is an incredible producer and musician. There are no words to describe his awesomeness. He is epic.
TM: Is he there for basic tracking?
KR: Yup. He is the spine! He and Jim Brock. Usually, the three of us will go for four or five days and they will track the stuff and I will just sit back trying to learn by osmosis. Again, it is an amazing experience.
TM: What is it like to work with him; is he bossy? How do achieve a consensus on how to produce?
KR. I’m laughing! Bossy? We actually co-produced this record as well as the last one. Let’s just put it this way..I am actually the bossy one, but I always do whatever Dixon says. Without question he is the Captain.
TM: How long does it take to make a recording once you’ve got the tune written?
KR: The whole process of recording, from the scratch idea in the middle of the night blabbed into my cell phone recorder to the mastering lab in NYC, is part of my process. Writing a tune, and recording it, are one and the same to me. When it’s mastered and pressed and you can’t change anything anymore then the song is written. You do have to learn how to “put a fork in it” however. Not too soon…not too late. I think the song itself will tell you when it’s done. Writing and recording and even video making are all part of the same animal to me anyway.
TM: Who is Marti Jones? Why is she in your life?
KR: She’s my best friend, the most amazing singer/songwriter voice on the planet. She’s had records on A&M and RCA in the 80’s. That’s how she met Dixon. He produced her. She’s since gotten into her original love which is painting, and isn’t doing music that much. She’s just painting, painting, painting, which is what she always wanted to do. But as she puts it, the music thing got in the way.
TM: Where did you guys meet?
KR: Through Dan, my husband…
TM: Your husband is a music publisher and…
KR: And Dixon was a client. I met them and they were great from the start. We went to see a show that they did with Janice Ian and John Hiatt at the Palace in Hollywood and they were wonderful. They banter and make you feel like you’re in their living room. When I did my first astroPuppees record, You Win The Bride, in 1996, Dixon mixed it. That was right after I went to cookery school in Ireland and HighTone picked up the record. I sent it to him and asked him would he mix it? And he was into it, so he asked me to come out to his home studio in Canton, Ohio. So I flew there for three or four days to hang out with him while he mixed it. I stayed at their home and ended cooking dinner for them, (cause I’d just come back from cookery school), and Marti and I became friends. Ever since then, we make it a point to see one another a couple of times a year. She comes here, I go there. We have projects.
TM: Marti Dixon seems to have a greater presence vocally on Cocktails, at
times you are arguably in duet format, a la Simon and Garfunkel. I’m wondering whether this came about intentionally, organically or a combination of both?
KR: A combination of both. As far as the evolution of the songs it is organic. That’s how I work. I don’t really ever have a game plan. I just try to follow the path of least resistance wherever that may lead. It just happened that Marti and I ended up traveling a lot together over the last few years, and as we did, it informed the songs that eventually became Cocktails. It was natural for us to both sing on the recordings. We ended up co-writing three of the eight tracks as well, so it made sense. I would love it if she were to sing more. But these days she is much more interested in her visual artwork and painting, so it’s rare to get her in front of a mic for any amount of time. I grab what I can from her vocally. And without fail whatever I manage to record is just exquisite. The intentional part of the equation is that we planned for Cocktails to be sort of a complementary piece for her most recent painting exhibition called 3D: Drinking, Dining and Dancing. The release of Cocktails was in Nashville at the LeQuire Gallery where we played live (me, Marti, Dixon and Brock) amidst Marti’s paintings and an unbelievable collection of art and invited guests. It was shining.
TM: How do you work the vocal parts out? Do you send her the parts, or try it out live?
KR: Both. But mostly we work it out live. I come up with stuff…she comes up with stuff…we keep riffing off one another until it is all layered up and sounding juicy, hopefully. You have to remember that we’re really good friends so one of the best motivations for us to work together is the fact that we get to hang out for a few times a year at least in order to do the recordings. And then if we’re lucky — play live. The more we can hang out, the better. I think we inspire one another. At least we make each other laugh.
TM: Let’s get some background on you. Where are you from?
KR: I’m from Portland, Oregon.
TM: And how is it that you wound up in the music industry?
KR: I’ve been playing and writing songs since I was 12, and I’m sure it had something to do with impressing my father. He was a disc jockey in this little town in Albany, that I grew up in. I remember one time when I came home, maybe I was eight or nine, and Strawberry Alarm Clock were in our living room, and playing guitars by our fireplace. Having a DJ for a dad is kinda wacky and wonderful. I would hang out at the radio station. I did jingles when I was in high school and got to record. Yes, my Dad pretty much set me on my musical course.
TM: What was your instrument, guitar?
TM: How did you learn to play?
