Catch up with singer-songwriter Ryan Chernin and watch the video for single "Ashtray Kisses" off his forthcoming debut EP, You Know Who You Are, due out January 13th.
What first got you interested in music and in songwriting?
Ryan: Music has always been a part of my life since I was a little kid. It was always something that was just there around me, I guess because my parents had a pretty good appreciation for it. Although, they were older parents - like my dad's in his 70s and my mom's in her late 60s - so the music they listened to was, for my mom, she was more into The Beatles and hippie stuff and my dad was into Jay & The Americans and Dion & The Belmonts and a lot of very melodic, early rock and roll, so that's the stuff that I was raised on. When it came to songwriting, I've always been writing and I was always interested in writing, as well. In fact [laughs] there was a period in college where I thought I was going to be a writer; there was a period in my life where I thought I was going to do everything, I was like, "oh yeah that's interesting too and that's cool, I'll do that and I'll just be a Renaissance man and I'll make movies and do everything myself" [laughs], that insane energy that you have when you're in college and realize how many cool things are out there. When it came to songwriting it just made sense at the point in my life where I was at, where I was starting to record a lot more music - mostly covers of all the songs I grew up with and was still listening to, fairly obsessively - so when I sat down to write this stuff, I think it just naturally tended towards being in those genres that I was always influenced by; but it wasn't really a conscious thing where I decided to sit down, it wasn't like I all of a sudden had this spirit speak to me on a mountain and I decided that I had this all important message I had to share with the world, I just started writing about things that I knew, things that had happened to me through this musical lens of this early melodic rock and roll that I'd always been in love with [laughs].
Do you remember the first song you wrote that you were happy with?
Yeah, it's kind of hard to say. It was weird because I wrote all these songs that are going to be on the EP kind of in one sitting. Like I said, I'd been recording a lot of covers and that's what I had been sending out to people when I eventually linked up with the producers that I'm working with currently. So [laughs] I actually kind of met with them and they were like, "hey, we really like your sound, you've written songs before so come in and sit down with us and show us what you've written and we'll see if there's anything we can do here with your original material and, if not, we can write stuff together". So I was like, "oh yeah, I've totally written songs before" never having written a song in its entirety before in my life, just messing around on the piano and writing short stories and poems and stuff like that. Individually, those two worlds existed but I'd never written a song. [Laughs] so I sat down in one week in my parents basement and just banged out all these songs based on the past 6 months of my life and this relationship I had just gotten out of. When I brought them before John and Mike and Rob, I wasn't entirely confident that any of them were good [laughs] it was just all new to me. I knew that I'd worked hard on them and they sounded good to me and I got my message across, I felt, but I wasn't sure: it's hard to be proud of anything when you're a fledgling in a field, because you know that you can do so much more with the proper work and time put in and I'm only now being afforded that opportunity to do that. I would say not until a few months ago, I'd written a new song that's actually going to be on the EP and it was one of those things where we'd finished most of the EP and then said, "oh, but we've got to put this one on too," [laughs] and we're in a mad dash now to get it done. It wasn't until a few months ago, this song called "The Song Song". I had just met this girl and, as a hopeless romantic in his 20s, I had all these feelings about but couldn't really make sense of them early on and I was like I know I want to write a song about you because you're really cool but I met you maybe twice so I don't know anything about you and I don't know what to write about, so I'm going to write a song about writing a song about you. That one, musically, I felt like it really came together, it's the most pop-y, modern one and I had a lot of fun writing those lyrics and I remember being really proud to show that song to everybody once I finished the demo with it at home.
Which musicians have you been influenced by?
