Ryan Keen is quite the jet setter. For a singer-songwriter and guitar supremo who has chummed about with the likes of Ed Sheeran, supported X Factor diva Leona Lewis and toured the world in the last few years, bringing his polished, anthemic but intimate brand of music to the world, he calls Totnes in Devon home, but is rarely there it seems. Fresh from a quick European tour taking in Berlin, Cologne and London and spending extended time in the middle east and Australia on various other musical excursions, I find that he hasn’t retired to native Devon for a cream tea and a chill, but that he’s already left the country again, this time in Amsterdam and has further plans to return to the middle east after a Christmas at home.
Ryan is not just an accomplished musician, but also a thoroughly likeable and thoughtful chap. I chat to him the week after his triumphant Islington gig about men’s mental health, the future of the music industry and his never-ending life on tour.
Backseat Mafia: So, wow, Amsterdam? You must be worn out!
Ryan Keen: Yeah, it’s keeping me busy, but I can’t complain. It’s all good. I wanna be doing this, so it’s all good.
BM: How was the recent tour?
RK: It’s been amazing to be honest. It’s been a little while since I was on the road, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but the turnout’s been amazing. London was sol out and all the German shows were very busy. There were people coming down in their Ryan Keen t-shirts and singing along to every song, so it’s been amazing. I wasn’t expecting such a great response.
BM: What are some of the best places you’ve played?
RK: It varies really. I’ve had the pleasure of playing some pretty massive support slots so on the big arena tours it’s always quite a buzz playing to ten thousand. That’s always pretty crazy. But then for me at the same time it’s just as exciting playing to my own crowd of whatever size. When the audience is on board that’s what gets me. When you can feel that people are excited to be there and are singing along to every word, people that my music means something to. When they come down and are enjoying themselves, you can really feel it in the room and that’s probably my favourite. I love it when my music can take me to interesting places but it’s not really so much the venue, it’s generally down to the mood of the room and the people there.
BM: I first saw you supporting Leona Lewis a few years back and despite the audience maybe not expecting someone like you supporting a big pop act like that, it felt like you had the audience captivated.
RK: Yeah that was a lot of fun for me as well. It was quite a last-minute thing that tour and it was amazing. It turned out great.
BM: Do you get a lot of input into who you have supporting you on your own tours – as you’ve had some really interesting people on tour like Jovel and Gavin James – and which support slots you go out on yourself?
RK: Yeah, with my own tours I tend to choose the support acts. I sometimes have people requesting to be put forward, but I generally try and bring people on the road that I’d quite like to have along with me and I think that the fans appreciate that too. In terms of who I support, I get put forwards for certain ones and sometimes they come through. It’s quite often to do with knowing the artists. I’ve gigged so much over the years I’ve met quite a lot of people, some of who have gone on to some pretty big things so occasionally you’ll just get a phone call asking if you wanna come along and do the tour and it’s very hard to say no.
BM: You’ve released four singles this year so far and said you were working on more new material. What are your plans for future releases?
RK: I’ve been writing away…I’ve written so much music. It’s been a difficult thing, I’ve had a bit of a change with how I’ve been releasing music and from the first album a bit of a change of team but its now just working out what the best way is to release it. Internationally and with the first album I did different licensing deals and released different songs in different territories at different times which was very much at the tail end of when you could do things like that to be honest. With Spotify leading the way and with digital being the future of music, I just need to work out the best way to release my music. For the time being, this year, I was totally releasing those songs myself on my own label and in terms of the next album, I’m not sure exactly how that will all work, but it will be next year.
BM: Artists like Drake get away with just suddenly releasing a playlist out of nowhere. Do you think that’s something you’d consider?
RK: The thing with that is, someone like Drake is of a level where he if he releases something suddenly, he’s so well known that people are going to listen and watch what he does, watch his every move. If he puts music online, people are going to listen to it. [laughing] I’d be happy to be in that position, but I’ve got to be realistic and I think if I just completely released a playlist, it’ll get lost in the many millions of lists out there. Its only really the likes of Drake, the people at the top of their game, who can do that and have an impact. So, for us underdogs, I’m not sure what the best way is to be honest.
BM: Will you still be interested in making CDs to sell at gigs?
