Open to interpretation: a chat with the chameleonic Ryan Downey

A little under four months ago, Ryan Downey’s single Running dropped onto the radar, a primordial blip that would soon grow into an undeniable and alluring buzz. Here was a voice you couldn’t ignore.

Having since dropped a debut album of the same name, Downey locked in a set of live dates to take Running around Australia. When he landed in Sydney, we sat down for a chat at Young Henrys.

Ryan Downey
Photos: Dani Hansen

Old fashioned yet contemporary, solemn but humorous: if there’s one thing you can count on Ryan Downey to do, it’s to remain many-sided.

HAPPY: Your debut album Running is out now, and you’re on tour supporting it. How long has it been since you said ‘alright, this is an album now’.

RYAN: As in when I finished it, or when I conceived it?

HAPPY: When you had enough of it to know when it was a body of work.

RYAN: Well a bunch of songs were going to be on what was going to be this record a couple of years ago, before I made the last record, but I broke my arm so I couldn’t play instruments for six weeks. So I instead recorded a mini-LP of all acapella songs just layering my own vocals, and so quite a few songs that have made it onto the new album were going to be recorded then. But since then ideas shifted, new songs came along and things changes. And so, all in all, it’s been years.

HAPPY: So I’m going along to the show tomorrow, and I’ll admit it will be the first time I’ve seen you live. I feel like the record doesn’t have that much of a band sound, so I’m interested to see…

RYAN: The new record? Do you reckon?

HAPPY: Well there’s a lot of space.

RYAN: Yeah there is a lot of space, but we do play with that space… definitely the band shows are a lot more bombastic, a bigger sound when we choose to. There’s also, you know, plenty of sparse moments and moments when we play with those dynamics and that tension. When it gets bigger, it gets bigger than it does on the record. We try to make it a live experience.

HAPPY: Yeah I’m interested to see it, because there’s also some pretty strange instrumentation going on. Are there strings on stage?

RYAN: No strings – I’ve got one player on bass, drummer who also does a lot of sampling, a keyboardist, and I play guitar.

Ryan Downey

HAPPY: Cool, looking forward to it. I want to talk about the album’s title – Running is a loaded term, it can be things running smoothly, running away from something or really running into something enthusiastically. What made you settle on that word?

RYAN: Pretty much all the things you just said! Pretty spot on – just for how loaded it is. The record is really about… essentially it’s about love, and not necessarily romantic love although there’s a bit of that as well, but love as a force that gets things running. But whilst exploring that, it goes through all kinds of definitions of the word; things running through your head in a positive way, in a negative way, the things that get us motivated, the things we run from… but hopefully focusing on the things that tie things together.

HAPPY: Do you prefer words which don’t tell the whole story?

RYAN: I think so, I mean it’s not something I consciously do, but I think in all of my interests that’s what I like. As an audience member, to be left the space, to come up with my own meanings or my own feelings, so I definitely try to give the audience that when I write.

HAPPY: Cool. Would you share an alternate album title?

RYAN: For a little while we thought it would be called The End – there’s a song on there called The End. And for similar reasons – that song is sort of about the way… I’ve got an overactive mind and tend to look forward a lot and come up with dramatic endings in my head, whether I’m dreaming them up or dreading them, and then constantly see them whistle past.

HAPPY: The End is quite a funny title for a debut album…

RYAN: Yeah! And that as well, I like to be playful. But, somewhere down the line that song didn’t end up being the first on the record and Running just seemed to make a little more sense, be a little more open, and be a little more unique.

HAPPY: For sure.

RYAN: I looked it up and some others have called their albums The End.

HAPPY: I think there’s a Doors track?

RYAN: Beatles have a song…

HAPPY: I get it. From a writer’s perspective, you’re quite an interesting artist. Now I like this question because I always get a different answer so, where do you prefer to do your writing?

RYAN: Hmm. I don’t have a space – I guess there will be some point in the future when I need to write in block periods of time but because this has been a long time coming it’s all pieced together from all over the place. Generally I come up with things when I’m least expecting it… but often when I’m alone as well, when the mind gets going. But no, I like to do it anywhere. I don’t have a preferred place.

HAPPY: That’s a sort of preferred place – in transit.

RYAN: Yeah.

Ryan Downey

HAPPY: When did you begin writing, in any way? Songwriting, literature… anything.

RYAN: As a kid, I guess. I used to write short stories, things like that. Songwriting probably as a teen. I recorded a few things in my teens, then in my early twenties I recorded some stuff but never really did anything with it. Then I took a break from music for a while and then, maybe six years ago, started writing properly.

HAPPY: What sparked the interest in songwriting? An interest in songs?

RYAN: Yeah, the dual passion of music – I get asked this question a lot, ‘why music?’ I guess it just ties a lot of my interests together, one of them being music, one of them being writing, one of them being… it’s almost visual, I have an interest in film and soundtrack in film so yeah, it’s just an amalgamation. And I love performing, so it ticks every box.

HAPPY: You sort of pre-empted my next question – do you ever fantasise about writing in a different medium?

RYAN: I’ve dabbled a little in film, and definitely at some point it would be cool to work on something. Maybe as a collaboration, maybe not dive in there… seems like a long, lonely journey to write a film then hand it over to other people to make.

HAPPY: Back to the album – one of my favourite tracks is Techno Dolls. As far as I can tell it’s about dancing at a techno gig?

RYAN: (laughs) It’s not my own interpretation of the song, but definitely I can see where you’re coming from! For me – I see how that could be confusing – it’s about technology. What we do with it, and what it does with us, both in the terms of how it makes things helpful and how we feel helpless when we’re absorbed by it. And the techno element comes from the idea of trance, and getting sucked into a rhythm by something that’s both alluring and terrifying when you’re getting caught up in it.

HAPPY: There’s that double meaning again. I used to never ask people what their songs meant…

RYAN: Well there are some songs I’ll talk about.

HAPPY: …but the conversation is always interesting. Even if I’m wrong. Especially if I’m wrong.

RYAN: Yeah, that’s cool.

HAPPY: That track had a few lines I laughed at, there were a few across the album actually. Is being playful something you felt you needed to do, considering the… I guess aesthetic of music that you make?

RYAN: Yeah, definitely. I guess I just try to inject… I guess I want an album to be an experience, and so for me an experience involves a whole plethora of emotional stimulus, and I like the idea and the challenge of balancing different ones. Whether it’s humour and heartache at the same time, or terror and allure at the same time, yeah that’s I guess… me trying to mimic life.

HAPPY: So terror and allure, funny but serious… I guess it’s remiss to ask someone like yourself what will happen in the future?

RYAN: I guess more of the same. Not necessarily the same sound, I like to bring new flavours in. I’m working on shapes of songs at the moment, but I’m trying not to sit down and properly work on anything until the inspiration comes along.

Ryan Downey’s new album Running is out now via Barley Dressed Records. Listen to it here.