by Sally McGraw
Singer-songwriters are understated exhibitionists. They are driven to write and perform music as a way to purge themselves of experiences too painful or complex to examine in the mundane light of daily life. They may do it under the guise of high art, or with political undercurrents, or even in a state of utter ignorance—but make no mistake, they all do it.
Local up-and-comer Ryan Lee is no exception to this rule. His contemplative, narrative-driven lyrics speak of intense emotions and scarring experiences. His earnest, expressive vocal delivery draws you into the jagged landscape of his imagination, and his undulating melodies suspend you there.
Download an mp3 of Ryan Lee’s song Unconditional.
But Lee has other goals besides baring his soul to the listening masses. With
former Domo Sound bassist Matthew Freed and drum whiz Eric Smith backing him
up, he’s working to subtly shift the expectations of Twin Cities music
trying to offer some different things in our live shows,” Lee explains.
“We did a gig a few weeks back that included a fashion show. We’re
trying to mix in some different elements, offer something to potential audience
members besides,‘Come see three bands!’ Because no matter how good
those bands might be, it’s still just three bands playing a club. We’re
trying to do some visual stuff, some lighting stuff—to make it a different
Lee’s new album, The Pride Before the Fall, is also a bit of a
departure from the typical local fare. Sure, there are guitars and keyboards
and infectious beats, but you couldn’t quite call it rock. And the band
members realize this sometimes translates to black-sheep status for their group.
“Minneapolis-St. Paul is very much a rock and roll town,” Freed
says. “That’s the predominant sound here. And we don’t really
fit into that too well. We’re not a guitar-based rock band at all. We’ve
played shows where people just look at us as if they’re thinking, ‘What
IS this?’ So that’s a hurdle for us.”
But it’s a risk they’re willing to take, an envelope they’re
willing to push. Armed with their cheerful sarcasm, boundless ambition and an
arsenal of gear that would put Moby to shame, Lee, Freed and Smith are preparing
to invade the Cities with their freshly hatched musical experiment.
The Pride Before the Fall sprinkles well-chosen samples and programmed
beats atop an ambitious collection of songs that veer from pop to rock to folk
and back again. Some of modern rock’s bravest innovators lurk below the
surface of this album. Neil Finn looms large in the loyalty-themed lyrics, circular
acoustic riffs and soaring vocal melodies of “Unconditional.” Lou
Barlow prowls through the vocal doubling and melancholy glockenspiel of “What’s
Worse.” A young Thom Yorke haunts the rough-hewn distortion and sparse
arrangement of “Too Little Too Late.”
But Lee’s lyrical technique sets him apart from his influences. He shuns
the norms of meter and rhyme in favor of lucid narrative honesty, a technique
that makes some tracks seem more like stories set to music than plain, old,
run-of-the-mill songs. He examines traditional themes of love and loneliness
articulately and contemplatively, then tackles parental conflict, the drug addiction
of a loved-one, and his experience being mugged on a beach in Brazil with equal
And the album is adventurous, brave and pleasingly diverse. Tracks like the
semi-industrial, East Indian-influenced “I Pretend” are bound to
bouncy pop numbers like “Aftermath” by Lee’s fearless, passionate
vocals. And although that link can wear thin at times, the album is remarkably
cohesive for such a varied group of songs.
A self-taught guitarist since his teens, 28-year-old Lee is a relative newcomer
to songwriting. He moved to Minneapolis in 1994 to attend college and try his
hand at acting. When those plans unraveled, he moved back home to Janesville,
Wisc., to get himself sorted out. In an attempt to remedy his frustration and
boredom, he started experimenting with songwriting in his parents’ basement.
When he returned to the Cities in 2000, it was with a new dream in tow.
Lee and Freed were acquaintances during college, but didn’t begin their
musical collaboration until years after graduation. While Freed was still with
Domo Sound, Lee was honing his chops in a duo called Decibel. Since they crossed
paths often at local shows, Lee made sure to give Freed a 4-song EP he’d
cut with Decibel. It wasn’t until a year later—after Domo Sound
had called it quits—that Freed gave it a careful listen and recognized
Lee’s raw talent. Soon after, the two musicians were experimenting, rehearsing
“It took a little bit of trying this out, trying that out,” Freed
explains. “We did a couple of shows with just the two of us. Then we started
working on the album. We basically realized that we needed to come up with a
good album before we could really do much with what we had.”
Lee and Freed spent a little over two years hammering away at this album, much
of it recorded and mixed on rented equipment in an overheated Dinkytown house.
Another year was dedicated to mixing, mastering and adding layers. Although
many samples were taken from canned computer sound files, the duo did a little
“One time we took a big pipe wrench down in the basement of the house
in Dinkytown and hit it against the pipes. We were looking for a kind of metallic,
clanking sound. Ryan was down there banging on pipes till we found the right
Smith (a professional acquaintance of Freed) was a latecomer, adding drum tracks
after most of the album was already complete. “I was doing a jazz gig
for an arts benefit. I made a big impression on Matt,” Smith drawls, grinning.
“He heard the killer drums on ‘Autumn Leaves’ and he said,
‘I have to have that.’”
With Smith’s contribution folded deftly into the mix, a highly textured,
boundary-pushing album was born. The band is confident that—despite the
occasional naysayer—they will soon secure a core audience here in the
Twin Cities. And they hope to build upon that fan base by touring regionally
and, eventually, nationally.
“We feel like we’re doing something that will resonate well with
people,” Smith says. “We want people to check it out.”
Ryan Lee is still a relative unknown. You may not have heard of him yet, but
make no bones about it: you will. He’s come a long way from tinkering
with nascent songs in his parents’ Janesville basement. And he has a long
way to go yet.
think when you start out writing, you think that for a song to be really well-written,
it’s got to come really quickly. But the longer I’ve been writing
the more I love to really get IN the songs, to take as much time as possible,”
Lee says. “I try to rethink every line—not to make sure it’s
completely perfect, but to make sure it’s the best way possible to say
Ryan Lee plays the CD release party for After the Fall on Sat.
Mar. 12 at the Bryant Lake Bowl with Matt Marka. 9:30 p.m. All Ages. $8 adv/
$10 door. 810 West Lae Street, Mpls. 612-825-8949.
Find out more about Ryan Lee on his official website at RyanLeeMusic.net.
Download an mp3 of Ryan Lee’s song Unconditional.