A Conversation With Singer-Songwriter Aly Ryan
At 16 years old, German-born singer-songwriter Aly Ryan approached her parents and implored them to let her move to the U.S. to start her music career. Settling in Los Angeles, Ryan lived with her aunt, finished school, and is now steadily gaining ground in the industry. In pictures, the 21-year-old almost looks like a piece of pop art: distinct blonde buns, kohl-outlined eyes and frequent neon-colored ensembles. Ryan also shares a highlight of her career, recording music in Nashville at the famed Dark Horse Recording Studio, where Martina McBride, Faith Hill and Neil Diamond have all recorded tracks. “I love Nashville. It’s an awesome place,” she says.
Keep reading for our Q&A with Ryan, who talked the #MeToo movement, new music and how she convinced her parents to let her move to the U.S.
You just released a new single called “Borrow Time.” What is the premise of the song, and what inspired it?
It’s this idea that you can’t buy time. Nobody can, especially in relationships. And there are times where maybe you don’t treat someone right or fight hard enough for them, and wish you could go back and do things differently. I wish I could do things differently and redo the whole thing; that’s what the song is about, wanting to go back in time.
Several lines from the song start with “what if,” and explore questions like, “What would have happened if I’d listened instead of being selfish? Or if I’d stayed instead of walking out?” It’s that kind of feeling. We all have insecurities, and everyone deals with them differently. We don’t always show them to people—sometimes only to the people we’re closest with, like our partner or our parents. Writing music is like a diary: it’s the things you want to say but wouldn’t share with everyone. And insecurity is relatable because everyone feels a little lonely with them.
You moved to the U.S. from Germany when you were 16. What led you to the U.S.?
I felt like I was kind of at a dead end in Germany. I wasn’t really happy with singing over there because I felt like I belonged somewhere else. First, I moved to the U.K. when I was 15 and stayed there for three months, and then to L.A. when I was 16, because my aunt lives here. At first, I lived with her, then I moved into the dormitories at my school. And then a couple of years later, I moved in with my choir teacher from school, and we still live together. I felt like the people here were so nice and encouraging.
I definitely experienced culture shock. In Germany, people are a little more held back. They’re almost more … aloof. So, when I first came here, I’d experience things like walking into the bathroom at a restaurant or something and start talking to people who would instantly become friends with you. I’d believe everything they meant but then realized that’s just the way people talk here. They’re more hype. People here are more excited about everything. It’s a good thing.
How did you convince your parents to let you move to another continent at such a young age?
They were really scared at first. My mom was like, “No, absolutely not.” But when I told them it was something I really needed to do, and that I was going to finish school, my dad ended up convincing my mom. My dad was the one who really got me into music. He played the guitar—he’d write songs and sing them to me when I was a baby. We had that in common, and he knew my dream.
So they were definitely scared. But they’ve always had an innate trust in me—that I would do what I knew to be right, and that I’m the only person who can really know what I want. A lot of parents press their own dreams on their children, and I think that backfires.
Have you gotten to meet some of your music heroes?
I’ve been lucky enough to be in the studio with Babyface (producing credits include Mary J. Blige, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin and more). I grew up on a lot of Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton, and other things he’s written. Writing with him one-on-one was such a cool experience.
I also got to perform for Toby Gadd. He’s co-written several of my favorite songs for John Legend, Fergie, Demi Lovato and more. He’s also German! It’s amazing to see my people do well over here. He’s one of the most accomplished producers and songwriters out there, and I performed at his birthday party. Leona Lewis, who I love, was there, too. I know almost all of her songs. I didn’t get to meet her, but she posted about my performance on social media, which was so cool. I’ve watched her all my life.
How have you dealt with the challenges that seem built into the music industry?
It’s definitely a really tough industry. There are a lot of pitfalls you can fall into coming here. You have to be careful you don’t end up in the wrong hands. People promise you things, and it doesn’t always happen. Especially being really young and a woman—I mean, I was 16. I was scared. I was terrified for about two-and-a-half years. I’d be scared to meet people. I wasn’t sure what to do and how to act because everyone kept telling me to be careful. So for the first two years, it was really just me by myself, writing. When I was 18, I started to collaborate with producers, and it took me awhile to really find myself.
The #MeToo movement has shed light on sexual assault and harassment that happens in entertainment, and has spread to show the much broader, cultural disrespect of women. What do you make of it?
I think in part, the problem in the past has been that women haven’t come together enough. In the past year that’s really been changing, with the Women’s March and everyone speaking up. I’m really happy people are coming forward and are being so brave. As a woman in this industry, you’re around men all the time. People were afraid to come forward because of the backlash. But now women are really standing up and supporting each other. I definitely see the problem, and I stand with everyone who has spoken up.
Your whole sound, vibe and look as an artist is very charming and unique. Have you had to stick to your guns to claim that uniqueness?
Yes, definitely. People tell you all kinds of things, like “Do your hair like this,” “Talk about this,”
“Wear rock clothes with long messy hair,” “You should wear a wig” or “You should lose weight and be extra dainty.” As an artist, at some point you have to stand your ground. That took me awhile. I did listen to a lot of producers with great credits who have done amazing things in the industry, and I was naive. I believe your music will present best if you’re authentic to who you are. That’s the way people will connect with you—so I just went with what I thought was cool. I already had bangs, and I just really like the buns. They’re fun to me. I always say the buns are my “antennae” for the world. I also like colorful, eclectic clothes.
I felt like everyone was telling me to do something different, and it’s easy to get hurt. At some point, it took the courage to listen to my instincts. Your instincts are never wrong—it’s your mind that messes with them. You might have an instinct about someone and then your mind kicks in and says, “But this person has so much experience. They must be right.” Everyone has to find their own path. I don’t think we can copy anyone, or reverse engineer someone else’s path.
How have you evolved over your time in the industry?
Now I have much more control over my career. I work with so many different people, and I’m independent. The people who are helping me already like who I am. And I am so happy I finally have this hold on my career and artistry. I don’t want to be pushed around. I have more music ready, and people have responded so amazingly well to the new songs.
You have a new album coming out, and you’ve already released an EP called “The Misfits.” What was the process behind choosing the title and theme of your EP?
The theme of the whole EP is basically about what we’ve been talking about: being yourself and being authentic. Not caring about what other people think. When I was in school in Germany, very early on I’d always go home to my karaoke machine and sing. Kids would make fun of me for wanting to sing—that it wasn’t a “real” aspiration. I had a lot of trouble in school when I was young, fitting in and finding friends. I’ve always struggled with that.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
It would be to just be true to myself and to listen to my instincts. It’s really hard, especially when you’re young. But that would really be the message.
Images courtesy of Aly Ryan.
Aly Ryan handled by Rhiyen Sharp @ Art and Fashion Group