Faced with a lengthy time on the sidelines thanks to the pandemic, Texan troubadour Ryan Hamilton hit upon the notion of the ‘1221’ project; releasing one song a month, on the twelfth of the month, for the twelve months of 2021. With Stevie Van Zandt (consigliere to both of New Jersey’s most famous sons) onboard with his record label Wicked Cool Records, ‘1221’ is now seeing the light of day in traditional album form. Ryan joined us from his gaff in Texas to talk about the album and working with Stevie Van Zandt, also on the agenda: an honest, open chat regarding his mental health struggles. Check-in with Ryan below…
Let’s get the all-important question out of the way first: depending on who you ask, your surname can either come from Leicestershire, England, or some say Lanarkshire, Scotland – where do your ancestors hail from?
Okay, there’s actually a funny story about this, I did ancestry DNA as I was curious to find out where I was really from. I had started touring the UK and every once and a while someone would ask where I was from, my Dad’s side is German, but it could have gone anywhere as there is some Native American in there. So we traced the Hamilton side, as that’s what I was most curious about, and we traced it to this tiny little place just outside of Leicester, so my ancestors came from a little place near Ashby-de-la-Zouch [North West Leicestershire], so it’s very British, and I’m fine with that…but I wanted it to be something wild!
Glad we cleared that up! Now, onto ‘1221’, I know it sounds like something that your Grandmother might say, but where has the year gone?!
Dude, I know! We got into this routine of a song a month for ‘1221’ and then we blinked and it was November and I was like “Whaaaaaat!”, it’s been wild how fast it has gone.
From a punter’s point of view, it’s been great waiting for the 12th of the month to come around and the new track landing, but, from your perspective, did it ever feel like a chore for you having to hit that date month after month?
It did, and that’s a really good question. That is THE reason why instead of “I’m going to write a song, twelve times, just me”, and put that pressure on myself to have each song single-worthy – the label wanted to put every track on the radio, they were like “If we are doing this, then you have to write us singles every single month” – I started reaching out to artist friends, asking “ I know this is crazy but would you write me a song, or maybe send me a song that you wrote and don’t know what to do with it”. Doing it that way, took that pressure off of me, and I did find some friends; Bob Schnieder, Chuck Prophet, Roger Clyne, and some others, that either wrote me a song or gave me a song that they had never recorded, or even suggested a song to cover. Without that, I probably would have not been able to do it for the very reason that you asked about. I’m sure that I could have done it on my own, but it wouldn’t have been very good. And, once I had announced it, and the label announced it, there was no backing out.
Did you ever find yourself having to take a step back from a particular song and maybe revisit it later on?
Yeah, we left one song off completely. We finished it, and recorded it, my producer Dave Draper – who is incredible – was annoyed with me because I said that I was not using this particular one. I thought that maybe if I left it and came back to it…but I left it and came back to it and went…“No”. We had kept the bar so high, and I just couldn’t do it, and that created a bit of a panic with the label and they asked “Can you give us another one?”…so I said, “I think so!”. I’m trying to think what one it was? I have the CD here…that’s right, there is a song called ‘Permanent Holiday’ and there was supposed to be another song in that place, so with me going “No, I don’t want to put that one out”, it meant that ‘Permanent Holiday’ took its place and ‘Permanent Holiday’ has become the biggest song on radio here.
So that meant that you could turn to the label with a smug grin on your face and say…”I told you!”…
Yeah! [Laughs] And I did! It’s weird, there have been some people asking for it for film and TV over here. That song has become this weird monster by itself.
You mentioned Dave Draper, it must have been crucial to have Dave there as a sounding board?
So, I’ve learned to really count on Dave. The ‘This Is The Sound’ album won the Independent Award for Album of The Year when it came out, then we did ‘Nowhere To Go But Everywhere’, and that charted between Neil Young and Taylor Swift, and then we were like…”Maybe let’s keep working together!”. When we started working on ‘1221’ I said to him; “I’ve got have you by my side, Dave, because I can’t do this by myself”…all of the instrumentation on this is just me and Dave, and I don’t think that people know that. I think that they think it’s my band. But it’s not, it’s just me and Dave!