KR: I had a Mel Bay guitar book. I went to a couple lessons. The first song I learned was On Top Of Old Smoky, I was 12. Then I immediately started writing, just making stuff up. I made up this song called Come Fly With Me. I can still play it. And I remember going down to my mom, she was making dinner, and I played it for her and all she said was – and I love my mom, “Now, honey, you just don’t wanna be too much of a showoff.” That was her reaction. I remember. But it didn’t deter me. There was nothing else to do. That guitar was connected to me. I’d climb trees with it. I would sit up for hours talking to it! Just like my pal.
TM: You said that to me once. I mean is that literally true? You would actually climb a tree…
KR: Literally true. With the guitar, climb a tree. I’m a tomboy. I lived in the country, you know. What else was did I have to do? I’d just sit up there and play. I’d take it everywhere we’d go on vacation. When I got older I remember taking a beer, a joint and a sandwich, out on our boat. We would be in Lake Tahoe. “Bye Mom and Dad,” and “Don’t go so far where we can’t see you,” “Okay.” I’d go far enough so that I could smoke my joint. And I used to take my guitar and play for hours. I mean that’s all I ever did.
TM: So you came to L.A.
KR: When I was 19.
TM: To do what?
KR: I wanted to be a rock star, but I shortly gave up on that one. I finished college. I had two years into college and my parents were like “You gotta go to college.” I somehow convinced them that I needed to transfer from University of Oregon to Long Beach State, which was as close as I could get to Hollywood. Because my aunt and my cousin lived there, I convinced them I should go there. I moved to L.A. for music.
TM: Did you graduate?
KR: In radio and television.
TM: And then what did you do?
KR: The week that I arrived in Long Beach, I went to Hollywood. I got a job at a studio on Larrabee. I worked nights when I went to college. I would drive to Hollywood and be the night manager.
TM: Where did you work? Larrabee Sound?
KR: Yep. Night manager, and I’d go to school in the day. The kind of thing you can only do when you’re 20, and then I’d be up all night.
TM: That’s a long drive.
KR: Yeah, and it was night, and it was in the heart of West L.A., but I met great people.. I met Stevie Nicks and Glen Campbell. There was a lot of disco goin’ on then at that time and it was heavily gay around there. Very hip. John Stewart, who was a great guy, I met there. The couple that owned the studio, a husband and a wife, were really helpful and encouraging. I met Doug Weston and played The Troubadour, and I after I graduated I got a job at Capitol Records so I could live up there.
TM: What did you do there?
KR: I worked in the lowest totem pole office. People would wanna get on top of the tower and be the assistant to the A&R guy or be in the studio. I took the typing test and I kept going “fuck it, fuck it.” Okay, and I failed it, “Can I do it again?” The person administrating said “Okay. Just try to do it without swearing.” I took it three times. She must have liked me though, cause she gave me the gig even though I couldn’t type. So I had a job and it paid enough for me to move up and into an apartment on Grace Ave. in Hollywood. I was there for a year. Then I got married which lasted about a year. I reluctantly moved back to Newport Beach, with my surfer husband. I got a job in a carwash. I was writing music the whole time, in a bad marriage, and I was nowhere near Hollywood, and I had a degree, and I was freaking, polishing guys’ hubcaps with a short top on. I finally, I sat down one night and I said. “I have to get a real job,” and I wrote down all the places I wanted to work, and one of them was Bug Music. It changed my life. I called Barbara Kirkner at Bug Music and that turned out to be one of the best calls I ever made in my life. I started working there and moved back up to Hollywood, guitar in hand.
TM: And what did you do at Bug?
KR: Everything. I was a Kell(e)y Girl, literally
TM: So there you were, did they know you were a musician at Bug.
KR: Oh, yeah, they did.
TM: But they were not interested in your material?
TM: You didn’t pitch it?
TM: At at some point you got involved with the boss. (Dan Bourgoise)
KR: Yes, I did.
TM: And then you ultimately married him.
KR: Yes, I did.
TM: When and how did you blossom or come forth as a recording artist?
KR: It goes back to Dixon again. I would send him stuff and he would be nice enough to listen and encourage my writing. Dan talked to him once and said, “You know, I feel weird promoting Kelley, because she’s my wife and I don’t want to upset other writers. I like her songwriting a lot, but I don’t really know how to go about this.” And Dixon said to Dan in so many words “You’ve gotta go out there and say she’s great, because if you don’t go out and say she’s great, then everybody else is gonna think you don’t approve.” Dan gladly took that advice to heart and it’s just really natural now. I went on my own and I got a little success. Music in a few television shows, and a couple movies, and little bits here and there. But if the truth be told… if I had to survive on the money I make from my music, I’d be dead. I do it for the same reason I always have: FOR THE LOVE OF IT.
