Nicknamed "The Dark Horse," he was a fan favorite on Rockstar Supernova, where his star began to rise ("Star" is his real middle name, which sounds much better than Kulchinsky). He lives to entertain, connecting not just through Tweets and Status Updates, but by literally touching his fans. It's part of what he calls the "Two Way Street" when it comes to inspiration.
His first post-Supernova album 11:59 comes out August 3, but his songs have been showing up all over the place, including "Brand New Day," which is the theme song for the TV show Lie To Me.
Ryan Star: I think it's confusing because I have a record label behind what I'm doing that wants to make sure it gets out there the right way. So as we were developing and getting out there and touring, we released an EP called The Last Train Home. And there are a few songs from 11:59 that are out there already, like one of the songs is the theme song to a TV show called Lie To Me, and one was on a soundtrack for P.S. I Love You. So the songs have all gotten out there in a way. And the ones that got out there, I started feeling like, man, my fans have been waiting for this album, they probably feel like I'm giving the record to Hollywood execs and screwing them. So I'm like, I gotta get these songs that they've heard out there at least.
Songfacts: Let's hit 11:59 right away. I have to tell you, when I first heard your song "Breathe," I thought it was (American Idol Season 7 winner) David Cook.
"Breathe" is the one that I could tell you that, as a musician, you feel – it's new to me – I feel completely blessed to have written a song like this. I travel around the country and I tour my ass off. I'm a road dog, I love that interaction with people. As much of a hermit as I was making this song, now that I'm out there – and it's one thing to go Twitter and Facebook and all that stuff, but it's another thing actually touching – literally touching the people and seeing what they're about. "Breathe" is a song that I wrote on a very personal note. She's someone I really care about, and I wanted to say that it's going to be okay, we're going to get through this together, just breathe, it's gonna be fine. And then, like a lot of these songs, the time we're living in – on a social note – can be the same thing: we're gonna get through this, we always do, let's just breathe. It's gonna be fine. So it's a comforting song saying if it hurts, let it out. But we're gonna be okay, and hold my hand through this.
When I meet people on the road is when all of the sudden that world between writing songs in my room alone, as a craft and an art – that's the thing I love – all of the sudden becomes bigger than that. It becomes, Wow! Well, now you're singing it for people. This is the other side of music. This is the other side of songwriting that people don't think about sometimes, where you're not just writing a song, you're then singing it for people. And people forget that sometimes. Especially in the years of artists being handed songs that they have no connection to, and people writing songs for them. You lose that connection. So "Breathe" is a song where, after the show I'll go up to someone and they'll be strangers, their friends will tell me a story about themselves. "I needed to hear those words because this happened to me this week," and it's a heavy thing. I mean, they're sharing such intense moments of their life with you. And you're just meeting them. And it's because of music, I think, and that's why I say it's a blessing to have that song. It means the absolute world to me these days, especially to sing it around the country.
Songfacts: Is it surprising to you that so many people come up and give you a confessional like that?
Ryan: Since I was a kid, I've always been that guy. I've always been a people person. And I don't have the stomach for politics or anything like that. I really connect with people, and they inspire me. It's a two-way street there, because they literally inspire me. I go home and I start writing about these stories and these experiences, and they find their way into my songs, and it's a beautiful thing, it really is. I knew since I was a kid it wasn't just that I wanted to play for myself. I knew I wanted to play it and perform it and get out there. So it's quite an intense incredible experience. My manager passed away when I first wrote "Breathe" and it was his favorite song. I always say it had to grow up quick; of all the kids in this album, that song got into the real world quick. And I played it at his funeral, for his family.
And just a few weeks ago I played it at my cousin's wedding, too. So it's a song for all occasions. It was like, Okay, kid, grow up. This is you and you gotta get out there and sing it. And I'm just proud of it. I don't have children, and these songs are my children, and I'm proud of that one a lot, really. That's the doctor in the family. (laughs)
Songfacts: (laughing) Nice. Can you tell me what is going on behind "Brand New Day"?