When I was younger I didn't really listen to anybody current at all [laughs]. Like I would say, after 1980, there's a big blank space. So of course the first musicians that I was introduced to - as most people were - were the Beatles; the first album that I listened to extensively was Yellow Submarine. [Laughs] Eventually I became so obsessed with John Lennon's solo career that I was called a few derogatory terms in school [laughs] you know, the f-word, and it was attached to John Lennon and it was a funny thing but not so funny at all at the time - in hindsight funny, because it shows how much I was into all that Beatles culture. Then I had this shop teacher who introduced me to Frank Zappa so that's where I learned that music and comedy could go together but still be music and still be respectable. I love bands like Flight of the Conchords and Tenacious D but [laughs] I had a hard time just listening to them; because their songs are so good but their lyrics are so goddamn funny that you can't really focus on how great the music is at times. Frank Zappa really toed the line well where he's just this absurdist and his band, The Mothers of Invention, are just such a great rock and roll/funk influenced band on their own right that that was a band I got into for a long time. Harry Nilsson, was a huge influence, he's kind of a little known New York folk artist and he did Beatles-y songs. In fact, early into the New York years of John Lennon's post-Beatles existence, he became best friends with this guy and they were big fans of each other without knowing that the other person respected them as well and then this phone call happened where the Beatles called up Harry Nilsson and they were like "hey man, we really dig your work," and he was just blown away and then the three of them started working together in New York doing all these protest albums. But his own music was just fantastically goofy. Warren Zevon as well, really big into Warren Zevon. I remember one time I went up at the morning meeting in school and did this song [laughs], "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner". [Laughs] It's so morbid but a hilarious Warren Zevon song - he does a lot of those story-telling ballads. Modern artists, I really love Beck and Tame Impala, recently I've been getting a lot into Thundercat and Flying Lotus. That's my main influences growing up and a few of the bands I'm listening to now.
Otis Redding or Sam Cooke?
Oh, that's a great question. Otis Redding. Sam Cooke I love, but definitely Otis.
Dogs or cats, which one and why?
[Laughs] I grew up with dogs and I'm in love with my Boston Terrier, Petey. So, definitely dogs. I was also a dog walker for a few months in the city.
Do you have a guilty pleasure song?
Oh god yes, "Toxic" it has to be "Toxic" by Britney Spears. It's such a good song, but I'll never let anyone know - aside from you and I guess whoever reads this - that I listen to it.
What are the top 3 songs in your playlist right now?
"Them Changes" by Thundercat is the song I've been playing over and over and over again. "The Good Thing" by The Talking Heads from More Songs About Buildings and Food. And "To Hell With Poverty" by Gang Of Four.
Grouplove or Fitz and the Tantrums?
Grouplove. My tastes are super eclectic so some of these questions that would seem easy are actually kind of difficult because they both share places in my heart.
How would you describe your sound to someone who had never heard your music?
I've had so much trouble with that question. It's tough at this point because everybody who is asking me this question and getting excited about the music right now has only heard one of the songs but every song on the EP is very, very, very different. So it's hard to say [laughs]. One word that we kept as our mantra throughout all of this, which was 'analog'. We wanted to do it as old fashioned as possible, the production process, and I wanted everything to sound very warm and real and, of course, everything was influenced by these artists who recorded at a time when analog was all you could really do. Some of the more modern songs, like there's electronic drums layered into one of them and some synthesizers and stuff like that, but even with the synth tones, I always wanted to keep it at, the most modern they would ever be would be '80s influenced. The sound is I would say all over the place but analog.
What were your inspirations behind your single and the video for "Ashtray Kisses"?
For "Ashtray Kisses" it actually started as a new wave song. I wanted to have this very synth-pop feel to it, like a super '80s feeling, but then I started listening to [laughs] a lot of Nirvana the week I was writing it and then was like, "huh, actually this would work a lot more as a heavy driven grunge song". Then when we sat down to record the guitars it was very clear that it was more that rock feel to it, so sonically that was the influence; I feel like we wouldn't have gotten to the point where we're at without going through that phase of exploring it with different genres, so that was really cool to discover the song. The reason I wrote the song was because I was coming out of a relationship with a heavy smoker and I had picked up the habit myself and it was driving me crazy. It was like I would finally intellectually get over the relationship and have all those standard feelings of regret and stuff but more or less be okay with it and then, of course, I would light up a cigarette and unconsciously just go outside and have a "breath of fresh air" and I would find myself just feeling everything again that I thought I'd successfully overcome, so I kind of wanted to write about that loop I felt myself stuck in. For the video, in hindsight we were talking about it and thinking it might have been more true to the message of the song if it had been one girl just floating around and smoking - because the idea was all those girls in the building were supposed to be phantoms of that smoke - and that was probably pretty clear since they disappeared at the end when the cigarette went out - but I wanted to get this feeling of being overwhelmed with the ghosts of your past. Which I feel like we are always fighting in some way, but that was the influence behind it. I'm really excited for the next one actually, it's going to be way more stylized and I don't know how much I'm allowed to share actually, but I'm excited [laughs].
