Ryan Vail used his restoration project on an old piano to inspire his debut album of mellow electronica, writes Ed Power
RYAN VAIL’S debut solo album is thoroughly modern — but its inspirations lie deep in the past. For Every Silence was loosely informed by the electronica composer’s experience of restoring an old piano belonging to his wife’s family and shipped to his hometown of Derry from London in the late 1920s.
As he sat day after day with the instrument, he developed in his mind a bond with the people who had owned and played it across the decades. Such wistfulness comes through powerfully on the LP, with songs such as 1927 bathed in nostalgia even as they deploy cutting edge beats and bleeps. If someone had recorded an electronica album in the age of Prohibition and silent movies, it would have sounded a lot like this.
“I wanted to avoid the whole process of writing about heartache and the usual cliches,” says the chipper Vail, far less lachrymose in person than his melancholic music might suggest. “I was delving into classical piano styles and looked at buying a piano. They cost an absolute fortune. My wife’s family heard of my struggle and decided to help out and donate the piano to me.”
He threw himself into restoring the instrument while, in parallel, plotting the new album, his first full length undertaking as a stand-alone artist (he has put out a number of collaborative records). The two projects came together hand in hand, the former influencing the latter. “I spent four months fixing up the piano,” he says. “It wasn’t that it was neglected or anything. Everyone in the family had grown up with it and moved on.”
The instrument had a fascinating backstory he discovered — one that directly informed the choices he made in his songwriting.
“The original owner was named Joe Cosgrove. He was a very cool character — the local doctor in this part of Derry. He was a very busy person and the piano was his relaxation. There’s a radio sample in the single [‘Wounds’] which is informed by his life. Joe was a doctor but music and radio hacking were his hobbies. He would listen in and send message in morse code. “
Vail’s music lingers at the cross-roads between classic minimalism and avant-garde electronica. He isn’t the only artist to explore the confluence between these genres, with artists such as The Field, Nils Frahm Max Richter also fusing minimalism and dance elements. However, Vail’s work is unusually heartfelt and in places achieves a searing honesty.
The goal, he says, is to induce, in the nicest possible sense, an out of body bliss in the listener. He wants his music to be escapist in an almost literal sense. “When I was writing I visited my brother in London,” he recalls. “I found everything noisy and busy and difficult to cope with. The idea was to create an project that took people out of where they were and had that escapist quality.”
He remains based in Derry and can see no reason to move. Music in the city is undergoing a resurgence with local singer-songwriter Soak short-listed for the Mercury and winning the Choice Music prize for best Irish album of 2015.
“The scene is extremely good and you have lots of people operating in very different genres. One issue, I suppose, is that there aren’t enough people here to support them in a way. When I go to Dublin I notice the bands there can stay around Dublin and play different venues. In Derry you have to make more of an effort to get out there and make itself heard. But that isn’t really a disadvantage. It’s a motivating factor. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
For Every Silence is out now. The album will be launched at Fumbally Stables in Dublin, April 28
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