Set to release his debut album, Room For Light, on September 23rd and embark on his largest UK Headline Tour to date, Ryan Keen sat down with me to chat about the record, love, playing live and more.
Hi Ryan! Thanks for your time! To start, for those that haven’t heard your music before, how would you describe it in three words?
Erm… Folky, bluesy, singer. I think (laughs)
Your debut album Room For Light is about to be released on September 23rd. What’re your favourite three songs on there and why?
Know About Me, Aiming For The Sun and Skin and Bones are currently my favourite three but they vary from day to day. I think I like those three particularly because they’ve all truly captured the essence of what I want to describe when I wrote those songs and I’m really happy with how the finished product came out for each of those. Aiming For The Sun was the first thing I wrote as a singer-songwriter, it was the title track for my first EP but we went and totally re-recorded it and I’m totally happy with the finished product.
What did you learn from the process of making those previous EPs that you took on board when making the album?
I guess that I’ve learnt for both myself and the producer on the album about how to best capture the right mood or atmosphere you want to portray on a song. If that makes any sense! I mean how you sort of build a track up. Sometimes I’ve gone into the studio and I’ve been so aware of other elements, I’ve thought I need to focus on this tempo, or pronouncing these words, or making sure each note is in tune. But if you’re thinking of all those other bits then you’re not really giving a true performance of the song or where my state when I was writing it. For me, it was learning to not try and tick the boxes of everything to make it perfect but almost the opposite. It’s about trying to make everything where it was at when I wrote the song to try and give it that authenticity.
What’s your writing process?
It varies a little bit! My writing style is very sort of heart on my sleeve. Some of my songs have been written literally in hours and others have been months in the making so it does vary quite a lot. Which is different to my recording process because there we get the sort of skeleton of the track and then build it right up.
Do you think you wear your heart on your sleeve in your personal life as well?
With family and friends yeah I think I do. I think these days when I’m in work mode I’m more ready to just get my head down to it! But yeah I think I wear my heart on my sleeve. Hopefully I’m not getting too cynical as I grow up!
Touch wood it’s all going to be received well but what’s one criticism of the album that you would feel is unfair?
You get associated with other people and people are always going to give you comparisons which I’m totally fine with. But I do myself feel like it’s original so if anyone tried to go around saying that I’ve copied someone else I do think I would get annoyed. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and I’m aware of that and you can’t please everyone. If people don’t like it because it’s not their thing then I understand that! Hopefully it will be well received!
What do you think sets you apart from other male singer-songwriters out at the moment such as Ben Howard, Jake Bugg and Ed Sheeran.
My guitar playing style is quite distinct which is hopefully one element. I would like to think that that my style of writing, as it is so honest and about me, that that’s a bit unique! Also just things like the tone of my voice perhaps. I don’t know! I was influenced by a lot of guitar players obviously, people like Newton Faulkner and Eric Roche, because I wanted to play with their sort of fluency but in terms of songwriting I’ve tried to do my own thing. However you’re obviously going to get comparisons if you’re a man with a guitar.
What’s your favourite lyric on the album?
The title line, “a darker place is a room for more light” is probably the most appropriate for the whole album. But there’s a line in the first song, Know About Me, which is “I see you’re treading around a fire I’ve already put out” and I really like that one.
Where was your head at when you wrote that line?
That was confusion over love! With an ex and that sort of thing. A bit more than that though. I’m not a depressed person but when I’ve been more down, I’ve written a lot more but I like giving it an optimistic twist or looking at the silver linings kind of vibe. When I’ve gone through heartbreak obviously I’ve written but even through the loss of some friends a few years back and so in terms of love and loss and that sort of thing I’ve always tried to deal with it fairly head on. It’s about feeling like you don’t need to patronise or figure anything out. So in terms of the fire line, it’s about saying to myself that I’ve already dealt with this, there’s no need to dwell on it.
Speaking of your relationships, are you worried about how people will want to know more about your private life now that you are releasing an album etc.
