“I have much to say,” sings Ryan Keen on his track Orelia, and it’s true: he does have plenty to communicate, but then, he’s packed quite a lot into his first quarter-century. And now he’s coming to tell you his stories. The singer-songwriter with the warm, breathy voice, technically virtuosic guitar playing style and armful of confessional and/or observational material is about to become your favourite new bard.
He was born in 1987, in Totnes, to a speech therapist mother and deep sea diver dad. Growing up, he listened to an eclectic mix of music and learnt various guitar styles. He studied Commercial Music at Westminster University with the intention of pursuing a career in the music industry, either in law or management – he did work experience at a Music Management Company, who looked after Zero 7 and David Holmes – when a couple of major events had the galvanising effect of turning his dream of an alternative future as a musician into a reality.
“I lost a friend in my final year at University,” explains Ryan. “He died suddenly from heart failure. He was fit and healthy and it came totally out of the blue. That really rattled me. But that’s what got me started as a singer-songwriter. I realised how fragile and short life is. I had been nervous and shy about performing but now I really wanted to do it. It struck a chord, the realisation that anyone can go at any time, so you might as well have a go.”
It was while still at Uni that he began performing and writing songs for other musicians. His first professional gig was playing for an artist called Lily Mckenzie, and his next was for rising urban star Delilah. His first solo show was in a pub in Stockwell to a crowd of no more than 20.
“I was unbelievably terrified,” he recalls. “It was the most nervous I’ve ever been. I haven’t had stage fright like that since!”
After a period on the open-mic circuit, Ryan began writing and recording his first EP – with Josh Friend of North London dubstep heroes, Modestep – for early 2010 release. Entitled Aiming For The Sun, it featured Thank You, Chasing Shadows, Primrose Hill and the title track.
“It was completely self-released,” he explains. “I sold a few hundred copies at gigs and it helped me get to the next level.”
The next level was winning a competition that took him to annual industry new-artist showcase, South by South West in Texas, where Ryan performed in March 2011. Soon afterwards, he signed a deal with Imagem, the world’s largest independent music publishers, and he found management, enabling him to give up his day job with hip shoe company Author.
That October, he was invited to go on tour with new acoustic sensation Ed Sheeran, an opportunity that would, Ryan admits, provide him with his “first decent exposure”. The trouble was, three weeks before the dates, Ryan severed the tendons in his right hand when he tried to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew.
“It went massively wrong, the bottle shattered and the glass severed my wrist, cutting down to the bone,” he recounts with a shudder. “It couldn’t have gone much worse. I got rushed to Homerton A&E. Ironically, I’d been sofa surfing for a year because I couldn’t afford rent and, after signing with Imagem I had a bit of money and could afford to rent my own place. It was the first night in my flat in Dalston and I was due to go into the studio the next day to work on my next EP. Instead I had to go to hospital. They had to stop the bleeding, because it was ridiculous – like a horror film, spraying everywhere. I had investigative surgery and then the day after I had surgery to stitch up the tendons. They put me in a cast and once the morphine wore off I was allowed out.”
Luckily, Ryan had an expert physiotherapist who helped him to play guitar with a modified cast still on his right hand. Against all the odds he was able to go on the Sheeran tour, which helped grow his fanbase considerably.
Finally, in January 2012, he finished the Focus EP and the tracks Orelia, See Me Now and In My Mind. The title track was accompanied by a stop-motion video courtesy of his friend Andy Shackleford, who had done similar work for Postman Pat and Fireman Sam. The resulting promo won Best Music Video at the Limelight Video Awards.
The Focus EP effectively served as an invitation to appear at many of the major festivals that summer. There, Ryan would not just perform but also spend the night in his pimped-up VW van with the sound-system and fold-out double bed. But then, he’s a hardy type who grew up surfing down in Devon and learning martial arts.
By 2013, Ryan was supporting Plan B at the iTunes festival and was the only unsigned act appearing on the whole month long bill. He also recorded a live EP and another called Back To The Ocean which featured a duet with Newton Faulkner called Reflections In The Water, which led to an invitation to join him on tour as his special guest. He embarked on his own headline tour and supported Leona Lewis, which saw him playing arenas as well as the Royal Albert Hall in London.
“That was pretty outrageous,” he laughs, “playing such a prestigious venue where a lot of my heroes have played.”
Today, after furious gigging – 260 shows in the last 14 months – Ryan has accrued a sizable fanbase. He’s been remixed by Modestep and made a cameo on a single by rapper Benny Banks. His Twitter followers include everyone from Ed Sheeran to Harry Styles and he’s got the crucial support of Radio 1. He’s also collaborating with some of the scene’s key writers and producers: The Nexus (Lana Del Rey), Craze ‘n’ Hoax (Emeli Sandé), Fink (John Legend, Pro Green) and Dan Dare (Maverick Sabre, Wretch 32). Life couldn’t be better, even if his music is often deliciously sombre and downbeat, with lyrics torn from the pages of his diary and written as a form of therapy.
“My songs can be introspective,” he agrees. “I came to this from a pretty dark place, with my mate dying. That hit me pretty hard. But I always try to write with optimism.”
He cites as an example his song Aiming For The Sun and its lyric, “I’ll keep aiming for the sun so that my shadows fall behind.” “I’m always looking for the silver lining,” he says, “even if the subject matter is dark.”
On his forthcoming debut album, Room For Light – which was self-funded and recorded, largely in a small shed with jazz pianist and producer Patrick Wood – Ryan explores the light and shade of life and love, with a series of songs that are remarkable for their subtly rich arrangements and his intimate style of playing and singing – you can hear him draw breath and feel the scrape of his fingers on the fretboard.
The songs are quietly varied. Opening track Know About Me showcases Ryan’s unusual guitar style and his husky, comforting baritone. Fans of artists from John Martyn to Ray Lamontagne will find much to enjoy here. The song increases in richness as it proceeds, the guitar enhanced by keyboards and strings. Skin And Bones is another fully arranged tune, almost Coldplay-ish, positioning Ryan less as a troubadour and more as a potential band frontman with arena appeal. You can imagine this being sung by big crowds in big venues. See Me Now opens with ambient electronic effects, and has a catchy, textured chorus. Old Scars marries a personal lyric with an infectious melody and a layered arrangement, with guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and backing vocals serving a song exploring memory and loss.
Trouble would have made a perfect way into side two of the vinyl edition of the album: it’s an uptempo, bluesy, Clapton-esque number. By contrast, All This Time is haunting, echoey, the reverb expressing Ryan’s palpable sense of anguished isolation. Body Over Mind has an unusual structure and a jazzily linear rhythm over which Ryan free-associates with shades of Tim Buckley circa Greetings From LA. When The Day Breaks finds him declaring, “I’m haunted by trouble”, and although there is a key change halfway through that strikes a note of caution, the song closes the album in an optimistic way.
The title of the album, Room For Light, was lifted from future single Skin And Bones: “A darker place has more room for light”. With a highly prestigious London show coming up at The Scala as part of his October tour, and the album due the month before, Ryan Keen has good reason to look on the bright side.
plus special guest…