Though best known as keys player for indie rockers Band of Horses, Ryan Monroe is one of those prolific, jack-of-all-instruments types who just this week, released his first-ever solo LP intriguingly titled, A Painting of a Painting on Fire.
On a rare break from recording and performing with Ben Bridwell and crew, Ryan finally cast off fears and perfectionism to bravely comb through his stockpile of some 200 demos. Each in varying degrees of readiness, he plucked the ones with the most potential and passed them to producer Chris Testa (Goo Goo Dolls, The Subways, Jimmy Eat World) to curate a comprehensive, 11-song list. Next, in the studio — aka his most happy of happy places — Ryan played every note of every song himself and in doing so, created an album that is audibly exuberant, yet equally earnest.
From his home in Boston days prior to its debut, exuding unbridled enthusiasm for his new work, his Band of Horses brothers and ultimately, life in general, Ryan describes the singular, exhilarating, “roller coaster” experience of taking time to go it alone.
I just poured myself a tall, frosty glass of water so that I can ask plenty of questions and talk a whole lot. Are you ready?
(laughs) Yeah! Definitely.
Where am I catching you?
I’m in Boston, at my apartment.
Being just a couple weeks away from the release of your solo album, how are you feeling? Are you climbing the walls of that apartment right about now?
(laughs) I’m doing surprising well though I am super excited. I feel so ready to get this out in the world so I can start working on the next one (laughs). I’m actually emailing with someone right now about playing on it, so I’m thinking I’ll be back in the studio right around the same time this one is released.
Oh, wow, look at you; you’ve opened the floodgates!
Well, now that they’re so easy for me to make (laughs)! I love recording and I have so much stuff…it won’t be a matter of having to write new things. I have a lot of old demos with which I still have a score to settle, so I want to let them see the light of day and see what happens…it’s a good place to be in.
So what inspired you to take the leap to go solo?
Well, I’ve been trying to find time for awhile to do a record that I could be proud of and I guess I was just waiting too long and being a perfectionist and thinking, ‘Well, I’ll come up with some better songs next year’ or ‘I’ll find the perfect person to work with me on it…next year’ and it went on like that for like, 10 years. I finally woke up and thought, ‘I have some time off from touring with Band of Horses; I’ve been introduced to Chris Testa from New York…So it’s time to shit or get off the pot.’ (laughs)
Was it about finding the nerve?
I just had to finally stop beating myself up by thinking that maybe my songs weren’t good enough to go on a record. I started going through them and thought, ‘ Hey, these aren’t all so bad’ and sent them off to Chris.
From 200 songs, how do you even begin to start selecting just one record’s worth?
It’s weird; I think all songwriters, no matter how crappy their demos might be, have a pretty good idea of how and what a song can be. Every song that I really liked I sent to Chris [Testa] — luckily he helped me sift through them and picked the songs that appear on the album — and I was so curious to see what he’d pick. The 11 songs he chose were all a pleasant surprise because they came from an honest place and mean something to me…There must be something to that. From there, it was as simple as, ‘Cool man, let’s do it.’
So his fresh perspective was essential to you moving forward?
Totally. I needed an outside person to help me because if it was up to me alone, I may never have come out with this record; I’d still be going, ‘Well, this one may work…and these might also work…’
With that many songs lying around, can I take this to mean, that you’re scribbling furiously in a notebook all the time? Sounds like you’re in a perpetual state of songwriting.
(laughs) Well, when I first started writing songs before cell phones and stuff, I’d jot down all my ideas and stuff. Now that I have a cell phone I just click on the little ‘voice note’ thing and hum something into the phone. Hopefully when it comes time to clear them out and I hear it again a month or so later I can actually decipher what the hell I was going for. Sometimes you can hear traffic and noise and stuff and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what the hell I was trying to do there!’ (laughs)
Please tell me you’ve never had your phone crap out and lost a bunch of your ideas.
I actually did have had my phone die on me (laughs) and I did lose a bunch of good ideas. I tried to remember all of them later, like: ‘Okay, I was driving…and it was a country-sounding song…’ I tried to reconstruct them from as much as I could remember.
Ugh, I know your pain. I record all my interviews on my iPad and I had 7 or 8 stockpiled waiting to be transcribed. I updated the OS at one point and all my data safely made it — except of course for these 7 or 8 artist interviews…
(laughs) Oh, man! What did you do? (laughs)
I searched my backups like mad but couldn’t find these recordings anywhere! It was heartbreaking. I contacted the app developer, scoured online support forums…and nothing.
Hopefully some of those bands gave you another shot.
A couple did, but for most because of schedules et cetera, I had to kiss most of them goodbye and chalk it up to a lesson learned.
You know, it’s funny; my phone will ring sometimes — like just now when Big Hassle called to connect me to you — and I was like, ‘Oh yeah! I can talk on my recording device; how awesome!’ (laughs)
I’m like that too! I sometimes forget I can use my iPad for anything else (laughs)… So, speaking of recording, you recorded every note of every instrument on every song yourself. How did you become so adept at these various instruments?
Well, I was really fortunate to grow up with supportive parents; they’d buy me instruments and stuff and encouraged me to disturb the neighbors (laughs) and always made sure I had hand-me-downs from my Dad and my brother…Electric pianos, keyboards…My brother is extremely musically talented and was always like, ‘Hey man, take this stuff and see what you can do.’ There’s nothing I loved more than beating on pots and pans and creating crazy stuff and so I learned drums as a young kid and I think that really helped with everything else in turn. I think I play the guitar more rhythmically because of that…in my head, I’m always thinking about the beat.
