By Nicole Hanratty
May 9, 2013
There are a lot of things people know about the Double Platinum recording artist Ryan Cabrera. He writes amazing love songs. Long spiked hair is his signature look. He’s got loads of tattoos, including a recent Ryan Gosling tattoo on his leg á la a game of tattoo roulette that has garnered a great deal of press. His song “On the Way Down”–often mistakenly called “All The Way Down” a phrase which he had tattooed on his behind in jest–was a smash pop hit. He likes to have fun and he’s been known to pull a prank or two on tour.
Interview after interview I listened to of the artist were replete with questions like “Do college girls really throw themselves at you?” and “Do women really wait for you naked in venue bathrooms?” (The corresponding answers from Ryan being “yes” and “yes.”) But what seemed to be missing everywhere I looked was an explanation as to what makes this fun-loving rock star go so deep and pull such impassioned prose into his music. Was it just to get more girls? I thought not and was determined to get to the heart of the notably charitable Ryan Cabrera and pull him down deep into the rabbit hole with me to see which puzzles we could solve and hopefully catch a glimpse of the “little boy on a city street running scared on blistered feet” who sings, “I See Love.”
Ryan was en route to a show in Canada when we spoke via telephone albeit a spotty at best connection. We chatted about his high energy “superhuman” dog Penny Lane–obviously a Beatles fan he said since she’s a Cabrera–how he handles 4:30 AM wake up calls, and what makes him a better person.
Ryan Cabrera writes music that falls under categories like reflective, searching, and romantic yet by all accounts the singer songwriter has a frolicsome personality. Right out of the gate, I asked Ryan if he could explain this juxtaposition. “Yeah, it’s kind of funny…because we’re just fun, me and my group of friends,” he replied. “We just like to have a good time and laugh and we don’t take ourselves too seriously together. But when it comes to the music, obviously at heart, I’m a singer/songwriter. I write about real things and a lot about stuff that just… it sounds very serious and it really is, deep down. As a writer, you write about stuff, you know? It’s not everyday things that go on in your life but they do happen. That’s pretty much what I write about. Overall, it’s funny to write a record like “The Moon Under Water” record; it’s really dark. It’s a darker tone record when in day-to-day life we’re just tossing at it and just enjoying things. That’s probably why I’m happy and loving life is because I can get it out in ink. Because I get to write stuff out so if something happens, I’ll write it out and then I move on to the next.”
For all the love songs Ryan Cabrera sings, he’s never done a duet with a girl and I found that to be so striking, I asked him if he had and I’d missed it somewhere. “Not necessarily. There is a couple girls on this new record though, but not necessarily duets, but more background parts,” Ryan said. “I’ve never really done a duet before other than me and Josh Kelley.” (Kelley is the country singer songwriter married to Katherine Heigl.) “We did a song together, but actually thinking about it, there’s a new song that I’m going to do in Boston where I’m going to have a girl come up and sing with me. It’s going to be the new song called ‘I See Love.’ Just for fun, I’m going to have this girl who I’m a fan of come up and sing with me.”
For a Dallas, Texas born boy the answer to my next question surprised me a bit. I asked Ryan if he has a favorite venue, one where he just feels at home when he’s on that stage. “There’s a couple different ones,” he replied. “But I would say probably my favorite place would be the House of Blues in Chicago. Just because, one, I love Chicago, and two, I think it’s the most beautiful House of Blues. I love the vibe of the backstage of pretty much every House of Blues, but that one in particular because they have opera boxes, which are really cool, and there’s like four different stories of opera boxes. Also Chicago’s such a good music town, they love music even throughout. There’s certain cities where they go in phases where they love going to concerts and then they’d rather sit at home and listen to a CD and then they get into it and they want to go to shows again. Chicago’s always been a city where, no matter what, whenever we play, they just want to hear a good show and they’re fun and they’re energetic and everybody lets loose.”
Ryan went on explaining, “The fun part about playing a show is not, for at least that hour-and-a-half or whatever that you’re there, not worrying about work, not worrying about where you are other than just being there. That’s hard I think for some types of people because they’re there and then they get home and they’re like, ‘Oh my god that was so much fun,’ but they didn’t show it when they were there. I always remember that town as everyone just being like, ‘I’m just having a good time at this concert, I don’t care about anything that’s going on in my life. This is just going to be fun.’ …There’s obviously a lot of cities where people are like that; Jersey is another great place to play. There’s a lot of cities in Jersey where people do that, Boston’s a great town to play, they love music still. I remember cities, it’s not even so much about the venues, just really about the people that are there …Visually, I would say the House of Blues in Chicago is my favorite. Also the Norva in Norfolk, Virginia.”
