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Interview: Ryan Key

11 February 2022

Photo by Acacia Evans

For nearly 20 years (1999-2017), Ryan Key fronted the Jacksonville, Florida pop-punk band Yellowcard. Upon the band’s mutually-agreed upon breakup, Key began recording solo material in his studio, The Lone Tree Recordings, in Franklin, Tennessee and in 2018 released two EPs, Thirteen and Virtue. With the dream of composing for TV and movies, Key’s solo material reflects that desire, songs are filled with digitally-produced instruments, heavy with synths, full of ebbs and flows and showcase a cinematic quality.

While he hasn’t entirely abandoned social media, for the last few years Key has spent most of his time interacting with fans via his Patreon account. For a tiered-level donation each month (ranging from $3 to $10), fans can join a welcoming community, and gain exclusive access to live streams and Q&A sessions Key puts on every month. As the pandemic raged on in 2020, Key began writing and releasing songs for his patrons with no real intention of ever collecting those songs for an official release. But, when Equal Vision Records came calling, Key sought – and received – approval from his patrons to release the songs that, to that point, only they had heard.

The Everything Except Desire EP hits you in, what the kids call, the “feels”. It’s easy to imagine these songs playing in a pivotal scene on a Netflix or Hulu series which is exactly what Key was going for when he recorded the material nearly two years ago.

From his home just outside of Nashville, Key recently joined me on a Zoom call to discuss the making of the EP, the importance of his community, and where he’d like to see his career go.

Is it all real instruments on the EP or did you create music using a computer?

RYAN: I tend to do a bit of both these days. I’m very much attempting to find myself a career in film scoring and composing. On the EP, you’re hearing equal parts analog synthesizer and also, as we say, in-the-box synthesizers. If you hear a big, boomy, low-end kick drum, that’s an electronic sample kick drum. But, I will play tambourine. I’ll take drum sticks around the room and knock on all kinds of different shit and make organic loops. It’s very much a fusion of both digital production and analog production. It’s obviously not guitar or band driven at all. The electronic elements are very forward. A couple of the songs, I was able to track some real strings and then a couple of them are software strings but I think you’d be challenged to figure out which one is which.

I did a lot of research over the last few years researching sound libraries and plug-ins to build my arsenal of tools to use when I’m scoring and composing. I found a company that does a solo string instrument that is just unparalleled by anyone else. The level of sampling is just insane. I have a cello, viola and violin that I use a lot to build a quartet out of. I’ll just set those up on top of these big, lush synthesizer beds and try to mesmerize you a little bit with the loops and the kick drum beating away.

In general, all of this comes from a very cinematic place for me so while I’m doing both things, creating solo music that is for release to be on records and maybe played at shows, I’m also doing a lot of instrumental scoring and stuff. When I made these songs, I was pretty conscious of doing both at the same time, thinking “I want these songs to ebb and flow and move and be as cinematic as possible because I would love to have these be something else I can show people to say ‘Here’s where I’m at as a producer, as a composer, take the vocals away from this if you want and there you have maybe some soundtrack songs.’” I was pretty conscious of that while recording.

Where these songs originally intended for your own use or was the idea always that you were going to write these songs and present yourself as a solo artist?

RYAN: When the pandemic hit in 2020, I had one tour planned that year that was looking really good for me as far as probably only needing to do the one tour and then be able to be at home working the rest of the year. When I say working, I mean working for free because what I’m doing right now, composing and scoring, I’m just trying to build a reel and start to get gigs. Most everything I’m doing, I’m just doing it to show people. I’m not booking a lot of gigs yet. Can you tell I was in a rock band? I’m calling a movie a gig. But when the pandemic hit, that tour went away, it was a very scary time not knowing what was coming and what would be on the other side of it.

My manager, who is a really dear friend of mine, came up with a scheme to take everything online and create a Patreon page for myself and the fans that have continued to support me in life after Yellowcard. One of the things I offered on the Patreon page was an original composition once a month. I quickly realized that I bit off way more than I could chew. Some people can finish five songs in a week, but I found myself at the end of every month just thinking, “How am I going to finish this by tomorrow?” I got through four songs and those are the four songs that are on the EP that have vocals. I delivered those from July through October to patrons, a community that is so supportive and amazing. I said, “This is exclusive content in that literally no one else has it, nothing’s going on with it.” But, you can have a very open dialog through these online communities. What I’ve been able to build, and the relationships I’m building with fans, it’s just like nothing I’ve ever had in my life before and I’m really grateful for it. You can just say, “How would you guys feel if I released this later?” And, you instantly feel this overwhelming support. “Do it, of course. When does the vinyl go on sale?” When I was afraid that people were going to be bummed that it wouldn’t be exclusive any more, the biggest response I got was not that at all, it was “When can I get vinyl?”

