Recently Ryan Key talked with hedonistshedonist.com about his new solo EP, Thirteen, and life after Yellowcard. You can check out the full interview right down below under the cut!
It’s already hot and and oppressively humid on an early Tuesday morning in New York City, but I don’t mind – I’m heading out into the sweltering heat to meet up with William Ryan Key, former Yellowcard vocalist/guitarist, for a coffee in midtown Manhattan to discuss his latest project. William Ryan Key, who has been playing music professionally for over 17 years, just recently released his first-ever solo EP, THIRTEEN, on May 25. On top of that, he is currently on a national tour with punk rock band New Found Glory, and was gearing up to play a show that night at New York City’s iconic PlayStation Theater in the heart of Times Square. After we grabbed our respective cappuccino (me) and orange soda (William) from the minimalist and mercifully air-conditioned coffee shop, we grabbed a couple of open seats and discussed the pros and cons of going solo, the creation of a new musical genre, and life beyond Ocean Avenue.
Q: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us before your show tonight, and congratulations on the release of your first solo EP! In discussing THIRTEEN, you’ve said that “It took a long time to find my own focus and direction after 17 years in a band; however, once I found it, the music felt like coming home.” Can you elaborate on that a bit more? How did you end up finding your own identity as a solo artist?
William Ryan Key: I’ve had to do a lot of music for various things since Yellowcard, recording songs to fulfill some Kickstarter rewards, recording spots for friends that wanted music for something. I’ve also been working on some electronic music, just doing lots of different stuff. I thought that after Yellowcard my primary focus was gonna be producing, and I honestly can say now, having been through the journey of doing a couple records, that I don’t think that’s gonna be my thing at all. If something comes along where it’s like friends, or it’s a project that I’m really passionate about, I would still produce a record, I enjoy doing it, but doing it full time and then doing the hustle – the hustle of trying to, you know, go to a million shows a month and meeting all the bands – it’s not for me. It has nothing to do with not having hustle, because I have plenty of hustle, it’s just that that’s not the kind of hustle that inspires me, and I think I found that out. So it just took all those lessons learned over the last year, and then I got the offer to do this New Found Glory tour, both to open the tour to play on my own, and also to play guitar in New Found Glory. I had been also doing a lot of shows since Yellowcard and then on my own, like private acoustic engagements and stuff like that where I was playing full 90-minute shows of Yellowcard songs, acoustically. And I really didn’t wanna do this on this tour, I didn’t wanna play Yellowcard songs on this tour, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just record something,’ you know, to have for the tour. I think the reason I was having trouble finding what I wanted to sound like prior to that was because I was like ‘This is gonna be my solo, project, my solo release’ [laughs]. And I don’t think I put that much thought into it with the New Found thing. It was so rushed that I think that helped. It was like, I had a bunch of stuff, I was traveling, doing some shows, some emo nights, some stuff like that in January, February, and so when it came time to actually think about the New Found thing, it was like, ‘I think it would be cool to record a few songs, and have like an EP at the merch table, and some songs to play.’ That was it. In that way, it was just like, I have x amount of days to get this recorded, before zero hour to go to get the CDs made to take on tour – that was it. I called my friend Arun Bali, who plays guitar in Saves the Day, and who is also a producer and mixer in Nashville where I live, [to help out]. I had started writing some of my guitar riffs and stuff, and I knew that it was kinda heading in this singer/songwriter, ambient acoustic direction – you know, like Elliot Smith, Death Cab. And I wanted Arun to come in because he just has such a cool analog, record-it-to-tape kind of vibe and I thought that would be important for this kind of project. Even though I myself am a producer, I’ve always made these kinda slick, shiny rock records, and I wanted this to be more like throw-and-go, raw, you know? And so he came over to my studio for like three weeks straight, and we just slapped ‘em together. I mean, it was like…the five songs you hear on the EP are the first five ideas I had. I would literally write it and be like, I think that’s cool let’s track it. And then we would track the guitar, the skeleton of it, as a demo and do the next one. And so when it was all done, we sat back and listened, and just realized ‘We found it, this is it. This is the sound. These are the songs. Like, we’re gonna keep going forward with this, we’re not gonna have any trouble knowing what direction we’re going anymore.’ And I think it’s an awesome template to build on, if we were to ever have the opportunity to expand into doing some drums, and some more instrumentation and stuff.
