When Ryan Downey broke his arm at the start of 2015, he was just about to start recording a new album; the follow up to his debut EP Familiar Ground (released under his former moniker, Venice Music, in 2013). The break left him unable to play any instruments for six weeks and he got restless; producing instead a mini LP of a cappella songs, Me & Her. The title is a nod to the content: the mini LP contains reworks of two of Downey’s own songs, but it also includes covers by Enya, Anna McGarrigle, Tiny Ruins, Lhasa de Sela and Joanna Newsom.
Through using only voice (and at times, body), Downey has created music with room to breathe. It’s spacious, contemplative, but also – with richly layered vocals – surprisingly full-bodied.
Broadsheet: Can you describe the process of making Me & Her?
Ryan Downey: The whole project, because it arose from my broken-arm situation, felt like a bonus and an experiment, so the usual recording pressure of “capturing the precious songs” was off.
Restrictions can be really inspiring when creating, and the vocals-only approach was no different.
I looked a little at Paul Simon’s Graceland, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and choral music, because their use of the human voice in no way tries to imitate instruments. I too wanted my recordings to have their own feel, their own kind of landscapes – to have the fact that it’s a cappella be secondary to the listener.
BS: Why did you choose to reinterpret songs only by female artists?
RD: It happened organically. When the a cappella concept arose, it began through my song What Gives? – I’d often performed it that way live. The idea was to record that, along with its sister song Tidings as well as two covers I’d been playing live that explored similar themes: Chainmail Maker [by Tiny Ruins] and On a Good Day [by Joanna Newsom] (the latter as a duet with Lucy Roleff). Realising both covers were by female artists, the idea expanded.
For quite a few of my favourite female singers from the 50s/60s, I kept finding that the majority of their music was written by men. Looking into it, as far as I found, it’s not often that the situation has been reversed. It felt like a nice thing to do. When it does happen, in any combination, I feel it helps to collapse any gender stereotypes that may exist around music.
BS: Fantasy support slot – any artist, any era, anywhere?
RD: Geez, that’s a tough one. One of my favourite live albums, Field Commander Cohen, follows some of Leonard Cohen’s 1979 world tour. His band is amazing and the set predominantly draws from three of my favourite Cohen albums. I’ve also heard that he’s always treated his band and crew incredibly well on tour, so that looks like it would have been something magical to witness let alone be part of.
That or Joanna Newsom, anytime.
BS: How does a cappella music translate to a live setting?
RD: Me & Her is very much a recorded project in the sense that it is multitudes of layers of me. I’m a solo performer, so for these live shows I’ve re-arranged the songs for voice and guitar and taken them into slightly different territories. For the Melbourne launch at The Toff however, there will be a couple of added surprises.
Ryan Downey plays at The Toff in Town on Thursday March 31. Tickets are still available.