Riding the Last Train to Stardom
By Jay S. Jacobs
It’s setting the bar high when you are a musician and your stage name is Star. But Ryan Star never shies away from a challenge.
The singer wasn’t even exactly trying to be cute with his name, he was born Ryan Star Kulchinsky. Lots of musicians over the years have used their middle name rather than their last. The fact that it was an aspiration as well as a name was just a nice coincidence.
Star has been knocking on stardom’s door for years now and with the recent release of his major label solo debut 11:59, the door is starting to open. That’s not say that he hasn’t had a certain amount of notoriety in the past. His first band, Stage, was personally sought out and signed to a record contract by music icon Madonna and Star also became arguablyone of the most popular contestants (though he did not win) in the reality series Rock Star: Supernova – TV’s attempt to create a rock supergroup with Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted and former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke.
Being an indie rocker, this wasn’t really Star’s scene, but it did build upon an already growing audience, breaking Star from cult fave to actual name on the rise. However, Star didn’t want to squander the bump of recognition – he has worked hard over the last few years, touring tirelessly while crafting his major-label debut solo debut. (He had released aStage CD on a major and an indie solo album previously.)
Produced by star producer Matt Serletic (Matchbox Twenty, Blessid Union of Souls, Collective Soul), 11:59 is a gumbo of rock and pop styles. Songs like “Last Train Home” and “Breathe” have gotten a huge amount of airplay. The song “Brand New Day” has even become the theme song to the FOX TV series Lie To Me. His most recent shot at the singles charts is “Start a Fire.”
Star recently gave us a call to discuss his career and the 11:59 album.
Hey Ryan, nice to talk with you today.
Where are you at today? I’m in snowy New York.
I’m in snowy Philadelphia, so real close…
That’s great. I love Philly, man. Half my band is from Philly.
Great, great. When are you going to be playing here again?
Oh, man, I hope soon, to be honest. We always have really good shows there. Have you been to a show in Philly?
No, I haven’t seen you yet.
Oh, wow. I look forward to it. Back in the day, I started out being in a rock band in an early age, but when I moved on from that I did these shows – it was like being in New York, it would be do New York, Boston, Philly, New York, Boston, Philly. Every week I would just try to hustle and do it. I started building my thing up back in the day at the Tin Angel, which is amazing.
Yeah, that’s a great room.
I worked my way up to – what’s that place at U. of Penn? It’s really cool. From the radio station?
World Café Live…
Yeah, that was cool. That was more when it was me and a piano type of thing. Now that I’ve got the full rock band in force again, we’ll go to some of the other places that I’ve always loved. The one negative Philly memory I have is at the… what is it, the Trocadero?
Yes, that’s right. The Troc.
I tore my ACL on the stage. We were on tour with a band called Eve 6 at the time. It was just hell. It was one of those things – I tore it right before I went on the stage and played the whole show and afterwards I was like, uh-oh, this does not feel good.
Yeah, that doesn’t sound good at all. Hopefully you’re completely healed.
It’s all good. Actually, my knees are sore, but it was from finally having some time off over the holidays. I went to Colorado and did some snowboarding and my knees are paying for it. It was two weeks of insanity. Now it’s good to be home. I was snowed in – I got stuck in Seattle, and I finally got home to New York last night and it’s just incredibly… I admit in the city it’s beautiful when the snow is coming down, and I missed the beautiful part. Now it’s just disgusting gray, black, sludge.
I actually lived in Boulder for a year, in Colorado, so I know exactly how you feel about the snow there. It’s a lot different than just the shoveling snow…
Oh, wow. Lucky man. Do you snowboard?
No, that was when I was a teen. My mom got a job out there.
You were just talking about your early days. Your first band, Stage, received a decent amount of notice. You even released an EP on Maverick Records. You were pretty young at the time. What was it like getting notice for your music at such a young age? Also, did you enjoy the band dynamic as compared to being a solo artist?
Yeah, well, it’s trippy that you say that we were young, because at the time, we felt like we were old men and we’d never make it. It was just… we were 21 and our idols made it at like 16 and 17. We were like, what the hell? We’re never going to get anywhere. I remember going to bed and dreaming of it, thinking that it was forever. That’s years ago now and I look back and I’m like, oh, my God, I was a baby, you know? (laughs) But it was cool. It actually wasn’t an EP. It was a full-length album on Maverick Records. Madonna signed us to the label. It was great, great, great, fairy tale and then unfortunately when the album came out it was just at the wrong time. Madonna sold the shares of her company and the label kind of downsized and we lost… it was just, you’ve seen it, you’ve talked to enough artists where sometimes you get caught in the wrong tide where you want to catch the wave and this was just an undertow pulling us. The label fell apart as our album came out. So, we didn’t have a shot, unfortunately. We didn’t get a shot. But we got to go on tour and be friends and get in a van and do our thing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I do look back and think what a great band that went unnoticed. The downfall of the band was unfortunately the broken spirits of that experience. It killed us.
