In a way, Ryan Lawson’s music is post-genre. Blending elements of country, pop and singer-songwriter folk, with occasional hints of blues and rock, one might not be surprised to find out that Lawson doesn’t exactly fit into any one scene in his native Oklahoma. Rather than letting this hinder his engagement with local music, however, Lawson embraces his diverse musical influences and uses his lack of a clear label as an opportunity to play across genres on any gig or radio program that will have him.
However someone might classify Lawson’s work, a listen to his debut CD, The Old Knife, finds the young musician rendering the idea of categorization irrelevant. The album’s songs are well-crafted, sincere, and exhibit Lawson’s subtle but distinct cross-genre approach to songwriting. “We’re Growing (A Garden),” for instance, relies heavily on strong melodies and simple, but elegant lyrics about a relationship in a moment crisis, while the album’s title track unfurls a bluesy, country atmosphere that could perfectly soundtrack closing up a bar after last call.
When Joshua Cross and I sat down to talk to Ryan Lawson last month, we were excited to hear a talented musician talk with passion about his local music scene, but also a little surprised to hear about some of the criticisms and genre-bias Lawson has encountered while playing out in Oklahoma. Criticism’s aside, Lawson is a bright, talented musician with impressive instincts and a clear vision of his own art—even if some of his contemporaries can’t quite figure him out.
The Fiddleback: How do you characterize your music, do you fit into a genre?
Ryan Lawson: Everybody asks me this and I struggle with it. I always thought of myself as country, but all of my friends and other musicians say I’m not. The country players tell me I’m a singer-songwriter, not country. But I don’t want to be a singer-songwriter because there’s a stigma with that. There’s the coffee shop stigma. So, I started calling my music campfire country as a joke. But I guess I’d classify myself as a singer-songwriter.
The Fiddleback: Why is there that distinction? When I listen to your music, I hear elements of country, and I hear the singer-songwriter description, but it sounds like more of a hybrid.
RL: I don’t know. It’s mainly the musicians who make that distinction. There are people who listen to my music who aren’t as familiar with country, or who have never listened to country before and they like what I do, and they think I sound like country. Generally, people need to get away from the idea of country as Toby Keith and the like. That’s not country; it’s pop. It’s country in name. It sells the records and the Ford trucks, but it’s pop. So, if you get away from that idea, my work is a little easier to accept as country music.
The Fiddleback: So, being between genres, who are your influences?
RL: My biggest influence is Town Van Zandt. When I started playing shows, my friend Shilo Brown, who owns the Book Beat in Oklahoma City, told me that Van Zandt was my guy. He told me I play and sing like Van Zandt, so I started checking him out and he’s influenced me the most. There are others, like Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings, and Possessed by Paul James, who is on a record label out of Austin, Texas called Hillgrass Bluebilly, and Dan Reeder, who is on John Prine’s label, OhBoy. He lives in Germany, but sings this quintessentially American music. And Bob Dylan, of course, and Woody Guthrie. My influences can be kind of generic that way. The Weakerthans is another band that’s influenced me. As well as Jimi Hendrix and all the blues guys like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.
The Fiddleback: With such diverse influences, how do you approach songwriting?
RL: Usually I just sit down with the music first. I’ll sit down with my guitar and put some chords together and play that for a while. Sometimes I’ll have an idea of what I want to say, and I’ll eventually start singing along to it. Then I write it down. Sometimes I’ll get an idea of what I want a song to be about, and begin there. One of my newer songs is about a pyro, a kid named Little Rosco who sets a whole town on fire. I got the idea when I visited Fort Reno, an army base that’s been around since the US Westward expansion was in full swing. It was there to fight off Native Americans. I was recording a music video in a chapel there and I got this idea. I wondered what would have happened if, back in the day, someone set the church on fire. And I know that sounds terrible, since I was in a chapel, but if somebody set the place on fire some people would blame the Native Americans, some would blame God, some would blame The Devil. So that idea became the inspiration to find some chords and write a new song.
The Fiddleback: You also write stories. Is there a relationship between how you approach writing stories and your approach to writing songs? Or do you compartmentalize the two?
RL: I wish I could say they were synonymous, but I do compartmentalize. I keep them separate. I might write one for a while, then the other. They’re similar in that they’re both emotional, both sincere and from the heart. Of course, a lot of my songs tell stories. So maybe, subconsciously, there’s a connection. The only thing I know how to do well is write stories or sit around people and shoot my mouth off and not shut up, so when I get behind my guitar I still apply that. It just comes naturally to me to tell a story.
The Fiddleback: So, what’s it like being an Oklahoman musician? How do you fit into the Oklahoma music scene?
RL: I try not to split it up into different scenes, like the acoustic scene, and the rock scene, or whatever. I think the Oklahoma music scene, thanks to the Spy independent radio and the sponsorship they get from Jonathan Fowler of Fowler BMW out of Norman—sorry to name drop, I like to acknowledge the great things people do for us—is thriving. Fowler and Spy founded the Oklahoma Rock show which plays all genres of local music. I was surprised when I sent them my music and they started playing some of it. I’m on there with bands like the Pretty Black Chains, and Sherree Chamberlain. The variety on the radio show has helped to bring the music community together. I’m best friends with a band called The Purple Church, and they’re stoner rock. Completely not what you would think that a guy like me who plays country or singer songwriter music, who lives in the woods in the middle of nowhere, would be friends with, but I love them. I go to all of their shows. And that’s the most important thing, to not split it up into separate music scenes, to keep it all together and have everybody look out for each other. That’s how you get more people out at the shows. When people don’t subscribe to just one kind of music, they’ll go out to more of the shows.
