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Ryan Liam zeroes in on cathartic identity across two new EPs

The Madison-based ambient pop artist talks with us about self-discovery, structure, and his recent releases.
Photo: Ryan Liam Maguire is shown posing in front of a dense array of plants.

The Madison-based ambient pop artist talks with us about self-discovery, structure, and his recent releases.

Ryan Liam Maguire—who records under the moniker Ryan Liam and will be referred to as such for the remainder of this piece—has been quietly releasing music for nearly a decade. Minimal press, no management, and extraordinarily little name recognition. It’s a familiar story that’s shared by many DIY artists. Still, Liam’s recent output manages to stand out.

Liam’s solo project, formerly known as Arel Happening, corrals the songwriter’s’ intrinsic restlessness into meticulous structures. On last year’s superb The Love And Peace Conference, there were unavoidable signs of an artist finding their voice, both figuratively and literally (it was Liam’s first time committing vocals to record). The EP’s small, gorgeous bedroom-pop tracks packed an intoxicating atmospheric punch. In 2022, Liam’s boundaries are more expansive and more refined, something that’s evidenced in both of the EPs the emergent songwriter has released so far this year.

January’s Scavengerand March’s Storyare both understated, breathtaking works that find Liam operating at a level all his own. Both of those EPs open with tracks that feature gorgeous vocal layering. The syncopated falsetto of Scavenger‘s “Manicured Hell” produces a haunted feeling, while the sustained wordless hymnal runs of Story’s “Home” conjure up a sense of serene self-actualization. Each track offers an immediate, gripping introduction to cohesive, unified works that effectively establish Liam as one of Madison’s more compelling new voices.

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Lyrically, Liam opts for subtlety, local visual touchpoints, and a soft-handed approach to achieve something immersive and transfixing. Slice-of-life references to the Isthmus (“That cumulonimbus cloud in the distance has been gathering for a couple hours over the Isthmus”), Van Galder buses (“And I’m crying, ’cause it’s too late, on the Van Galder on the interstate”), and the Beltline (“My car broke down in the middle of the Beltline”) all make appearances on Story alone, providing his work with a purposeful and relatable sense of place. None of it feels hamfisted, blunt, or shoehorned in. Instead it just feels casually, authentically reflective of a lifelong Madisonian’s lived experience.

When asked to confirm that Arel Happening and Ryan Liam should be considered the same project, Liam’s affirmation could double as the ethos of the project: “Trying to grow but change a bit.” Growth, both personal and artistic, is at the root of Liam’s work across his three releases. It’s something Liam’s clearly mindful of as he discusses his first dalliances with songwriting. “I’ve always loved music,” he says. “I would, just like a lot of children do, sing songs that you make up.” Both in conversation and across his discography, there’s an acute thoughtfulness that’s impossible to miss.

Scavenger, Story, and The Love And Peace Conference find specific ways to enthrall but never feel repetitive when compared against each other. Each release manages to stand out as a product of a single—and singular—artist. Liam, 26, talked with Tone Madison about his two 2022 EPs, his writing and recording process, and navigating intentionality.

Tone Madison: Could you give us a brief overview of your time writing and releasing music?

Ryan Liam: I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. Mostly started out posting on Soundcloud. That was sort of an electronic projects, breakbeats and IDM, sort of strange stuff. It was fun to do that for six or seven years. I’d always written for guitar and piano for lyrics but I was very afraid of sharing that for a while. When the pandemic hit, I decided it was as good a time as any to start sharing music that had music, had words. The reason why that was scary was when you have words in your music, people can judge you on that.

Tone Madison: What was the electronic project called?

Ryan Liam: Ytriave. I remember as a teenager loving that Soundcloud was so worldwide and in my little bedroom I could connect from people all over the world and we were all doing the same thing, it felt like.

Tone Madison: In your current project there seems to be an emphasis on evolution as indicated by significant changes, whether that be a moniker switch or pulling and repackaging releases. Was that a premeditated feature that you’ve ingrained into this project or have those changes been more spur-of-the-moment?

Ryan Liam: It was all spur-of-the-moment. Realizing that I didn’t like the way things looked with album covers and with track listings, it was all spur-of-the-moment.

Tone Madison: This year, the very first day of 2021, you released the Scavenger EP. Whenever an artist releases something on the first or last day of a given year, there seems to be some indication of layered meaning or significant intention. Was that the case for Scavenger?

Ryan Liam: I don’t think it was super intentional, other than liking the idea of trying to release on holidays. I didn’t really follow my own rule for the last one. I like holidays. Days off. Usually I’d make music [during those times] at home and that’s why it coincides with holidays!

Tone Madison: Your output so far seems to have a focus on meticulous layering as a way to build memorable atmospheres, whether that’s through ornamental flourishes or the way some of the instrumentals get cut up and assembled or reassembled. How do you typically build your songs?

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Ryan Liam: I’m so attracted to the idea of melody with nothing and then adding either a bass line or chords. I think in loops a lot and I think in chords a lot. When you’re looping something, it gets boring to not have layers. I think about it in terms of producing layers of paint on a painting, where you start with a base layer and then just keep adding layers. So for me, it’s usually chords first, then melody. Then I’ll tinker around with the melody alone. I’m super excited about melodies. That’s what gets me going.

Tone Madison: Do you have anybody guesting on either of these new EPs or is it all you?

Ryan Liam: It’s all me. It’s all on the computer. I’m surprisingly not tech-savvy. I use an old program and sort of just draw in a lot of fake instruments that sound real. [The program is] FL Studio, I think 6? I think it’s from the 2000s or something [the drums for Story were generated in GarageBand].

Tone Madison: Are all of what’s on your records computer-generated tracks or are you playing some instruments?

Ryan Liam: [I’ll play] guitar, ukulele, and a lot of the time I’ll sample keyboard sounds or bells, accordion, then turn it into RAWMidi stuff and use that!

Tone Madison: Lyrically, Story plays around a lot with the concept of searching, whether that be for answers or a destination, while Scavenger seems to fixate on navigating the ennui of young adulthood to create meaning. Do you approach individual projects with an idea or theme in mind for narrative structure or does it form over the course of putting those collections together?

Ryan Liam: Usually I have a working orbit of songs that I could use on a project, through sort of daily songwriting. I whittle that down to the ones I like the most and [select which] to produce. Sometimes those are songs from the past that might have come to me in that month. On one of the recent EPs, the least recent song idea was from 3 years ago. The melody was from three years ago but it didn’t have lyrics so it was like a Frankenstein thing. So, to answer ‘Do I have a thematic idea going in,’ no. It all sort of emerges as I go. When you’re living life, you have things going on and you express that cathartically.

Tone Madison: The way you put together your releases sounds somewhat in keeping with the traditional model of putting together records by selecting from an album pool to create the most cohesive or coherent record possible. Over the course of making, writing, and producing those last few records, what’s been the most instructive thing you’ve learned?

Ryan Liam: I’m all about learning and totally into challenging myself. I’m learning more about structure. How to follow rules. Create patterns that don’t drone on forever but are succinct and get something across, so not to the point of nothing. I’m really drawn to structure right now and I really want to learn more about whether, like, something is a 12-bar structure and finding little ways to subvert that sometimes. I don’t have any formal training so it’s all like learning [by trial].

Tone Madison: Was there anything else you wanted to express or expand on?

Ryan Liam: I don’t know if it’s embarrassing to say or not but I’m always looking to collaborate. I jam with some people sometimes but I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve found that Madison’s music scene may be, I don’t know, it’s sometimes hard to connect to people. I just want to encourage everyone to collaborate.

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