It's Declan Ryan's lyrics that get you first. This Rochester singer-songwriter still searches for the appropriate genre in which to focus his insight, but his interim sound — his default strain, if you will — allows for his words to burn unfettered with a stark, undeniable hipster cool. The 23-year-old's enigmatic lyricism and bare-bone guitar strike like Michelle Shocked's "Texas Campfire Tapes," or the early work of Ryan Adams (before Adams got buried in a pile his own prolific output). There are certainly more refined artists in our local music scene, but Ryan's search and his invitation for everyone to spelunk along with him, makes for an engaging listen and a peek under music's hood.
Ryan seems to be throwing it all against the wall to see what sticks. He lends guitar to the swinging roots-rock un-band, The Public Market Band, has played with Gunnar Stahl, Club Sandwich, and recently came off an East Coast tour with Ahura Mazda.
For Ryan, it's the songwriter that comes first in the chow line before the singer. And it's the words that are at the heart of it all.
"Definitely the songwriter," he says. "My voice is definitely my weak spot. I used to be a guitar teacher back in the day and always had more luck with that. But first and foremost are lyrics and a catchy tune."
But at the same time, Ryan agrees it's a combo collaboration of the two. "Sometimes, like in the case of artists like Leonard Cohen, where a lot of his songs were published as poems first. And a lot of people analyze Simon and Garfunkel that way as well. I think the two are definitely separate spheres, but the lyrics are integral to the music. The two really can't be separated."
But do lyrics and music each pull their fair share? Singer-songwriter fans seem to be willing to give bad singing a pass as long as the lyrics hold up. Consider Bob Dylan, for example.
"I've heard numerous accounts that he's really a good singer," Ryan says. "And that's just a front he puts up... Or take somebody like Cohen, who doesn't have a traditionally good voice. Or Tom Waits. The point at which you're alright is when it stops interfering with the music. And that's as far as you need to get. The way I see it; if you want to be a singer songwriter, if you want to be able to stand in a room with a guitar or piano and play a song, and have people get into it, there's a certain baseline technical skill you need there. Anything above that is where you start developing your style."
As original melodies and hooks get harder and harder to mine from what once upon a time seemed like a bottomless well, artists like Ryan have to forage for what remains. The lyrics give ownership, somewhat.
"It's just a different set of experiences," Ryan says. "I mean, a lot of people have done what I've done. I guess I just want to write songs that I want to hear that nobody's written yet."
Though a fairly original artist, Ryan's influences and intentions aren't nearly as elusive as you might think. His references are reverential and unburied. His music is essentially anti-folk and his lyrics are Beat. Think Ferlinghetti with some fizz, Kaufman with a kick. For example, from his song "Then Don't Hipst:"
"All my lover's names are on highway signs
So baby, blow a kiss to the state line
And pray we don't come back this way
For quite some time.
All these yellow lines and Jersey walls
You see 'em once, you've seen 'em all."
Ryan's next step is to assemble an electric band to "explore and arrange these songs we've done acoustically and take it in more of a rock 'n' roll direction," he says. "I want to get some more people involved in it, but it seems that everybody that's really talented is either crazy or busy."
He says that the songs and their components will weather the potential electric storm, that treacherous teeter-totter between plugged and un-plugged treatments.
"Writing fairly simple songs with cowboy chords and not showing off, it's pretty easy to go back and forth," he says. "The way I see it, I want to make these pieces fit. It's like a puzzle. I want them to fit in a way that it's appealing to somebody that knows nothing about music and somebody that's been through music school or is a 10-year veteran. I want to give them balance."
Depending on who you ask — or when you ask the question — you'll get a variety of explanations of what the Sound ExChange Project really is: A local contemporary classical ensemble; a chamber group; an artist collective; composers; curators; educators; community-investors.