Interview with RYAT

Hey there RYAT!  You’re music has been on my mind on ‘n’ off for the past couple of years, after I heard some songs off your entrancing electo-pop album Avant Gold, which was released in 2010 on Obvious Bandits.  Your new album, Totem, is coming out in early June on Brainfeeder and I can’t wait to hear that!  What’s the vibe like for you these days, before the impending album release?

Hi there!  Thank you for the interest.  Right now, I am just gearing up to tour a ton when the record comes out.  I am performing as a solo act now, so I am just working on a lot of fine-tuning with my live electronic set.  As an instrumentalist at core, I prefer to play as much live as I can with sampling, so I am working hard on getting in ‘octopus brain’ mode in switching parts and instruments and such.  I am excited for the Brainfeeder release.  The vibe of this record is very different.  It is much more compositional and not as poppy as Avant GoldAvant Gold’s concept was an avant-pop record, with more political subject matter.  This record, Totem, is based off of spirit animal guides from Native American teachings and transformation in my personal life.

When I first read about you a couple of years ago, you were based in Philadelphia and had a good thing going, collaborating with Philly luminaries like King Britt.  Since then, you’ve relocated to California.  What prompted the change of scenery?

I am really into nature and the winters were just hard on me in Philadelphia.  I am really into my garden and have been wanting to move somewhere that I can have an organic garden all year round.  I was also really into beat production and wanted to indulge in the California scene a bit.  I feel like the freshest beat-making is happening out here right now.  I don’t know if California is somewhere I will call home yet though.

RYAT has actually been a duo, with you being the lyricist and main songwriter, and with Tim Conley balancing the other half of the equation.  Is he still in the picture at all for Totem?  Did he make the move with you to California?

I started doing RYAT in the early 2000s and have had lots of permutations since.  Tim Conley joined me full-time from 2009-2011, touring in the US and Europe and collaborating in the studio.  Tim is on the album cover for Avant Gold because I really felt like the live show and live image at the time was more duo-oriented.  Although RYAT is my solo project, I really enjoy collaborating with different artists on every record.

Tim is now focusing on his solo project Mast, so I took this next record mostly to myself, which is where I really wanted to be this time around.  In solitude.  I did collab with him in the beginning stages and then I took it over for the final stages of producing, arranging, and composing.  Tim and my VJ Annapurna Kumar and another friend Brandon Trude (PCOAT), who I used for some beat programming on two songs for Totem, came to California with me just to make a fresh change.

I am touring with Tim’s new project called Mast this month and am so excited to promote anything he does.  He is my best friend in the world and an undiscovered genius.  I can’t wait to watch his solo career unfold.  PCOAT will put out a really dope record soon too.  I came out here with a really fresh crew.

RYAT – Totem

At your official site at , you mention that you’ve been through a healing process this past year, and that your new album is part and parcel of that healing.  I don’t want to pry too much, but what’s been going on in your life these past couple of years and how has the creation of Totem guided you to a better outlook?

Well, my life has been full of intensity since the day I was born (on the Fourth of July).  One day I’ll write a book about it, no doubt.  I would rather not go into details, because it would seriously be an epic and crushing novel.  Just know that a lot of things were suffocating me one after the other and they were very serious life, death, and abusive situations.

With Totem, I took a more universal outsider perspective on the trauma and where it came from in society.  I rooted myself in earth and the garden and started meditating a lot while working on this record.  A lot of animals came to me in real life and in visions and I started to look up the Native American meaning of each animal’s spirit lesson.  I used these lessons to come into my own as a strong independent woman, who was creating a new life out of many deaths and moved forward from my heavy past.  Totem gave me the quiet time and solitude I needed to really express and dig into that healing.  Although this record is not a purging.  This record is a realization and personal transformation for me.

