Strays Don’t Sleep is an ambient folk collaboration between Matthew Ryan and Neilson Hubbard, A Short Film for A Long Story, out October 30th, is the duo’s first new music in fifteen years. After releasing their self-titled debut in 2005, their individual careers took off in different directions – singer-songwriter Ryan releasing twelve albums over fourteen years while Hubbard was becoming one of Nashville’s most sought after producers. The two have reconvened for a lush, yet minimalist approach to the four songs on this ep. In an email interview, I asked Matthew Ryan about teaming up with his old partner again, the ep and the work he’s been doing with the Western States Center.
AnaLee: A Short Film for A Long Story is out this week and I guess it has been sort of a long story for Strays Don’t Sleep, the duo you and Neilson Hubbard formed over fifteen years ago. In the meantime, you’ve been busy writing and releasing your music while Neilson has been busy producing. Was it just a matter of circumstance during the pandemic that allowed the time for you two to collaborate again, or was Strays Don’t Sleep always sort of on the backburner?
Matthew: Whenever you go through a hard time with someone it takes time to see clearly the fullness of what happened. What Neilson and I went through was so foolish it's almost a dark comedy in that it was spectacularly avoidable. There's only one way to truly express and understand the interiors of each other, and that's to talk... In earnest... "Young" arrogance often convinces us to throw things away as if such gifts between and from people aren't rare, or worth fighting for. The further you go, the more you realize absolutism or tyranny leads not only to destructiveness but to loneliness too. So, while I always suspected we'd work together again there were things that had to be dismantled (particularly regarding my own culpability). For a while, it wasn't something I was wanting to revisit. I didn't want any of the old haunts... I know Neilson feels much the same way, though he is more a producer than I am, so he knows how to remove the self for the goal of the best outcomes for the "work."
We wrote these songs in October 2019. We were a bit uncertain as to when we would release them, but yes, the pandemic and the coming election compelled us to release the EP now. As artists, our creativity is probably our best way to communicate our thoughts on intersections and troubles. These songs are our way of contributing some beauty and maps. We're so divided, so distrusting of each other. And while some of these tensions are justified. Anger comes from hurt. The hope is always that the further inside a song goes, the more universal and useful it can become. Not diary writing, but bravely into the guts of things. That's the kind of music we like and inspires us, and that's what we're offering here.
AnaLee: I love the lush, yet not overly cinematic sounds in these songs, one of them an instrumental and the last track, “Hope is A Love Song” feels pretty optimistic lyrically and sonically. Would you tell us about the inspiration for the songs in this collection, and do you think you’ll record more together?
Matthew: Thank you, Ana Lee. We will certainly record more together. Our hope is to release more as it comes, to never force it, to kind of live outside the law. A life in the arts is such a beautiful thing, the business of it is a bit more of a challenge. But we own the means of production (as my friend Kevin Salem says) and that's a beautiful responsibility. Don't get me wrong, I love many people in the business, it's all the strategy and branding in the arts that seems to be betraying the intent. So, we will be taking of a more "in the pursuit of happiness" approach. I love these songs, I'm happy to try and express where they're coming from:
"I Walked Away" is about the real dangers of being an asshole. Hahahaha... Not just what it does to one's own experience, but recognizing our responsibility to others and their sense of possibility. Generosity is the hardest muscle to build. But it's also the most constructive. Our culture kind of insists on a kind of universe of one of experience and endeavor, ruthlessness. In our hearts, we resist and suspect there's another way. We look to all sorts of things to calm this nagging feeling. There is a better way. But first, we have to reject the old ways. That's what "I Walked Away" is getting at. The risks are too great otherwise.
"A Woman Running" is just a beautiful headphone listen. Wonderful in a car as well. It's intended to express the freefall after you confront some seismic changes and hard times. It's a moment of hope for what you can be, and melancholy for losing what wasn't working but was known. I love instrumental music. It's so generous, it lets us convene with our own story.
"Couldn't Be Happier" is kind of meant with a wink and a grin and a small knife. It is about relief and hope but it's well aware of the challenges ahead. Change is hard. Hope is a verb.
"Hope is a Love Song" makes me think about the times I've driven all night to get home. That moment when you arrive and the sun's coming up and you've turned the car off and you're sitting there looking at the front door and you're grateful that you made it through that creepy night. And the people you love are in there still asleep. So you walk in, put your bags down, and make some coffee... And wait.
AnaLee: The Western States Center is a non-profit working for an inclusive democracy. Can you talk a little about their mission and how you became involved?
Matthew: Being involved with The Western States Center has been one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences of my life. Eric Ward, the Director of WSC, is one of the brightest, calmest, most thoughtful, and determined humans I've known. A total sidenote, but Eric is a musician and was a founder member of the band that became Sublime. Much like me, he found the embattled idealism in punk and folk, it's part of what brought us together as friends. I was on tour with Paul Weller when Eric and I met. We became fast friends not long after that. The goal of the Western States Center is to cut past the things that divide us so that we can then fully appreciate that in a representative democracy participation regardless of race, gender or politics is not something just to strive for, it's essential. That democracy is about inclusion and solutions. That governance can be a force for good that makes our lives a little easier and our way of life more sustainable. Being from a (still) struggling working-class town south of Philadelphia, these discussions and meet-ups have given a hard spine to the themes and suspicions that have run throughout my work, that exclusion contributes to all sorts of failings and dangers. Part community organizer, anti-racism team, reasonable voice, and education source, the Western States Center is doing important and necessary work during this incredibly fractious time.
I hope anyone who reads this will check out their website right here:
Thank you for having us Ana Lee.
Strays Don’t Sleep – I Walked Away
Ana Lee is on middays at WMOT, and is also the host of The Local Brew Hour, which airs Sundays at 7am and Mondays at 7pm on 89.5 WMOT and wmot.org.