Interview: Ryan Star
The beginning of a new year usually involves reflecting on the past and finding hope in the future. Ryan Star released his long-awaited new album, A N G E L S + A N I M A L S, through PledgeMusic at the most ideal time. It tells a story from start to end of a man’s journey to self-discovery and becoming a better person for the woman he loves. So all those resolutions made just a few weeks ago now have the perfect record to help and prevent them from being broken. Star’s honest and stream of consciousness lyrics have created relatable songs that speak both to the mind and heart. He eliminates the word genre from his vocabulary by experimenting with original production elements while capturing the intensity of his live shows.
Just a couple of days after his sold-out album release concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, Star spoke over the phone with Music Vice writer, Laura Antonelli. They discussed why he chose to leave his record label, the need to communicate a story through each song, and unexpectedly returning to his musical roots.
A lot has happened since the release of 11:59. You left your record label, Atlantic Records, then signed with Island Records, but walked away from that contract as well. And you released two EPs on your own. So what made you want to crowdfund your new album, A N G E L S + A N I M A L S, with PledgeMusic instead of staying with a record label? Were you just tired of dealing with the “machine”?
[Laughs] To be honest, I didn’t put that much thought into it except that I knew that I wanted to get this record out. I knew that I didn’t want to wait on anyone else’s schedule. I figured that if it’s all on me then I could hold myself accountable instead of just getting disappointed by others. I had a story to tell and I was listening to a lot of Bon Iver, Frank Ocean, and my favourite band, The National. All these cool things were in my head. I was like, “I need to do something right now. I don’t want to wait a few years.” I’m just so inspired right now to be making music. So I started the record in my apartment and then I blew it up with the band in the studio.
The business for me at this point is kind of secondary because I have such incredible fans. I just think about, “How do I get the music out? And how do I get it out without a filter and the quickest way I can possibly do that?” So that’s why the Pledge campaign made sense. That being said, the experience of doing it with the fans was extra cool because I got to let people into a process that I never usually let people see, so it feels like the future of making music.
Do you think that record labels are still important when sites like PledgeMusic exist now?
I think everyone has their own outlet. It might work great for me on the next record going to a major label for all I know. I have no idea. I think each record and where you are in your life is probably different. I think these days they’re really good at blowing things up bigger when there’s already something there. I think the days of finding something special, a diamond in the rough, are over. I think the business is a little too instant. They need to make their numbers by the end of the day and not by the end of the decade. So I think that’s why things have changed a little bit. I think that’s why you see what you see from them and then you see this incredible music from a lot of independent artists now.
So you’re not done with record labels forever then?
No, it’s not like it’s the lead off sentence of my bio or anything [laughs]. Everyone has got their own thing. There are a lot of talented people in the business. There are a lot of talented people out of the business now. It’s kind of the wild, wild, west. Whatever gets the music out there and whatever gets my fans feeling like, “We got what we deserve,” that to me is what I’m looking out for now.
You already mentioned your connection with your fans. It seems like you put a lot of thought into the PledgeMusic campaign. And you’ve built a loyal fan base throughout the years. So were you confident that you would reach your goal?
I’m as confident as Kanye when it comes to the belief in my fans [laughs]. I don’t usually even say the word fan. It’s more like friends, listeners, and believers. I had full confidence that we’d get what we needed, but more confidence in building the right model. I had the confidence in giving them what they wanted, which is the experience. It’s not silly things. I think if you look at anyone who has ever done it, I’ll put mine up top and say it was really, really mindful in reflecting in knowing what the fans want. I’m the guy at three in the morning signing autographs, hugging, playing songs for people that they didn’t get to hear during the show because that’s just what I do. And those are my proudest moments when I’m connecting sometimes one on one. So if I was going to do this, I wanted to bring that home into your living room or computer room. I wanted to bring that to you, so that’s why I did these exclusive things like tonight. I’m playing for 30 fans in a gallery just me and an acoustic guitar.
Yeah, that’s very cool. So let’s get into the actual music. How did it feel to have complete creative control again and not have to compromise your artistic vision in any way?
