Victorian singer-songwriter Ryan Daykin has just released a new EP, Keeping Secrets, that combines his wonderful voice with his songwriting talents to produce something that will please country fans and also satisfy those who love a great pop hook. I spoke to him recently about his new work.
The last few years you’ve written with a lot of people, you’ve played so many different places. Do you just manage your time really well?
I’ve kind of had to, jamming as much as I possibly can into the short periods of time I get off. Occasionally I might throw in a cheeky long weekend here or there if I have to. I’ve managed to squeeze a lot into the time [laughs].
You have, absolutely. Even just the list of people you’ve written with is extensive.
I’ve been very fortunate to do a few courses in the Country Music Academy, songwriter retreats at the Dag [in Nundle, NSW] and stuff like that, which I squeeze into my annual leave. And the Tamworth Country Festival and doing multiple things while I’m up there. You learn what you’ve got to do to keep going.
I guess you also need to have that commitment to your mission, in a way, and keep the focus on what you want to achieve.
Exactly. I think you’ve got to really, at the end of the day, that’s the one thing that keeps you going. So you’ve got to really be focused on what the end goal is.
When did that passion for country music start – that vision for wanting to have a career?
Well, it was really probably about 2010/2011 was when I started getting paid to play music. I was, like, I’m doing something I like and I could get paid for it.It was a fascinating thing [laughs]. Then I went to the Country Music Academy in 2012. I applied for that not thinking that I was going to get in, to be honest, and I managed to get in on scholarship. That really kicked it off. And I’m not surrounded by a lot of musical people where I am, so I don’t have a lot of musical conversations with people, I don’t have the ability to talk about the industry or stuff like that as much here. But when I went there I thought, Oh, these people get me, they understand what I’m looking for, they understand what I want to do. And they’re all the same.So it opened up a whole new network of people and avenues to explore.
And so given that you’re not surrounded by musical people now, were you as you grew up or did you find your own musical path as a child and a young adult?
I really found it myself, I kind of had to. I did guitar lessons as a young kid until I was probably about 16 and then I made the swap over to doing singing lessons because it was something that I wanted to look into. I was one of those kids who used to around the house and I thought, It’s not terrible sounding. Maybe we should look into this and investigate it. And my guitar teacher said it’s worth looking into because if you can do both at the same time it opens a whole lot of doors for you. So I looked into that, that kind of kicked off and then it just kept escalating from there.
And of course from that base, playing guitar, singing, at some point you’ve moved into writing songs. So can you remember the first song you wrote?
[Laughs] Yep. Oh, there’s been some doozies, let me tell you. It’s tricky because I’m so critical of my own songwriting. I’ve really got to be very happy with something before I can put it out. I think the first ones I wrote I was about 18 or 19 years old and they weren’t great [laughs]. It’s taken a long time and a lot of courses and a lot of meeting with people to get to a point where I’m happy with the ones that I’m, that I’m putting out. I love doing co-writing and that’s opened a lot of doors for me, because when I’ve done the solo writing it’s so much easer to get distracted and become a bit complacent and not have that second point of view with something to guide you through and spur you on. So I found co-writing’s been amazing because you’ve got someone else there who can put different spins on things, look at things a bit of a different way that you can. And sometimes it just works so much better.
Do you do or your cowriting in person? Some people do it by distance, sending files back and forth.
I have done some Skype writes before, but predominantly I try in person.
And have you developed a favourite co-writer yet? Or maybe you can’t say ..,
I don’t know i I have a favourite. There’s some that I’ve worked with a few times. I’ve written with Drew McAlister about three or four times and he’s quite effortless to write with, he’s really good. He’s so hooked in. And then Hayley Marsten, who’s one of my closest friends, is amazing to write with too, because she gets where my brain goes and she gets the things that I want to say. But I’ve never had a bad experience co-writing, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve gone into a bit apprehensive sometimes and been pleasantly surprised.
Well, if you haven’t had a bad experience, it sounds like you bring the right attitude towards it. Like you said, sounds like you would be open to whatever comes up as opposed to having fixed ideas about how it’s going to run.