When we did the photo shoot for this record, my closest girl friends were there, blasting the record so loud in a room full of people I barely knew from Brainfeeder at the time.  Mitra Starseed, my stylist, came up to me and got in my face while I was posing and said, “Stop the bullshit posing!  What does this record really fucking mean to you?!”. She grabbed my shoulders so hard and would not look away from my eyes and would not let go… until I started tearing up… and then Theo Jemison started shooting me.  The album cover is me sitting for 50 minutes listening to all the transformation in ultimate sadness and gratefulness and peace at the same time.

Totem is actually your third studio album, with 2009’s Street Noise Orkestra being your debut.  How has your sound evolved from that first foray into your latest? 

Street Noise Orkestra was move of a live band sound.  I wrote and produced that one on my own and used a lot of instrumentalists on it in the studio.  I was not so into beat-making then, so there are a lot of live drums on that album.  That record was more of a purging for me at the time.  Avant Gold was when I started feeling more comfortable improvising with electronics and decided to make electronic experimentation the focus on the next record.  I wanted to make an avant-pop record and that’s what I did.

Totem is much more compositional and less poppy.  It’s more conceptual and I look at it like a classical record in its themes.  I wrote almost the entire music before any words were written at all.  It was more about vibe and energy and sound.  I later meditated on the compositions and each song’s meaning and lyrics slowly appeared in poem form.  Each of these records had a completely different artistic process and conception.

You recently participated in SXSW 2012.  What was that experience like?  Did you play new material or older songs, or a mix of the two?  What acts did you get the chance to see?  What was the best food, best drink, best get-together, and the like?

SXSW was incredible.  I was asked to do a Ninja Tune and Warp Records showcase with Brainfeeder.  I performed showcases with some of my favorites like Daedalus, Thundercat, and Lorn, so I was very honored.  I was and am performing half of the new record and some of Avant Gold on tour for 2012.  My live set is much more energetic and heavy beat oriented for this time around.  If I wanted to perform Totem in its entirety, I would need a budget for a full band and string ensemble, which I do not have.  Therefore I am focused on just having fun and bringing an emotional and wild set with beats for all my music.  It’s all a bit remixed and is an extremely high energy show.

The best thing about SXSW was touring with another Brainfeeder artist, Jeremiah Jae, and Tim’s new project Mast.  Those two are incredible humans and so talented.  We all got along so well!  We juiced every day, went for jogs, and did yoga.  The owner of the juicebar Juice Box saw us at a boat party and gave us free juice all week.  It was incredible!  We all had so much fun.  My favorite performers hands-down were Dan Deacon at the NPR showcase and my old friend Sharon Van Etton, and of course all the people I performed with are my faves.  Oh, and this random band Zorch I saw at Cheer Up Charlie’s (which is my favorite spot to hang at SXSW) was incredible!  SXSW is always a crazy blast.

But my highlight this year for festivals was Coachella.  I performed with PureFilth Sound and got to hang and meet some of my favorite artists.  A few chats with St. Vincent, Ed O’Brien (of Radiohead), and even a few words with Thom Yorke can really inspire and fuel your entire year.  Also, a good friend of mine is producing the next Beirut album, so we hung with that crew, who is so beautiful and inspiring for me in composition and songwriting.  I felt so honored to be performing at festivals with such developed and creative artists and to be able to talk about art and life with them.  It really gave me so much inspiration for the next record which I am already writing and conceptualizing in my head.  I’m so ready to get back to the studio now after Coachella.

You’ve been oft-compared, mainly vocally, but sometimes sonically, to Bjork.  Does it bother you or delight you to be frequently compared to her and certain other female artists?

I am honored that people compare me to amazing female artists if they feel the need to categorize.  The Bjork thing can be misleading because I do think our backgrounds, style, and musical approach are extremely different, but I take it more as both Bjork and I think ‘outside the box’ without really trying, which is why I think I get that comparison.  We are both very conceptual as well, so I understand the comparison.  Bjork is very real, deep, and talented, so in the end I am extremely honored to be compared to her.