Q: Who would you say that some of your musical influences were in helping you to sort of craft, inspire, or draw out your “new” identity?
William Ryan Key: For a lot of years now, definitely a little over a decade I guess you could say, I’ve been a HUGE fan of the post rock genre, so bands like Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai and Hammock and Caspian and Godspeed You! Black Emperor…I just LOVED that instrumental music for a long time now, and so that was something I thought about. I mean obviously I would love to sound like Ben Gibbard, or Elliot Smith, that would be amazing, but you never wanna just rip people off, you know? You can take inspiration from the songs and the artists you love, and so I thought it would be cool to sort of meld this ambient guitar post-rock stuff into this acoustic folky music…and so people are like ‘What genre is it, what do you think?’ and I’m like ‘Well, I think I have to call it singer-songwriter, but I kinda have been calling it “ambient acoustic.”
Q: You’re inventing a new genre!
William Ryan Key: Yeah, exactly! But it’s really turning into something more than I ever thought it was going to. So that’s a long-winded answer to how I finally [found my style]…it was really just having six weeks to do it, is how I found it. And when I say it felt like coming home, that covers a lot. I don’t know if there may be a little bit of a southern tinge to it, and that comes from my family and my upbringing. We’re all from North Georgia and I grew up in northeast Florida, which is not like the Miami, Florida people know of, it’s the very southern Florida. I have a lot of southern roots, so acoustic, alt-country has always been a huge influence on me, like Ryan Adams, and Jason Isbell and artists like that that I love, so yeah I just felt like I had landed sort of. And I was totally comfortable in the writing and recording.
Q: Did you always envision being a soloist, or was that something that came out, again, because you just had the time to do it?
William Ryan Key: I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t remember ever – I’m sure I have considered it along the way, but the music business is so full of highs and lows, so without sounding like I’m complaining in any way about the incredible career I’ve had, [it’s tough]. Also, losing Yellowcard, and a lot of the negative experiences with Yellowcard, which I don’t focus on, does wear on you in the manner of like, ‘If I’m gonna put something out, just what is the music business now, and what are the actual chances of this mattering?’ And it’s tough not to let that stuff beat you, that mentality beat you down and be like, ‘What’s the point of releasing any music?” Because people are into something else five seconds after they hear something. So again, that wasn’t in my mind when we were making this, because this was just gonna be an EP for me to have on the tour, so I think that level of expectation has been amazing because it has been so far exceeded that I feel like, on a much smaller scale, the way I felt when Yellowcard was just exploding. At first were like “We just wanna be on the Warped Tour!” and then two years later, we were on the VMAs. So all of the reviews coming in about this thing, and just getting to do this tour with New Found Glory, and opportunities coming up for more touring this year,[it’s exciting]. People – other artists, other bands, – are hearing the record and going ‘Dude, this is not what I was expecting from you, we should do some shows,” stuff like that. People outside of the Yellowcard world – which is where I have to take this as well. I need to get on the road, I’m so lucky to be on this New Found Glory tour, but that said, these songs aren’t really tailored for the New Found Glory audience. So I am gonna have to work pretty hard to make the transition as far as touring musician and touring artist, getting on tours where people are coming in and sitting down and expecting to just relax and hear singer-songwriter style music. But we already have a few opportunities in the pipeline, so I’m excited.
Q: I think this particular tour with New Found Glory is interesting because you open as a soloist, but then you also kind of jump back into being in a band…how is that?
William Ryan Key: It’s cool because I mean the New Found thing, I’m just kinda hanging in the back, like on a riser because I have the keyboard world, and my laptop, and all that extra stuff I’m doing for them, so I’m not like down on the stage running around like the band. It was really just gonna be on the tour, they would love to have the second guitar parts back on the band, and asked if I would play. And people are like “Eh, it’s weird seeing you in the back,” and I’m like “I don’t care,” if I ever would have had an ego about something like that, I certainly don’t have it now. I’m just excited to be playing music.
Q: So New Found Glory were the ones to approach you for the collaboration, then?
William Ryan Key: Yeah. We’ve been talking about it for a long time though, I knew Yellowcard was breaking up, we knew way before we told the world, so even back in 2015 when we were co-headlining with New Found, we already knew that was happening, so Chad and I had a couple of conversations about it, but they all ended in sort of like a “We’ll see, who knows” kinda thing. And even for now, we’ll see what happens, I’m having a great time, but who knows what their touring plans are in the future, and if they wanna keep me on, we’ll see. It would definitely be cool to be able to sort of exercise both muscles, you know? Go out and do the singer-songwriter thing on my own, but then every once in a while jump on a New Found tour and play rock and roll still, it’d be cool.
