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Kelley Ryan

Armed with her Telescope, Kelley Ryan gets up close and personal with her third solo album, an introspective collection of sonic delights that adds to a repertoire spanning over two decades.

The pop songstress started her recording career under the quirky moniker astroPuppees, releasing five albums of melodic tunes that invited collaborations with several noted artists, including Jesse Valenzuela of Gin Blossoms, bass guitarist Don Dixon (who co-produced REM's first two albums) and his wife, vocalist/songwriter Marti Jones. Her solo debut, 2010's Twist, also featured lush string arrangements from Van Dyke Parks.

Kelley spent two years building the components of Telescope at her home studios in Palm Springs, California and Cork, Ireland. The result is ten original tracks ranging from the haunting "The Darkest Stars" to the addictive "Cigarette" to the nostalgia-tinged "Passing Through," co-written by Marshall Crenshaw. Shortly after the album's release, Kelley gave Songfacts a glimpse into her songwriting process and the stories that brought Telescope into focus.

Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): When you first started writing songs, who were your biggest influences?

Kelley Ryan: I would have to say the golden triad of Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell and Carole King.

Songfacts: How has your songwriting process changed from writing astroPuppees songs to writing Kelley Ryan songs?

Kelley: Well, first of all, I think my earlier astroPuppees stuff is definitely more raw and electrified. My studio then was a tiny basement in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the 101 Freeway and underneath helicopter flight paths between the Valley and downtown LA. Lots of noise and buzz and energy just constantly rumbling from the city, so I think my astroPuppees records reflect that.

Through a fortunate turn of events, I started living half of the year in rural Cork, Ireland and then a few years later moved to the California desert to spend the other half of the year. Twist came along about that time, and I was going to release it as an astroPuppees record, but my good friend Don Dixon (who has worked with me in some capacity on every record I've ever made), suggested that I release it under my own name. He pointed out that it seemed like there was a shift in the sound and it seemed appropriate to make it a little more intimate. In hindsight, I think that it's possible (and probable) that the surroundings in which I write and record directly influence the sound and mood of the final album. It's been a logical, natural progression for me as a songwriter from my first record to my last, and the goal is to KEEP ON GOING!

Songfacts: Telescope once again teams you with Don Dixon and Marti Jones. How did their influence help shape the album?

Kelley: I've been working with both of them, in some capacity, ever since my first record in 1996. Our creative involvement and friendship has only grown deeper and better over the years. Seriously, a major part of my inspiration to keep writing songs and making records is because it will mean more interaction with the Dixons. I respect them as artists so much, and I love them as humans endlessly. I am pretty certain that those feelings sprinkle into the recording of my songs. Besides all the technical care I take to make each song clean and emotionally strong, there is definitely an element of love in there. It may sound corny, but I believe it.

Songfacts: At Songfacts, we like to dig into the stories behind the songs. You've said that every song you write is about a woman or girl in your life. Who is "Real Gone Girl" about?

Kelley: I said that? Maybe I was referring to Twist, I don't know, but certainly not every song is about a female. Most definitely they will all have a feminine perspective, cause they start and end with mine, but men and boys off-limits as a subject? No way! Nothing is off-limits. I have a song called "Monkey With a Flashlight" which should prove it right there. [laughs]

But "Real Gone Girl" actually is based on a girl I know in Ireland. She is really sweet and beautiful and a little kooky and everyone loves her. She just sort of all-of-the-sudden shows up in Paris as a cook, or Switzerland as an au pair or pops up in a country store making specialty foods to sell. She is lovable and unpredictable, the meaning of mercurial. You just can't pin her down and she steals your heart every time.

Songfacts: Was the album title taken from the "You're at the end of your rope/Don't need a telescope" lyric in "Pulling For Romeo"?

Kelley: Yes. I looked up telescope in the dictionary and it describes a telescope as "an optical instrument designed to make distant objects appear nearer, containing an arrangement of lenses or curved mirrors, by which rays of light are collected and focused and the resulting image magnified." I think that's a pretty good metaphor for the way I like to write songs. Every pop...every bang...every chord is meant to specifically focus on and magnify a very specific emotion or subject so you can really feel it. It heightens the very specific. Like I want to get down to the molecules of love. Also, I just like the way the word sounds.

Songfacts: What was the genesis of "Passing Through," co-written by Marshall Crenshaw?

Kelley: I actually co-wrote "Passing Through" with Marshall for his last record, Jaggedland. He had a melody and the title and a very specific idea about what he wanted it to be about. I wrote a few words for it but it is mostly his baby. I took it as a song about non-permanence and treasuring each and every moment in our fleeting lives. It's just a cool, loping reminder to be in the moment. Enjoy memories, yes, but be in the moment. It is really all we have.

Songfacts: Where did the idea for "Cigarette" come from?

Kelley: A year or so ago, Marti sent me an image of one of her paintings and gave me the idea to write a song about the two figures knowing nothing of who they were or where they were. "Cigarette" is the result. I imagined them as a couple that hooked up every weekend in a corner bar where they would negotiate the perils of their addictive relationship over a pint or three. After I wrote the song she told me that the painting was called "The Green Room at the House of Blues" and that it was from backstage at a show Dixon was playing in Cleveland. When you see the painting it is mostly red… red, green or blue, that was the inspiration for "Cigarette." I used the painting for a YouTube video of the song.

"The Darkest Stars" was inspired by three female artists who likely endured many sleepless nights. Anais Nin was a struggling memoirist and essayist who gained notoriety later in life when her erotic works made her a celebrated figure during the feminist movement of the '60s. Her complicated love life included two husbands (simultaneously) and an affair with Tropic of Cancer writer Henry Miller. Sylvia Plath was a noted poet whose struggle with mental illness inspired her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, and led to her suicide at age 30. And of course "Marilyn" refers to Marilyn Monroe, the silver screen siren who struggled with depression and substance abuse before her death from a barbiturate overdose at 36.

Songfacts: "The Darkest Stars" has the alternate title "To Anais Nin and Sylvia Plath with Regards, Marilyn." How did these women inspire the song?

Kelley: Well, they are all fascinating and tragic humans. I just started to imagine, you know how sometimes you wake up in the dead of the night, (like 3:00 or 4:00), with all of your worries and concerns of the day spinning around in your head and you can't get back to sleep? Well, I just started to wonder what those three would think about when it happened to them. I imagined they all felt very lonely and frightened. I think everyone who wakes up in that hour has experienced some of the same feelings. I know I have. But those three must have had some pretty dark nights! Yet they shone so brightly in public. Fascinating.

Songfacts: What song from Telescope is particularly important to you?

Kelley: Of course I want to say "all of them" because they all are, but if I have to pick one, it would be "The Broken News." It's the first song I started writing for what would eventually become Telescope.

Songfacts: What advice do you wish someone would have given you when you first started out?

Kelley: To be patient.

May 8, 2017.
Find out more about Kelley Ryan at http://kelleyryan.net/.

    About the Author:

    Amanda FlinnerAmanda is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a degree in English/Writing from Geneva College (Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania). When she's not listening to jazz and pop standards from the '40s and '50s, she's obsessing over classic movies. She has no musical ability whatsoever except for a short stint as a saxophone player in the sixth grade.More from Amanda Flinner
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