The Fiddleback: Some of the more exciting scenes I’ve been around had a similar attitude, where bands from different styles and genres would play with each other. How is the Oklahoma scene doing? It sounds pretty exciting at the moment, is it?
RL: It’s very exciting right now, and I love being a part of it. There are shows every night. It’s weird to think about bigger cities where the scenes are more established. If you go to Austin, Texas the scene is already there. I went there five or six years ago and the scene was very established, but here the scene is still being established, or re-established. It’s cool being a part of that, and it has the potential to blow up. It won’t be the next Austin, or the next Nashville, but it could become something all its own, maybe just as big. That’s part of why I like it so much, why it’s so exciting.
The Fiddleback: So, what are you listening to in 2011? Anything new catching your ear?
…people need to get away from the idea of country as Toby Keith and the like. That’s not country; it’s pop. It’s country in name. It sells the records and the Ford trucks, but it’s pop.
RL: I’ve already mentioned that I’m really into Possessed by Paul James. Anyone on the Hillgrass Bluebilly label out of Austin, I went to their showcase back in October and their bands are great, and they’re all nice guys. I also like Tom VandenAvond. He stayed at my house last Sunday when he passed through Norman with another band called the Calamity Cubes. They were a three-piece, and they played stand up bass, banjo and guitar. You’d think they’d be a redneck group, but the bass and banjo players were skate punks. They were great. They’re from Lawrence. But Possessed by Paul James is mostly what I’m listening to right now. That’s what I’ve got plugged in and can’t turn off.
The Fiddleback: I’m also curious, since you play a more acoustic, rootsy form of music, what are your thoughts on technology in music?
RL: Like autotune?
The Fiddleback: That’s definitely a part of it. But more than that, there is a lot of other music at the moment—albums like the new Colin Stetson, or the new Tim Hecker—that explore the relationships between technology, recording technique, and how music sounds. I find myself thinking about how these kinds of albums were recorded. So I’m curious, as someone with a more straight-forward approach, what you think about all of this.
RL: A lot of people don’t realize what goes into making an album. The people that are producing it have their own art, and they want to try things differently. Some producers might dig what we did in the stairwell [referring to the video we shot of Ryan performing “My Favorite Chords” by the Weakerthans, linked to above], and there might be a producer who really digs that sound, and wants to record a whole album there. My producer, Brad Fielder, out of Norman, who did my last album and is working with me on my new one—I record at his house. He has a studio, but I record at his house. I don’t know why it’s better for me to record in a house, where another band might sound better in the studio. I haven’t thought about it much, myself.
The Fiddleback: The sound on the CD is warm and direct sounding, was that recorded in the house?
RL: It was.
The Fiddleback: How did you approach the recording? Was it a one microphone set up?
RL: When I recorded that, my guitar was plugged into the mixer, and Brad set up two mics in the room, and I played and sang live. That’s how we did it. Now, while I’m working on new material, even though we’re adding bass and drum tracks later, I’m doing the initial tracks in the living room. My guitar isn’t plugged in and he sets three microphones in a row in front of me and the dynamic is interesting. He can move one of the microphones a little, and it changes the sound—sometimes it sounds good, sometimes it doesn’t. Brad doesn’t even add reverb, and we never use autotune. I’ve heard all my life that I can’t sing.
The Fiddleback: Who says that?
RL: Sometimes, musicians don’t like my music because they say I can’t sing, but others like my voice because it’s unconventional. I can’t play a ‘C’ on my guitar and hit that note. I try, and I work on it, but I accept it. I wonder why other people can’t accept that. More artists should be themselves instead of trying to sound like they’re “supposed to.” Why not just sound like themselves? If you can’t accept the fact that you can’t hit the notes, then just stop playing. Don’t throw autotune on it. Either have the guts to get up there and do your thing. And I’m not saying I have all this courage, because when I’m up on stage I’m going out of my mind thinking about how people must think I suck, or don’t like my voice—but I do it. And sometimes other artists get frustrated when I try to sing with them, but it is what it is.
The Fiddleback: This sounds very different from the punk and indie rock scenes I grew up in. Between this and the clear distinction between country and singer-songwriter, it sounds like an old-school professional musician attitude.
RL: That’s what it is—it’s the people who play professionally, who went to school to play music, who are classically trained. They’ve been trained their whole lives, hit on the hands with a ruler, and now when they hear my less conventional voice, they don’t like it. But Townes Van Zandt was an unconventional singer.
The Fiddleback: In his day, some said Sinatra wasn’t a good singer.
RL: Exactly. Look at someone like the Weakerthans—they sound great.
The Fiddleback: You mentioned you are recording. Are you working on a new set of songs?
RL: I keep calling it an album, but it’s only five songs. I’m putting it together with my friend and producer Brad Fielder. He’s kind enough to record me for next to nothing. I don’t have a due date. I’ll probably focus more on it when I run out of the hundred copies of my first CD I paid to have pressed.
The Fiddleback: So where do you go from here? Are you content in Oklahoma?
RL: I don’t know. I have this theory behind music: you have to keep the momentum going. That’s how to be successful. I’m playing SXSW soon [Mr. Lawson’s SXSW set happened prior to the publication of our interview. It went quite well]. I could say, well, I played SXSW, I’m done. That’s pretty big. Not look for anything after that. I hope that’s not what happens. I hope that I’m not that lazy. After my music was played on the Spy a few months ago, that was a big thing to hear myself on the radio, but then I needed to know what was next. So I booked shows, and I just keep going and going. But what’s next? I don’t know. I’ve thought about what I’d do if I had the opportunity to tour with somebody, ride on their coattails. Could I leave my job? Maybe for a week or three weeks. If it’s one of those things where I’d have to jump into the deep end? I don’t know if I could if I had to. I just don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to answer that question until I got there.
Photos & Video by Steven Hopkins