Q: You mentioned you also had a lot of different genres you were working on, you mentioned electronic…can you tell us what you’re doing with electronic music?
William Ryan Key: It’s kinda top secret, I can’t really divulge [laughs]. But I’m just having fun, just making noises in my studio.
Q: What do you think the most exciting/rewarding part has been going solo, and what is the most challenging part?
William Ryan Key: The rewarding part is just how far my expectations for what it is have been exceeded by the response and reaction and reception of the songs. It’s incredibly rewarding, I mean, it was really hectic recording it all because there was a deadline – I mean I like working like that, working under pressure, but it was hectic, and then you’re kinda like “Oh, well this is done and out now”, so seeing and hearing people’s reactions to the songs, and it just being so unbelievably positive, it’s amazing. Challenging? I would just say getting in the groove of touring on my own. Like, I’ve had a tour manager and a guitar tech for 15 years, and New Found Glory’s tour manager is amazing and he’s helping me out as much as he can, but you know, I’m hauling my gear, and loading in the shows, and setting up the shows for my set, like, on my own. Traveling – even before I put this out I’d still been traveling around playing shows on my own, and you know, I’m lugging guitar cases and luggage on trains throughout the United Kingdom all by myself, and so that’s kinda been a challenge. But again, that’s also sort of rewarding, because it’s like ‘I can still do this,’ you know? Kind of feeling like I don’t need all that stuff. And also to go back to the rewarding side of it, meeting the fans – like meeting and talking with the fans – it’s not quite as busy and hectic as a Yellowcard tour would’ve been for me, so I’m able to just kinda spend time online, and at the merch table and stuff more than I did with Yellowcard. It’s funny because with Yellowcard, a lot of times, if you’d go to the merch table at the show, especially back when it was really big, like back in ’04-’05, it could be kinda dangerous to get out to merch, cause it was so crazy. But the merch vendors would get kinda upset because you’re actually hindering sales, not helping them, because people just wanna come over where you are. But this is just such a different experience than that, because there’s not a mad rush to the merch table to get my shirts, so I can just kinda stand off to the side and meet people and hang out. It’s more personal I think.
Q: How, if at all, has your creative/songwriting process changed now that you are on your own? Do you seek creative input or bounce ideas off of anyone?
William Ryan Key: I bounced the ideas off of Arun through the recording process for sure, but other than that, I just write. It’s a lot different than writing Yellowcard songs because it’s one guitar part. On the acoustic guitar on the EP, I didn’t overdub any lead parts or harmony parts or anything, it’s just the one guitar part through every song, so that’s a lot less involved than a Yellowcard song. But it’s also similar in that I wrote all of the music before I wrote the melody and lyrics, and Yellowcard’s been writing songs that way for many years now, where we would get together and the music came together really as a team. In the modern age of recording, it’s so much easier to demo your music at a high quality level, so I could like live with the demos to write with. Even as we were making the actual album I had demo versions of the songs to sing to. So it was the same way with these songs – I would record the acoustic guitar, like sort of a scratch track, and we would then go in during the day and actually record the music. And when Arun would go home, I would kinda just hang at night with a bottle of wine and the demos and write the lyrics and melodies. That was similar, in the way that the lyrics and melody were written, but yeah, the writing of the guitar and stuff…I mean, I’m doing that all on my own too. In Yellowcard, I’ve always had a lot of springboards in the band, to be like, ‘Hey, what do you guys think about this rift or that rift,” and this was just kinda like..I have to just hope it’s good, cause I’m doing it on my own…
Q: What’s one thing you hope fans take away from the new EP?
William Ryan Key: I guess I’m hoping that they’re able to recognize that this isn’t Yellowcard, and that it’s not going to be Yellowcard, and that it’s not rooted in anything Yellowcard, and it’s not because I have ill feelings or ill will towards Yellowcard – Yellowcard has given me my career in music – but with the way Yellowcard ended being such a deliberate thing, it’s very deliberate for me as well, in that, I am moving on, it’s in the past. I’m grateful for everything it’s done for me, but it looks like I might really have an opportunity to make music that’s received, that’s not Yellowcard. So I guess I’m just looking for support in that.