Ryan Shaw on Discovering His Inner Old Soul
by Barbara Schultz
A lot of A&R types might question the wisdom of a contemporary artist building his career around the sound and feel of ’60s and ’70s soul records. Ryan Shaw explains how this music found him, and how it speaks to him.
What is it about this old-school music that resonates for you? How come you’re not trying to be another John Legend or something?
Well, I think it all builds from this. It’s crazy because I grew up singing in church, but people always assume that I grew up listening to this music. I always say, “I really didn’t. I listened to gospel.”
You’re not actually old enough to have grown up listening to this music, at least not the first time around.
But it’s the same school, the gospel music I grew up with, because those [’60s and ’70s soul singers] went to the school of church. In other words, I went to the same music school that Otis Redding went to, or James Brown, or Sam Cooke. We’re all from the same background.
For me, it’s all music that can take me to a place where it does resonate. I can go to a deeper place and lose myself in the energy of the music. A lot of contemporary forms of music won’t allow me to go inside of it that way. Today’s modern R&B is restricted in the chord structure; there’s like three chords or two chords, and there are no real changes and nothing to really elevate music except the beat that comes in. Everybody’s waiting for the beat, but the message of the song is really lost in the rhythm. That’s been the key to me. I really love rock music, and you can year the classic rock elements that are involved in what I do. But soul is just how I open my mouth. I can sing a Shania Twain song, and it’s going to come out soul.
How did you end up going from the school of church to soul music?
When I first moved to New York, my first gig was actually at the Motown Café. I was trying to find work doing what I love to do so I wouldn’t have to wait tables, and I became a singer in one of the “Motown Moments,” as they call them. And that’s how I really got deep into the Motown part of it.
After that, I was trying to boost my income and I started singing with a doo-wop group called the Soul Shakers. We did ’50s doo wop and ’60s soul music, and that’s where I really got into some of the songs that were on the first album [This Is Ryan Shaw] like “I Found a Love” and “Do the Jerk.” “Do the 45” was a song I was singing with that group when Jimmy first heard me sing, and everything came from that. It started out as a way to pay the bills, and I fell in love with the music. Everything grew out of that.
When people like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke made the change from gospel to soul singing, some of their Christian fans disapproved. Is there any stigma today when a church singer makes pop records?
My mom doesn’t listen to secular music, but I do say that if she would cringe listening to something I try to stay away from it. I’m sure she would much rather I was doing gospel, but if you think about the range of today’s music, I think what I’m doing is pretty honest and pure. When you’ve got songs on the radio like “S&M” [by Rhianna]—“Sex in the air, I don’t care”—with that kind of stuff happening, I think my music might as well be gospel!