TM: So then how did the first astroPuppees record come out, You Win The Bride?
KR: That was when I came back after being in Ireland. I went to cookery school for three months, out of frustration, lived in Ireland for three months, wrote and brought my guitar. After I came back to Los Angeles, I just had an outpouring of recording that came out pretty good. About that same time, Dan was contacted by a little label called HighTone that was looking for some new acts, and he threw my rough CD in with a bunch of others. He sent like five or six things and they wanted mine. Since it was called astroPuppees, it wasn’t like “Oh, that’s your wife.” That’s another probable reason I was still afraid to say I was Kelley Ryan in a way. Dan has done everything to help me and always been really supportive.
TM: That record came out when?
TM: You put out records about every three years since then?
KR: The last, this last one was a little longer, but yeah. I put out four astroPuppees records, two by Kelley Ryan, and then I have a virtual one called Lost Valentines which is available on Bug Digital.
TM: That’s a whole album?
KR: It’s outtakes and covers and things. Like a one-off I did for a Shoes tribute record, called, The Tube. There’s a couple things, and they’re pretty good. They just never went on any of my records officially.
TM: Musical influences?
KR: Everything. My stuff is not reinventing the wheel, but between my father and my husband, who’s a publisher, and my dad, who was a disc jockey, and the fact that all I ever did was write music and play guitar, I’ve listen to music constantly my whole life. I never have to put anything on. It’s always going. My number one favorite in the whole entire planet is Ella Fitzgerald. I like a lot of things. It changes all the time.
TM: What are your three favorite songs of all time?
KR: Music Of The Night. I’ll just pick one, from Phantom Of The Opera.
TM: What are some thrills that you’ve had in your musical career so far?
KR: The people I’ve gotten to meet probably. Playing with Van Dyke Parks. Making my last two records were the most amazing musical experiences of my life in everyway almost that’s connected with it imagined. Playing live with Dixon and Jones and Bro TM: Van Dyke Parks, how did you get to work with him?
KR: I’ve known him. He’s an old friend of Dan’s and I’ve known him and his wife, Sally, for years through Dan, and he knew my music. He was one of the people I could send my cd’s to, when they were done, and he encouraged me. So I got up the guts to ask him if he would consider arranging some strings for a song on Twist and he ended up doing two songs. He sent me back 24 tracks of “Van Dyke Parks-o-rama arrangements”. It was awesome and it was thick with beautiful Van Dyke riffs. He told me, “Do not be afraid. Whittle it down. I don’t want you to freak out. I know what you do. And I like it”. So I got to have full rein and spent days cherry picking the best lines and lived in Van Dyke cartoon world. I’d go turn on my equipment in the morning, and it’d be like “La da da da da, lu lu lu,” everywhere. Just awesome. So that was fun, but it was scary to ask him.
ck is unbelievable. I die. I’m so excited to get to do it again. It’s just amazing.
TM: And Iggy’s fun?
KR: He’s great, really smart, really nice, really funny, not scary, kooky in a good way. And I got to meet a lot of really good people at Bug. Marshall Crenshaw, is one and I co-wrote two songs with him for his latest record, Jaggedland.
TM: Why did you go to cooking school and what was that like?
KR: I didn’t know what else to do. It was like climbing trees with the guitar. I just was at an end in Hollywood where I wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed. The job that I was in was at a dead end. There was nowhere for me to really go and I was dying to record more and get my music out, and I wasn’t sure how to do it, and I just kinda went off and, whoosh three months shook the foundations of my spirit. As I say to Darina Allen, who runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School, if you can make it there, you can make it ANYwhere. Forget New York. I came home with a lot of confidence, and luckily enough, HighTone picked up my record, out of the blue, and it just worked out. And I thought, “Yeah, I can do this.”
TM: What do your mom and dad think of your musical career now?
KR: My dad thinks I’m Barbra Streisand. They’re mom and dad. They love it.
TM: Do songs come easy for you?
KR: I’m kinda crazy, so they just go, in the middle of the night, they’re like a hamster on a wheel, and I get going and I can’t stop. It’s therapeutic! If I didn’t do it I’d probably be insane. Oh, I probably am anyway.
TM: Advice to other songwriters and singers from what you’ve learned in your life.
KR: Gotta do it for the love. Gotta go down that path of least resistance. Don’t force anything that feels weird. Stay totally true to yourself. Write what you know. It’s not about money. It’s about love, loving what you do.
TM: When will you be performing live?
KR: I have some things in the works for this year. The live stuff will happen but it’s rare. You can find me on youtube.com on my kelleypie1 channel. And, of course, you can see me on Facebook. Dates will be posted there and on my website kelleyryan.net. How’s that for shameless self promotion?