I don’t really namedrop in my songs or say anything specific so it’s only really people that know me personally that know what I’m writing about in terms of names and faces! I know some people who are doing really well and fame is a strange and fickle beast but if you deal with it correctly and you’re headstrong about it then I think it’s fine. It’s part of being a successful artist I guess and I’m not in search of fame in any way but I am in search of success and if fame comes with it then I’ll deal with it as best as I can.
Q: Do you worry at all that you’ll miss out on any luxuries of your private life now that you are going to be in the eye of the public more?
I don’t know how well it’s going to be received and I don’t know how much my life is really going to change. I love doing music, and it doesn’t even feel like a job and I’m grateful and humble for that. It’s ok with me if fame does come to me and it’s an odd lifestyle but I do want to be able to continue with music.
Do you get homesick on tour?
A little bit. It’s not really homesick as such, it’s just people in my life that I miss. It’s until now that it’s been around the UK though so I can see people fairly regularly and it’s probably much tougher when you’re doing touring around the world and you’re in different countries etc. But it’s the same thing again, it’s just part of the job! I wouldn’t be sticking my nose up at a world tour!
I read before that you’ve definitely wanted to do music for a while and you certainly seem to be aware of the ins and outs of the industry! But what’s something that’s surprised you about it?
I got my first guitar when I was eight but it’s been in the last five years that I’ve actually been a singer-songwriter myself. Before then I was just sort of playing and writing for other people and doing a bit of producing. I hadn’t sung in public before that, that’s a much more recent thing! In terms of what’s surprised me, probably the speed in which everything changes I guess! I’m lucky enough to have some friends who have gone from the underground level that I’m at at the moment to becoming very, very successful. And the speed at which that happens is really surprising! It’s interesting how quickly your life can change and you can be playing the same songs you were playing a year ago but to a much bigger audience. It can be just one catalyst but then it all just snowballs.
You have a headline tour coming up in October. Are you excited for it?
Yeah definitely! We’re doing a bit more for this one. Obviously back in the day it was just me and my guitar but then slowly we had a percussionist and a backing vocalist and on this one there’s going to be a third musician on stage. I’m going to be having some sound and lights and that kind of stuff just to have some more elements in there! There’s going to be new stuff and some old stuff, and some covers so I’m really excited about that.
Do you still get nervous playing live?
A little bit. Not too bad. I think a healthy amount, it would be weird not to because I still really care about it. You never know what you’re up against! But the nerves usually go on stage when I start playing.
What’s the jump like going between supporting people and now headlining
My own headline shows are obviously much smaller but fans are there to see me which is really incredible! They know the lyrics to the songs and they’re singing a long which is great. When touring with really successful artists obviously the size of the venues is really different and the prestigiousness of it all changes. Plus you get the chance to play to as many people as possible and try and win people over.
What’re your tour essentials?
Mine are so basic! My guitar, a toothbrush and some deodorant. That’s about it!
What keeps you entertained on tour?
Still doing music really! A lot of the time I’m just playing around or writing. I don’t have a TV so we might have an iPad on tour and watch a series or something. I’ll go on Twitter or Facebook for fun too.
Is there anything being written at the moment for future projects we can expect to hear?
Yeah, I’m always writing and stuff but not as much at the moment because I can get pretty knackered after the headline shows and promo as well.
Because you’re writing constantly, how do you know when you like a song enough to go ahead and record it?
It kind of just happens naturally! Normally I write a song and get really excited and think, yes is this the one! But then I’ll listen back and realise it wasn’t that great (laughs). But no, I’ll demo anything I like and then listen back and maybe test it out a gig and see the response. You sort of just instinctively know!
The lead single ‘Old Scars’ is out at the moment. What was the inspiration behind the track?
That was a bit of a mix actually. It was a while ago. It was originally intended as a duet for myself and Ed Sheeran but his record label weren’t happy with doing it because he had a few features out at the time but then I rerecorded it without him. In terms of what I wrote it about it was mainly about loss and breaking up with a girl! But then also things picking up in terms of music.
hank you for your time Ryan! To end, what’ve you been listening to this year?
No worries! Thank you dude! I’ve really been enjoying James Blake’s new album. And a guy called Sam Brooks who has done some cool feature vocals with great people and he’s just recorded his album. He’s phenomenal.