And were you in bands?
Yeah, I played in different bands growing up. All my friends were into music and in bands and stuff — so I played different instruments with them all the time. It was trial and error and messing around to figure out my own style. There were no lessons or anything; I’d just pick stuff up from friends and of course, I just really, really loved it you know? I think anyone can play music it — it’s just how much you love it that determines how good you want to get at it.
What was it like to enter the studio and be able to have all the playing left to you?
Oh, I had the best time doing it. I can’t think of a better way to spend time off than to be in the studio because I love being in there and laying my hands on the equipment and just messing around. It’s my favorite thing…and I should have recorded this album a long time ago.
And how does the finished product feel to you now that it’s completed?
The whole record feels like a roller coaster ride to me. I have to be comfortable with the fact that I was a fuck-up at one point in my life and I couldn’t disregard any of the experiences I had. It’s about growing up.
Even though Chris selected the final songs that would be on the record, did you find that a theme or any common threads emerged?
Hmmm…You know, no-one’s ever asked me that before but now that you ask it, I think lyrically, yeah. The Darkness Will Be Gone, A Painting of a Painting on Fire, Turning Over Leaves, Sat on the Shade…a lot of those songs are about pushing through and overcoming self-inflicted adversities and learning from past mistakes. I don’t know if Chris was aware of that at the time or not…
By the way, what’s the significance of your album’s title, A Painting of a Painting on Fire?
I was writing a song on a really out-of-tune piano with my friend Brian when I lived with him on Hermo, South Carolina. It was really early in the morning and I’d seen My Morning Jacket at The Cat’s Cradle a few nights before — it was 2002 or something — and was totally blown away. It really gave me a different outlook on space in music and leaving room for silence to be a part of the record. While I was writing it, the only lyric that really came out of my head for the chorus was ‘A painting of a painting on fire…’ and it just stuck. Ten years later when I was in the studio and I had to finish the lyrics and record it, that lyric just popped out in front of my face again, you know? That song just set me on a different path as far as writing on a piano and encapsulates the era of when it was written… And it sounds like a cool name for a record (laughs).
Am I right that you’ve recently completed an album with Band of Horses too?
Yeah, it’s mastered and we’re trying to get in out in the fall sometime. We are super, super stoked about it.
Does it feel at all like switching gears to go from being ‘Band of Horses member’ to ‘solo guy’ to ‘Band of Horses member’ again in such a tight time frame?
It’s really easy for me. When we all realized that we couldn’t fit all of our songs on a Band of Horses record it felt natural to keep writing and recording on our own when we have the time and money. But yeah, it’s super easy — and I enjoy it. I’m always going to be a Band of Horses guy — that’s my main band and this solo thing is for fun and to let people see maybe a little more clearly what I bring to Band of Horses.
If you had to describe your album in one sentence, or give an elevator pitch, what would you say about it?
Sell me, Ryan!
Uh…Well, I would say that it’s…A Painting of a Painting on Fire (laughs)…
(Laughs) It’s…It’s…I don’t know. The songs are…man, that’s a tough one. I can’t answer this one. That’s why I’m a musician and not a salesman (laughs).
Okay, well what then can we expect from the new Band of Horses album?
Yeah? That was much easier for you!
Yeah (laughs). Raw energy.
That gives me great insight though: You’re able to easily sum up a Band of Horses album but to talk about your own is difficult. I guess it’s much harder to describe your own work?
(Laughs) You know, it really is. It maybe might be harder for Ben [Bridwell] to describe the new [Band of Horses] record…but I think we all agree that this is by far the rawest-sounding album we’ve ever done. We did very minimal overdubs and played everything live and just went in and cranked it out with Glyn Johns as our producer. He saw us play live one night and was like, ‘That’s what I want to get on tape.’ We didn’t use any computers; we just got in a room and played and man, he knew how to get the energy.
You love playing together, huh?
Oh yeah, I love playing with those guys. They’re like my frickin’ brothers. I’m so fortunate to have the best of both worlds right now: To be able to play with my best friends and being able to go off and figure out how to do stuff by myself.
So two new records to promote; live shows and a second solo record to record — Sounds like you have your hands full for awhile.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m loving life right now!
Ryan Monroe’s A Painting of a Painting on Fire is available now. Click here to stream it in its entirety.
Band of Horses Summer Tour w/ My Morning Jacket
8/03: Denver, CO @ Red Rocks
8/04: Denver, CO Red Rocks
8/06: Kansas City, MO @ Starlight
8/07: Lincoln, NE @ Pinewood Bowl
8/08: St. Louis, MO @ Peabody
8/11: Milwaukee, WI @ BMO Harris Pavilion
8/12: Columbus, OH @ LC Pavilion
8/14: Detroit, MI @ Meadowbrook
8/15: Toronto, ON @ Echo Beach
8/17: Philadelphia, PA @ Mann Center
8/18: Washington, DC @ MWPP
8/21: Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE
8/22: Chicago, IL @ Pritzker
8/24: Atlanta, GA @ Verizon Center
8/25: Charlotte, NC @ Time Warner
8/26: Raleigh, NC @ Raleigh Amph