Ryan Star | Underdog Rockstar

"I think what wins at the end of the day is authenticity"

 

Ryan Star has had a long road to get to St. Louis, where he will be performing at the Old Rock House on February 1. He's only in his early 30s, but he's already been part of a band for 12 years (they formed when he was 14), participated in a music-based reality show, and released two solo albums, two EPs, and a live album. It hasn't been easy and parts of it certainly haven't been fun. Talking to Star, though, makes it obvious he thinks it was all worth it—though perhaps it didn't feel that way at the time. He's come to a good place; he says he feels a stronger sense of identity than he has in the last 20 years. “I'm feeling in a nice zone,” he tells me, and it's obvious to see that's true.

One of the ways in which it's obvious is Star recently self-released an EP, The America EP, for free via the internet. He has a record label, Atlantic Records, but he wanted to give this one directly to the fans. With that in mind, one of the songs, “Somebody's Son,” was originally supposed to be on his last album, 11:59. It was even heralded by Star at the time as his favorite song on the album. The song, however, is not on the album, so I had to know why. Did it fall victim to record-label edict for its potentially rabble-rousing lyrics about a young man stationed overseas during a war? Star assured me it wasn't; he felt the song didn't fit the album, and instead wrote two more songs to go with it, with the same character, and covered Tom Petty's “Won't Back Down” to finish it off. The EP is dedicated to his grandfather, a World War II veteran. He called releasing the EP for free via Twitter, “a beautiful thing…a freedom.”

What wasn't so beautiful? His time on Rockstar: Supernova, a reality show based on trying to find a new lead singer for a group featuring Tommy Lee.  “I did [the show] for the exposure of getting to more people at a time when the traditional ways of getting out there as a musician were changing,” he explains. Still, for someone who certainly has a glimmer (if not more) of defiance in him, it's hard to imagine him playing into something so machine-like. He agreed with me, saying, “The actual process was the most disgusting thing I think a human can go through on their own will.”  He added later, “They don't treat you like human beings; they treat you like property.” Still, Star was the only one of the contestants who ended up with a record deal, so his plan obviously worked, and, as he put it, “It taught me a lot about standing up for who you are.”

Who he is—and who he is becoming—is something Star is obvious willing to share, be it by releasing his EP without the record label or by speaking so openly about his time in the music business. He's congenial and forthcoming, especially at my comment that the Old Rock House generally feeds the musicians that come to play there. He had been looking forward to Pho Grand, which he calls this favorite Vietnamese food in the country. He asked, in a much more plaintive voice than I would have imagined possible, “No Pho? You're telling me no Pho?” He sounded so disappointed I had to laugh and told him he could probably get some on the way out of town.

In fact, I laughed a lot during the interview. He's charming, but not in an overt or contrived way.  He's recently moved to Brooklyn and we spoke about my recent first time in NYC, and his history with Rockwood Music Hall, where I had seen some shows. He's never offensive, but you can see the potential there for his mouth to get him in trouble if he's not careful, so impassioned is most of his speech.  He agreed with me wholeheartedly. “I have the audacity to say certain things that I probably shouldn't and sometimes I just strike out—but you've got to go for it, right?  Because sometimes I'm funny!” he says with enthusiasm. Then, in a more resigned tone he added, “I should probably shut my mouth more often.” 

It's good for us that he doesn't.  As he puts it, “I think that what wins at the end of the day is authenticity,” and there's something undeniably authentic about Star. He's incredibly talented, but more than that, he's willing to work as hard as he needs to in order to prove it. He's not under any assumption that simply having talent equals massive success, and he seems to relish his current role as an underdog. With a new album on the horizon, of which Star says, “I feel like I'm about to make the best music of my life,” it's hard to imagine he'll be in that place for much longer. | Teresa Montgomery

Ryan Star plays St. Louis on February 1 at the Old Rock House with Andy Grammer. The show is $12 in advance, $14 DOS, with Rachel Platten opening. Doors are at 6:30 with the show at 7:30.

 

 

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