Ha! It was natural. It’s how I’ve made music most of my life. I’ve never really lost control but it sometimes gets bigger than just you. When a lot of people are relying on you and a lot of people are involved with getting the music out. A good friend of mine told me that if you’re going to make an album, then that album needs to have a purpose, otherwise, it’s a singles world. Why don’t we just make singles? If you’re going to make an album, it better have a reason for being an album. I think about having purpose and reason a lot with making music, otherwise, why am I doing it? That’s why A N G E L S + A N I M A L S is a story. It starts with a man setting off in “Sailing On” to go fight that battle within himself [and vowing to be a better person for the love of his life]. He loses himself in “Spaceman [Fugitive].” He hears her voice again in “World I Used to Know.” He apologizes to her. He comes home and battles back through it all with “[I Will] Survive.” He reunites and grows old with her in “Gone to Heaven.” It’s a full story from start to end. I see the show in my head so it’s special.
You call it a concept album, right?
Yeah, I guess people call it a concept album. I just call it a story. It’s like a collection of songs that equal a story. I never had patience to make movies because I thought making a three minute song is a lot easier than a two hour film. I guess I’m halfway there to the two hour movie [laughs].
Let’s discuss the title, A N G E L S + A N I M A L S. It comes from a lyric in “Impossible,” which was inspired from a quotation you read. What was it about this idea that fascinated you so much that you wanted to name the album after it?
Part of being an artist and running around even when you’re not writing songs is that you just got to have your radar up. It’s got to be on as you’re walking through life. I was ready to make an album at the time. I started thinking about songs again. I heard that and it just rang to me, and that’s when I knew I was going to make an album called A N G E L S + A N I M A L S. I guess “Impossible” is kind of the quintessential A N G E L S + A N I M A L S song because it kind of captures the idea of it all in there. It’s like, “I’m sorry I’m a little bit angel and a little bit animal,” but we are who we are. It’s almost like a responsibility. You have to know when to use them and tame it, so “Impossible” is heavy. I feel like all the songs kind of span out from the genesis of it.
And there are two different versions on the album?
Yeah, so the album version is what we recorded in the studio with the band and kind of was the idea of the whole record. It’s really beautiful. I always thought it would be great end credits to a film. I’m waiting for the Fifty Shades of Grey people to call me already [laughs]. I just felt like every note produced was something that would keep people in their seats during the end credits. I realized afterward that it’s just an important song for the album. I wanted to make sure that it also had a chance to be heard in a more mainstream way. I was having fun with getting back home into the production space and with just making it speak a different language. So it was just a little remix version I did, which turned into the radio sound. It wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s make a radio song” at all. It was kind of just like, “Let’s revisit the song with a little more excitement,” and then it turned into that.
I read this interview where you said you were thinking a lot about your old band, Stage, it’s logo of the boy wandering the universe with a kite?
And I think musically you even sometimes return to the sound of Stage on this album —
“Spaceman Fugitive” is a song that reminds me a lot of Stage. It even has the classic Stage imagery like a song like “An Angels Screams from Outer Space” —
[Laughs] So what inspired “Spaceman Fugitive” and for you to kind of return to your roots?
… We Ustreamed as part of the Pledge campaign this little rehearsal where Stage got back together. I thought, “Okay guys, I’ll fit it into my schedule. Let’s have fun,” like an American Pie reunion or something like that. I don’t know [laughs]. And then as light as I took it, it got so heavy instantly the first note we played. It was like, “Oh my God.” It was as if you’re looking at yourself in a mirror. It was like, “Who are you? Check yourself because the last time you played this song, held this guitar, and looked at that guy you were this 15 year old kid with angst, a mission, and a dream.” I think what it did was re-centered me and that person came back in me. It was weird. It was like looking at a mirror and just getting everything back, all your visions kind of realigning with yourself. From that day on I think a lot of things changed. The album got more aggressive, a lot of things got a little more fearless, and it excites me now where I could go next.
It even applies to the logo. I sat there and went, “What the hell? I need a logo!” So I sat down and just drew some tribal drawings that I was having fun with in my room. Then I had that RS thing that popped out, which is the album cover, and everything just kind of made sense again. It was powerful playing with those guys.
Another song that reminds me of Stage is “Bullet” and you said in an interview that you recorded it to tape in one take. Tell me about the production process with the album because it seems to have a more raw sound than 11:59. And you worked with Ido [Zmishlany], right?
Yeah, IdoVsTheWorld is a good friend of mine. I don’t really write songs with many people or let them in, but Ido and I get along so well, and he brings a lot to the table. He’s like another band member. He brings some good ideas.
