It’s a great feeling when you come across an artist that comes from a truly honest place. That place where there’s nowhere to hide and conceal the truth of creativity. There’s no put-ons or gimmicky song and dance. The art you see is the art you get. Singer/songwriter Ryan Kerr is one such artist. Living and raising a family in the quaint, college town of North Manchester, Kerr writes songs that tell tales of the everyday guy. The good and bad. The love found and love lost. He’ll show up at a cafe, coffeehouse, garage, bar, basement, or a backyard. All he needs to tell his stories are a good pair of walking shoes and his acoustic guitar. Ryan Kerr is what the old timers call “the real deal”.
Ryan will soon be releasing his debut LP called Live Well. The title is apropos, as Kerr follows his own advice. He drinks up life like he has an unquenchable thirst. The record highlights his knack for creating little worlds within a two or three minute song. Following in the footsteps of guys with names like Cash, Dylan, Springsteen, and Tweedy. Though none of these artists are necessarily maps to Kerr’s own sound, he keeps that classic storyteller noir alive and well.
Ryan Kerr is currently on the road playing some shows, but he took some time a couple of days prior to leaving to talk with me about his life, his music, and his upcoming new album.
J. Hubner: So let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Ryan Kerr: I lived in upstate Indiana until I was about to turn twelve, mainly in Warsaw and Silver Lake. Right before my twelfth birthday, my family moved to Munfordville, Kentucky and my dad started working in churches. He eventually started his own and pastored it for a few years before we moved on. After that, we bounced back and forth over the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky quite a bit. He was on staff at quite a few churches and doing small home meetings for most of that time.
J. Hubner: Did you like the moving around?
Ryan Kerr: We moved around a ton, but I have mostly fond memories of childhood and rather liked being on the move.
J. Hubner: When did you first start getting into music?
Ryan Kerr: My mom and dad have both always been really into music. My dad played in cover bands before I came along, and my mom sang in high school and college. After that they were the worship leaders at church. Music was always around, a lot of evangelical Christian stuff, sometimes some old Sun records artists would make it in the mix, Elvis, mostly.
J. Hubner: Who were some of the artists that had a big impact on you when you were young?
Ryan Kerr: When I was really young Contemporary Christian stuff like Audio Adrenaline and DC Talk is what I listened to. I started going to Cornerstone Festival when I was eleven, then it got blown wide open. Five Iron Frenzy and Mxpx were on the steady after that.
J. Hubner: So when did you first start playing guitar? Are you self taught? Was that the first instrument you learned to play?
Ryan Kerr: I bought my first guitar when I was eight. There were a couple of teachers at school that taught me a few basic open chords. I messed around on that now and then until my folks got me a full sized Lotus dreadnought when I was eleven and I started picking songs up by ear from the radio. So, I guess I am pretty much self-taught. And, yes, guitar was the first.
J. Hubner: When you started writing songs of your own who were some of the artists that inspired you?
Ryan Kerr: At that point I was listening to a lot of Tooth and Nail records bands. I had a couple of buddies who were big into Blink 182 and Green Day that would write lyrics and I would put music to them. We moved around a lot, like I said, so it was hard to find kids to play with. I’d basically write three chord punk songs on my acoustic guitar and play them in my bedroom. Mxpx, Ghoti Hook, Five Iron Frenzy got me started, then I got an electric guitar and got a little older. Zao and Stretch Arm Strong were huge for me. I could list cool bands from then all day.
J. Hubner: We’ll have to dedicate one whole article to cool bands we’ve loved over the years. Another time, though. Right now, let’s talk about your debut album ‘Live Well’. It’s been a work-in-progress for a few years now. Tell me about how the record came together. It’s a great sounding album, by the way.
Ryan Kerr: Thanks! I’m really excited about it. I played a show in Warsaw, probably about five years ago, and a guy named Robert Lugo was running sound. I got to talking with him at the show and he said I should come and record some songs with him. It took a little while, but I eventually got into his home studio (at a different location than he is now) and we just kind of dove in with no real vision other than making some songs with me singing over acoustic guitars. We hit it off, became buddies and realized we had a lot of influences in common. At that point it took off and we started drawing from old Sun Records sounds, old r&b, punk bands we love, different kinds of percussion we like other than a kit. It just kind of snowballed into this big thing that neither of us planned for.
J. Hubner: When you play out it’s mostly just you and your acoustic guitar, but on ‘Live Well’ you’re getting by with a little help from your friends. Who are those friends?
Ryan Kerr: I wanted the record to feel like a band, not a solo artist, so I asked Robert to play bass and help me with percussion. My friend, Alex Lewis, played all of the electric guitars except for a solo that my other buddy, Grey Gordon did. Austin Parish was hanging out at the studio one night and helped with stomps and claps that we recorded. Zachery Jetter is on the drum kit. Amara Gilraine came in and did vocals on a song for me. Robert and I would write organ and piano parts and then he played them, because I’m terrible at playing piano. I gave them all a lot of freedom to write their own parts, again, so it would feel like a band.
