Monday, June 24, 2013

The Art of Telling Stories: Ryan Holmes

The Art of Telling Stories is a series of posts designed to take a deeper look at what it means to tell a story. Writers tell stories constantly, but many other people in many other vocations tell their stories as well, but in other, often more subtle, ways. Today's guest is Ryan Holmes, the bass player for the Connecticut-based band Echo and Drake. You can check out their music and upcoming events at their website, on Facebook, or click here to download some free songs!

Tell us a little bit about you and what it is you do.

I'm Ryan, a lifelong student of music and songwriting, but more specifically, the electric bass guitar. I write and perform music like its my job (ha!) and primarily with my band 'Echo & Drake'.

How would you define a storyteller?

This is such a broad concept, but to me a storyteller is someone who works within their chosen art form to get their message across. Their message could involve simply conveying some facts, or persuading a room full of thousands of people. That could mean using their spoken language, music, paintings, writings, or a delicious combination of any possibility. Its hard to define because a storyteller can mean so many things!

Do you consider yourself a storyteller? Why or why not?
I consider myself a storyteller before the music. I've always been told I have a knack for telling a great story and tying all the ropes together before I ultimately drop the punchline. I've taken pride in it! Some have said "Cut to the chase!", but I've always maintained that I'm simply building an environment for the listener to revel in for a while.

As a musician, what are the different elements you might use to tell a story? How do those elements work together?

As a musician, I feel like my whole existence is a story. Being in music, like any other walk of life, your message will begin to become a wash if you're perceived as someone who doesn't truly live inside that world you've created. You have to prove yourself to any prospective listener before they even consider your music and your lyrics. As humans we can become unsure about our actions before we even commit to them. An audience member at a comedy club may stifle his own laughter at a particularly outlandish joke for fear that the gentleman down the row will give him a dirty look. A group of concert goers may decide not to dance to the opening act (even though they may want to) because they're not endorsed by the whole crowd yet. A person will jump to read the newest novel by a known NY Times Bestseller, but a newly published upcoming author might go under-noticed for a while as they build this trust with their "audience". Sitting among friends at a restaurant you may subconsciously begin tuning out a particular person who has a track record of droning on about things you have no interest in. To me, its because that person has built no credibility with you as a storyteller. As a musician you don't need to be a master of your chosen instrument or a master of your spoken language, you simply have to prove that the notes you play and the words you've chosen have meaning. You have to deliver them with conviction.      

How do you approach the thought process of writing a song? What is it about that process that really appeals to you?

Songwriting has become one of my greatest passions. After really delving into it I've discovered that its something that makes me truly happy. With that said, there are about a million ways to approach songwriting - and my best piece of insight would be to not approach it at all. By that I mean the best ideas aren't forced; they tend to come to you. Sometimes it can be a melody that seems to appear in your thoughts, or a great phrase you think up at random in a passing conversation. Usually the idea starts with something small, and then you're able to sit down with this idea behind a piano, or holding a guitar and begin developing. "Maybe the bass line could start on the 5th of the chord played on the guitar... Nope, that doesn't sound great, maybe that line would sound great an octave higher." In other words, I think really great ideas appear from some sort of higher musical power within you and only then can you take that idea to the workshop and start your adjustments, your layering, your additions, etc. They tell any new songwriter to "write everyday." Some go as far as to say "You should write an entire song every day." I don't think it has to mean that per se, but I think working at it as consistently as possible is the best course of action. As I said, its nearly impossible to force a good idea, but if you force yourself to sit down and be continually thinking musically (making sure to notate and/or record ideas you may have for future reference) those ideas could resurface and be great supplements to your spur-of-the-moment breakthroughs.

Imagine you're playing/writing a song without words. How do you make that song tell a story? How do you make it resonate with your audience?

"Dynamics! Dynamics!" But seriously, music stems from the human vocal chords. So, like it or not, to really move the listener, that has to be considered at all times. While performing instrumental works, often times it helps to consider how those lines would be sung, how the voice would portray them. This could come in any form of variation in dynamics, accents, lack of accents, note attacks, note endings, anything. I think one of the reasons so many are up in arms about the current state of popular music is due to its lack of originality. People go to see live a live show to be wowed by a performance that wouldn't otherwise have been heard on a recording. This has to be realized before you're able to open yourself up to the possibility of an actual moving performance.

What is your favourite part of being a musician? Why? 

The best part of being a musician is developing that trust I mentioned with listeners. Of course, there's a lot of personal validation in being able to perform at a high level - but none of it really would matter if there were no others to share it with. Being able to carefully articulate your message, deliver it with intent, and see it resonating with another person is the absolute best feeling.

If you had to pick a favourite instrument (besides the bass!) to listen to, what would it be and why? 

At the risk of sounding unoriginal - the piano. "All music comes from the Piano" - this idea isn't off base. The instrument is so equipped to aid the musician in telling their story, so to speak. It can sound so dark and dreary on one hand and so light and relaxed on the other (quite literally!). Its such an inherently dynamic instrument (as all instruments are, of course!) But in general, I find it pleasing to listen to just about any instrument that is performed well and with meaning. If you can pull great sounds out of a crinkled up piece of paper and a broken rubber band - then let's hear it!

How do you approach the concept of telling a story as a team (as in, you have to work with the other members of your band to all tell the same story at the same time, but in different ways)? 

Musically, the entire process is close teamwork. You need to be a great listener in order to effectively fit your piece into the puzzle. You have to consider your relationship with other voices, your relationship with space, and how it all relates to one another. In terms of lyric, I find it more difficult to piece together a story as a group. Particularly with songwriting, being that it can be difficult sometimes to convey your own deepest inner thoughts - it can be increasingly harder to tap into another individual's. 

Is there anything else you would like to share? 
"I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit, and on the slitted sheet I sit." Just sayin'.

Don't forget to check Ryan out on Facebook and on his Echo and Drake website. In addition, stay tuned for some music by Ryan under a different name (TBD)!

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