Irish producer and musician Chris W Ryan is a force to be reckoned with. Between his success in producing sessions with NewDad and Just Mustard, making music for film and TV (BBC’s Cycle and Game of Thrones: The Last Watch) , and being the vocalist and drummer for Robocobra Quartet, Ryan is a huge contributor to the Irish music scene. In 2020, Chris W Ryan began releasing music under the name SORBET– creating a musical landscape of ambiance and phenomenal lyricism. The debut SORBET album titled ‘This Was Paradise’ has just been released, and Chris W Ryan had a chat with Sam from The Jumble all about the creative process, experimenting, and the local scene in a post lock down world.
Firstly, tell me a bit about yourself and ‘SORBET’, how have you found your first year of making music under this title?
Well the main thing I do would be producing other artists, I’m also in a band called Robocobra Quartet, but the nature of SORBET is something different. In some sense it was a lock down thing, but it was also something that has been bubbling up inside of me for a while. I really wanted to try and do something free of all the bounds of being in a band and touring, the more systematic commercial stuff. The aim of SORBET is in the name, it’s meant to be something refreshing that cleanses the palate. A large portion of the stuff on the album was done remotely, with musicians recording things separately and me putting it together from home.
You work with a lot of artists on this album, what was it like putting that together?
It was really cool, like a celebration of all these artists coming together, some of them are people I have worked with in the past and some are friends, so it was all good. I get such a kick out of working with people who have their own unique skill sets, everyone on this album has their own special talent and their own expertise in something specific, whether it’s woodwind, synth, or strings. I love working with people who are confident in their own mode of expression and having the ability to combine so much amazing talent together.
I love ‘Only for the Young’ the sound of it reminds me a little bit of Radiohead or Electric President. Lyrically, the song seems to communicate a sense of impending dread for the future of the planet. Can you chat a little bit about the creative process behind this track?
Well you’re dead on with the Radiohead thing, I call the drums on that track ‘Ideoteque Drums’ because they have that signature synthy sound. The singer on that track is Mark Cambridge (Arborist) who’s an amazing song writer. That sense of dread is definitely there in the song, but the general vibe of the record is optimistic nihilism. There are certain things that can be done about the climate, but there is this sense of impending doom, the fact that the planet and life on it has been destroyed before (the meteorite, the ice age etc) is a present thought in the creative process, it makes you wonder if it will ever happen again. The feeling behind the record is the emotional result of that awareness: “Nothing really matters, so you may as well make something that you enjoy”.
You mentioned Milton’s Paradise Lost as a huge influence for this album, how often do you use poetry and literature as a reference point for your songwriting?
I’m not the biggest reader, but I love coming across a piece of writing that blows me away. Certain things really connect with me, and I found myself picking up segments of Paradise Lost in audiobook form, or even featured in documentaries. A few years ago I got really obsessed with Moby Dick– and I only really read the book casually, it was more the idea of all the cultural significance and themes around the book that really got me. With Paradise Lost the biblical and apocalyptic imagery stuck in my head, and the folklore about those kinds of things is a touchstone that everyone understands, so I really liked the idea of the album having that feel, it’s sort of about Planet earth being this paradise, this garden of eden, that we destroyed with our human behaviour, or war, and our lack of care for the planet and climate change. I’m not religious or anything, but I always think ideas like that are so interesting.
Purgatory is another gorgeous track, I think it would be a great listen for people who enjoy David Bowie and Brian Enos ‘Low’. As a whole, it seems really clear to me that the album takes inspiration from a whole myriad of musical genres, but can you tell me a bit about the sound of this particular track?
The album is really, truly, made up of so many different elements inspired by so many artists. ‘Purgatory’ is a really interesting track to point out, it was definitely more experimental in comparison to some of the other tracks. The music was originally written for a composition competition to be played by a piano, clarinet, flute, cello, and violin ensemble, but I didn’t win. I couldn’t get anyone to play it together, but I realised that I knew a few people who could play the individual instruments. I decided to rethink the piece of music as less of a classical piece to be performed and more as something contemporary to be recorded. My idea was to get those friends who could play the instruments to record their own parts, and then use a multitrack recorder to combine them into something together. All the sheet music was then transferred into midi and sent out through different synthesizers, I got people I know who are real synth nerds to play each of the five parts on synth instead. It was this sort of android, electronic ensemble. That’s why the sound is so dense.
It’s so cool that you hear remnants of Low in there, it’s such a great record and a big production nerd album too. The thing with writing music is that you will have these touch stones in mind, and then someone new will listen to the music and pull out something totally different that it reminds them off, like you just have.
Considering you also work as a producer, you must know the local scene pretty well. How do you think the Irish creative world is going to look in the future after facing so many challenges in the past year? What are you most excited for coming out of this?
I think it’s amazing to see how much people have adapted over the past year. I’m really interested in how people have had more time to reflect in the arts. Visual artists may go on residencies designed to have time to think, but it’s not so common with musicians, so watching that reflection happen with others is really cool. I think a lot more people have started new art forms over this period as well. Whether it’s new music or even a publication like The Jumble. People may also be checking out of the creative scene, and that sense of realising what is or isn’t ‘Your thing’ is just as good no matter which way it goes. I’m excited to see the result of more prioritising in the creative scene, and I’m very much excited and hopeful for a sense of togetherness in a post pandemic Irish music landscape.
Album cover and Press Shoot designed by Fiona McDonnell & Colin Armstrong with help from the HelpMusiciansNI Fusion Fund.
Interview by Sam Dineen