“I drive around the country and meet bizarre people, and that inspires a lot of my songs,” Eddy Lee Ryder says. It’s late June 2020, and she’s driving to Woodstock to meet a friend––and no telling what else. In this moment, the New York-based singer-songwriter sounds upbeat and free, grateful to be experiencing at least some of the mysteries of the road again.
When Ryder released her five-song EP Expected to Fly in July 2020, listeners once again dove into her quirky pop-rock sideshow of sharply drawn oddballs and optimists, encountered both on streets seldom taken and paths worn with steps. “These are all fully my stories,” Ryder says. “Then, I try to create a world around a character––even if that character is me.”
Ryder’s intricate storytelling twists and turns over staccato electric guitars, moody piano, and center-stage drums that nod to the extravagance of the 80s. Her humor pops up everywhere, teasing listeners with self-aware winks, and her attention to detail positions her a songwriter first, singer second––a funny inversion, considering the sheer strength of her soprano. All together, the result is an arresting mini rock opera, thoroughly modern yet proud of letting its roots show.
“As a kid, I was obsessed with music in general,” Ryder remembers. “I wanted to be a singer, but I didn’t know how to do it at all.” Falling in love with Peter Gabriel and Fleetwood Mac helped push Ryder to start writing her own songs, too. “The second song I wrote was called ‘Crazy James,’” she remembers. “It was about this guy I was seeing in college who joined a cult.” The song’s subject found out about the tune and called Ryder. “I thought he was going to be mad, but he just asked if I could send him the chords,” she says, then laughs.
The anecdote points to an important aspect of Ryder’s work: Her dissections of society’s misfits are never mean-spirited or isolating. Ryder herself is always right there with her characters, waving her own freak flag with gusto.
Expected to Fly is a tightly woven collection of Ryder doing what she does best: sad songs that are actually bursting with hope, and happy songs that are actually blanketed with darkness. The exuberant title track captures that recognizable moment when desperation becomes either a breakthrough or a big fall. “I think it’s a mix of feeling both defeated and hopeful,” Ryder says. “When you come to that crossroads, which path will you choose? I don’t know which path to choose.”
Eerie and increasingly urgent, “Silver Chain” winds through dark mental corridors of doubt and desire. “It’s about wanting to live a wild and carefree life, but also having that fear that you might end up being an old decrepit person sitting in a bar,” Ryder says. “It’s seeing that future closing in on you.”
In a stark, stripped down departure from the EP’s other tracks, highlight “There in Dreams” begins with acoustic guitar and piano. “There in dreams you come to me / And I hate the mornings, the sun tears you away,” Ryder sings, her voice raw and stunning. She wrote the song about her father, who passed away when she was 16. “The only time I get to see him is in dreams,” Ryder says. “I’m just sort of talking to him––asking if I’m the person he wanted me to become.”
Haunting “Vultures” ponders a toxic relationship over piano and prickling snare drum. Another standout, the song is thought-provoking, vulnerable, and sad.
A feat of masterful storytelling and vocal prowess that nods to Stevie Nicks, “Small Apartment” tells the true tale of Roberta, a disgruntled downstairs neighbor of Ryder’s worthy of her own Joseph Mitchell essay. “She’d leave notes under my door almost every day––notes that said things like, ‘Quiet!’ and ‘Take off your shoes!’” Ryder says. “Sometimes I’d get back from vacation, and there’d still be notes. I have no idea what she was hearing.” Screaming at Ryder and her friends and sending letters from lawyers became Roberta’s norm––so naturally, Ryder wrote a song about it.
“She was nuts,” Ryder says. “But one thing I’ve learned about songwriting is that it’s never great to just pick on somebody else. You always need to look at yourself in the song. So, I made myself more of the bad guy here.”
That willingness to put herself under the microscope or to even take the fall so that the story is stronger underpins all of Ryder’s songs, which mix brazen stands with tender moments. Asked what she hopes listeners walk away with after hearing the EP, Ryder doesn’t hesitate. “I’ve tried to write stories that people aren’t expecting to be drawn into, and to do it in a different way,” she says, then adds with a sigh and a smile, “The mysteries of the road.”
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