“I think I heard somewhere that you’re a painter, is that right?” I asked. “Yeah I am. Not necessarily, but I do paint. Yeah, I enjoy it,” he admitted. “Okay,” I asked. “So if I were completely deaf, couldn’t hear a thing, what would you paint to show me what your music sounds like?” “Ooooh,” he paused, “you know what I would paint? I would paint the cover, have you seen the cover of “I See Love?” I told him I had. “Like the blue sky in a very fabricated way with the heart and the fields. There’s just so much life in that picture, I love that, that would be what I would paint I would say. At the end of the day, even when I write a dark song, I like to showcase the beauty in that darkness and whatever it is, even if it’s a sad mournful song there’s a time to feel that way and at least you’re feeling something so in that picture I think there’s a lot because of it.” Ryan added that he gave his friend the concept for the “I See Love” cover and fell in love with what was created the instant he saw it.
“If you look back at what got you to where you are today,” I asked him, “which three things, most significant things in your life would you say, must happen, in your life’s timeline to get you where you are today?”
“First would be, number one would be playing every show, or any place, or any, to any person that I could. I think that’s the most important part is play, play, play, play, play, get experience and do anything,” he shared. “Because when I was getting started, we didn’t really have the internet or you couldn’t post a video and then somebody would just find you via that, you were playing. That’s one of the things that I think a lot of people nowadays are going to miss out on is that they feel like they can just sit at home and record a bunch of videos and that’s how they get discovered, which could be true, but then they don’t have experience of what it’s like to go out and play.
Luckily I came from a time where you couldn’t be lazy. If you wanted to get discovered, you had to play. I was playing in Mexican food restaurants, I was playing in frat houses, I was knocking on doors of sororities asking them if I could play in the living room, I was playing for anybody that would listen. That experience set up the ground work for our whole career and the way we go about things. I think that’s really important is to just play as much as you can in very single gig and continuing to get better and challenge yourself.
Number two I think would be obviously the show. Because I played so many shows, at some point Joe Simpson heard me play, or somebody told him, ‘I just saw this guy play and you need to come see him.’ He flew to Dallas, saw me play, I was doing a show at the Hard Rock and that night he said, ‘You’re moving to LA and you’re going to come live with me and the family and you’re moving in my house and I’m going to get you going.’ Literally the next week I was on my way to Los Angeles and I moved in with this family that I didn’t know and then all of a sudden we became a family over there. He’s number two.
I think number three and probably the moment I got signed obviously would be a pretty important moment, but it took a long time. It took, I sang in probably over 50 offices, just me and a guitar for record label people and it took 49 ‘No’s’ until I finally got the 50th ‘Yes.’ So it was a lot of work but it was also a learning experience. You need to hear a lot of ‘No’s.’ If it comes too easy, I think you’re losing out on a big lesson that you need to learn. Especially in this business because it’s such a fickle weird business where a lot of people take things personally when it’s not personal and has nothing to do with your music so if you lose sight of why you’re doing it, you can fall really fast and just be one of those people that maybe could’ve done something but just got discouraged because of something. I learned really quickly to get a lot of tough skin by hearing a lot of ‘No’s.’ Then finally after even a label that told me no in the first place eventually was like, ‘Oh no we love you, we want to sign you.’ So it worked out.”
“The journey’s really important,” I commented taking in all that he just shared which was years of grueling hard work and rejection wrapped up in such a positive outlook. “Yeah of course,” Ryan agreed and hit me with a line that redefined for me a whole new level of gratitude. “It was hard at the time but it was great, looking at it, it was perfect.” The singer songwriter had grabbed onto my hand and jumped down the rabbit hole with me. Ryan Cabrera was looking square in the eye at the craziness he was forced to navigate to succeed in the music industry and finding perfection.
“We all fall a little bit along the way. You talk about that a little bit in “On The Way Down,” falling and grabbing on. I’m wondering when you feel yourself falling and the weight of the world is on you, what or who do you hold onto?” I asked and the question hung in the air for a moment. “I really just, just songwriting in general is something to hold onto. Just being able to write. The ability to express yourself and be creative is really, at the end of the day, for me, what I have. It’s my favorite thing to do. I try not to overdo it. I’m not one of those people that’s writing at every moment and everything I think about, but when I do do it, I sit down and I love it. Each song is kind of like a baby for me. So, that would be the main thing that I hold onto,” said Ryan.