Ryan: From the creation of "Brand New Day" it was always kind of a fight, and it impressed me at the end of the day. I recorded and wrote it, and every step of the way, "Brand New Day" was leaning towards being a b-side. And sure enough, it's gonna lead off the whole album now. It's funny how that can happen, you know? You can have no hope for a song and it will surprise you and do great things, and then you can have all hope for a song and it will do nothing. Sonically this is the most different song on the record, there's a real beat behind it, pushing the more modern elements that I wanted to explore as a solo artist. And the song itself is really just straight up… a lot of the theme of this album 11:59 is all about the moment, and living in this moment, and this romantic carpe diem word we always heard, this phrase that we always heard growing up, and trying to make sense of it. I was living on a beach making the album and writing these words, and I was for the first time really connecting with myself, talking about mindful eating, which is really understanding food when you put it in your mouth. It's a better eating experience than sitting in front of the TV and stuffing your face. But really just recognizing what is happening right now. Here I am, making a record, living really a lonely life, because I was living all alone on the beach and just coming to the studio and then coming home and then going to the studio and writing.
So the song "Brand New Day" was really about something's about to happen. Here we are, when you recognize exactly where you are in the moment, then something else is definitely going to happen the next moment. If you're really living in that snapshot life, then there's going to be another snapshot. Because during the day it's kind of like, well, what's coming next? I know every generation probably says, "Oh, this is important," or "this is important." But only some can truly live up to that at the end of the day. And I think this time period that we're looking at now is one of them. As I was writing the song, the whole world was changing. You had a guy named Barack Obama actually having a shot at the presidency, and all these things were happening. And on a social side, I thought it was very relevant that there was a brand new day coming for everybody. And on a personal level, there's a little story there, a Romeo and Juliet story, which always finds its way into my songs, about these kids, and hey, I'm gonna come to your window and we're getting out of this town, and let's not wake up your father. And no one can chase us. We're getting out of this small town. And with a little bit of an attitude. My favorite line is, "they say that we're flying too high, well, get used to looking up." There's no sky here, who says you can't do this? Who says you can't leave a small town? Who says you can't be what you want to be? And on a personal side, that's where I was coming from. Because I don't come from a place where people do what I do. I don't come from a family that does that. So that's the sentiment to that song. There's the social aspect to it, and then there's the very personal aspect to it.
Songfacts: You say that it's about living in the moment. But there's a line that says, "turn back the clock, I need more time."
Ryan: Sure. Well, let me get in that state of mind for a second. (singing quietly to himself) Touché, first of all. (laughs) I kind of get hung up on the detail sometimes with actually writing songs that I want to universally happen. There are so many time references in my songs, and I think moving forward into the brand new day I was thinking, Well, where have I come from? And I think it was like, Who am I? Where have I come from to be at this exact moment right now with you? And it's been a while since I've sat there writing the words, but I would think that that's where I was coming from.
I kept on thinking "clock," I kept on thinking time, because one of my songs has literally a clock sound in the beginning. "Time, time, time," so when you think of it enough they all creep their way in. And yeah, "turn back the clock, give me some time, I need to break out and make a new name." It says, "and make a new name," and I think I must have been thinking that I need to see where I've come from. Like, where did all this happen? Flashback to when I was 7 and remembered picking up a guitar or whatever. Who was that person? Because I'm moving forward into my new self now. And who am I bringing with me?
By the way, it's funny, I was just having a conversation with one of my guru inspirational friends named Stoney. And he told me, "Every once in a while pick up a picture of yourself when you were a kid, and transform yourself back to that moment when you were a kid. It's so therapeutic. It's better than a therapy session. Just stare at yourself as a kid, and then channel that, and remember who it is." And he brought up that line, and it makes me think that maybe I had that conversation with him yesterday for that. It's like somehow you're not in the moment if you're reminiscing, it's just where you are now. But I think maybe that kid is always in us, and we've gotta take him with us as we move forward.
Songfacts: I think your friend Stoney is right on with that, actually.
Ryan: It's beautiful. I was really thrown back when he said that. I really appreciated it.
Songfacts: Take me through "Last Train Home."
Ryan: Yeah, very similar sentiment. Again, this romantic scene of kids and young love finds their way into my songs. I'm not a creepy guy or anything like that, but yesterday I was in the park, and I Twittered a picture of these two kids, they must have been tenth grade. And they were lying on the grassy knoll, it was like out of a storybook. And I'm watching them and trying not to be such a perv, but I'm rooting for the kid. I'm like, "Go for second base, man, you can do it! Go for it! This is your time, this is it!" (laughs) And it was such an awesome thing to see.