Could you tell us more about your forthcoming EP, You Know Who You Are?
Yeah, definitely. People can expect to, in a sense, throw their expectations out the window with each song they hear because each one is going to be completely different. I'm kind of nervous about the idea of expectations and when I was trying to organize the order of the EP and think about which song goes first, which song goes last, which songs do I include at all; the hardest thing was, "oh when someone hears this song, they're immediately going to think the album's going in this direction" or "they're immediately going to be put in this place and this song is so vastly different". But I feel like if people go in with an open mind realizing that we've kind of lost genres, these days anyways. It always drove me crazy when friends of mine would try to describe artists through genre labels because when you actually listen to them they're always a different definition of what they sound like but, in that sense, we kind of did away with that and whatever felt right for this album, I wrote it and we recorded it and just put it on there [laughs]. It has its art, it's not necessarily a concept album or anything like that but, despite every song being very, very different, I think there's some connectivity of emotion and I hope at least that people are taken on some sort of journey when they listen to it from start to finish.
How would you sum up this EP in one sentence?
Oh my god... Can that be the sentence? [Laughs].
I'm just waiting to see how people take it, if that makes sense. It's not a very direct concept album with this specific genre that I'm going after or feel that I'm going after; I have no idea how people are going to take it so all I can really comment on is how much work we've put into it, how much care and emotion is on every single track, and just how excited I am to finally share a years' worth of work with people and finally get to start doing this and trying to work hard and get as good as I can be.
What do you hope listeners are able to take away from your music?
That it's okay to be honest about how we're feeling about everything. These days especially, I feel like everyone's trying to put on a brave face and act as cool as they think they can. Before all this - depending on how you look at it, some people say tragedy and I tend to agree with them - all this shit that's been going down and even before that, with this social media culture that we have, everybody's trying to present their best self and we're all, like I said, trying to look as cool as we can to all of our friends and to everybody else and it's all about self-image. Now, all of that seems to have been thrown back in our face and despite putting our best foot forward in the public light and advocating the right things and rallying around everything and using social media as a great weapon of the masses, it didn't work and now is really the time to be honest with ourselves; if we just keep trying to pretend that everything's okay or keep trying to pretend that we're okay and that every single one of us isn't hurting in our own way, everyone's got their pain but trying to hide behind a really nice profile picture is not going to get it all out in the open and get it solved. I wouldn't say that every song on the album is self-effacing, but it's not the typical love song that condemns the lover of the past and all that stuff. There's a lot of me trying to own up to my own mistakes in the things that I've written and like with "Ashtray Kisses" specifically, I'm playing into this and I'm still feeding myself the drug that keeps me locked in the past. Just trying to be honest with ourselves is, I think, the only way that we're actually going to get anywhere, so I hope people at least take that a little bit away from it. And, honestly, they're just goofy songs so if they make people smile, that's all I really want [laughs].
Is there anything you want to add?
Just that I recognize how incredibly fucking lucky I am to get to do this and to get to have people hear this. Like, when I was doing my bio and going out and doing other preliminary interviews just to get the video seen by certain people and just talking to people, I just felt very strange about being gung-ho and being like, "oh, I've got this awesome thing, you guys are going to love it," and trying to convince people that it's in their best interests to watch my stuff when they could go about their day and be just as happy. The fact that people are taking the time at all to consider this as something that could entertain them, I am just incredibly honored and grateful, even if it goes nowhere beyond this. I mean, I looked on my YouTube and, like, a thousand people have already looked at it and that just blows my fucking mind; I know, in the grand scheme of things, a thousand people's not a lot, but that's more people than I've ever met and remembered [laughs]. I just feel really lucky and I just want people to know that, whoever cares to hear it.