Writing for the likes of Britney Spears and touring with Carly Rae Jepsen and Tove Lo, Phoebe Ryan's lush, millennial anthems are cementing her as the next pop sensation. We caught up with the singer-songwriter to see if 2020 is still her year.
Sat in front of a glimmering blue foil curtain, Phoebe Ryan’s iconic green hair is vibrant. She’s infectiously charismatic despite it being mid-afternoon in the US. We’re set to discuss the ins and outs of her debut album ‘How it Used to Feel’, a record that comes at a moment in time where escapism is terribly needed. But first, we must discuss that Britney track.
The song in question is “Man On The Moon”, a track featuring on Britney’s ninth studio album. Ryan tells me that it was written at a writing camp in France. “I think we were feeling the pressure to write something really amazing. A few months later, I guess she heard it and she loved it and she cut it” Ryan smiles. “I never thought that would happen, so I don’t know how you get better than that.”
Penning pop tracks for an array of artists including Melanie Martinez, All Time Low and The Chainsmokers, Ryan’s songwriting credits are rather impressive. Although Britney “hands down” has been her favourite to write for, Ryan’s career so far is just as impressive.
Relocating to LA after graduating Clive Davis’ Institute of Record Music at New York University, Ryan’s path to success has seen her tour with Carly Rae Jepsen and Tove Lo, both who she describes as “great women”. Signing to Columbia Records in 2016, Ryan has also leant her songwriting talents to her very own catalogue of tunes. From cutting her teeth on her debut EP ‘Mine’ in 2015 to the incredible debut album released earlier this year, Ryan’s place in the spotlight has given us some of the glossiest pop tunes this year.
“It’s definitely way more stressful releasing music myself just because with other artists it’s in their hands, it’s their responsibility,” she says. “When it’s my own music, not only do I feel more vulnerable just on an artistic level, it’s all about you and the fans, getting together and rallying together.”
With a five year gap between releasing her debut single and debut album, has Ryan grown as an artist within that time frame? “I’ve definitely grown up and I’ve definitely been more interested in spreading my wings in terms of styles and genres. I feel more open-minded to experimenting with stuff now; I feel more comfortable and confident in what I want. I think that’s what it’s like when you’re growing up, you’re like oh I’m getting more mature now, I know what I want for myself,” she explains.
Spanning a three-year writing process, Ryan’s writing style continues to draw on first-hand experiences. Offering personal anecdotes and inspired by the world around her, How it Used to Feel engages with its audience because of its raw and honest lyricism. “A lot of life happens in three years, I went through a lot of stuff,” Ryan admits. “I had gone from living a completely sober lifestyle to not a sober lifestyle. I didn’t realise until I took a step back and had the dates in front of me, I was like oh I got a lot of stuff done and accomplished when I was more on the straight and narrow.”
Heading back to sobriety on the basis that “it just helps the quality of life that you’re living” and figuring out relationships in her late 20s have all been key themes for How it Used to Feel. Claiming she’s had “interesting luck” when it comes to relationships, Ryan admits in the past she’d “gravitate towards” troubled men because it would help to influence her writing. “I’d be like oh this would be good for a song, let’s see how crazy this relationship can get. But now I’m like oh my god I’m stuck in this cycle of craziness” she says.
Best known for her sleek pop music, Ryan’s status as a pop star is truly solidified. Yet, embracing the art of genre-blending, Ryan pushes the boundaries of genre to define her own pop sound. Breaking away from the typical pop narrative can be tough, but with Ryan’s sprinkling of glimmering country twangs and folk elements, the record never feels like it loses its pop power. Drawing on her experience of being in a folk band during her college days, Ryan says other genres have been hugely influential on her music. “Five years ago I feel like I was a little less comfortable with the fact that [pop] could be so many things; I was like you have to sound like Britney or Katy and that’s just how it is. But now, you can do what you want and I feel like there’s so much more freedom artistically speaking,” she says.
Recalling the first time she discovered Bob Dylan, Ryan explains how after doing a report in sixth grade on 60s protest songs, she became “obsessed” with his work. Transforming how she views music, Ryan says, “I have a very romantic vision of Dylan as an artist in the context of America and American folk and history. I feel like my roots are very folky; my core as a musician is definitely grounded in those folk elements.”
Originally scheduled to be released earlier in the year, Ryan made the active decision to push the album release back in the hope of not detracting attention from the Black Lives Matter movement happening across the US and wider. Not the only artist to have done this, Ryan’s active stance on speaking out against police brutality and white privilege can be seen across her all her social media.
“If every musician out there was being super outspoken about what they believe in I think that real change would be possible,” Ryan explains. “I think we’re seeing so many major reforms happening especially from the BLM movement. I would love to think that I’m inspiring people to be a part of it, or even just in a small way. I think musicians do have the power to influence change for the better. Bob Dylan did it in the 60s!”
As a White musician, however, does Ryan feel that it’s even more important for her to speak up and lead the way for her fans and followers? “Not only speak up but remain as educated as possible and remain vulnerable and open to learning,” she states. “Because I’m certainly not going to be right about a lot of things.”
As a result, Ryan has begun a book club to read critical works that help us to understand the lives of black citizens across the world. “We’re doing a lot of the recommended reading that was circulating around on resource guides,” she tells me. Starting with Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and recently starting ‘Me and White Supremacy’ by Layla Saad, Ryan’s book club has seen an increase in young students attending, in hope of making a difference.
“I’m like are you guys sure you want to do this on top of your schoolwork?” says Ryan empathetically. “But I’m floored that my fans really try to do good in the world and if I can inspire them to want to do it then I think that’s a good thing.”
Unfortunately for Ryan, like many other artists, the pandemic has catastrophically put a stop to her release plans. In June, she was supposed to be heading out on a huge six week headline tour, a cancellation that she says she is “devastated” about. “I remember January 1st being like wow I can’t wait until June, this is going to be my year putting the album out, going on tour, I’m going to be busy and now… what month is it even?”
Yet, in the face of turmoil, Ryan tells us how her fans have played such a huge part in keeping her spirits high throughout quarantine. Spending time online and interacting with people via the book club, Ryan says she feels as if “I’ve gotten such a deeper bond with them. So when I finally do get back to touring, it’s going to be so meaningful and so fun because they’re just like friends now”.
Playing Minecraft online has also become a fan-favourite pastime. Streaming on Twitch, ‘Minecraft Mondays’ have become a huge player in Ryan’s presence online. Yet, Ryan admits that the chatroom-based platform Discord has helped her the most with staying connected to people. “It’s been so incredible watching the server not only grow,” she says excitedly. “But watching people become genuine friends with each other has been the best highlight of quarantine, like watching friendships happen because people are fans of my music… that is the best shit ever!”
In the upcoming weeks, Ryan plans to put pen to paper and start working on her sophomore record; a record that she promises not to take three years to write and one that she hopes to actually tour.
For America’s new pop sweetheart, penning tracks for Britney may have been a career highlight but putting herself centre stage and writing songs that people can connect with across the globe is exactly where Phoebe Ryan belongs.