Working through grief is often a personal, internal process, but Saskatchewan-based singer/songwriter Ryan Hicks has given us a great gift in opening up those musings in his songwriting. “Pulsing Colours,” his new album (just released last Friday), is billed as a “concept record of the thoughts, moods and emotions that can come to us at night” but it is also a tribute to and recollection of Ryan’s stepmother, who died suddenly in 2014.
The album opens with the title track, a shimmering reflection on life (and relationship) as ‘pulsing colours,’ an image that (as you’ll see in the conversation below) I found fascinating. “Quiet Town” muses on the silence that falls over a town as night falls and people find some stillness, while “I Want It” is a terrific song about all the ways in which we are constantly wanting more than we have, more than we are, and how that wanting can take us over.
If you grew up in a religious household as I did, the “Footprints in the Sand” poem was perhaps a tad ubiquitous. Here Ryan turns that familiar phrase on its head, reflecting that those footprints – regardless of who makes them – wash away, in contrast with the steadiness and fidelity of the song’s narrator. To my ear, “Seriously Baby” is the lightest moment on the record, a bit of welcome levity amidst the darkness. (For those of us who have gone through the grieving process, there are inevitably a few moments along the way where the laughter – and the light – break through.)
“Jewel” tells the harrowing story of a small girl who went missing – here, Ryan’s narrative gifts really shine, as the fear and the uncertainty that the girl surely must have experienced come through as a truly visceral feeling. “Floor and Fire,” perhaps the most intense song on the album, is another of Ryan’s hugely powerful lyrics, depicting the pain and isolation of depression as I’ve rarely ever heard elsewhere.
If anything good can come of tragedy, it’s the insights and depths of perception that loss offers us. On “Pulsing Colours,” Ryan has successfully and eloquently articulated those thoughts, and turned them into an excellent collection of songs that will not only tug at the listener’s heart but also offer them new thoughts for contemplation.
I’m delighted that Ryan took the time for an in-depth conversation about the album.
You wrote this album in tribute to your stepmother, who died several years ago. Was the process of writing and recording these songs therapeutic, or did you find it tough going at times?
The whole process was difficult. On one hand, I try and write well-crafted pop songs but on the other I am struggling with putting into words things that I was not ready to deal with. Just because I experienced loss does not mean I will write great songs. I am also aware of the fact that while I want to draw inspiration from my own experience, I don’t want to come across as insincere by marketing hurt and pain. Truthfully, these songs went through many changes as my first pass at them was approaching it as a conversation as if she was with me today. I didn’t think about rhyme scheme, stanzas, verse/chorus or other songwriting processes and just let it out. Some songs had 15 pages of lyrics at first and in no way resembled cohesive, radio-friendly singer-songwriter material.
What was important to me was to not make the songs too specific about my situation as I know what she struggled with (mental illness), many struggle with and I wanted to write songs for them. I spent a great deal of time editing and trying to make some complicated things sound simple. I LOVE Tom Petty and I always admired his ability to say really profound things in a simple, concise way. It was therapeutic in the sense that as she died suddenly I never had the opportunity to say these things to her and in my own way I felt that through the writing process I did.
What became the toughest thing was recording these songs. My engineer, Keiran Semple, and I would spend time getting into the right headspace and vibe. We kept the lights down low and really embraced feeling the right emotion before we recorded. As I was producing myself, it was difficult to be objective and Keiran was the best from his expertise in the studio to helping “coach” me through singing and performing those tough songs. Songs like, “I Want It” and “Floor On Fire” were the most challenging, but in the end I really like the rawness of the vocals on those tracks. While not technically perfect, I feel we captured the right emotion and hopefully the listener will be able to relate to the song through that emotional connection.
I find the metaphor of “pulsing colours” to be really intriguing… how did you come to that as an image of what our lives constitute?
I was watching the show Cosmos and on it they said that, “Life in the universe began with cosmic dust becoming animated and alive. The molecules were drawn together by an unknown force.” Science tells us there is a force that draws molecules into atoms and under a microscope these molecules appear to dance. It sounds a lot like the force in Star Wars, but that is exactly what it is; a living force that connects all objects and living things. I find that so profound. That there is a energy in all living things that draws us together. This album deals a lot with mystery, wonder and our place in the universe. I feel we are like this in that people have an instinct to come together. No matter who or from what background we are drawn to each other. Pulsing Colours refers to this energy, but it is also a subtle call for unity with all people. Deep down, I feel all people are good and we long to connect with each other.
The song is also my take on a love song. Love songs can at times be cliche so I wanted to find a fresh approach. There is a line in the song that says, “No one has all the answers. The more we look the less we know. But with you all is clear.” Even though the universe is vast and unknown, in this moment it does not matter because being with you (your partner/ lover) all is clear.
I want people to make it work for them. I think it could work as a metaphor for romantic love or for our deep connection to each other.
As I was listening to “I Want It,” I was thinking about how so many people want something – something they can’t identify or articulate – but either never find it or (worse) never even look. How has that search played out in your own life, and in your vocation as a musician?
