An interview with RYAN Playground
RYAN Playground is just getting started
Words— Marc Richardson
Photography— Celia Spenard-Ko
Geneviève Ryan Martel is a talented individual. She models, has a nascent clothing line, and makes music performing as RYAN Playground. She had always wanted to write and make music, but for years, she had to balance her modelling career with playing DJ sets. In February 2016, she released elle, an EP, on the Secret Songs label of Halifax-born DJ and producer Ryan Hemsworth. Her latest project — and her first full album — 16/17 was recorded shortly after elle released, but it is only being heard publicly now. It’s a deeply personal album for the Montreal-born multi-disciplinary creative and one where her talent — and range — as a vocalist is readily apparent.
It’s hard to box RYAN Playground in: her sound ebbs and flows throughout 16/17, from indie pop to electro to RnB; her DJ sets sound distinctly different from the music she makes herself; and she seems to always be working on a new project. I sat down with her in Frank And Oak’s women’s store in Mile-End to chat about 16/17, making music with her parents, growing as an artist and making up words to make music.
How would you describe your sound?
I think it’s very versatile and spontaneous. It doesn’t follow any rules that I set myself or that the music industry sets in terms of structure. If my song is a minute and fifty seconds and there’s no structure, just guitar and glitch and voice, I don’t care. It might be a pop song that comes next [on the album], but everything makes sense together in a very spontaneous way. My sound is very mixed up and it’s hard to pinpoint — but I guess it would be, like, electronic, indie, slow, melancholic.
Your latest album is titled 16/17, what is that a reference to?
It refers to 2016 and 2017, which are the two years during which the album was produced. It’s a very personal album — almost autobiographical — and I think it just really reflects important events and relationships that I had during those two years.
See, I wasn’t sure if it was the years, or your late teens, because listening to it, the sound reminded me a lot of Blink-182 and Sum 41, which are, like, late teens bands. Did you listen to a lot of Blink-182 growing up?
Yeah, I did.
Did you realize that they were influencing the sound of this album? Or did that happen without you realizing?
I think it was just natural because Blink-182 was my first main influence when I was seven or eight. It was the first music that really marked me. When I listened to the finished album, I was like, ‘yeah, obviously, I love Blink-182’ and it does sound similar!
It’s a very personal album, but what’s the story behind 16/17? Was there something that you wanted to get off your chest when you were making this?
Every song that’s on this album is something that I needed to get off my chest. Sometimes I have a hard time expressing what’s up — I don’t even know how to put it into words. So I feel like I have to sit down and make some music and then the words come out automatically. When I listen to it I can analyze myself and be, like, ‘oh, so this is what it’s about! I need to talk about this!” It’s a conversation that I want to have, but that I’m not committed to having yet. So I make the song and when the person hears it, I’m like ‘yeah… it’s about that’.
So do you play it for them before? Or are they just texting you when they hear it, like, “hey, is this about me?!”
Most of the songs are about people who are really close to me, so they hear it almost as soon as the song is done and I feel like I need to play it for them because I don’t want it to be a secret, either.
You’re laying yourself bare for everybody to hear and then when you do interviews, you get asked about all that personal stuff. What’s that like, as an artist?
Even for me, sometimes, I don’t know what I always want to say, so rethinking about it and talking about it afterwards [when asked about it] — it helps me analyze my words and gather my thoughts. The more I talk about something, the more I know what it’s really about.
So, what’s your recording process like, then, if it’s kind of these conversations with yourself?
It depends but it usually starts with one element. Maybe it’s guitar and then I’ll start singing over it and then add a drum loop. It really depends, though — sometimes I start with the drums and add the rest. But, I rarely write first. Normally it starts with the music.
Your parents are both musicians [her mother is a cellist and her father is a clarinetist], do you think that has anything to do with the fact you grew up around music that didn’t have lyrics?
Yeah, I grew up listening to music without words, so that definitely influenced me. When I started to make music and listen to some on my own, I was super young and didn’t know how to speak English, so I would sing in an invented language that sounded like English.
[Laughs] I think everybody does that at first.
Right? So I guess, for me, it marked me in a way that words were more like sounds. I wanted words because of how they sounded. But as you grow up, words take on more meaning and importance.
There aren’t a ton of people who are featured on the album but tell me about them.
Yeah, there’s Lontalius, Robert Robert and my parents. So my parents both played on “Start It All” — my dad played clarinet and my mom played the cello. My mom played cello on “Almost Died” and “Tokyo”, too. It was super nice. It was the first time that I had my parents featured.
It must be nice to be able to work with them. What was that conversation like, when you asked them? Was it something that you had always wanted to do, or did it just feel right for this project?