He has an instantly recognisable sound…
Yes, he has a sonic thing where it’s big and polished, but still feels raw. A lot of producers will make it shiny, or they will make it rock n’ roll, and Dave has this thing where he can do both, simultaneously, and I love it! At this point, it would feel like I was cheating on him if I worked with anybody else.
The album works really well as individual tracks, but also as an album in the traditional sense, was the endgame of ‘1221’ always going to be the release of an album?
No, that wasn’t always the idea. It was originally just going to be twelve singles, really just to get through covid. Some people are studio animals…I like to be out playing shows, so if that was going to be taken away from me, then I had to do something else to stop myself from going crazy. When the idea of an album was presented to me, I found myself writing differently. The songs towards the end; ‘Do The Damage’, ‘If Life Was A Movie’, and the last one ‘Ready To Love Again’, those three songs – and I’m excited to start sharing this with people – tell a story from beginning to end. They all talk about being damaged, if you listen to the lyrics of ‘Do The Damage’ and ‘If Life Was A Movie’ then they are talking about the same two people. And then ‘Ready To Love Again’ is about the same two people again, and I don’t know if this accidental concept of the last three songs came about just because of the album. I don’t think that those three songs would have been written – and this is why I mention it – if I didn’t know at that point that there was going to be an album.
Some total bangers on the album; ‘Banditos’ always make me smile regardless of what mood I’m in, but the one that I find myself constantly turning to is ‘Do The Damage’, if ever a song made you miss live music, then it’s this one…
That’s my favorite one also! It’s the one that I was most excited about as far as the song went. I was like “Oooooh, I really like this!”…
What track gave you the most satisfaction when you heard it back for the first time?
Oh, man, that’s hard! I would say probably ‘Permanent Holiday’ just because of the way that it all went down, but I’ll tell you something: there’s this song called ‘Caught Up In A Moment’ which is like a piano-y ballad, and there’s a part in that song that goes [sings] “You could be a better version of yourself…”, that part of the song, I realised after the fact, that is literally “Gonna start a revolution from my bed…” which is, of course, Oasis ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’! [Laughs] I mean, we all do it! It was totally accidental, I did not realise! And any time that I hear that part…I smile and think…”My God, I totally ripped them off!”
I’m sure that Noel won’t mind! Now, you’ve mentioned your record label a few times already, it would be remiss of me not to bring up just how cool (sic) the label actually is: it must be a buzz being on Wicked Cool?
So, I’m now on my third record label; the first one with the first band was the big lesson, they tell you that you are going to be rich and famous, that they are going to give you all this money, so I learned the hard way about a bad record label. You hear all these stories about a label like SubPop back in the day, a boutique family-vibe, and to have found that with Wicked Cool, – and they are that way on purpose – a small “family” label capable of big things…I am so thankful for that. I mean, I was ready to DIY for the rest of my career, and to have them and Stevie [Van Zandt, label head] find me and say “Don’t worry, we got you”, that’s something that I am thankful for all the time.
How did Stevie and Wicked Cool “find you”?
They thought that I was British! It’s true! So, I had done really well in America with a few previous projects, and the music industry was changing so much, I mean, my first big band was big on MySpace, just so you have a point of reference! I had been to the UK once with another project and just loved it, I could tell that there was a good response, so I decided to go back over because nobody knew who I was or knew my previous bands. It went really well really fast, Ginger Wildheart found me and took me on tour, Mike Peter and The Alarm, and all these big names started saying “Who is this guy? We really like this guy!”, they thought that I was new…people are surprised at how old I am! I got really lucky with the buzz in the UK and Stevie Van Zandt and the guys at Wicked Cool thought…”Man, there is this British guy with all this buzz, this Ryan Hamilton guy”…and the first time that I spoke to Stevie on the phone…he was so confused! He was like “Whaaaaat, what’s going on?!”, but that’s how it happened! It’s so weird.
