Lindsey Ryan: Reluctant Songstress
By John Schacht
Shortly after releasing her debut The Lindsey Horne Band in 2004, singer/songwriter Lindsey Horne enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College to get a master’s degree in poetry and put her music career aside. She released her follow-up, this year’s gorgeous The Divers, a full eight years later and under the stage alias Lindsey Ryan.
If all that suggests to you that Ryan isn’t super comfortable with the business of music, go to the head of the class. But don’t take it as a knock on her talent. To the contrary, the 10 twangy shuffles and piano-based ballads on The Divers are a far notch above the usual self-released fare, easily calling to mind—sometimes all at once—the music of Emmylou Harris, Kate Bush and Tori Amos. But for a writer who’s used to couching their soul-baring in the metaphor-rich folds of poetry, confessional songwriting means relinquishing the comfort of privacy.
“It’s a bit like letting people go through my drawers, my little private knick-knacks,” the engaging 31-year-old says. “If I do get a poem published, only this small handful of dorks that read poetry are actually going to see it. It’s safer. There’s a lot more pressure in being a musician: You’ve got to have this, and have that, and as a woman you have to look this way and do that. That’s not why I make music.”
But that gulf between songwriting and performing is one Ryan is acutely attuned to; she’s never stopped writing songs, after all. She even makes her living teaching piano and providing written arrangements for a local gospel choir. But a couple of recent events convinced her to venture back on stage and into the studio. At an April 2011 benefit opposing Charlotte’s proposed noise ordinance, Ryan sang a couple of covers with the heretofore instrumental-only act Sea of Cortez. She was asked to join the band on keyboards shortly after and reveled in the creative whirlpool and her side-musician role. Her tenure seemed to re-focus Sea of Cortez, too, but it was cut short with bandleader Rodney Lanier’s sudden death last December.
Still, connections took root. In June of 2011, after hearing a Mike Strauss record he’d produced and played guitar on, Ryan sent ex-Les Dirt Clods founder Randolph Lewis a letter asking for his help with the stockpile of songs she’d accumulated. The two met and chose some thematically similar songs to work up. They exchanged beloved records and artists — Lewis, Jon Phillips and Spirit of Eden-era Talk Talk; Ryan, Pieta Brown and Laura Viers — and began talking about instrumentation and arrangements.
They didn’t always see eye-to-eye, like when Ryan nixed the idea of a full string section on one track. But she learned to trust Lewis’ instincts. For his part, Lewis wanted to take part the moment he heard the richness of Ryan’s material; “the progressions, melody, lyrics, etcetera, (were) excellent,” he says. His task therefore was to make sure the songs took listeners where they wanted them to go emotionally. “It was one of Lindsey’s goals from the beginning to keep the overall landscape of the album sparse, so we were very selective with overdubs,” he says.
What comes through is a warm, intimate palette for Ryan’s minor-key vignettes and striking lyrical imagery, mature-woman themes delivered in her child-like voice. Unlike her debut, Ryan’s debt to the late-90s era of female piano balladeers integrates fully here with guitar, shuffling brushwork, stand-up bass and occasional accents like cello, harmonium, organ and pedal steel.
Though she cites the other musicians’ parts as her favorites, Ryan’s songs are the stars. Classically trained through childhood, you can hear her piano chops just as often in the spaces she leaves for the chords and notes to exhale. And while she’s still artistically conflicted about holding back some “R-rated” material that would’ve made her poetry, she now sees that thematic balance as part of the craft.
“Two years ago all I wanted to do was make music with people I respected, and then that happened,” she says. “So now I guess all I really want is to do that again.” That may not be a resounding music business endorsement, but it beats eight years of silence.