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Golden Ears

Ryan Power's humble genius is in demand


Published November 17, 2010 at 10:50 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Ryan Power

It’s been a turbulent month for Ryan Power. At first, he didn’t see the point of an article about him in Seven Days. The same day he woke up and decided to cancel his set at Radio Bean’s 10th anniversary party. Recently, a California solo tour fell through. But it’s all cool. In fact, it’s perfect.

“I’m not in the performing mood these days,” he says in a casual, matter-of-fact tone, perched on a stool in his hobbit-worthy barn apartment in Shelburne. “A lot of times in winter I’ll stop playing. I’ll get into the writing and recording.”

A Motown compilation is on the stereo and Power is sipping coffee, explaining his current mind-set. Not that it’s hard to figure out: In the center of the room is a chair with a tiny table in front of it. On the table is an open laptop. A microphone stand is positioned so Power can sing into it while at the computer. The whole setup faces the stereo. It’s like the pilot’s seat in an audio spacecraft. It’s easy to imagine him strapped in, helmet on, ready for takeoff.

For those unfamiliar with Power, he’s undergone a remarkable transformation in the past 10 years, from a shy writer of indie-folk heart songs to an ’80s-synth-pop karaoke star who croons to his own album tracks onstage, eyes closed, deeply in the moment. In between, he led his own band, played a lot of lead guitar, started recording and mixing albums for friends, and went through an accident-prone drinking period that he chronicled on his latest album, I Don’t Want to Die.

Through the years, albums and styles, one element has stayed the same: Power’s stark, confessional lyrics. It often sounds like he’s singing right out of his journal, because, well, sometimes he is.

If a song details Power falling out of a tree while drunk (he’s been sober for more than two years now) or telling a lover that his cold reaction to her weaknesses will “help [her] learn wrong from right,” it’s ripped from his own headlines.

“They’re usually pretty dark,” Power says of his songs, before laughing again. “Life can be a struggle … I think it’s important to express whatever you’re feeling honestly. That’s my whole bag.”

Power grew up in Merrimack, N.H., and started playing guitar at age 12. He recorded a 4-track album in middle school with a friend, and got into the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix before enrolling in the University of New Hampshire to study music. He chose jazz guitar, somewhat reluctantly. (The academic options were jazz or classical.) He also met Chris Weisman, a songwriter and guitarist who is now one of Power’s best friends and musical brothers.

“It turned out we had a lot in common,” Weisman recalls over email. “Mostly that we were in the New Hampshire state school because we were lost, and we knew we wanted to be musicians but weren’t sure in what way … I was really a nerd-type guy studying all the time, and Ryan was this loose, heavy-partying, long-haired kid from near Manchester who played a lot of funk on a Stratocaster at parties out in the woods.”

After college, Power taught guitar lessons for a year in Dover, N.H., then attempted a short-lived relocation to California before finding his way to Burlington. His brother had moved to the Queen City and bought a digital 8-track and some microphones. Power decided he wanted to learn how to record his own album.

Burlington music veteran Brett Hughes remembers Power’s early days in town.

“He was both painfully shy and enormously talented,” Hughes describes in a recent email. He remembers pulling Power up onstage one night during a gig at Radio Bean. “It didn’t seem as though he enjoyed it much, but he played great, and sang in that achingly melancholic voice that I didn’t see coming at all. He seemed almost embarrassed when we all hooted and hollered and clapped when he finished.”

And that’s how it went for the new kid: The more he put himself out there, the more people hooted and hollered and clapped. Within a few years Power became a musical double threat: He could play just about any instrument, and started recording and mixing albums for friends. He played keyboards for dream-poppers The Cush, and later mixed their album New Appreciation for Sunshine. Around that time he was also writing two albums of his own — loventropy on guitar and piano, and DJJD Judgment Day on a computer.

“There’s definitely this kind of duality thing happening,” Power says now. “And for a while there was definitely this Oh, what am I? Which way am I … But I just feel great doing what I’m doing now.”

Other than the occasional karaoke gig, that means a lot of studio work. Word of mouth has spread about what Burette Douglas of the Cush calls Power’s “humble genius.” In the past year, he’s recorded or mixed albums for an extraordinary array of Vermont talent, including the Eames Brothers Band, Maryse Smith, Let’s Whisper, Paper Castles, Maga, Loveful Heights, Anna Pardenik, former Burlington scenesters Tom Lawson and David Kamm, and Queen City indie-rockers Villanelles.

When prompted, he insists that his favorite project of that period was recording and mixing Happy Birthday’s debut album. According to Power, watching Chris and Kurt Weisman and band leader Kyle Thomas work together was “insane.”

“It was a real collaborative effort,” he recalls enthusiastically. “Even though it got tense now and then with different egos and everything. But that’s good.”

Happy Birthday was released on Seattle label Sub Pop back in March. Bands who fell in love with the record — and Power’s work — began emailing him to ask if he would work with them. Recently, Japanese record label Moorworks asked to distribute I Don’t Want to Die in Japan.

He’s both excited and cautiously optimistic about the deal. Power knows it’s easy to get bitter about the music industry. Only days before Moorworks contacted him, he had decided to give up on labels and start his own. But that’s just the business end. No way would he give up on music altogether.

“You just can’t give up, you can’t stop doing it,” he says, simply. “If you start to think that way with music, you’re fucked.”