I pushed a little bit further. “One of the lyrics in there that really stands out to me is where you ask, ‘Have you always been inside of me waiting to breathe?’ I know in particular that’s somewhat of a love song but I think in general as a creative person there is so much inside left to create and waiting to breathe and I’m wondering what you think is still inside of Ryan waiting to breathe and come alive?” His answer was earnest which triggered a connection to adjectives that describe his music. “Well it’s just what’s left as far as experience. I know that the more experience that I have, the better my writing is. Because when I was writing about relationships when I was 19 years old, I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. It was what I felt, but then I learned certain lessons about that. There’s always more to write now. To me I’m still young, so I know I still have a lot more to learn and my writing’s going to get better and there’s always going to be a learning process and that comes with experience. Hopefully I have a lot more experiences to come and I can write about them and help people in that way.”
Who does Ryan Cabrera think makes him a better person? “I would say my friends,” he answered. “I’ve been really good at picking good people to be around and all of us in turn teach other and everybody’s helped keep us in a good place. It’s very easy, especially in Los Angeles where we live, to surround yourself with people that you know to be like covert and try to be down and look at things in a negative way. Our group of friends is such positive good people no matter what we do, we all do different professions and different jobs but everybody’s just really awesome. I’ve been really good at being around creative people who have helped me along the way and I do the same for them. I’m really lucky but I don’t really consider it too much luck because a lot of people choose to be around negative people or people that turn down and don’t help them out. I’ve just done a good job at making sure there’s people around me that are awesome. It’s an important part, because we are all pretty much a reflection of each other.”
Ryan has recently lent his support to emerging artist Keaton Simons, tweeting out links to the artist’s first album “Beautiful Pain” just released and inviting Simons to join him out on tour for a few dates this summer. “I love him, he’s amazing,” Ryan said. I asked Ryan to share a memory of an artist whom supported him when he was just getting started. “Well, obviously that would be Johnny Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls) who did it all,” said Ryan. “He produced the first record but he was kind of the first person who I looked up to, he was a hero of mine and that was just a dream, not like a reality that I would ever work with him. When I mentioned that I wanted to, it was kind of in a joking fashion and then next thing you know I’m at his house and next thing I know we’re writing a song together and then we’re writing two songs together and then he’s producing the whole record.
That was kind of a whirlwind for me but he was kind of the first person to really, really support and he didn’t have to do it. He was on tour with Third Eye Blind at the time but he stopped and we took a month, we made the whole record in one month. That was pretty crazy so he was kind of the first person to support, support. This was before, he had no reason. I didn’t have notoriety or anything, he loved the project, he loved the idea and he believed in it. It was the first record he ever produced so I was pretty proud of that and a little bit in awe of the whole thing. It was nuts and there’s a lot of stories in there of how that went down. It was nuts.”
As Ryan talked about the cover and the artwork that juxtaposes a bright blue sky with a looming storm over fields of wheat, friends who make him better, seeing the benefits of being told ‘no,’ appreciating help from mentors, and using his music to help others, I found the explanation for which I was looking. Ryan’s lighthearted personality flourishes despite the bit of darkness inside that breathes out though his music because he can see love. Ryan Cabrera has put in the hard work–is still working hard–and is ready for the next battle with a strong army of friends by his side.
“4:30 AM,” I say to Ryan before our call ends. “It could be an hour for rock stars where you’re still up or it can be an hour where you’ve got to get up to get on the road or do a radio spot or something. What does 4:30AM mean for you? Are you still up or getting up?” His answer made me laugh. “Both,” he said. “Because if it’s a 4:30 wake up, I usually just ride it out normally to get on a flight. If that’s the case I stay up because then I know that I’ll sleep the flight, the only way I’m going to sleep the flight is if I stay up. I’m not a good sleeper, I don’t sleep very well. If I go to bed, I usually go to bed around 1:00 or 2:00. If I go to bed at 2:00, I’m not going to sleep at all anyway. I just stay up, hang out. If it’s for radio I try to sleep, but I don’t. At least lying down kind of rests my voice a little bit. So 4:30, I ride it out and hopefully make the flight. I would give myself a 65% chance that I’m going to make the flight. That’s probably a realistic number. I’ve missed a number. You can’t count on ten people’s hands how many flights I’ve missed. 4:30 means missed flight or let’s hope I get on the plane because I’m probably still drunk…” And just like that up out of the rabbit hole we climbed from where “earnest” “reflective” and “romantic” Ryan writes music back up to the surface where there is a 100% chance of having fun.
RYAN CABRERA ON THE WEB
RYAN CABRERA & CHARITY
Ryan Cabrera does a tremendous amount of charity work, helping to support music education in schools and raising money to help save music departments. Ryan holds a charity concert online called “Live from Ryan’s Living Room” about once a month in which he gathers six or seven of his celebrity and musician friends to air a live jam session with uncut and rare footage of impromtu collaborations. The living room concerts raise money for different charities each month. Past charities have included Habitat for Humanity and the Michael J. Fox Foundation as well as multiple music-oriented charities.