Here we are, a year-and-a-half later, and we decided to think about putting them out. Equal Vision Records came to the table, which is a record company that I’ve been listening to bands from since I was 16 years old. It’s an honor to be working with them. I haven’t put out any music on a record label until now of my own. The first two EPs I did were just on my own, I just put them up online and let them rip. We did make this vinyl and it basically sold out in a week. It’s been crazy. I use those four songs from Patreon, that’s how they came to be. That’s what’s been so cool about taking everything online. It does financially support me, and people seem to be really excited to help in that way, so I can be creating music as opposed to being paid to make the music. I’m just not there yet and I’m okay with that. I know that I have a big mountain to climb until the day where I can say, “I’m a full-time film and television composer.” That’s where I’d like to be some day and these fans and the support they’re giving me, they are helping me get up that mountain and it’s amazing.

You recorded those four songs in 2020 and shared with your patrons. Did you do anything to them in 2021 or are the four songs that people are going to hear the same four that you shared two years ago?

RYAN: They are the same songs that Patreon heard. For six months in 2021, I was off Patreon and working on Twitch for a while. I sort of signed with Twitch for six months, to be live streaming from the studio. And one of the pieces I created through those live streams was the opening track, “The Swim Back,” which is the instrumental opening, so no one had heard that. My time with Twitch came to an end and I’m back up and running on Patreon now. Those songs that everyone is hearing on the record, other than sort of the sequencing and how they go in and out of each other, they’re the same recordings and masters that patrons got.

If they were done in 2020, why did it take a year-and-a-half to put them out?

RYAN: There was no plan to release the songs, they were exclusive to Patreon. I only said to the patrons, “If I ever wanted to put them out, would that be okay?” We have a certain level of exclusivity which is what makes Patreon cool. I would actually be pressed to tell you the story of how that conversation even happened between my manager and me. Some time in the middle of last year, we started talking with Equal Vision Records and got a plan to put it out and here we are.

Was there any point where you thought maybe you should add five more songs and do a 10-song album?

RYAN: I think having them done, and they were all written at the same time, is more of the defining thing about why it stayed as an EP other than the instrumental track. I just had a concept in my mind of doing something like that, of opening the record with a stamp that was like, “Hey, this might not be what you signed up for.” I wanted to do that with the opening track.

I thinking digging in to write more songs to attach to those year-and-a-half removed songs, when it comes to writing lyrics and an album, I’ve always written for that album. I don’t demo a lot, I don’t write when I’m out-of-cycle very much. When it comes time to make an album, I dig in and I write. Yellowcard songs came from us collectively, on every record, from one session so I think they feel very cohesive. For me, being the lyricist in the band, they definitely feel like whatever is happening at that point in my life, I’m focused on digging all of that up and writing about it and then washing my hands of it and moving on. With the amount of instrumental composition I’m doing now, it’s a totally different thing. I’m recording all the time, I’m in the studio every day, not even with projects to work on. I just make tracks to have to be able to show people and send out. If a friend says, “Hey, there’s this commercial or this thing and they’re looking for something that sounds like this,” I want to have that in the bank. I’m just demoing and making stuff all the time.

The EP, while the music bed is very much in the vein of what I’m doing all the time, it has lyrics. I was very much focused and in a place when I was writing those lyrics. I was focused on a pretty specific event in my life. I don’t think it crossed my mind to either continue to keep that can open and write about it more, I think I said what I wanted to say and shed the weight of it through writing those four songs.

All that said, doing a full length album is certainly on the table, it’s just a matter of when it makes sense to do it. I’m working on so much stuff right now to try to open these doors to get into scoring that taking the time to do release solo music is a good problem to have. Which thing do I record today?

It’s better to write four or five really good songs and release them as an EP than to write four or five really good songs and then some filler material just to release a 10-song full length.

