When you showed up I growed up, but not all the way, I still like to play
I’ll play you a brand new love song as you sleep the day away.
-”I Blame My Happiness on You,” Ryan Balthrop
Window panes painted with pelicans, fish and lighthouses hang above toys scattered across the wood floor on Ryan Balthrop’s back porch. Signs of how his life has changed. Since his last album, Leap of Faith, released in 2013, he became a husband, a father and a visual artist. His new album, Fall Together, shows that he is growing up and learning what is important for his happiness.
“A lot has changed since the last time we sat on this porch and talked a few years ago,” Balthrop says. “I was down and didn’t know who I was. Now I know exactly who I am and what I want to do. I always saw myself as a father, but the rediscovery of art was a surprise and I am happy to have family and art in my life.”
Balthrop’s voice is a mix of Jack Johnson and Dr. John. He is still the life of the party and a force in flip flops, but he let go of some of the things that seemed important when he was single. “The entire album tells a story of love and conflict as seen through a new father’s eyes, with the joys and responsibilities that go along with it. My view of the world is different and it can be scary now that I have a family to protect.”
TSR: Do changes in your life change the feelings and subjects of your writing?
Ryan: I always write from my perspective, so generally yes, the songs I am writing reflect that. There are other types of songs that reflect an idea that has nothing to do with my life, but still the idea is coming from my perspective on what the idea may be. The songs about family are the most real and can be easiest or hardest to write. “I Blame my Happiness on You” is about Rylan, but I had to wait for him to do stuff for me to write about. He had to write the verses. As he grows I will have more verses to add to the songs. A lot of the album is about people and society. Leave each other alone and just let people love. The others are about marriage and being a dad. It is about raising a family in the chaotic world we live in.
TSR: You do impressions and have different voices in your head. Does that help you step outside of yourself and write, or do you have to shut down all of the voices and just listen to yourself?
Ryan: I used to do a lot of impressions as a kid growing up. I still do in the right company, mostly my old school buddies. When I am covering a song by one of my favorite artists, I tend to copy inflections in their voices. It’s more of a respect thing because I love how they perform the song, but it’s a hard habit to break. I have been slowly finding my own voice over the last 20 years. The more I write, the more I find my true vocal representation of my songwriter self. The voices in my head have gotten quieter in recent years. Do you hear the voices in my head?
TSR: You have been working on Fall Together for almost two years. How was the experience of recording it?
Ryan: We pieced it together and recorded the songs at different times. Rick Hirsch is the man in the studio. He makes great suggestions and we think on the same lines. Being in the studio is like painting. You work with something until you get it right. I like to think of it as a record of this moment in time, and when someone hears a song it is from my life. My favorite people and musicians played on it. Jon Cook and Rick Hirsch played guitar, Ben Leininger and Marc Hendrix played bass, Greg DeLuca played drums, and Thomas Jenkins played fiddle. Eric Erdman, Harrison McInnis, John Keuler and Skye Kler Joseph from Sirius Plan did the backing vocals. Tiana, my stepdaughter, did backing vocals on mine and Kelli’s song, “Two Less Fishes.”
TSR: The album starts with “Way Down Low,” a rocking song about hitting bottom when you play it live, but you changed the arrangement for the album. It feels like the transition from your past into songs about your family such as “Sweet Moments,” and “Two Less Fishes.”
Ryan: I always wanted to re-record “Way Down Low” with a slower tempo. I like the original version, but the lyrics lend themselves to a more thoughtful, slower tempo. I wrote “Sweet Moments” as sort of a sequel to “Way Down Low.” It is about finding the moment that you want to make last forever, though you know you can’t. So you learn to appreciate each moment and make each one sweeter, simply by that recognition of just how precious they are. I wrote “Two Less Fishes” for my wife, Kelli for our wedding and “Fall Together” is about overcoming hurdles in love and life. Keeping each other’s spirits alive and watching each others backs. “I Blame my Happiness on You” is a lullaby I wrote for Rylan in his first week of life, when he was sleeping all the time.
TSR: The songs go deeper and darker from there and speak out against stealing and corruption in religion and government and a veteran coming home.
Ryan: Jef Funk and Hank Becker started writing “Don’t Be Shoppin’” about stealing from other people, in 2002, but it was never recorded. Jef brought it to me and we finished it. “The System” was written a couple of years ago when the city was issuing roadblocks for safety checkpoints all over town. I was sitting in one at 11 a.m. on Dauphin Island Parkway on Memorial Day. They were basically writing tickets to raise money. They had a couple of people in cuffs on the side of the road and were randomly checking and harassing people just driving in their cars on a day that we celebrate the ultimate sacrifice that our veterans made to protect our freedoms. It couldn’t have been more ironic.
I wrote “Great Uncle Sam” while sitting on my great uncle Sam’s World War II footlocker that was passed down to me. He was 24-years-old when he was gunned down in Iwo Jima. He didn’t make it home and my dad never got to meet him. It is a fictitious song about a veteran coming home, struggling to make a life for himself without enough support from the country he served, and dealing with the younger generation that doesn’t appreciate everything he and his brothers and sisters did for them.
TSR: How did the windowpane art begin?
Ryan: I bought a painted window as an anniversary present at Shrimp Fest and picked the artist’s brain about how to do these in reverse. I went to Legacy Bar & Grill and the bartender, Greg, had a truck full of old windows. I bought them and got started with a little drawing and etching. I grew up drawing and would sit backwards on the toilet in our bathroom and draw on the back of the toilet while my brother used our desk for his sketches. The windows started selling quickly after I started making them. The first one was a pelican with a fish and crab, then Middle Bay and Sand Island lighthouses. Becoming an artist has worked wonders for me. I paint on my back deck and listen 92 Zew. Every window is one less gig that I have to do so I get to stay home. Playing music you are in front of an audience, but painting, I can be alone on my back porch. It is therapeutic and gives me an excuse to hang out on my deck. It all happened naturally.
TSR: The album ends with “Deep in This World” and the lines “Deep in the world that we’re living in, you’ve got to get it while the gettin’ is good.” What does that mean and why do you end with that song?
Ryan: “Deep in this World” is an older song, previously recorded on The Loose Cannons CD in 2004 with Keith Williams Jr. The message is about us all being people of this world and that we need to get over our crap and love one another. I believe that our conflicts have nothing to do with God. In fact, they are a slap in the face of God. We are crumbling because of our differing beliefs. We need to find a way to set our differences aside and come together.0