When I was writing this song I always had a strong visual attached to it. This song went through many versions and at first it was the story of someone sailing a boat to shore (as a metaphor for trying to navigate though life). The character in the song can see in the distance the shore and drives the boat towards it. The problem is, as they are looking so far ahead for something else, they miss the rocks right in front of them. As they approach the shore they hit these rocks and destroy the boat because they were too distracted by things far in the distance they missed out on what was in front of them. How many of us spend so much time searching for something, when we have a beautiful life right in front of us that we don’t pay much attention to? I certainly am guilty of that, but I had a few people in my mind when I was writing this. As I have played this song for others, many people comment about this is how they feel too. They feel discontent, but they don’t know what it will take for them to be happy.
It is interesting you ask about this question in my journey as a musician and songwriter. Although I have years of experience, I really just started out as a solo artist in 2014. I go to music conferences, attend workshops, seek advice, apply for grants with the hopes of moving forward as an artist. This is not a slam against the industry, but being a part of it can drive you nuts and make you VERY insecure. While we should be supporting one another and being each other’s champions often we are measured as to our worth as an artist by quantifiable things such as social media followers, subscribers, streams, etc.. Not only that, but as it is competitive for success and we are measured against other artists.
It is that balance of being a part of a network, staying relevant and connected yet at the end of the day making great music. This is where I have put the focus of my energy and why it took three years to make this album. I learned a great deal from mistakes I made on my first album and wanted to approach things differently. I promised myself I would not even think about a marketing plan or recording until I was happy with the songs as compositions. Some valuable advice given to me was that all of your songs should pass the campfire test. This test is, “Does my song work with just an acoustic guitar and voice? Better yet just voice?” While all of those other quantifiable areas have their value, if I was to be successful it would only be because I put the time into making quality songs first.
As much as I might sound like I have things figured out, I don’t. I make many mistakes and part of this process has been to look at my own life and ask, “what have I given back to this world?” and “how am I sending love back into the world?” To me, this is my artistic intention is to not provide answers, but ask the questions that maybe others might have too. My stepmother’s death made me realize that none of us know how much time we have left so I put everything I had into this album.
Can you talk a bit about “Jewel” and this particular song’s inspiration?
The song, “Jewel” was directly inspired by the disappearance of a 5 year-old little girl named Tamra Keepness on July 5th, 2004. She disappeared from her home, where the doors were all locked and there were no signs of forced entry. The case is still unsolved as there have been little clues or evidence as to what happened to her. Her story has always haunted me. Too often, the victims of some terrible things are the innocent and what is more innocent than a little girl? Jewel was Tarma’s middle name and to me represents both her name and a jewel being precious. Like other songs, I wanted to keep the song universal as it could refer to someone being lost, either literally or emotionally.
“Floor on Fire” so eloquently depicts how it can be to cope with depression from the perspective of the person with it; what would you say about the experience of living with someone dealing with depression?
This song was inspired by my stepmother, Gloria. She fought depression most of her life. She was a abused as a child and as adult struggled with many things, including addictions, anxiety and depression. She used to describe her daily reality as feeling like you were falling to the ground, the floor was on fire and the ground was coming up to meet you. While I was inspired by her story, to make it just about her was both too personal and not a story everyone could relate to if it was too specific. Instead, I approached the song as the character of a young woman. I am a educator as well and I am finding far too often youth who deal with a similar struggle. Many are good at masking or hiding the problem, but their reality is painful and heartbreaking to see them struggle.
I realize people don’t like to be preached at, so I was very careful to tell a story that was descriptive yet not passing judgement. Many of the scenarios in the song (e.g. see the world outside your window, or through a tiny screen) were real issues Gloria had, but so many people struggle with similar issues.
I have my own issues with depression and my family has a long history with it as well. Again, I don’t try to provide answers on the album but I do attempt to paint the picture. I know what it’s like to live it and live with someone you love who deals with it. You can tell them how special they are, how loved they are, but at the end of the day those voices in our head can be powerful. It is hard as you love someone and want to help them, but there are so many things that can also be out of your control. If I was to give advice it would to be patient, supportive, loving and let them know that they matter to you.
This album depicts parts of your own journey to find meaning out of tragedy and grief; what would you hope others get out of your songs?
Peace and love for one another. I realize that an album that contains subject matter such as suicide, residential school survivors, missing children and other subjects does not on paper sound like anyone’s idea of a commercially successful album. That was the challenge I gave myself. Why can’t an album contain catchy melodies, melodic hooks, make you want to dance AND have some substance? The older I get the more of a sense of wonder I have about life. This is not a religious album, but in my search for meaning and my place perhaps others might find some direction or guidance. A song should be immediate, easy to follow the lyrical message and hit you on an emotional level. I want the listeners to enjoy this album and if they also find some comfort to areas they struggle with too that is even better.
You have a few tour dates lined up already; what other plans do you have for touring with the new material?
This is an ongoing challenge. Although I am a veteran musician and play constantly close to home, I have never ventured outside of the province. It is very important to me to grow as an artist and bring my live show to others. I have worked hard to build a live show that connects with audiences and would love to play to new audiences across Canada. The challenge is as I am starting on this journey being able to convince venues and clubs to book me as they are taking a chance as I am still a newer artist. I have a great live band and my hope is to establish myself in bigger city centres (e.g., Calgary, Vancouver, Southern Ontario) first as a solo act, build an audience there and return often to increase demand for bookings with my full band. Even though I am starting out touring out of province, in the last few months I will have played multiple shows in Alberta, Manitoba and continue to work to book shows across Canada for the next 12 months. I am also hoping to play shows starting this summer in the USA too by continuing to build a following through live touring.
Photo credit: Ali Lauren