Musicians say it all the time, whether performing onstage or in the studio: It’s about the songs. And for years, Kelley Ryan took that mantra and mindset one step further, releasing albums in which she deliberately wanted the focus to not be about her.
Starting with 1996’s You Win the Bride, Ryan recorded under the band identity astroPuppees, even though she played a lot of the instruments herself.
“I felt funny at that point saying my name,” she remembers from her home in Palm Springs, California. “The record kind of sounded like a group, so it just became astroPuppees.”
The moniker remained in place for Ryan’s next four releases. She originally intended for 2010’s Twist to join the astroPuppees catalog as well, but says “it kind of came out differently.” Producer, engineer and longtime Ryan collaborator Don Dixon — best known for his work with R.E.M., The Smithereens and Marshall Crenshaw — noticed a difference, too, and right before the album was mastered, Dixon spoke up.
“He said, ‘This sounds more like it’s coming from you. I think you should put your name on it and own up’ — so I did,” Ryan recalls. “About the time that Twist came out, I was spending half of my time in Ireland on a cliff in the middle of nowhere, and in the desert in Palm Springs. I think I got more acoustic [as a result] … and it changed the music enough to then call it Kelley Ryan instead of astroPupees.
“The funny thing is,” Ryan adds, “the last three records have been me and Dixon producing, with Dixon on bass; his wife, Marti Jones, does vocals; and Jim Brock plays drums. And on this last one, I added Jon Thornton on horn. Now it’s really more like a band.”
The third of those records is the recently released Telescope. In the past, she would work on a song until it was done, then move on to the next one. When she had “a stack that made sense,” as Ryan puts it, she would assemble those tunes for an album.
“This was the first time where I would work on a song until I got to a point where I was not sure where to go with it, and then I’d pick up another one and start working on that,” she says. “I kept doing it that way, like reading a bunch of different books at once.”
Telescope includes a version of “Passing Through,” which she wrote with Crenshaw, marking the first time she’s recorded a co-write after the other collaborator did it before her.
“When I was out in 2014 playing and supporting You’re Not the Bossa Me, Marti’s bossa nova record,” Ryan says, “we were at a festival in Florida, and Marshall was there also. He played that song and mentioned [to the crowd] that I co-wrote it with him. And as I was listening to him, I thought, ‘You know, I think I’d like to give this a stab.’ It’s always nice to have a male and female version of the same song.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Photo by Amos Perrine