What I love about your songs, besides your captivating vocals, is that you combine the smooth and the chunky so effortlessly.  Somehow you marry flowing, looped rhythms with jittery, skittering beats into a hypnotic whole.  From what I’ve read, you use analog equipment and aim for an organic vibe to your sound.  What is the difference between creating an album via analog methods versus digitally?  Does this hold true for Totem, or have you now crossed the digital divide?

Well, I have been in the digital world big time for all the records, but I like to use more analog ‘plug-in’ sounds that give it more of an older and raw live feel.  I like the old Mini Moogs, live sampling of instruments (strings/melotron/vibraphone/guitar), and also digital guitar pedals in a lot of my production.

Totem is definitely a digital record that was put through a lot of analog plug-ins. I did record one violinist over all of the midi string arrangements and I also recorded Tim on live guitar.  It’s amazing what you can do with plug-ins in order to make it sound like you recorded a whole orchestra or band.  For the next album I already know that I am going back to the basics and sampling all live environmental sounds and instruments.  The next album will be very environmentally oriented.

A few of your songs on Avant Gold contain piano notes and strings, like “The Fish That Lived Out of Water”, “We Walk Slow, But as Fast as Their Rush” and “Equipoise”.   Were these sounds sampled from somewhere else or were the instruments played in the studio? 

These instruments were all actually played live by mostly using Reason Software, who endorsed me back in 2009 to try their new sounds.  I have been sold ever since.  Although I do miss using analog instruments, which I am sure I will get back to as my career moves forward.  I create everything in my bedroom, which is essentially why I chose to use software.  It’s really all about working around the budget I have at the time.

You appear to have a fascination with Radiohead and have covered several of the band’s songs live.  What makes Radiohead a go-to band for you, and not, say, Portishead or maybe the brooding songs of Muse, as far as sound and mood go?

I like covering Radiohead because they play with different time signatures.  They do not always use typical 3/4 or 4/4 and always are extremely poetic.  It is way more musically challenging and fun for me to learn a Radiohead song than those other bands.  When I choose to cover a song, I want it to teach me something musically as well, otherwise there is no point in learning it if I already understand what is happening musically.  Honestly, I am just a music nerd.  It’s about math and emotion for me and putting them together in a new and fresh way to communicate things.  I enjoy making and covering tricky music.

You’ve played live in the U.S. and internationally in countries like Italy, Spain, and Portugal.  Was there any difference in audience reception to or perception of RYAT?  Did you have enough time to explore the surrounding cities or countryside before or after your shows?

Touring Europe is always great because they seem to really want to listen and not just get wasted when they go to shows.  I feel like that is changing in America on a bigger scale, but in the clubs, when you are a small band, you are definitely “the weird act” when you are playing eccentric music.  Europe embraces the weirdness and buys all your merch.  I did explore Gaudi in Spain and some of London with friends and I had a day off in Portugal which I think may have been one of my favorites.  I love the oldness of Europe.  I would really love to hit Asia soon.

I  noticed that on SoundCloud a company named Waterfront Licensing has posted Avant Gold in its entirety – as well as instrumentals of all those songs!  Are the instrumentals available anywhere else to buy or download, like on an album or in digital format?

I made the instrumentals for licensing and I am in the process of mixing Totem instrumentals as well.  I never thought about releasing instrumentals, but that is a great idea!  Thanks.

Earlier I mentioned that you’ve collaborated with King Britt, and you’ve also worked with Taylor McFerrin, The Disco Biscuits, and Sun Glitters, among others, and you are also part of the band As Human.  Are you still a member of that band?  Have you been working with other artists recently on more collaborations or has your focus been totally on Totem?

As Human was an amazing project but hasn’t been active in years.  Although I am still working with members of As Human.  Tim Conley was part of As Human.  Jason Fraticelli, Mark Guiliana, and I will be doing East Coast shows where they play Totem live with me and my electronics.  They are so brilliant.  I will never stop  working with those guys, but my focus is RYAT.  They love being part of this too, so I am amped to play Totem with them.