Did you guys try to continue on after the Maverick experience, or was that when you decided it was time to go solo?
That made me a solo guy. I knew these guys from when I was in nursery school. We wanted to be Pearl Jam and U2 and we had the dream and the desire and the drive, but once the crushing blow came I felt like the brand itself was broken. In this life, you’ve got to believe. That’s half of it right there. I didn’t think we believed. I started doing more on my own. They were getting jobs. I was like, man, we should get in a van and do this, you know? I remember a little band that no one knew and we’d be touring and see them somewhere else. Kings of Leon. It took them the next seven years to get where they are now. I think we were just broken. We didn’t have that. So I knew what it took and I said to them I’m moving on. The next day I started a record called Songs from the Eye of an Elephant. I recorded it, just me and my piano in my parents’ house. I didn’t have money for a band or recording, so I just recorded it on my own and in about a month I had twenty new songs I put out and it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, because it was just me. I felt like Ani DiFranco style, fuck record labels, fuck everybody, I’m going to do this myself. It got me started. I started playing in New York and Philly, all this stuff. Just like two people, three people a night – whoever would come out. I would just make fans and over time it built and built and built and I’m happy to say last week was our biggest New York City show to date. It’s just starting to grow.
Do you still play songs from that album in your repertoire?
I do. I do, in the live shows. It’s fun, because here I am as a new artist, almost and you have an album out and active stuff, but the cool thing is I’ve got years of a catalogue work. The cool thing is when a new fan comes on board, they can jump in. They can get the new album, they can get the song, or they can really jump in and catch up to speed. It’s really cool doing that live. Some of the songs on that album I feel have taken on a new life. Songs like “Psycho Suicidal Girl” – when we go to colleges it’s always the song they want to hear.
How about songs from Stage?
We’ll pull out some Stage stuff, too. Really, I enjoy playing it all. Most of the time, I wind up playing Stage in a parking lot before the show or after the show, for hardcore fans that stick around and are like, “Please, play this song!” It’s fun, because over the years you make fans from all the different aspects of my life – from the new stuff as a solo artist, from my band days in Stage, from having a song on a television show – the song on Lie to Me – to being on a show a few years back. All these different ways that people were able to find out who I am. Now I feel like it’s finally starting to connect and people are putting it together – “Oh, that’s that guy” – and come out for a Ryan Star concert. It is fun playing songs from back then, too.
Probably the first time most people really noticed you was when you were on the reality TV series Rock Star: Supernova. What was that experience like? I know you didn’t win, but you got a good following from it.
(laughs) I feel like it’s been long enough that I can tell you the truth. It was hell, man. It was disgusting. It was the worst side of people on a social experiment level. I mean, you’re taught from a young age: don’t judge people. Don’t assume. And then we’re celebrating, our favorite shows in this culture, the biggest hit TV shows are shows where people are being judged. It’s a sickness. I’m not saying I’m perfect or I’m above it. I enjoy some of the smut, too. But it’s unfortunate that this is what we celebrate now. I feel like that was a part of it. That was a little bit of that. I would put my best out there. I was the guy from New York, so being from a city, if you’re from Philly or Boston, too, there’s a different level of making sure you can go back to that place and still be cool, you know? All the hipsters on my block… I kind of had to keep my cool on that show. So, I never did anything that I was ashamed of. I actually am very proud of all of the performances. The thirty seconds to a minute I got to sing a week was the greatest thing. I wouldn’t trade that. It’s the rest of it. The disgusting thing around that, the circus of a show around that, was kind of negative. But that being said, yeah, I didn’t win it. I wasn’t right for the 80s cliché “show us your tits!” rock band. (chuckles) But, I got to show people what I was about, personally. I got to play my own original music on it and therefore, really created a nice little base of fans all around the world. That was a really great experience. But the lock-down being on a TV show was as gross as it gets, I think.
Reality TV about music is sort of a double-edged sword – it gets the word out about you and yet it is often more about the personalities than the music.
In the long run, do you think that Supernova helped your career?
