“I feel like sometimes I’m a little blunt. I like there to be some sort of mystery to it instead of just being told what it’s about.” ~ Ryan Holweger
Ryan Holweger always wanted to play guitar while growing up in North Dakota. After his first year of college, he finally bought one and taught himself how to play. While living in ND, all he saw were cover bands and it influenced his vision of what playing music was all about, spurring his desire to learn AC/DC rifts and learn rock ‘n’ roll. It wasn’t until moving to the cities that he was exposed to groups who did their own music. It opened his eyes to writing and inspired him to record demos.
“It was something I kind of fell into and had an immediate interest in. I just didn’t realize it was something people really did,” Ryan discloses.
Ryan now spends half of the year living in Thailand. His travels, along with having two kids, limit his time and ability to write music. Because of this, writer’s block is more like a lack of time. When you’re only in a place for half a year, with friends and family wanting to see you when your back, you’ll go a few months without attempting to write. This routine has focused him to make the time he does get with writing to be efficient and productive.
About a year ago his wife encouraged Ryan to get away for a few days to write. Even though it’s inexpensive to travel from Thailand, he chose something closer to home. There are these amazing side streets in Bangkok called “Soi.” They are filled with old Chinese shophouses, bars, and local foodie places. As Ryan shares, they’re the type of places “where you walk by at 10 o’clock and there’s a 75-year-old Chinese guy sitting in his boxers watching TV, bathed in fluorescent light. It’s very weird.”
Above these shops are authentic, really cool homes turned into Airbnbs. Ryan spent a couple days and nights on that street, watching and wandering around. With his window open, he’d take in the activity and movement from below. He didn’t bring a guitar, just a notebook that he filled with observations and lyrics. Getting away from his daily routine inspired him and provided plentiful content to choose from moving forward.
For Ryan, sometimes he can pick up the guitar and write lyrics, chords, and melodies all at once. Other times he can craft the chords and melodies and struggle to find lyrics for years at a time. The best songwriting comes when he has a very specific topic or idea. This focused story gives him something to aim towards and build from quickly.
Although he doesn’t like writing about the same themes, it always seems to happen that way. He calls them, ‘sad bastard type songs,’ the kind of songs that talk about being lonesome, breaking up, and losing something.
For an artist whose favorite influences are storytellers like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt, Ryan wishes he could write more stories. As with watching those side streets in Bangkok, writing now is not about things that are happening to him, it’s more about what sounds good, what phrases flow smoothly, and what interesting ideas he can share.
The history of “Back Roads” begins when Ryan fronted the alt-country band Western Fifth. They used to play it together and had a demo that was slated to be recorded. Unfortunately, the band broke up and it never got recorded. Ryan stopped playing it because he never played it solo acoustic. When putting together a band for “Gunmetal Sky,” the group rewrote some parts and found new life in the song.
“I found you in my heart and you were alone
Been there for sometime, well I suppose”
His bandmate was playing “Crazy,” written by Willie Nelson and covered by Patsy Cline, and Ryan heard this chord standout. He learned the diminished chord and really liked using it. He built a progression for the chorus and used a verse that was written for another song he wrote 6 years before.
“You woke up on the back roads of love
You’re down on the ground, and try to get up, try to get up”
When recording the intro, the producer was reminded of this Mark Knopfler guitar feel. The drummer added their part and changed it into more of a Fleetwood Mac “Tusk” vibe. It was then they felt the need to add horns into the song.
“That time we stayed up all through the night
Just to see the darkness turn into the light
It burns into my heart and into my mind
It’s turned off all the lights and said goodbye”
The song chugs along with textured horns and driven guitar solos. The vibe has an essence of those busy side streets and activity. Like a pathway filled with shops and bars, “Back Roads” is filled with metaphors and ambiguity. It’s a beautiful allotment of sounds and a great song to play while looking out the window.
You Be The Rain
“You Be The Rain” was written for a songwriting night that John Swardson hosted at 7th Street Entry. The theme was “ice” and the show’s format enlisted songwriters to play a song written about that topic. A few days before the gig Ryan was going through voice memos in his phone. A couple chord progressions clicked together. Then a couple lines from his notebook had rain in them. Within an hour the song came together.
“Thin clouds scatter and the cold winds raise
Can’t turn your back on a gunmetal sky”
The visuals in the first verse reminded me of the cover art of “Stand Like A Thief” by Western Fifth. Ryan shares there is a secret connection between the two albums. ‘Stand like a thief’ was a lyric from a song that didn’t make the cut. He rewrote that song for this record, which turned into the chorus of “Brilliant Light.” So the title of the Western Fifth album made it into the chorus of the new album.
“The sad winters mass of ice and snow
Covered the trees like an old winter coat
Cold bright day brings a dark full of stars
Send the ice to hell take the rain to heart”
The verses were written first and are directly influenced by his upbringing. He thought back to the fields and ways the storms would roll in, the way winters weigh on your body and how the enjoyment of the winter wains towards the end.
“You be the day, I’ll be the night
You be the rain, I’ll be the ice”
In listening to Ryan’s music, there is a general theme of layering and collaboration. Ryan confesses, “I have ideas, but part of it is I don’t like my voice and my guitar playing enough to just do a song with those things. I’m lucky enough that people come play on my albums who are way talented, and they take the little direction I give and run with it.”
All the songs start as guitar and drums. A collection of friends and artists then add their touches. The album has pump organ, trumpets, slide guitars, pedal steel, and 7 different guitar players on it. To me, the artwork symbolizes all of these influences with the amount of colors and shading. It takes a team to create art and bring life to ideas.
In discussing how he builds songs, I asked how he knows the song is complete. Ryan looked over and dryly responded, “If you add another part and it no longer makes it better, then you should stop.”
Ryan is releasing a song on 7″ vinyl next month in Bangkok. He’s a firm believer in vinyl and the rarity of finding that limited release in random record stores.