I think we all wanted to do something together at some point and they’ve had this idea of me performing with the Orchestre métropolitain — which kind of scares me because it’s so huge. But, yeah, I just asked them. We’re really close, so I wasn’t shy about asking them, but once they were in my living room, it was different. I was, like, ‘woah, they are pros’. They were playing in my living room and I just had my mic [recording them]. I knew that it would sound good and they’d be happy but I was a bit intimidated.
One of the questions I always like to ask is — if you could work with one musician or band, who would it be? I’m assuming making music with your parents must be pretty high up on that list… But who else would you absolutely love to work with?
Someone a little bit inaccessible? I guess it would probably just make sense to do something with a member of Blink-182… I wouldn’t mind having Travis Barker play drums. I’m not sure if I’d go with Tom or with Mark.
You could take them all?
Yeah, that would be cool, everybody in my living room. Or, A$AP Rocky!
How do you balance RYAN Playground the DJ, RYAN Playground the vocalist, and RYAN Playground the producer? Because the music you play in your DJ sets is very different from the music that you’re making yourself.
It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly I do it, but normally I’m just following my gut. When I play a set, I usually want it to be really high energy, so I end up playing really high energy techno, which is really different from the music I’m making.
That’s what I’m getting at [laughs].
But it doesn’t bother me! The people that like my sets and my music, they probably get my spontaneous vibe, so that’s what I want to do — not care about the tags and styles attached to my name. I’ve thought about having different projects and names, but, in the end, I think it’s just always going to be RYAN Playground who does this and this, too, and that!
Ryan Hemsworth comes to mind as someone who’s similar in that regard. You two work together, of course, and you’re signed to his label — is he someone that has helped you get comfortable with having vastly different sounds?
He’s a great friend, first and foremost, and he’s a great mentor, too. He’s one of the first people I send something to when I’m hesitant about something. Like this summer, I made a whole project in Korea, which is more of a dance/techno project — which is really different from 16/17. So I sent that to him and was, like, “so, I just did this, but I’m not too sure what I should do with it…” His answer was to release it right after 16/17 — the difference in sounds didn’t matter to him, he said it showed versatility.
So you have another project ready to go right now?
Well, yes, but it’s on my hard drive that broke, so I have to recover that — but the plan is for it to be the next project. It’s going to be more like an EP or a mixtape.
16/17 has been done for a while, right?
Yeah, it’s been like 18 months [laughs].
Do you like sitting on music and knowing you have stuff in the pipeline waiting to release or was that really specific to this project?
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It’s just that a lot of the album is about a specific person who all of a sudden — my life changed and we’re not together anymore. I didn’t want to listen to the album when that happened, I wanted to scrap it. I needed time to sit on it and see if it was still an important project for me. I needed to want to perform it because I’m at the point where I need to do shows. When it happened, I hated the album and didn’t want to perform it, but that faded and now I’m at peace with it.
What’s next for RYAN Playground? I mean, besides the electro Korea project, which is going to be completely different — but what’s the next step for you, is it making more music, performing more?
I think it’s performing more — we’re trying to set up a tour in Europe and, probably, Asia. I really fell in love with Korea and I would love to go back and do some Asian dates. I think there’s going to be more of a delineation between RYAN Playground, live, which is more album-style, with guitar and singing; and there’s goes to be RYAN Playground, more dance, electronic. But that’s separating naturally, so I think I’m just going to own that.
Being at the stage where you have to go on-stage and perform, how does that compare to exclusively having to make music? Do you enjoy performing as much as you like being in the studio?
It’s a tough question because I pushed this moment [performing] back for years — I was too stressed to perform my songs. DJ sets aren’t the same, I’m used to it and I don’t have to play or sing. But when I released elle, my last EP, I didn’t do any live performances because I was too scared. So this is the first year that I’m doing shows and, to be honest, I think I really like it. Every time I have a show I have a cold because I’m stressed I guess — I don’t feel it in my head and I’m super relaxed, but I guess my body is sending me a message like, hey, you are stressed!.
I realized this week when I got a cold the day I was performing, my throat was killing me. So, I don’t like that about it, but once it’s done, I love the feeling of performing live.
What was your first show?
It was SXSW last year.
That’s a pretty big stage for your first performance, no?
Yeah, I know [laughs]. It was a big step. There were some issues — electronic issues — at the beginning of the show, but, miraculously, they got solved. It was good luck hidden in bad luck, because it forced me to face what could go wrong and surpass it. Afterwards, it was such a good feeling because I was, like, ‘well, anything could happen now!’
It’s like a blessing in disguise.
Yeah, it was the perfect way of breaking the ice! Okay, if that’s the worst that can happen, that’s not too bad.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. If you enjoyed our sit down with RYAN Playground, check out some of our other interviews.