On a rainy Friday night at the end of March you can hear a gum wrapper rustle inside The Evening Muse as singer-songwriter Lindsey Ryan breaks between songs.
“Now here’s a dance song,” she says. The crowd shuffles uncomfortably, not knowing whether to laugh at the proposed departure from her gentle, introspective Americana.
“I’m just kidding,” she says, breaking the tension with a laugh and tucking a reddish-brown curl behind her ear before beginning another slow, thoughtful piano number.
The Muse concert marks the 31-year-old Charlotte native’s dive back into the music scene as a solo artist. During her early 20s Ryan was well-known in local circles as leader of the Lindsey Horne Band. She released her first album in 2003, the same year she graduated from Queens University of Charlotte as a creative writing and music major after abandoning the opera program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
But Ryan, who has dropped her last name, Horne, to separate her career as a music teacher from her role as a performer, disappeared from the scene shortly thereafter to study poetry as a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
“I missed music so much living in an apartment. It’s so hard in New York. It’s hard to be loud. You have to pay for a practice space and getting to gigs. We’d have to carry our keyboards on the subway,” she recalls.
She moved back to Charlotte four years ago and began working on her music.
“I realized what a huge resource I wasn’t tapping into,” she says of her Charlotte-based musician friends, many of whom appear on her new, self-released album, “The Divers.”
Growing up singing
Ryan grew up in Plaza Midwood singing four-part harmonies with her mom, dad (a bluegrass musician) and sister.
“It wasn’t cheesy like the Partridge Family. We sang Crosby, Stills and Nash and Fleetwood Mac,” she said. She began piano lessons at age 6 and praises her teacher Elizabeth Vincent for allowing Ryan to branch out from classical training once she exhibited an interest in pursuing her own music.
“When I got older she noticed I was starting to make stuff up. She really let me out of the box. I think I got to play one of the songs I wrote at one of my recitals. I don’t think every student needs a teacher like that, but I did. I got lucky that I got one that allowed me to be creative. I try to be that type of teacher for my kids, too.”
While in high school at Northwest School of the Arts, Ryan became assistant to concert promoter and music teacher John Tosco at Community School of the Arts, where she now teaches voice and piano. She won an opera scholarship to Southern Methodist University, but her studies were too far removed from the sound that she loved.
“My mom’s got a beautiful voice. That’s the thing when I studied opera that made me know I wasn’t in the right spot,” Ryan said. “My voice just changed so much. It didn’t sound as much like my mom’s as I wanted it to. I’ll never forget the day my teacher said, ‘You did it. Did you hear what you just did?’ She played it back for me and I was just like ‘who is that?’ It was this big ridiculous sound. It’s what she’d been wanting, but it wasn’t me. I knew I had to get the heck out of there.”
‘I work hardest on lyrics’
There’s an innocence and fragility to Ryan’s voice that is interestingly juxtaposed with some of the kiss-off lyrics on “The Divers.” It’s those lyrics that Ryan hopes listeners take note of.
“I work the hardest on lyrics. It’s probably an embarrassing amount of time I spend on fine-tuning, making sure every word is the right word. Whether they’re in a song or on the page in some other form, that’s my favorite medium. I appreciate when people acknowledge my voice, but I was born with it and it’s not something I’ve had to work on. But I work so hard on words and I’m obsessed with learning more about it,” she says.
The words usually arrive in the form of a melody.
“They always pop into my head on a melody. I’d get an idea and record it on my cassette recorder . It’ll be like a random line and sometimes I won’t know what the song means, but I’ll record it and flesh out the melody and then implant words that match that tune. It’s kind of like the melody comes first and acts like a template for the rest of the song,” she explains.
Her lyrics are detailed and story-driven, but there’s a difference between writing songs and poetry.
“Writing songs, I’m not going to say it’s easier, but I can get away with saying mushier things I would never talk about in my poems. All my songs end up being about heartache and relationships and I don’t think I have one single poem about love. I guess they’re more cerebral.”
Her former Queens University professor Michael Kobre says he notices a difference in her writing now.
“I could hear the effect of Sarah Lawrence and studying poetry at that level in the lyrics themselves. The main difference I see is there’s a more explicit narrative in her earlier work,” Kobre said. “On the new album the narrative is a little more in the background.
“I think in her earlier work – and I think this is true for a lot of writers – there’s almost a more self-conscious quality to literary and poetic language. And as a writer matures and develops, the poetic qualities and more elevated language is more natural and woven more into a conversational voice. Everything seems more organic now.”
‘Focus on each song’
To help capture her sound, Ryan chose local musician Randolph Lewis to guide the project. She is joined by Justin and Matt Faircloth (the Houston Brothers), Dustin Hofsess (green Light), David Kim (Temperance League, Snagglepuss), and Mike Mitschele (Alternative Champs, Jolene) among others.
“Randolph did a really good job of trying to keep me from thinking about it as chapters in a book. He called them vignettes – to focus on each song as what it was supposed to be,” Ryan said.
Lewis, who met with Ryan to work out song structure and arrangements during pre-production, says creating an intimate feel was important to Ryan. She wanted to make sure some tracks remained sparse and true to the solo performance.
“Everybody that played on it was aware that was the vibe she was going for and played with that in mind. Although there were a lot of people involved, they put the songs first and so what we ended up with was fairly unified,” Lewis said. He and Ryan were also selective about which guest parts made the cut. “We had to limit it to stay with the vision Lindsey wanted.”
The result is a record that, like poetry, grows on its listener with its subtlety and detail.
“I’m still trying to figure out what it’s about,” Ryan says of the record. “It was definitely reflective of a time in my life when I was newly out of this relationship. If I were to write a record starting tomorrow it would not be the same. Somebody said the songs sound sad, but I don’t think they’re sad at all. I think they’re hopeful.”
‘Making it’ is not a priority
Now that the album is complete, Ryan is on to other aspects of being a musician that she doesn’t enjoy as much as writing and recording – performing and promoting.
“I’m sending it off to some labels and distribution . I know that’s the next step. I struggle between spending my free time working to make that happen and writing. Of course I’d love to have some help with (promoting and selling it), but ‘making it’ has never been why I make music. I think that my idea of making it is having a life that allows me time to be creative and be surrounded by a creative, supportive community of musical friends,” she says.
She’s also a bit reluctant about performing as a solo artist.
“I know it’s part of what I’ve signed up for. I’m just very shy and private,” she says.
Yet her experience at The Muse reminded her it’s not all bad. “I could feel this kindness coming back,” she said.