IN THE closing months of 2010 and the opening weeks of 2011 there was no escaping Ryan Sheridan’s debut single ‘Jigsaw’. It has made the Co Monaghan songwriter a household name but behind the song and ‘overnight success’ lay years of hard work, frustration, and a determination to succeed.
New York as a muse
Ryan was always likely to follow a career in music and/or performance, but his earliest forays were not in rock, but in Irish traditional music.
“I grew up in a musical household,” Ryan tells me as I sit with him and his percussionist Artur Grazcyk on a Thursday afternoon for the interview. “I played fiddle and played with Ceoltas for years but I only started writing music and playing guitar when I was in New York.”
New York was the turning point in Ryan’s life, but the route to the Big Apple came, again, through Irish trad music and dance, as at this point Ryan was one of the dancers in Riverdance.
“I joined when I had just turned 16,” he says. “We toured the States for about four years and played Broadway for two years. I lived in New York as a small town boy. It was a big culture shock.”
Ryan captures some of the feelings he had as a person in his late-teens/early 20s experiencing one of the world’s great cities for the first time in his song ‘All & More’: “I’m a small town boy caught up in a big city dream.”
“It was awe inspiring,” he says. “It was the first time I’d actually lived in a place, as we’d been touring for so long. It was the first time I got to see New York - so many people, so many faces, so many different restaurants, different tastes - it’s a melting pot so it is a songwriters paradise. You couldn’t help but be inspired by it all and the best way to channel what I was thinking was through music and I found I had a voice.”
Ryan admits New York was “a culture shock”. Settling in the Lower East Side of Manhattan he found songwriting, something he had not previously done, the best way to make sense of his new surroundings.
He worked at his craft and played the city’s club circuit, performing in Sin É and Arlene’s Grocery where Jeff Buckley had once played. He also received encouragement from other New York based Irish singer-songwriters like Brendan O’Shea and Mark Geary. Eventually though Ryan had to return home.
“The visa ran out and I didn’t really want to stay on,” he says. “I moved to Glasgow. I had friends who were doing music there and I wanted to start a band. I wanted more melodies and electric guitar.”
The band, called Shiversaint, worked the Scottish circuit and eventually came over to Ireland to play, but arriving without a drummer their days seemed numbered. Yet it was fortuitous as it would lead Ryan to cross paths with Artur Grazcyk.
“I was looking for a band and I found Ryan on boredstupid.com and he was looking for a drummer,” says Artur, who is originally from Poland. “The band didn’t work out, we were playing for five people, so it was more practice then gig but that too was exhausting and not inspiring so we split.”
Ryan had put a lot into music but seemed to be making little progress and there was the constant problem of bills to pay. “I needed to work for a living so I put music on the long finger,” he says.
Yet music was never far from his mind. Ryan returned to his native Co Monaghan and opened his own business - a bar and live music venue. It would eventually provide the spur to getting back playing his own songs again.
“I opened the venue and had people playing,” he says. “While I was pulling pints I was thinking something is wrong here. So I called Arthur and said ‘I’m not doing anything but music this year’.”
Ryan and Artur started again from scratch and took to Dublin’s Grafton Street and Temple Bar to pay their dues as buskers. It worked for Glen Hansard, Paddy Casey, and The Hothouse Flowers - so why not for the Ulsterman and the Polishman?
Work it did, Ryan’s songs and the duo’s energetic performances attracted attention on the streets including that of one very well connected individual. Although that particular day did not start very well.
“It was a very lucky day but not to start with,” recalls Arthur. “We were in Temple Bar and we
got moved a couple of times from the places we were trying to busk in. We were close to giving up and going home. The only other spot we could take was already taken by another busker but then he left and we took that spot.”
Ryan says: “We were playing ‘Little Lion Man’ and at about 3 o’clock there were 300 people around us. We were going through the coins at the end of the day and there was a card there with a name I recognised and it said ‘call me’ so I did.”
That man was Brian Whitehead, manager of the Olympia Theatre. Whitehead nominated Ryan for the SupaJam competition to win a place at Spain’s Benicassim Music Festival. The Ulsterman beat more than 3,000 other acts to the slot and later signed a deal with Irish independent label Rubyworks. Then came the single ‘Jigsaw’. The years of graft were paying off.
‘Jigsaw’s driving, percussive guitar style and declaration of “I got lost to find my way/Still I’m standing in the dark/With the one hand holding on to night/And one to day” revealed a mixture of frustration and defiance that Ryan felt with his life at that point.
“Nothing was happening to me at that point when I was writing the song,” he says. “I was working and wanting to play music and having to work to pay rent and it was a battle of thoughts in my head, hence it’s called ‘Jigsaw’ as I was trying to put all the pieces of my life together.”
The Day You Live Forever
Ryan’s debut album The Day You Live Forever will be released by Rubyworks on Friday May 6 - followed by an Irish tour which takes in Galway - and like ‘Jigsaw’, it details the artist’s emotions, thoughts, and ambitions over the last number of years.
“The whole album is like a storyboard of my life and it a positive album,” he says. “I didn’t know until later when we were finally putting it together that it would read like a storyboard as I didn’t set out to do that.”
Ryan says the album’s title track sums up the album and its themes for him, but it’s ‘Stand Up Tall’, the dynamic, folk/hard rock hybrid that gives the clearest indication of where he wants to take his music next.
“It’s the most progressive song on the album,” he says. “It points toward where I am going to go, the big songs, more heavier, more hip hop. I’m not really one to come across as a ‘singer-songwriter’ as I don’t see myself as one. I think we are doing something new, something a bit different.”
Ryan and Artur will play the Róisín Dubh next week and a display of high energy is guaranteed, with the duo having won acclaim for their live shows.
“We’re driven by a funky energy,” says Artur. “We definitely influence each other. We don’t have to look at each other when we play live. We feed off each other’s energy when we are on-stage and the audience feel that as well.”
Ryan Sheridan will be in Galway on Saturday May 7. He will be in HMV for an in-store appearance at 5pm and play the Róisín Dubh at 9pm. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and www.roisindubh.net