Ryan Downey: “We’ve got to step out of the comfort of fear”

The Melbourne singer on how a telephone psychic and magic realism play into his bold, bombastic new album ‘A Ton Of Colours’

Standing alone in thick bush, somewhere near Echuca, Victoria, Ryan Downey started screaming. He began timidly, like “an actor’s version of a scream”, but quickly got lost in the moment and its physicality, yelling nonsense words at the trees. Thirty minutes of catharsis later, Downey was lying in the gum leaves and red dirt, revitalised.

Downey’s big scream in early 2019 was a psychic, rather than psychotic, event. The task, set by a telephone psychic, was a potentially dangerous act for a gifted singer, but it tapped a fresh spring of freedom and creativity – one that gushed into his new album, ‘A Ton Of Colours’.

“I don’t know if I really believe in psychics. But I guess I believe in curiosity,” he tells NME. “She told me that something subconscious was holding me back a little… I kind of felt what she meant.

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“I just felt amazing afterwards. Perhaps anyone would because it’s just a really freeing thing to do,” he continues. “I can’t really explain what it shifted in me, but from that point on, I just started writing and singing differently… going to far riskier places.”

On Downey’s 2018 debut, ‘Running’, the instrumentation accompanying his velvet baritone felt like accents to that record’s stillness and space. But on ‘A Ton of Colours’ – which Downey nearly titled ‘Risk’ – the music is big, bold and bombastic.

“‘Running’ was really an exercise in enjoyable control and restraint,” Downey says now, “the joyful feeling you can get out of… teasing things out. The new record’s about throwing myself in a vulnerable place, and exercis[ing] more self-expression.”

Downey felt the first spark flare into something bigger while touring Australia in late 2018 behind ‘Running’ with a full band (Jesse Glass on drums and Nicholas Roder on bass, who both play on ‘A Ton Of Colours’ and are now joined live by second guitarist Cordelia Crosbie).

“The sensation I got from being on stage with a band, rather than playing solo or with a backing track, re-awoke another part of myself,” says Downey, who was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis as a ballet-loving 10-year-old. “When I started playing with the band. I wanted to make music that could get me moving.”

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“Sometimes I couldn’t even walk, it was so painful,” he says of his childhood. “In the last few years I’ve found ways to manage the pain a lot better… get more physically fit, healthy and [find] that more performative side of myself. That gracefulness that ballet has – you’re throwing yourself around, but making something beautiful out of it.”

“I don’t know if I really believe in psychics. But I guess I believe in curiosity”

At the root of both ‘Running’ and ‘A Ton Of Colours’ is Downey’s long-term relationship – what he describes as the “biggest success in my life” – with the same person that helped him manage his arthritis. But where ‘Running’ was about intimacy and comfort, the new album is about how love can foster self-belief, energy and power.

On stage at a recent gig, Downey’s purposeful elegance brings to mind the mime training David Bowie undertook in his Ziggy Stardust phase; as the house lights came up, Bowie’s ‘Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)’ played on the speakers. Big nods to ’70s British rock are audible on ‘A Ton Of Colours’ – recorded by Burke Reid (Courtney Barnett, Julia Jacklin) – like the fantasias of Kate Bush, or the swagger of Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry on ‘Half Light’.

Again like Bowie, who wrote ‘Diamond Dogs’ using the “cut-up” writing technique developed by William Burroughs, Downey avoids literalness in his lyrics. Rather, he deploys feverish wordplay, riddled with allegory, sleights of hand and vivid imagery. Like on the record’s second track ‘Sors De Ma Tête’:

“Kaleidoscope horizon / Cut through me, you diamond / My night-long crave cycle / Your eyes on the back of my eyes / Your eyes on the back of my eyes / No sleep, no think, no speak, no fair / Sors de ma tête, j’étais ici le premier” (get out of my head, I was here first)

Its sister song, ‘Same Dream, Every Night’, was inspired by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, specifically his painting L’Empire des Lumieres, which features a house with its porch light on, shrouded in darkness beneath a cloudy blue daytime sky. And in the video for single ‘Heart Is An Onion’, Downey sports large lobster claws in place of his hands, bringing to mind Salvador Dali’s iconic Lobster Telephone. But Downey considers himself more of a “magic realist” than a surrealist, using reality-altering symbolism as a trigger for emotional connection.

For the video, and the album generally, Downey – who had filmmaking aspirations before landing on music – also drew on the heightened colour palette of Pedro Almodóvar. The Spanish director frequently uses melodramatic, often unnaturally saturated colours to convey specific emotions, tapping into subconscious communication beyond the capabilities of an actor and their script.

“Every now and then I think [people] can intellectually connect over an idea, but I think that usually has more to do with just validation of what we already think,” he muses. “The proper connection that can lead to harmony amongst people comes from empathising with emotions… we’ve got to face the risk of expressing part of ourselves that we want to share. We’ve got to face that risk and step out of the comfort of fear.”

Ryan Downey new album A Ton Of Colours interview 2021
Credit: Kate Adams

Downey has been a writer since he was young. One story he penned at the age of 11 features two main characters based on Downey and his younger brother Lewis, who trashes the older sibling’s room in a moment of frustration.

The real-life Lewis was born with Down syndrome and later diagnosed with autism. When puberty set in, he began to withdraw. Lewis has “a low level of expressive communication”, Downey says, and a limited vocabulary. But like his older brother, Lewis makes music, too. He records himself vocalising over the top of songs (often rhythmic music like Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ or Yothu Yindi), layering and repeating the process to create a bright tapestry of expression – the literal meaning or purpose of which remains elusive.

NME suggests to Downey that there’s a link between his upbringing with Lewis and his desire to communicate through a song’s emotions rather than its literal story. His relationship with Lewis wasn’t a conscious part of writing ‘A Ton Of Colours’, Downey says, though he acknowledges a possible connection.

“We’ve got to face the risk of expressing part of ourselves that we want to share”

“Lewis was never coming at music from an intellectual or even aesthetic place, and was not influenced by anyone else,” says Downey. “Perhaps there’s a part of that stream of consciousness as well, just being in the song… maybe [that] showed me music [is] about the spirit that’s there in the song – that has to connect and then you can just follow that.

“I guess, having that perspective as a kid, even subconsciously, makes you aware of the way that we all interact, and the way that we all connect. The main driver of my music is always to connect.”

One final filmic reference from ‘A Ton Of Colours’ comes to mind: the song ‘Contact’, which takes its name from the Jodie Foster-starring sci-fi movie. In the film, Foster meets an alien being who takes the form of her deceased father, using her love for him as a conduit for communication – emotional connection born from love.

Ryan Downey’s ‘A Ton Of Colours’ is out May 14 via Dot Dash/Remote Control

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