Spending time with Nashville writers, says Ryan Calhoun, influenced the material on his latest release, Paper Stars.
So did spending time in Nashville: The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter came up with the lyrical idea for “Coffee” while visiting a Music City java shop.
Calhoun chats about “Coffee” and the other four songs on his new EP, which was produced by Bill Lefler (whose studio credits include Ingrid Michaelson and Cary Brothers).
1. “Coffee” — This seems like an innocuous song, yet you felt all along it would be polarizing. Why? It’s not like you sing in chorus “She’s the reason why I shoot heroin.”
Ryan Calhoun: “(Laughs) You know, I think it was one of those things where it was definitely derived from truth, from me sitting in a coffee shop in Nashville and observing people. … I guess I thought that people are either going to love this song — ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cute’ — or they’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so lame’: kind of like that Daniel Powter song ‘Bad Day.’ It reminded me of that, but at the same time, I love the song. So either way, it’s going to get some attention.”
2. “If I Don’t” — This is based on the events leading up to your marriage proposal. Were you really holding on to an engagement ring for a year? And when did you let your wife know that this experience was being used as the subject of a song?
Calhoun: “No, I literally wasn’t holding on to an engagement ring for a year. This song is based on true events, but there’s some fabrication to make it more universal in its appeal.
“I co-wrote it with a couple of friends of mine, and they were asking about [the story of my wife and me], and we decided, ‘Let’s go there.’ The day we wrote it, I came home and said to my wife, ‘Hey, you were the subject for a song today,’ which wasn’t the first time. It kind of tells our story in three minutes and 15 seconds.”
3. “Time & December” — Referencing age, the calendar and the seasons are classic songwriting devices. Did you have any reservations about including all three in one song?
Calhoun: “You know, now that you brought that up, it’s the first time I really thought about incorporating all of those. I really try to write from an honest point, and songs are kind of like pictures: You capture the moment that you’re feeling at the time, but it doesn’t mean you’re always feeling that way.
“Quite literally, it was toward the end of last year, and I wasn’t supposed to be in a writing session. But a friend with whom I write a lot asked me to come by the studio. And being the end of the year, you have a re-energized hope for the next year. … Being an artist and pursuing a music career, sometimes you need to have that hope, which keeps you going.”
4. “Stranger” — There’s a lot of room for listener interpretation and insertion in this one. Was this based on specific people and events?
Calhoun: “It draws from a couple of different things. … Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger than it is your closest friend or your parents, just because there’s no preconceived notions. You’re really not afraid to be judged. … I [drew from] being on the road, and when you’re sitting at an airport bar, you meet a lot of interesting people. You have your five minutes of talking: ‘What do you do?’ ‘And what do you do?’ ‘OK, good luck.’
“The chorus: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there’ — that’s kind of how life is. We can plot and plan, but things don’t necessarily go the way we think, but you’re still going somewhere.”
5. “Paper Stars” — Does this song’s obvious theme of appreciating what you have in a personal relationship also translate to your musical career to date?
Calhoun: “It’s definitely derived from a personal relationship — quite literally, when my wife and I got married and moved into our new place, we didn’t have a couch yet, so we were having a bottle of wine and eating on the floor.
“I think that theme can also be relayed into my career. You keep going … and when you decide that there’s nothing else you can do, you find ways to do it.
“It’s good to reflect and be appreciative of what you do have rather than what you don’t.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior