June 12, 2008

Joey Ryan and the evocative melodies of “Bella”

I recently got a chance to sit down and watch Bella, an independent film from Mexican director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde. I loved so many elements of it — from the believable way it traces a chance connection between two people over the course of just one day, to the gentle yet realistically untidy way it deals with the mistakes we look back on throughout our lives.

Monteverde is a tenacious Austin-based filmmaker, and Bella (his first feature-length film) was the winner of the Peoples Choice Award at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. It is a visually dazzling movie with gorgeous use of light in the cinematography, which stood in contrast to the darkness that both main characters are slogging through. With the dialogue weaving in and out of Spanish and English, the film traces two realistically flawed characters struggling to make some beauty out of a pile of overwhelming life circumstances.

My ears perked up immediately when I heard a sweetly rough-voiced tenor sing a few acoustic folk songs at pivotal moments on the film’s soundtrack. For a split second, I considered that just maybe it was Ray LaMontagne (or Brett Dennen?) but it was actually fledgling Los Angeles songwriter Joey Ryan. There is no official soundtrack released yet for Bella, so Joey was kind enough to send me some alternate versions of his music for the movie, and to respond to questions about his unique involvement with the film and his inspiration behind writing these songs.

The spirit of his compositions reflects the genuineness of this film, and there’s a heartening story of how it has been a bit of a saving grace in his own musical career as well. Joey writes:

The story of Bella, well . . . I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Psychology, and a couple weeks before graduation decided to abandon my plans for neuroscience graduate school to try to be a musician. I pictured myself at 30, just hating myself for never having given my dreams a chance. So, I made an album and spent almost a year in Los Angeles (where I’m from) playing shows and whatnot. It was difficult to discover that the process was hard for me and that I wasn’t able to play the venues I had hoped for. I was admitted and enrolled in a Masters program in psychology, at that point and was quitting music. I didn’t understand how anyone could build a music career from nothing in the environment of Los Angeles.

Then, literally a week before the first day of class I got a call from a company called Mophonics in Venice Beach. I had given them my album almost a year earlier, and they said they were going to put one of my songs on a TV show. When I came in to sign the paperwork for that, they asked me to send them anything else I had been working on, so I went home and sent them my GarageBand demo of this song I had just written.

Coincidentally, Stephan Altman at Mophonics was in the middle of composing the score for Bella and immediately had a scene in mind where my song would fit. The song was “Like You” (from the bathtub scene) and they asked me to add some lyrics in Spanish for it. So in the film the lyrics are “Yo se que no puede salvarme, I know I’m on my own, Yo se que no puede salvarme, I know I’m alone”. The Spanish means “I know you can’t save me”. This is Nina’s low point. She has yet to fully accept the help and friendship Jose is offering and feels completely alone and desperate there in the bathtub.

By the end of the day the director was in love with the song and it was in the film. That was the first time I ever paid rent with money I made from music.

The second song in Bella happened a couple weeks later. Stephan called me at 8am (woke me up) from a soundstage where they were mixing the music for the film, and said that a song they had been planning on using was no longer available. He asked if I could watch the scene and write something. So I did, and by 10:30am I had written and recorded (on GarageBand again) something for the scene and by 11am it was in the film too!

“Light On” (played when Jose and Nina walk down to the beach) was written for the film, for this particular scene. I thought the main theme musically should be a sense of resolution. Each character had just gone through their most heart-wrenching depths and they were starting to climb out together. I wanted the music to sound like the first deep breath of air after a long hard cry. Lyrically, it’s about pure, platonic, and altruistic friendship between two people who need each other’s help. That was the second time I ever paid rent with money I made from music.

A string of opportunities through Mophonics over the next few weeks meant that I never went to the first day of classes for my masters program, and it’s now two years later and things are going amazingly well. Mophonics is putting out my new full length record …with its roots above and its branches below this summer. I’ve toured both coasts and am going across the country this month, from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between. And my songs seem to find their way into different opportunities that have kept me (very happily) paying rent through music.

Light On – Joey Ryan
No One Else Like You – Joey Ryan

That version of the “Like You” is featured on Joey’s upcoming release …with its roots above and its branches below. You can preorder it on Joey Ryan’s website and/or enter your email address to be on his mailing list so you can also download two other songs for free: “Let You Go,” which was on television in the UK, and “As It Must Be,” heard on One Tree Hill. Joey Ryan has tour dates coming up, including one in Denver next Sunday at the Walnut Room (I can almost taste the pizza already).

Also, anyone else from California –especially the Bay Area– will likely love his California EP from last year, and the eponymous title track with lyrics like, “San Francisco, you’re always busy, you’re always pretty . . . on a clear day there’s no place I’d rather be.” This is effortlessly charming music with a warm streak of melody, honesty and humility.

Subscribe to this tasty feed.
I tweet things. It's amazing.

Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

View all Interviews → View all Shows I've Seen →