Music Editor John Freeman interviews Ryan Dillaha about his new record, Closer To Better.
Tell us about your new record, Closer to Better.
They were songs that I wrote over a couple of years, clusters of them that were four or five years back, I hadn’t recorded anything since my last record with The Miracle Men. It was a sort of back to basics. It was also the first time I gave up the reins of production. Bunky Hunt, of Whistle Pig Records, produced and engineered it.
How does your family’s working class background impact your approach to songwriting?
In a couple ways for sure. It’s really the backbone of everything I do. The music I heard was from that class of people that migrated from the south to the north for industrial jobs, all sorts of forms, all the music that was from those places and in between my dad listened to on record, from bluegrass to soul to blues to rock.
Also in terms of content, I always turn my attention to Rouge Steel where I worked for ten years, my dad did 37 years. I have a sad strain in a lot of songs, there’s a kind of loneliness.
There are two songs on the new record that draw from that, one is called “All They Take,” which comes from a conversation I had with my dad a long time ago where I asked him if he thought union workers were paid too much and he said, “Let them try to give back all that they take,” so I used that in a song and kind of wrote a narrative about the span of a lifetime working in a factory.
The other one is “Wide Open Skies,” which is a description of Downriver, those working class suburbs south of Detroit where the Rouge Plant is located. An industrial center criss-crossed by train tracks where stuff is built and shipped all over to people who need it. That song is based in that working class Downriver experience.
What is your personal favorite song on the new record and why?
Off the top of my head, I’m proud of this record, it represented a growth of songwriting for me for sure, and there were some different newer directions I was trying to go I think. One thing I’d been trying to do is to make more narrative songs, songs that aren’t about me. “My Old Friend” on this record I like a lot, cuz when it came to me I was grinning and giggling as the lines came out, it’s a fun song, I think it’s indebted to Todd Snider’s songs, Robert Earl Keen, that kind of n’er do well tradition. Guy goes to a bar, gets drunk, robs a bank, goes to jail, gets a postcard from his friend who’s living it up, so hitting that well-trod path, that trope of songs.
Many of your songs could be characterized as confessional, especially “Two Blind Brothers” and “Old Heart.” How do you navigate the fact that some of the real-life people mentioned in your songs might recognize themselves, and do you worry about that?
It’s something I’m aware of, to tell you the truth, the entire time I’ve been writing songs, its been 23 years, at the beginning when you’re just writing them and you’re not that good, my father, especially was so rooted in song, they were such an intimate expression, and I’ve written so many songs for specific people (friends, my daughters, my ex wife) I’ll send them to them, I’ll send those songs to people they’re about. I want people to know who they are in the songs, because I want to say that to them. It’s not always that literal, you take that moment of emotion, it’s not always.
Most of the people I mention in my songs, I’m talking to regularly and we end up talking about them. I don’t try to hide from them. It’s a part of my life and people I’m talking to when I’m writing my songs we end up discussing them and talking about it.
One of the things in “Old Heart,” which is like about an ex-lover, there’s a verse about my dad where I say, “I miss my daddy’s heart. The bottle took the better part.” He was at my release show, I didn’t plan on this but as I sang it, some internal voice edited it and I knew he was listening to it, so I said, “I miss my daddy’s heart. The bottle took a little part.” I was angrier when I wrote the line–you know in the process of writing you exaggerate things, you know you’re looking for a line or a turn of phrase you’re looking for a line that has a certain turn of phrase or sound, but then the person who hears it thinks it’s a literal thing and might not know you’re changing it slightly. But like I said, I’ve always been close enough to people I’m writing about that I think they get it.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a consistent process? Is there some way that a song of yours goes from idea to hatching to finished product that’s consistent or somewhat consistent?
I think there is, a big part of it is, doing it, making sure you’re trying every day. My most fruitful periods are the times I’m sitting there writing for multiple hours a day, I don’t have to try or force myself to do it, I just want to, so I sit down and play the guitar for a couple hours.
I think my stuff always begins with a phrase. A line arises, and that line is either a cool line in a verse or it’s heavy and cool enough to be the hook, the chorus. I usually write the words and chords at the same time. So I have the word sand chords
I was writing on a yellow pad, a legal pad with a pen, “Something between you and me, it was closer to midnight than a moment should be,” and I read that one time and thought, “Oh man, it was closer to midnight than a moment had any right to be,” and that sounded to me like the hook. It was just cooler of a notion, like a moment has rights to be or do anything. I thought that’s the chorus or a hook. Those are the best moments, kind of brainstorming with a pen and making discoveries.
I think I always build the structure off of one anchored line, and that is sometimes in a verse or in a chorus. In my process it’s harder when the line you come up with is in the verse. When you come up with a hook line or chorus, you start wondering about situations where that line could apply.
How does your background in literature inform your lyrics and the themes of your songs? Or is your scholarly and English professor life separate from your life as a songwriter? I’d imagine the two complement each other.
Definitely I think the things that I read couldn’t help but inform the songs that I write. I’m reading (short stories or novels)and writing songs at the same time. I’m a huge fan of collections of stories that are all about one place, a long storied tradition, pun intended, Dubliners, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, more recently Collin Barrett’s Young Skins, for instance, cool to see how a short story collection can be like an album. I hope my songs sound like they’re from the same place, a cubist view of a neighborhood.
I do wanna say this before wrapping up: I was blessed to have a world class caliber of musicians on this record. Chuck Bartels, Grammy-winning bassist from Sturgil Simpson’s band, Takashi io on upright bass. Aaron Jonah Lewis on fiddle transformed the record. I first saw Aaron playing at Tom’s Tavern on 7 Mile Road in Detroit and was thrilled that Bunky got him to play on the record. I had my band, The Miracle Men on one tune. Giving up reins of production was exciting to listen to. Bunky Hunt’s effort behind the board and these musicians take it to a different place than my other records have been.
Ryan Dillaha, a Michigan native, once worked at a steel mill, and to let off the 9 to 5 steam, he played in bands on the weekends. He studied literature at Wayne State University and now teaches at Oakland Community College. He also fronts the rock n’ roll band, Ryan Dillaha and the Miracle men. Ryan’s music education was a mix of country, Motown and good classic rock n roll, the kind with swagger; so, combine that with a long list of favored authors—he’s a singing poet!