A year ago, Ryan Beatty sat in barely-moving traffic on an LA freeway, going nowhere and ready to give up.
The constantly churning machine of Los Angeles – where the 22-year-old singer-songwriter has lived for the best part of six years – can swallow things up like the sea. Trends; records; people destined for greatness, it has the strange and oppressive ability to bottleneck its creators into one lane. There, they champion simple, commercial successes and leave everybody else to fend for themselves.
Back in 2011, when the city got its hands on Ryan, the then-16-year-old was destined to become what some journalists called “Justin Bieber 2.0”. At the time, the ‘Baby’ singer seemed to have mastered the formula for modern, matinee idol stardom, and labels everywhere were desperate to recreate it.
So when Ryan’s treacle-sweet voice and boyish good looks were discovered by music bosses, he was plucked from his hometown Fresno (220 miles north of L.A.) and carted off to the City of Angels. There, he made affable pop music that teenage girls loved, and his presence – at radio stations and music venues – sent them into a frenzy.
He was the cookie-cutter-perfect object of everybody’s affection, touring the length and breadth of America with his equally handsome contemporaries, like Cody Simpson. But in the back of his mind, Ryan realised that he wasn’t interested in an archetypal pop boy career.
“I felt like my identity wasn’t my own,” Ryan tells NME, calling from his bare LA apartment on a Sunday afternoon. “The way people saw me – maybe subliminally – I didn’t even recognise it at the time. But I felt like I had to do what everybody wanted from me, and not what I wanted to do myself.” A year after the hysteria began, he let go of his team and stepped out of the spotlight. He had to learn how to be a real person again.
The years that followed were a whirlwind. Ryan reassessed his career. He played smaller shows to more intimate crowds. He came out as gay.
That night on the freeway was a pivotal point in all of this; the moment that catalysed the creation of his debut LP – titled ‘Boy in Jeans’ – out now – on which Ryan lays his whole story out without any of the perfectly preened bullshit. After pushing through the traffic to the show, he met producer Calvin Valentine there.
“At that time I had nothing going for me – literally nothing,” Ryan says, “but we had a session together a week later – about a year ago this week. I was so close to not going to it because there was something inside of me that was telling me nothing was going to work out. Instead, I said ‘Nope, I’m gonna go, do my best and see what happens’.”
It was the pairing that lead to Ryan’s musical renaissance. Calvin became his producer, and together, the duo created one of the most soul-bearing, rich and revelatory debut pop records of the past decade.
Love is a currency musicians have dealt in for decades, so when it’s used by someone in a truly personal way – based in lived experience rather than generalisations for the masses to resonate with – you take note. Ryan’s record is rooted in his experience as a young queer man robbed of an authentic teenagehood, rebuilding himself away from the public’s scrutinising gaze.
“For the first time I felt comfortable in the studio,” he says of the ‘Boy in Jeans’ sessions. “I was honest, and could write about what I wanted to write about. I remember leaving the studio that night – that one session told me that I could do this. Two months after that moment, I felt like I’d reached a point where I’d got to say what I wanted to say. Suddenly, everything felt so cohesive.”
The most obvious comparison that you can make with his sound – even Ryan knows this – is with the profound and candid songs of Frank Ocean, an artist who has played a key role in the way young queer musicians articulate their emotions. But for years, like Frank, Ryan’s heterosexual front was something the public and journalists had falsely decided for him. “I was still figuring out myself, and it was something that I ignored back then,” he says, wincing a little when I mention an interview that, in retrospect, is sad to sit through.
“In my head, I had to plan ahead: if people asked me certain things [about girls and relationships] I’d have to have an answer for them. Looking back, I’m not angry about people asking me that, but getting around those questions was so difficult.”
But ‘Boy in Jeans’ is Ryan Beatty’s ecstatic, queer liberation. “Wake me up when the days are over, reminiscent of a life I had,” he sings on ‘Haircut’ – the first words spoken on the record. The chorus – simply, sweetly – hears him yelling, “It starts right now!”. Elsewhere, songs like ‘God in Jeans’ take us deeper into the 22-year-old’s languid and lovely relationships. “God is real,” he announces. “He was sleeping in my bed last night. We were naked with the radio on.”
Then, there’s the euphoric, practically perfect ‘Bruise’. On it, Ryan recounts the time he left a girl he was dating crying and alone at homecoming, as he shifted off into the shadows to kiss the boy he truly loved. It’s this constant flitting between honesty and conformity, happiness and heartbreak that makes this such a monumental debut.
The video for ‘Bruise’ was directed by another queer cultural voice that Ryan counts as a friend: BROCKHAMPTON’s Kevin Abstract. Having first linked up after Ryan fell in love with Kevin’s solo debut ‘American Boyfriend’, it wasn’t until last summer, when the pair moved closer to each other, that they hung out more often. “I felt like a kid again,” he tells me of the months he spent with Kevin and the rest of the group. The friendship developed into Ryan jumping on vocals for some of BROCKHAMPTON’s most hyped tracks: ‘BLEACH’, ‘LET’S GET MARRIED’ and, most recently, ‘TONYA’. It’s a privilege so few have been afforded. Ryan, ever bashful, knows that.
“I always try to make it clear to them that if they never wanted to make music with me again, it wouldn’t matter to me, because being their friend is more important,” he tells me. “I get really emotional about friendships, I felt so paranoid growing up. So I was afraid that, for some reason, they would think my intentions were different – but I just love them as human beings.”
Every so often, pop music feels rebellious – like its creators have purposely strayed off the beaten track and created something that rejects pop’s universal purpose. Ryan must be proud of ‘Boy in Jeans’ – an album that queer kids both now and in future will hold close to their hearts. “I very much am,” he smiles – you can hear his happiness down the phone line. “I really don’t care what anybody has to say, negatively, because I love it with all my heart. And to me, that alone means more than anything.”