And "Last Train Home" is that. "Last Train Home" is the most autobiographical song on the record, but I try not to say that too much because I don't want people to think I'm a bad guy. (laughs) But I fell in love with a girl a bit younger than me, and now as I get older the age difference isn't so hard. But when you're kids, a few years can be the trick. And literally, I use that for inspiration. The mother of this person in the song, she says to me, "It wasn't the dad that said stay away from my daughter, it was the mom." Now that we're all cool, she felt slighted that I didn't give her credit. (laughs) Her mom called my mom up and said, "I'm calling the cops on your son. This is crazy!" But we were sneaking around and having young love and nothing could stop us, and it was pure and it was real, and I was a gentleman. And that was the story behind "Last Train Home." And part of it was also me making a story up. I thought, I have no use in all those things, it can get in the way. The world can come between two people – I wrote a song in my old band called "The World Has Come Between Us." And that song was about being with someone and then that thing where if you were living on Mars somewhere alone with this person, you know it would work, you know you'd be perfect for each other. But then you insert life, and you insert work, and jobs, and money, and family and these things, and all of the sudden the relationship doesn't hold up, and it's not strong enough. And you think to yourself, Well, if it was only us, it would be perfect. But that's not how life is. So I had this song "The World Has Come Between Us" back then, and "Last Train Home" was almost the opposite. Instead of saying "the world has come between us," it was, "I will wait for you. I will make this work. We will make this work. And we'll grow together. And we're gonna live this life together and we're gonna start now." So it starts with these kids, it's almost like she's going away to college and they're gonna leave each other for a few years, and then they come back to each other. And that's why it says, "No lines on her face represent each year that she'd been away," but the fact is he waited and they got back together, and that was the strong part of that song I love so much.
Songfacts: And is this Hallie?
Ryan: I use the name Hallie in a lot of my songs. People are starting to catch on. And it's something I've always been so private about, but I've been singing her name for years. On my last album she made the liner notes because she sang on a song with me called "Lullaby Suicide." That's a song off The Eye of An Elephant album (released in 2005). And she actually is the voice in "Brand New Day" on this album. So she's finding her way musically, and she's living up to her name as my muse, my inspiration. And yes, a girl named Hallie.
Songfacts: That's so romantic. Now, what is the age difference?
Ryan: There was a 20-year-old going for a 15-year-old at the time. (laughs)
Songfacts: And this is you two, right?
Songfacts: Okay. Well, as long as it all works out and her mom's good with it. (laughs) You just said something about suicide, I have to ask you about "Psycho Suicidal Girl."
Ryan: I sometimes introduce it as saying that in all of my other songs I'm half full of shit, but this song every word is true. (laughs) It's my most honest song that I think I've ever written. I had this line, "You're wasting my time" or something. And again, I was falling into a new relationship, realizing, Well, where is this old one going? And I mean, line for line, you could read it. It's just the story.
The funny side is I think there's a little bit of that in everybody. I introduce the song at concerts, and I say, "Listen, everybody, if you know somebody like this in your life, then you're totally in the clear. So it's all good, you guys are gonna be fine. But if you don't know somebody like this, it's probably you." (laughing) So I tell them to really get in there and scratch their brains and find someone, because I think there is a little bit of everybody in this song, and that's why I think I like it so much. I get to concerts and guys and girls, are wearing shirts that say "psycho suicidal girl." It's like they all relate. And on the more sad side, it is very true.
I make light of it and I actually still know this person now, but at the time it was very hard because there was a very real thing happening. I kid you not, I opened the bathroom door to a pretty big mess one day. And I reacted the way I react in life, which is usually not too emotional. I kind of take it in, and I wind up putting it in songs. But it was a very matter-of-fact thing, and it was a very intense experience for me to see somebody treating themselves like that. But then I also learned a lot about what people do and what people go through. And it's a real problem.
Songfacts: Did she slit her wrists?
Ryan: Well, she was what people call a cutter, inflicting pain on themselves. And I never knew it. I fell for all the excuses for a long time. And then I got to witness it and see it. It was hard, and I was also feeling that I was responsible for it. There's a lot of weight around that song. And it's my joke song, it's a funny tongue-in-cheek song, but it's quite possibly the heaviest real-life experience. And to be honest, I keep in touch with the hero of that one. I get a great reaction when I sing, "Now it's all about having fun, I'm with the girl in the song, but now I'm paying a price and know the sex was nice. You're a psycho suicidal girl." (laughs) So it's funny: "is the juice worth the squeeze," as they say.
Songfacts: (laughing) Onward.
Ryan: (laughing) I'm sorry. Is this PG? They didn't give me a head's up, but you sound cool. (laughs)
Songfacts: It's all good. Is there a particular song that you would like to tell me about?