You mentioned Ginger Wildheart, for many people, their first experience of Ryan Hamilton would have been when you supported Ginger on his solo tour back in 2016, sandwiched in between Ginger and Massive Wagons. I caught the Glasgow show on that tour and had no idea who you were, and when you came on I thought that this was going to go one of two ways, and thankfully it went the good way! It must have been the Black Crowes shirt that you were wearing that done it! What do you remember of those shows?
That tour felt special, and in a healthy way; it felt competitive. Massive Wagons would play first…and I’m a competitive dude, so I would be like “Okay if you are going to go out and do that, then watch this…”, and that’s what I remember. I love Barry [Mills, Massive Wagons vocalist], we’ve been rooting for each other since then, we’ve stayed friends, and other than some long-lasting friendships; Ginger and the guys in his band, Conny Bloom, Toshi, and all those people, I remember feeling the excitement of going onstage and thinking – in a good way – we are about to fuck this crowd up! Sometimes on tour, you get in this routine of it’s “just another show”, but on that tour, we were ready – mainly because of Massive Wagons, and Danny Wildheart’s other band The Main Grains, who also played some shows – because the opening bands were so experienced, and for them to be at THAT level created a lot of buzz.
That buzz has continued at great speed over the last few years, there is a genuine feeling of people willing you to make it…why do you think that there is such a strong “community” feeling within your following?
That’s a really good question, I think that being honest helps. If I say that I need help, as in we’re doing okay but we’re still not there, and we’re in this together, then that helps create that community feel. I come from the school of friends like Amanda Palmer where we are all trying to get to the same place and we’re all helping each other and are counting on the support of fellow artists to build each other up – and not all fellow artists are like that. I’ve always been the little engine that could, the underdog, and it’s always felt like that…I don’t know why! I think that people wanting me to get to this place that I’ve never gotten to helps, I’ve been “almost” there for years, then covid arrived and that felt just like the story of my life.
I too have noticed the community feel, and I’m counting on that…part of me wants it to always be like that, but part of me wants it to be like…”Can we just tip the scales in the other direction!”
Regardless of whether it’s Ryan Hamilton and The Traitors, or Ryan Hamilton and The Harlequin Ghosts, or just plain old Ryan Hamilton, it’s a dilemma for fans because, on one hand, you want more people to hear the music, but on the other, there is that feeling of keeping it all to yourself. It’s a balancing act…
I feel that way too, and I’ve felt that way about bands that I like. I get that vibe sometimes with me…people are like “We’ll just keep him here and not let him go higher…”, and if you can keep me here and I’m okay forever, then I’m fine with that. It has been a struggle for musicians like me to pay the bills these last two years…we do, but barely.
You have been very open about your mental health struggles during the pandemic, how are you at the minute? Are you okay?
I’m good. It was hard for me because I got divorced before covid, so I got divorced, moved into a new house by myself, and then it was covid. So that was really hard, and I have been really honest about that. There are websites like Better Health where you can see your therapist online via a video chat like this, and I am a big advocate of that. That helped me get through covid because we were all stuck at home and the weekly appointment really helped. Speaking as someone not from the UK, I think that there is a certain stigma there surrounding therapy and talking about certain things. I do feel that if I mention to someone from the UK that I go to therapy then they might not want to talk about it because no one really does talk about it over there. But thank you for asking, I’m really good now, but there was a time in 2020, most of it actually, where it was just like…well, we had just released an album that charted, and then it died because there was no tour to support it. I know that is all going to change and I’ll go back on tour in 2022, but man, it has been rough. And I know it has been rough on everybody, so I know it’s not a case of “poor me”, it’s “poor us”, we have to take care of each other. People need to talk more; it’s okay to go to therapy, it’s okay to not be okay, all of these things are legit and should be accepted more globally and shouldn’t be something that someone has to suffer on their own.
Do you find that with you being so honest, people take advantage of you?
