Stepping out as a solo artist can be daunting for a musician, especially for one who has spent over a decade being associated with a particular band. Luckily, Ryan Key is up to the task.
Key first gained a footing in the musical scene in the late ‘90s, as a member of rock and pop punk band Yellowcard. He spent 17 years as the band’s principal songwriter, lead singer and rhythm guitarist, penning such hits as “Ocean Avenue” and “Lights and Sounds.” The band released its final album, Yellowcard, in 2016, and now Key is branching out on his own as a solo artist.
“After Yellowcard, I was going to get into some songwriting and producing of my own,” Key said in an interview with The Daily. “But then I had this opportunity arise to play guitar with New Found Glory…When they asked me if I’d play guitar, they also asked if I’d open the tours, just as myself.”
The need for songs to play on tour was part of what led to Key’s debut solo EP, released under his full name, William Ryan Key. Thirteen, out May 25 from The Lone Tree Recordings, is a surprising departure from the rock Yellowcard fans may be familiar with. Each of the five tracks is acoustic, gentle and beautifully introspective, from the clipped and poetic “Vultures” — which may be the most familiar bridge from Yellowcard material into this new, folksy territory — to the existential “Great Unknown.”
“Over the last year or so, I’ve been doing a lot of smaller acoustic shows … I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted my own songs to sound like,” Key said. “It took a long time to get started, but once I started writing the songs, it really started coming more naturally.”
The new EP is full of folk influences, both in the melodic compositions and lyrics of the songs. Key cited a wide variety of artists as instrumental in helping to build his attraction to singer-songwriter music, including Ben Folds Five, Explosions in the Sky, Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell, Death Cab for Cutie and Bon Iver.
“I’m always looking to a lot of singer-songwriters,” Key said. “When I picked up my guitar and started writing, that’s where that influence inspired me.”
While a diverse array of influences factored into Thirteen, it is still by all means its own project. The new EP is a unique and individual effort, thanks also to the fact that it was produced by The Lone Tree Recordings, Key’s own recording studio based in Tennessee.
“I produced the EP myself with my friend Arun Bali. He plays guitar in the band Saves the Day. We co-produced it together. He just has this really cool, analog, indie rock vibe,” Key said. “He’s an amazing guitarist and really had a lot of influence on the atmospheric songs you hear on the record.”
The fact that the entire EP is self-produced through The Lone Tree gave Key a lot of freedom to work with in developing his new sound.
“The nice thing about having your own record studio is that you can press ‘record’ whenever you want,” said Key, adding that he knew from the beginning that he would aim to have about five songs on the EP. “So once I had five ideas I was like, well, I’m not even going to write any more.”
This allowed more freedom for making these songs sound polished and complete. Working on his own without Yellowcard to bounce ideas off of, Key would often “let the music direct [him] melodically and lyrically.”
“So the process is different from with Yellowcard, but there are a lot of similarities as well,” he said.
Yellowcard often released acoustic versions of their own music, including the albums When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes and Ocean Avenue. Nevertheless, the tender feel of Thirteen is new territory, and Key admits to being apprehensive about the adventurous delve into his own direction.
“I was nervous because it’s so mellow. I mean, I don’t even use a guitar pick on any of the songs,” he said.
Reception to the music so far has been positive; the single “Vultures” was released recently to widespread popular approval. Key called the public reaction to the new music “amazing,” adding his appreciation that “no one’s standing out in the crowd, yelling at me to play Yellowcard songs.”
Debuting as a solo artist after such a lengthy tenure with a band, let alone a well known one like Yellowcard, is bound to prompt some self-examination for any artist. Luckily, being honest with himself has “always been a big part of [Key’s] songwriting,” and he is no stranger to asking — and answering — these sorts of questions.
“A big part of what I write about is self-realization and looking at myself, my faults, my mistakes. This record, being as stripped down as it is, I’m letting myself and the lyrics be as stripped down and as naked as possible,” Key said. “It encompasses a lot of what myself and my family have been feeling lately. We’ve struggled with losing people we love, and people we love being hurt … Even when things are going well, you can still be struggling with what people you love are struggling with.”
Naturally, the album takes on a lot of themes involving looking back on the past, from being haunted by it in “Form and Figure” to the experience of thoughtful nostalgia in “Old Friends.” Key noted that he had expected to end up exploring these sorts of themes, but that the record brought with it some surprising new ideas well.
“One theme that isn’t super direct, but I think it’s on there, is the theme of stepping out on my own,” Key said.
It seems fitting that Thirteen should find a balance between looking back on a storied past and forward to an equally rich future. If these five tracks are any indication, there is plenty of exciting musical territory left for Key to explore, and this is only the beginning.
“I don’t think I thought I’d feel bad, but I feel better than I thought I would feel,” Key said of the EP’s release and the public reaction to the new music. He likened the feeling to the early days of Yellowcard, when there would be “people from the record companies coming to see us, and we’d think, ‘Oh, maybe this is the start of something.’”
The stage is set for a hopeful future, with Key and his team “already talking about making new music,” and looking to put out a second EP as soon as this upcoming fall. In the meantime, the New Found Glory tour is underway, with a stop in Pontiac, MI, coming up on June 1.
“I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity ahead I didn’t even realize was there,” Key said. “It seems like it’s going somewhere, and that’s all I can ask for.”