Songfacts: Can you tell me how it went from punk to piano ballad?
Ryan: We kept trying to find different ways to approach songs on this album. And this one would have been a rocker and fun and everything, and I play it that way live, still. But when we sat down and started stripping it and letting it be softer, I found that the vocals, the story, came out a little more. And a lot of this album is really about the songwriting and about the stories and about the imagery that I created, the movies in my mind that I like to bring out. I always joke around that I'm a lazy filmmaker, because I like to make these movies. I see the characters and everything in my head. I don't have the patience to write a two-hour script, but I have patience for a few minutes of a song. "We Might Fall" is another one like that. If you ever saw the movie Big Fish, I just see it like that. It's this whimsical idea, and I see like a Tim Burton video with it: it's about these two lovers saying that, in anything, you might fall. We might fall, or we might just fall in love. You know? It's like there's no written way to say that this has to happen bad or good or anything. It could just happen.
Ryan: Yeah, there's Hallie. And it's just about lovers getting through life together. It's a whole life span. And what they'll do to make ends meet, and what they'll do to grow old together to realize that they found truth in each other. That might be my most favorite lyrical song. I love that one a lot.
Songfacts: Big Fish was a great movie.
Ryan: That's that song to me. And I wrote it, I think, before Big Fish came out. It's one of the older songs I wrote that I've reinvented for 11:59. There's a few songs on the album that were from an older sketch-work of mine. "We Might Fall" is one of them, and "Losing Your Memory" is one of them, which also just keeps growing and growing. Sometimes you write songs and you don't even know what they're about until a year later, and then you look at your own words and realize you were trying to tell yourself something.
Songfacts: You were gonna tell me about "This Could Be the Year"?
Ryan: That's in the spirit of 11:59, about being in the moment. That's a song screaming out "here I am, here to show the world the cards I'm holding." And I wrote that with a friend of mine named Max Collins - he's the singer of Eve 6. We were hanging out in California, I was living with him in his house with his wife, just connecting as friends, because I used to tour with them. And we were just getting into that state of mind, we were both like, Let's just make the statement, and this is it. And that song's been fun because it's gotten out at the sporting arenas and venues where people need to prove themselves right then and there. And there's a lot of that in me right now, so that song's really fun to listen to. I hope it gets out there big.
Songfacts: On your Web site you reference a line about how you're on the airplane and you put your headphones on and that you keep seeing the sign over and over. What is this about being on the airplane and all?
Ryan: Artistically that was when I decided that the album was gonna be called 11:59. And that was kind of this essay I wrote when I was on a plane. Not to be so dismal, I just didn't know if I'd make it. People were screaming and it was about as serious as you get up there, and I thought to myself, Well, here I am. And I pulled my journal out and I started writing. And those are the words that I wrote. I set it up almost like, Well, here's my scene, this is at the end of a play when they say "Scene!" and that was "Scene!" for me. And I wrote that and then I thought that was gonna be the liner notes, but the record was coming out. Then I thought it'd be my bio, and I just found a place online with a cool picture. So that was me deciding that the album was gonna be called 11:59 at the end of the day.
Songfacts: That wasn't a true story, though, was it?
Ryan: Mostly true story, yeah.
Songfacts: Why were people screaming on the airplane?
Ryan: It was pretty rough. It was a pretty rough one. I was going out there to finish recording the album. So I thought, What a cliché. Yeah, I actually did write that on the plane. I try not to be scared. Sometimes I censor myself in fear that things will come true, but I decided to just go for it.
Songfacts: Any other "kids" you'd like to introduce to the world?
Ryan: I think you got a bunch. I think people will be excited to hear some insight on that. I never really talked too much about the songs. I should say overall I think songs should be left more for the imagination, for people to close their eyes and to make their own movie in their heads. So I don't like to say too much about the songs and their literal meanings to me. Sometimes I'll go to a first-grade classroom I know and I play songs for them. And I tell them to close their eyes and tell me what they see. And it's always a very incredible thing to hear what first-grade minds see from your adult words. And actually it's more beautiful than I can imagine sometimes. So I encourage your readers – and I hope you can say this – after hearing the insights to these songs, forget it all, close their eyes, and remember what it is like to be in first grade, in that moment, and listen to music, and make the movie in their own minds.
We caught Ryan Star in the moment on April 30, 2010. You can catch him at rstar.net.
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