J. Hubner: Though if you didn’t like the direction a song was going you would speak up, right?
Ryan Kerr: It’s my baby, so I definitely spoke up if it wasn’t going the direction that I wanted. It’s really cool to listen to it now and have so many friends involved with it.
J. Hubner: How far back do some of these songs go?
Ryan Kerr: The oldest song is about five years old, and the newest is probably two.
J. Hubner: What’s your songwriting process like? Where do you pull inspiration from when you write?
Ryan Kerr: I love story songs. I think the problem with them is that they can be tricky to write. When Johnny Cash says that he killed a man, I believe him; when Hank Snow says the same, I don’t. I try really hard to be the believable guy, which means, for me, that I have to delve pretty deep into that character.
J. Hubner: So is it everyday life you look to for inspiration? Or literature? Lyrically you are very much a storyteller. Songs like “I Got A Son”, “Ballad of a Lonesome Girl”, and “Throwin’ Stones” feel like these dusty, Midwestern novellas put to music. I may be overreaching here, but that’s what I do.
Ryan Kerr: I pull a lot from books, movies, things that I see, people that I know. It’s probably not very fun to be closely associated with a storyteller, because chances are, you will end up in a story. I take a lot of freedom there, too. Sometimes a whole story can just come from a cool line I hear somebody say. I’ll write it down and ponder it for a while and see if anything shakes out. I don’t know if I have a real “process”. Sometimes music comes before words, sometimes vice versa. It would be nice to have it all happen at once, but my life doesn’t really allow for sitting down and working out an entire song in one sitting. And thank you so much! The “novella” thing means a lot. I want to be a good storyteller. It’s fun, and I think it’s a real talent. I hope to become a great one, I don’t think I’m anywhere close to that yet.
J. Hubner: I know you’re a family man, so how does being grounded with a wife and children affect you as an artist? I don’t often get to talk with artists that have so much more at stake. Most only have themselves to worry about. Being in a similar situation as you, I know that for me I have more purpose in creating knowing I have a family. Art really takes a backseat in my life nowadays, but when I do have the opportunities to create I feel it’s more purposeful.
It’s a long statement for a relatively simple question, but I’d love to have your perspective as being a responsible husband/dad that happens to make great art.
Ryan Kerr: I agree wholeheartedly. There’s something about writing something, and then looking at it through a child’s eyes. it definitely makes some of the darker subject matter a little tricky, but it doesn’t make me shy away. I want my kids to see me create. I want them to see me challenge what I don’t agree with. I want them to see me work through the parts of myself that I’m not happy with. Mostly, I want them to see me run hard after something. Our children learn by example. Me being stubborn and playing shows for ten or twenty people a few hundred miles away from home and sleeping on strangers floors is a product of me watching my parents work hard and live with passion. They never quit anything that they believed in, and I don’t aim to either. It makes it a lot harder. It’s frustrating sometimes for me when I’m hoping to get an hour uninterrupted to work on a song and the kids want to hang out. But on the flip side, it’s frustrating for them that I come home from work, they haven’t seen me all day, it seems to them that I’d rather work on a song than dish out bodyslams and build forts. I think we have all found our pace with it, and they’re getting old enough now that they are writing lyrics and I’m helping them put music to their own songs. I think it’s a really special thing and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Having the most awesome and supportive wife makes things a lot easier. I’ve only got one shot at being a good dad and husband, and I’ve only got one shot at life and playing music and doing other things I love. In the end, I intend to be very tired and satisfied. Memento Mori, or something like that.
J. Hubner: I appreciate your insight, man. So what’s the touring front look like? Any upcoming gigs you want to let us know about?
Ryan Kerr: Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve been playing a lot of short trips this year, and it’s been really great. At this point, all my focus is on getting this thing out. I’ll be touring in the winter and next year, but I don’t have all of that planned out yet.
J. Hubner: When will ‘Live Well’ officially be released? Where will it be available to be purchased? How will it be available? Digital? CD? Cassette? Vinyl?
Ryan Kerr: Another “I don’t know” here. The release date hasn’t been set. Digital and CD are a big “Yes”, everything else is a “maybe”.
J. Hubner: If folks want to keep up on your goings on, where can they do that? You a tweeter? Twitterer? Do you twit or twite?
Ryan Kerr: Haha! I don’t twite a lot. I do have a twitter account, as well as a Facebook page and an Instagram account. Those are much more active. Everything else is at www.ryankerrmusic.wordpress.com
J. Hubner: That’s good. I hear twiting isn’t good for you. So what’s the plan for the rest of the year? What about 2016?
Ryan Kerr: Play as many shows as I can and work on the next record.
Keep up with everything Ryan Kerr, including shows and the release of his debut album Live Well, at http://www.ryankerrmusic.wordpress.com.