I met Kelley Ryan on the Orient Express. In her red Converse sneakers and tight black jeans, she was a standout amid the sea of sequins and jewels. I knew we were going to be friends. After the trip, she sent me Sugar Beat, a CD she recorded under the name astroPuppees. I loved her sly, sassy lyrics and oboe-like alto. I immediately bought Little Chick Tsunami, and put both records on heavy rotation on my iPod. Now, at 51, Kelley’s releasing her first solo album, Twist, and I’ve got to tell you, I’m in awe. She wrote all the songs but one – music and lyrics.
I write for a living. But compared to Kelley, what I do is the easy stuff. I get thousands of words to play with. If she’s lucky, she gets a mere hundred for a song. Nobody asks me to perform in public, and I’ll never hear somebody belt out my words at a karaoke bar.
I wondered how Kelley discovered her talent, how she nurtured it, how she found the confidence to perform. There are lots of us out there with a melody running through our brain and no idea how to make the music happen, so I asked Kelley to enlighten us.
Did you always know you’d be a songwriter?
My father was a DJ in a little town in Oregon. He’d bring home records. I remember one time he gave me the Rolling Stones album, Let It Bleed. I was a kid so I was more interested in the cake on the cover than the music inside. I got a guitar from Sears when I was 11 and took a couple of lessons. I still have that guitar. In fact, I have every guitar I’ve ever owned.
Which came first? Songwriter or singer?
It all happened together. I was 12 when I wrote my first song, called “Come Fly With Me.” I played it for my mom, so proud of myself. She said, “Honey that’s really good but just remember: never be a showoff.” That stuck with me. Showing off is great if you’re a performer. Even then my mom knew I couldn’t handle the pressure of the limelight. I’m much better suited to hiding in a studio, writing. As soon as you finish a song – bang! — you have to open yourself to criticism and rejection. Good for the character, horrible for the ego. Please other people? Impossible. Please yourself? Possible. In a world full of judges, honesty is your armor.
When did you start earning money with your songs?
My dad bought a little radio station, and when he sold ads to businesses in town – restaurant, car dealer, bank — he’d promise them a jingle, never saying the writer was his daughter. That was the first time I earned anything from songwriting — my Dad bought me a Martin D-35 acoustic guitar.
What made you do your first solo record at midlife?
This one was going to be astroPuppees too, but it wound up being more personal. Every song on Twist is about a girl, or written from a girlie girl perspective (There’s a song-by-song breakdown of how I wrote them on kelleyryan.net.). Twist is about women I have known and loved throughout my life, who have inspired me simply by their beautiful existence. My records have always reflected my personal voice, but this time it’s especially strong. It made sense not to hide behind an aka.
At 51, finally I feel confident enough not to care if anyone sees my imperfections. I celebrate the little “mistakes,” the very things that make people beautiful.
Feels great to shed my astroPuppees skin and say, “Hey, it’s me!
What’s the creative process?
I listen to music all the time. I live with the human juke box; my husband Dan has always got music on. I call him WDAN. And I’m constantly writing songs. Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes the melody. I have napkins and scraps of paper everywhere with lyrics on them. 99 out of a 100 times it’s so stupid, but every once in a while it leads to a song.