You have to go into with a bit of a guide as to what you want to achieve, but I’ve learnt in this game that you can’t be a stickler on some things. You’ve got to be adaptable and you’ve got to be open to some things to a certain degree.
Hayley has such a great sense of humour and great bit of quirk going on, I think, with her songwriting. So she must be an interesting balance to have.
[Laughs] We’ve written about three or four songs together in the past. We’ve actually got one on the new EP, which is a duet. I’m really excited for that because that’s the first time we actually wrote together. It was the first time we actually met. We met at the Dag about five years ago and we kind of clicked and I said, ‘Do you want to go outside and write?’ So we did that and we realised how bloody weird we each were. It just went from there.
When you first started writing songs in general, who were your songwriting influences, or even your performance influences?
When I first started it was a bit different to where it is now. But I’ve still got the same roots. I originally used to listen to a lot more contemporary pop country, when I was younger. That was my gateway into getting into country music. And as I’ve got further down the track, I discovered a lot more different artists. You go a bit deeper into it, you explore some different avenues. I’m still into the contemporary but I’m much more into the alternative and the singer-songwriters. Not so much the big sounds but more the stories behind it. It’s funny how your taste changes over the course of a few years. I still love it all, but now my influences are definitely more alternative based as opposed to pop.
I think pop is such an excellent background to have, though, because given that country music as a genre is so much about communicating with the audience and in pop you must really get to hone those skills, writing hooks and melodies and, and, and tightening your phrases, your lyrics, I mean, so that you can communicate.
And a lot of it’s so relative to one another. I grew up on pop music and R ‘n’ B music, and those influences come into my songwriting no matter what I’m doing. It’s not a matter of grabbing what works and rolling with it.
Speaking of pop or pop related, you had a single, ‘Pressure’, produced by MSquared in Melbourne and Michael Paynter has been doing a lot of production with country music artists.
Michael Paynter and Michael Delorenzis have been doing such an amazing job there in Melbourne. They’re killing it. I went into that originally not knowing what I wanted to do and I was a bit lost country music wise at that time. I met with them and we discussed going forward with something and doing something a bit more country based, but at the time I thought, What’s wrong with something pop? And trying to show the existing country fans I had the versatility and hopefully that will bring some of those pop fans over to the country side. It did its thing … I’ve had so many people contact me purely because of that song. They still follow me to this day. They screenshot me when they’re listening to it and they say, ‘I love this song.’ It’s been amazing, but what that song’s actually done.
It must be so incredibly gratifying to know that, to know that, that, that it’s still connecting with people and they’re obviously playing it repeatedly. But what I don’t have in the notes here is actually who produced the new EP,
Brad Bergen. He was the musical director of the Country Music Academy when I went there in 2012. We really clicked and we get along really well. He’s such a switched-on musician. He’s crazy patient. One of his songs I wasn’t the definitive on what I wanted it to sound like and I kept going back to him. He was was amazing every time. He was so patient with what I wanted because he want me to be happy with it.
It is a huge decision, who you get to produce, and when you’re an independent artist you can choose, but there’s also the burden of choice.
Exactly. I found so much that it’s who you really click with. I’ve spoken to quite a few different producers over the last few years when it comes to doing projects and I’ve spoken to some amazing hit-producing producers, but I just didn’t click with them or they didn’t seem right at the time for me. So I thought, no, I have to be comfortable with who I’m working with if I’m making such a big investment financially, and then making a big investment in me too. But I’ve got to trust the gut from the get-go, I think. I’ve always been that way.
I think it’s a good policy. But given that you have been writing for a while and I imagine you have a bit of a stockpile of songs to choose the ones that go on the EP, are they the songs that you’ve worked on live and get the best response to or just the ones that you felt were right for this particular outing.