RK: Yeah, I think so. In terms of charting, CDs are massively on the decline for sure, but vinyls are on the increase still at the minute and I think CDs will have a bit of life left in them, just for the slightly more solid bands, I think some people like to take home something physical and actually, I always used to love that. If I bought music of an artist I loved, I’d wanna read the booklet, see where it was recorded, the photos of behind the scenes. I suppose things have changed now as you can see all that on Instagram, but certainly growing up, for me, to get a glimpse into these artists’ lives was amazing. But I’m still like that now. I’m still intrigued to see what artwork and stuff artists choose.
BM: Your music spans quite a few different genres. Is there anyone out there you’d like to work with from any of those genres?
RK: No surprises, I’ve always had a reasonably big obsession with hip hop and there are plenty of acts I’d love to work with, but my interested are very eclectic so there are lots of people I’d love to work with. A whole bunch of different artists from different genres. Someone like Drake would be incredible, but for me, to work with someone like Chris Martin or John Mayer or Bon Iver, that would be very very cool. I’ve written a song with Ed Sheeran for the new album so I’m quite excited by that one. So, fingers crossed. There are quite a few things in the pipeline.
BM: You spoke at your gig about your song “Thoughts” and your own issues with mental health. Do you think music is one way of making these difficult conversations easier?
RK: I don’t know. I hope so. It’s been one that I’ve found difficult to approach but it’s interesting that the more I’ve started asking and being more open with myself about it all, it’s amazing the amount of people who go through similar mental health issues. Particularly amongst men, it’s something that just isn’t discussed normally, and I think things are changing with that and there are some amazing charities out there and public awareness is changing that we need to discuss it and embrace it. IT still feels like there’s a bit of a taboo around it where people kind of think you’re broken or suggest you pull yourself together, not giving it credit for the weight that it can hold. There’s definitely a lot of work still to be done, but hopefully I think music, any art, any kind of expression that people can relate to that can make people feel like they’re not alone and hopefully that can do something. I think with my experience of any mental health stuff, it’s always incredibly personal to each person abut if you can just feel like you’re not alone, then that’s a start, isn’t it?
BM: “Thoughts” came out a time when I myself was having a tough time of it and the lyrics spoke to me, so thanks for that.
RK: Oh, bless you. Thanks. To be honest, I was terrified about releasing that song just because of the honesty of some of the lyrics, about my own battle with depression, so I’m glad to hear it actually. Thank you.
BM: Everything seems quite politically charged in society at the moment. Is that something that you would ever be influenced by in your music? [Ryan has previously created a video for his song “Skin and Bones” which featured documentary footage about the plight of children and the oppression of women in certain countries]
RK: Potentially. It’s not off the cards. To be honest with you, I’m not clued up enough – my girlfriend would definitely agree – I’m not clued up enough on politics. I think for me, if someone’s clearly doing something wrong, then I’m happy to voice my opinion on it. The thing for me with songs is you write them, you release them, then they’re set in stone, they’re gone. I wouldn’t want to necessarily say something in a song as times can change, people can change, opinions can change, information might emerge. I’d certainly lyrically write about wanting peace, equality and so on, but naming and shaming people isn’t necessarily an avenue I’d go down. I’d rather try and unite people in a peaceful manner through music. I don’t really see myself like a Dylan, being politically active with his music, I just try and write songs that people can connect with, just music as an expressive art and hopefully people can relate to that.
BM: You recently turned 30. What have been some of the highlights of your career and life so far?
RK: There’s been a few to be honest. In terms of writing, I’ve got to work with a lot of my favourite artists like Newton Faulkner, Ed Sheeran. Y’know to be able to write with people like that has been fantastic. Also seeing my first album chart in countries around the world and it can also be down to fans. There are fans in Germany who my lyrics meant enough to them that they had them tattooed over their scars and that was very moving, pretty incredible. So, the highlights can come from different areas. Sharing the stage with some amazing people and seeing the world has been incredible but I don’t feel like I’ve reached my peak yet. I’m still only just getting started.
BM: Thank you so much for your time Ryan.
RK: Thanks for the support!
Ryan Keen was speaking to Ben Lewis. Read my review of his Islington gig here.