There were three of us locked into a room for a long time. Another guy named Yaron Fuchs who was really kind of like the Rick Rubin in the room. More like the grandfather, like the eyes in there to say, “Hey, that’s shit” or “that’s really good.” Nods his head, peeks in, and then checks out again. It was powerful having him around because I think he kept me great. I think he knew when it was the right take and I appreciated that.
So we all kind of just put our heads together. It was self-produced that way, which was cool because I started with just my piano in my apartment. I started writing the record there, and, like many people, the music is sometimes a product of their environment, and this album is definitely that. So I was in my Brooklyn apartment and wrote songs on the piano. I got into my little production room and I started tinkering out ideas there. I then took my touring band of four years … and went up to Woodstock. We lived there in a barn for two months and made a record the old fashioned way, kind of live and just really in it.
“Bullet” is a great example because I finished writing the lyrics right before we went to tape. I walked out and talked to the band. I told them what the song’s about and everyone just connected. We went in there and just laid it down in one try. One of the most beautiful musical moments I’ll ever have in my life. I could listen to that song much like I think any fan would, which is just like for the first time, because I didn’t have to slave on it. I didn’t do anything except play it once. Those are my favourite moments. “My Life With You” was also like that. We all just kind of played it. There are a lot of moments on this record that capture this energy of a band that believes and one that has been together for awhile now. It’s a real band. I model a lot after someone like Springsteen who as a solo artist has created a real rock and roll band around him.
I find that you explore more on this album combining the elements of dance and rock together, kind of fusing those genres. It’s interesting because “Sailing On,” I could hear that on pop radio. But then “Spaceman Fugitive,” which is right after it, I could hear that on rock radio. So I think it is cool how you’re kind of crossing genres. Was this a conscious decision?
It’s cool you noticed that but I feel like I’ve never fit in. When Stage was coming up, we weren’t “emo enough” and then we definitely weren’t “new metal.” Then my solo stuff comes out, it’s not “James Blunt enough” for that [laughs]. Everyone likes to put it in a category but maybe, maybe if the world is ready for something that does cross and just doesn’t have rules. I don’t stand in line. So there’s one song where it’s just me and a piano and there’s one song where the band is just ripping it up live. I guess it’s confusing for some people, but the truth is that it’s all a part of the story. If you listen, “Spaceman [Fugitive]” needs to be so aggressive because this is about a guy who’s fed up with this world and just sees all the ills, all the bad things we’re doing to each other, and all the bad things we’re doing to the world. He finds clarity in drifting farther and farther away so I needed the loudest guitars I could find [laughs]. And sometimes that’s what IdoVsTheWorld brings, being this cool remix production guy from Brooklyn. It’s nice to have that instrument a part of the team as well.
“Where the Island Ends” sounds like classic R. Star to me, just you alone with a piano, similar to Songs from the Eye of an Elephant. Was it important for you to have at least one song on this album that represented you that way?
Yeah, it was important to have at least one to remember that I’m still that guy. I think it’s a lot of Stage, it’s a lot of R. Star, and it’s a lot of the new thing, which is the live act that probably should be called a band at this point. I even debated just calling it a band name because it’s so much that. I think that will always have to be part of the DNA of an album for me, which is getting back to the piano and the stories. So that’s what I love about what Frank Ocean does, which is this kind of stream of consciousness, stripped down stuff in his own little production way. I think I needed to do that even with “Fuck’n Up.” Even though it’s a little more produced, it still has that same feeling of me in a room with a microphone and just telling a story.
Do you think you are more angel or more animal?
It depends which day, right? These days I’m definitely animal. I’m excited about getting this music out, so I think there’s an aggression that’s in me. I think each song has a different story, a different character finding his way in different spots. It definitely starts very animal, right? I think around “[I Will] Survive” it starts switching to angel. I think once he realizes his clarity in “Fuck’n Up” and realizes it is all part of a journey, he becomes a little more angel but he is never just one. They are always there together. What about you?
[Laughs] I knew you were going to turn that around on me.
If I make a t-shirt, which one are you going to buy? The angel or the animal?
Hmmm. I think people perceive me as being more angel but I would probably pick animal, so I don’t know.
Ahhh. The plot thickens!
They always think I’m sweet and innocent but I just don’t think they know me well enough yet [laughs].
So you would say you’re a little bit of both as well?
Oh, of course, yes.
There you go. There you go. That’s the idea!