Oh, yes. The worst is when…and this is a slippery slope to talk about, so bear with me if I pause inbetween…everybody deserves to be heard whatever they are saying, so if they are saying that they are going to kill themself, that they are depressed, then that deserves your attention. Even if it’s a cry for help and they are [pauses] not going to do anything to harm themselves, no matter if it’s just “Pay attention to me”, that should be enough for someone to go “Okay, what do you need? We’re here”, if it got to that point where that person actually said “I’m going to kill myself”, then people need to listen. There’s this really hard thing that comes with that, there are people that will say “Oh, they are never going to do it”, or something similar, and my thing is so what if they are not going to do it, look past what they are actually saying and show them some love and compassion, and think about why maybe they said that in the first place.
So, where I get in trouble, and people do kind of take advantage in a way – everybody on the internet thinks that they are an expert, these keyboard warriors or whatever – I will say that I try and lead by example, always, my dad is also that way, so I will say that I’m having a hard time, a moment that all artists like me probably have and say that they want to quit….”I can’t tour, I’m frustrated, this sucks”, and I put myself out there like that, and then I get the people going “Shut up, nobody cares, you’re fine, look at the kind of life you have…”, I don’t live an extravagant life, but I’m okay. So they take advantage in that they allow me to be open and say something, and then it’s like they punch me in the stomach. Which probably isn’t what you meant by people taking advantage, but that’s how it feels. It’s like a weird backward kind of way of feeling like you have been taken advantage of because you were honest…
Like suckering you in then hitting you for six…
Yes! And to me, that is the hardest part, being open, then being made to feel small, because you were actually open about mental health. The internet has made it possible for bullying and all this cowardly behaviour, whereas when you and I were younger and in high school, you had to have the balls to go and say it to someone’s face.
I appreciate your honesty…
I don’t mean to go on about it so much, but it’s a subject that I’m passionate about…I know that I’m going to get it every once in a while, but that’s okay. Catch me on a wrong day, when I am having what I call a “manic low”, or I’m just going through some shit and some asshole will say something…it’s not fun.
Is that where ‘Fuck You Brain’, the duet with Ginger Wildheart, came from? A total banger, and genuinely one of the best songs of this century…
Hey, I won’t disagree! I love that one. I don’t know if you know the story of how that came about, but we were texting each other just checking in on each other, and I think Ginger was not doing so good and said something, and I replied “Well, fuck your brain…”, and Ginger replied, “That’s a song…”, so I said “What do you mean that’s a song? Fuck your brain?” and it changed to “What if it was Fuck You Brain?”, and I love that it came from that place of one of us not being okay, the song was birthed from one of us actually feeling that way, and I love that! We texted the lyrics back and forth, and that’s all it was, the song was written via text messages…without any music! Ginger also goes through his own hell, but I love that man and I am forever grateful to him, we’re still friends to this day.
Lastly, when touring resumes, and you can make it over to the UK, will you still be using the same guys; The Harlequin Ghosts?
Honestly, I don’t know? I’m worried that people will get upset. I talk to Steve, my manager, about this probably more than he wants! [Laughs] But, I have to go play shows. It’s what I feel that I was put on this earth to do. I love playing shows, so, now that we’ve had two years of not playing, people have gotten into different routines, and with the exception of Carol [Hodge, keyboards/vocals] who does her own thing – and she is awesome – nobody else is writing songs. Everyone is doing their own things, and I don’t want to go on tour in the UK and have people saying “Where is so-and-so?”. I want them to come and listen to the songs, I want to go out and play with whoever it makes the most sense to play with and after not playing for two years I am going to say yes to every gig, and If I can’t get someone to play with me, then I’ll get someone else. Whatever it is? Sign me up! I’ll go, and we will figure out the rest after the fact! But just get me on the calendar, I don’t care what it is!
First round on us?
Ryan Hamilton, one of the good guys. Pick up the new album ‘1221’, here.
Interview – Dave
Live images – Dave Jamieson, Ritchie Birnie, Becky O’ Grady