Combo of both, for sure. There’s a few of them on there that I’ve done for years and performed live for a few years, and this was time to get them recorded. And then when we actually put together the EP I originally only had four songs and I thought that was all right, but it felt like it was missing a couple of things. So we ended up finding a couple of songs that we sourced from Nashville, and they filled the gap that the EP really needed. My last EP, which come in 2015, was much more pop based, and my tastes have developed so I wanted to go a bit further away from that, but not too far away. Showing a bit more roots and alternative and traditional-based stuff. So there were a few songs on there that we ended up sourcing some songs and they fit what the sound I needed and the sound that I was after. The first single was one of those ones. I actually originally skipped on that song, because it just didn’t really grab me, until a few dates later and I realised I’d been singing it in my head. That was clearly a sign.
As a singer, given that with your own songs you’ve had time to get used to them – you might have tweaked them a little but you’ve got the emotional and intellectual connection – when it’s someone else’s songs coming to you do you take a bit of time to get to know them before you record them or like do you tweak them a little bit for your own purposes? How does it work?
Obviously, you’ve got to keep the lyrics pretty much as as they are because that’s how they come to you. But I looked at them and tried to put my own interpretation into the actual meaning of the lyrics. The couple we sourced are we both quite deep songs. I listened to them and tried to relate them to, to my life and my circumstances in life, so then I can convey that emotion when I end up performing them.
Do you have to draw on different parts of yourself to connect to those songs and have them come from you?
You do sometimes. I’m connected to them because I’m proud of what we made, but I don’t have the same level of connection that I do with the ones I’ve written, obviously. The ones I’ve written I remember where I was when I wrote them, all the stories around them. Whereas these ones, the ones that I haven’t written, I’ve grown proud of them and grown a connection because I’m proud of what we’ve done to make them, if that makes sense.
We’ve talked about Hayley, but you also have a collaboration with Aleyce on the album. Was that another academy or, at least, Tamworth connection?
Yes, we wrote that at the Dag sheep station on one of the songwriting retreats there.
That Dag sheep station has been highly productive for a whole lot of people.
it has. I heard some stats from John, the owner, a little while ago about how many hundreds and hundreds of songs have been written there, and how many of them have won Golden Guitars or won [something else]. And, funnily enough, that’s the first song I wrote when I met Aleyce, too.
So it seems like you’re really great and efficient. I would suggest, when you make these initial connections, that you perceive what might be there, which is actually a great skill. But also, I think, to have the courage to actually say to that other person, ‘Hey, let’s try this’, when you don’t know them very well.
It’s putting yourself on the line and putting your emotions on the line. But I think we’re all in the same boat. We all do gigs and we’re all equally as nervous most of the time when we go and do them. And when we go into co-writes nervous we all say as well. So I think we all sympathise with each other.
Still, I know you make yourself vulnerable when you perform and when you write, but it’s a different proposition to do it in person with another artist.
Of course. And I think sometimes it does help if you don’t know them, because it feels like there’s more of an objective side to it and they can break down and cut through any emotions, and get to what you really want to say. Either way I love the act of songwriting itself.
Do you have actually have a preference out of all the things you can do, guitar, singing, songwriting. Is there one activity that, that you’d rather do over all the others?
If I couldn’t sing or play guitar, I would happily songwrite for the rest of my life. If it’s for other people, that’s all the better too. If it’s not for myself that’s fine. I get so much more excited when I finish a good song than when I finish a good performance. I don’t know why but that’s just how it’s turned out. Whereas five years ago it was the other way around.
Given that you sing so beautifully I certainly hope you don’t stop singing anytime soon.
No, you can’t shut me up [laughs].
So, plans for 2019: are you thinking of a short tour to take this EP on the road?
I’m going to try my best to do some short tours, even just a weekend of gigs here and there. Wherever I can get to with the time that I’ve got, really. Queensland’s definitely going to be on the agenda because I have quite a few friends up there who I can collaborate with. Obviously Victoria. Some parts of New South Wales I get to quite a bit as well. So it’s just going be a matter of squeezing as much as I possibly can, focusing on the times when there’s new stuff coming out.
Keeping Secrets is out now.