RYAN: Content is king. I saw something really cool, I don’t go on the ‘Gram very much these days but someone screenshot a Twitter thread talking about exactly what we’re talking about. This isn’t necessarily the way music is supposed to be created and consumed, to have a new record out every two weeks. At some point, there’s validity in a fear that we’re living in this great decline of music and art in general because you can’t take any time to create any more. You have to continue to pump out content. I don’t care how talented you are, at some point you can’t be making the best record you’ve ever made four times a year. That’s the direction it seems to be going.

With what I’m doing, the EP is nice. I can put one out every year, year-and-a-half, it still feels like a record because you can do lots of cool things around it. You get to do press and talk about where you’re at in your life and your musical journey. Where I’m at musically, my songs are six-minutes long now, they’re not three-minute pop songs. They are six-minute ambient journeys. That fills out a full vinyl record. Even though it’s a 5-song EP, I can make a single vinyl album. It’s a lot most cost effective from a business standpoint than having to press a double vinyl. At the level where I am as a musician and the fan base that I have, it would definitely be more of a gamble to spend the money on a full length album and a double vinyl pressing. What if they didn’t sell? Vinyl’s really expensive. All three of the EPs that I’ve put out, the vinyl has just done amazing. That’s really encouraging.

I don’t care about Spotify, that’s not a metric I’m going to use to measure my success or happiness because I know that I’m putting these records on vinyl and people are snatching them up. If that’s my avenue, then great, I’ll take it. If a big success on a streaming platform is not going to be my avenue, that’s fine. It’s cool to talk about physical media because it’s been such a part of keeping me afloat.

“The Swim Back” is a different sound than your fans might be used to, because it sounds different than stuff you did when you were younger and you’re not singing on it. It’s a great way to introduce an album. Not only that, but it’s good advertising for the composing that you can do.

RYAN: It’s cool to hear you say you recognize and hear that because any piece of music I can make right now that’s a calling card that can get me closer to scoring and composing, that’s my focus. I wanted every aspect of this thing to have that big, sweeping, cinematic feel to it. Opening with a very heavy, string-driven, neo-classical electronic piece, people are looking for that right now. Every track I get to do, I’m learning a little bit more.

Have you gotten any nibbles from anyone about using your music for movies or TV?

RYAN: I have, actually, The lead guitar player in Yellowcard, Ryan Mendez, he and I have remained extremely close since the band broke up. I would consider him my writing partner. He mixes all of my stuff, we work together on music all the time. We have a project that I think, for a while, we were calling a side project after the band broke up, it was just natural to call anything that wasn’t Yellowcard a side project, but it’s not. It’s our project. We have a fully electronic instrumental project called Jedha that we’ve been working on for 5 years. We just finished a full-length album, similar to “The Swim Back,” but a bit more involved. It’s a bit of a bigger thing. The genre we’d fall in is called “experimental EDM.” We use a lot of strings and piano but it’s got that dance beat. The stuff we’re doing with the bass and synths, it’s a lot more intense and more elevated than “The Swim Back” which is this nice, chill introductory piece. I certainly took inspiration from everything I’ve been doing with Jedha and Ryan for my own record. Ryan and I scored our first independent film in the summer of 2020 for a friend of mine that wrote and directed the film and we just hooked up. The Yellowcard card played as far as the director was a fan. We got our first shot at scoring a film. It was really good practice for us and we had a blast doing that.

You started working on the songs on the EP during the pandemic. Are the lyric directly, or indirectly, reflective of that?

RYAN: I’m a very momentary writer. I certainly don’t have a journal full of lyrics that I whip out when it’s time to make a record or a song. These days, more than ever, I tend to create the entire bed of music before I write a lyric or a melody. I was creating these tracks with that composer mindset, to have that bed of music feel the way I wanted it to feel and have the rise and fall, the ebb and flow you’d put to picture, just practicing. And then I went back and wrote the lyrics and I found myself, as I tend to do – and Yellowcard was similar, we would demo a lot of music before I would write any lyrics – so, in that way, often the music dictates what I’m writing. Does it feel more uplifting? Does it feel more heartbreaking? The music will determine where I’m heading lyrically and melodically. With these songs, it was a playground of music. I was done with tracks and I was like, “I just want to put this out like this, just the music.” It was really easy to write the lyrics, the music really inspired me. You can hear a lot of production I did on the vocals, it’s pretty involved and I tried a lot of different things. There’s a lot of huge, stacked harmony going on across the entire EP using reverb and delay in new and unique ways. No parents, no rules. It’s the one thing about not having a band, you can do whatever you want.