Oh, most certainly. I was at a crossroads. It was the hardest decision I ever made in my life, actually. It’s interesting you ask, because I was doing my indie thing in New York and I started selling out some bigger venues here. I got asked to go on tour with Corinne Bailey Rae right at the time. Here, she’s a big sensation: really hip, cool stuff. I’m like wow I can go that road and start building my tour base, or I can do the opposite which is kind of like this self-contradicting thing – be the indie rocker on a TV show. (laughs) I went for it simply because: I really genuinely did it for my future fans. It’s almost like you know how people will be like “I’m not smoking because of my future children.” I feel like there was an element of I had to get out there and introduce myself to all these people that I knew would one day like me and be part of it. So, I did that. I made the commitment to get in front of a few million people, internationally. That was the cool thing. But I was very careful not to do any TV-like things. So I did my thing and I was very proud of the performances. Where it left me after that was, instead of playing in front of a few hundred people each night, I got in front of a lot more people. Afterwards I was able to say, okay, I can take this to the next level on my terms now. I had believed I would have never gone to a record label ever again from my experience with Maverick, but Atlantic spoke my language and I believed that they would take the time to treat me the way an up-and-coming artist would be wanted to be treated. Years later, here we are and released and I can say it was the right decision, because they are absolutely incredible.
It took a few years after all that for 11:59 to be released – although a few of the songs were previewed on the Last Train Home EP. Was it important to you to get everything ready and introduce yourself more as a musician than as a personality?
Yeah, I think you’ve got to be careful. In the John Mayer/Twitter [age] you have to be careful. There is a fine line between being known for that and being known for your extracurricular [activities.] In the beginning, it is very important to be known for my music. It took a long time, because as a developing artist, you want to do it right. So here I was, touring while I was finishing the album, trying out the new songs. I was also getting the songs right. I knew that coming from a rock band I had those roots. Also coming from my independent piano record, I had those roots. I wasn’t in the business of confusing people, but I wanted to make sure that what 11:59 had was a blueprint for any direction I would go from here. On the album there is “Losing Your Memory” and “We Might Fall” which are piano songs. Then there are rock songs like “This Could Be the Year” and “Brand New Day.” Then there is the more poppy stuff that I enjoy doing that was a challenge – to start writing songs that I thought would relate to more people. It took going deeper into myself, to be so personal about me, to find the songs that I feel are speaking to the larger audiences, which I think is interesting.
You just sort of answered my next question. One cool thing about your music is that you are not afraid to mix up styles, softer ballads like “We Might Fall,” “Brand New Day” had sort of a new wave vibe, “Right Now” had a bit of r&b feel, “Start a Fire” is more straight-ahead rock. Do you enjoy being able to experiment with styles on the album?
Sometimes I envy people that just do that one thing and they’re done. It’s very simple to wake up and have rules. I think it’s my character, being mischievous, I always find ways around rules and around labels. I’ve never enjoyed that. I think that’s an example of that. Also, being your first album, I was just experimenting and trying stuff out. I will over time start focusing on the things I think are relating best. But I had fun. I had fun really showing all the sides of me now. That was important to me. If someone is reading this and don’t know the sound, I don’t think it’s a confusing record. I do believe my voice and my ideas come through. But it’s really fun to just take people on a journey. Same thing with our live show: I might open it with just me and a piano and then boom here comes the band. It’s more dynamic. I like that about life and I like that about music.
Matt Serletic produced the album. What was he like to work with?
Wow, Serletic is kind of a modern legend in music and pop music. And, to be honest – and I’ve told him to his face, so he won’t really be so offended – but I never really liked anything he did. I always respected and loved – I am a friend and a big fan of Rob Thomas and Matchbox and I toured with Collective Soul, so I always knew his stuff, but growing up an indie guy, I didn’t rush out to buy some of these records growing up. So I chose him, not because oh my God I’ve been a big fan since day one, I chose him because he tapped into something that I’d never experienced. I thought I would be able to bring to him the more obscure ideas and the more left of center things. I thought he’d be able to help rein me in to make a bigger album than I’ve ever made. I think he did just that. The collaboration was… I think he would tell you he’s never made a record like this and my album sounds far from anything he’s ever done but something we are equally proud of. It was a really cool collaboration. We are talking about getting into the studio and literally fighting it out. I think that’s where the best collaborations are born. It was a really cool, cool thing to work with him. I did some tunes with Howard Benson as well, just to satisfy my rock and roll roots, because he’s tapped into that really well. It’s a collaborative effort. That’s the cool thing about being a solo artist now, being in a young rock band, you are bound to the talent and abilities of your friends, basically. I’m talking literally like, when I formed that band, it was, “Hey, you have a drum set? Cool, I’ll be at your house at three.” (laughs) There were no auditions. That’s what made us great, because we were all in it with our hearts. But when you get now where I am, with being a solo artist, I’m able to call upon some talented people and be the director more than the guy in the dirt. I can direct where I think the music and the sound should be going a little more, because everyone in the room are at the top of their game. I’ve got guys that worked with Paul McCartney and Pearl Jam and Tori Amos on this album, and Nine Inch Nails. This is for me an incredible experience and a humbling experience to get with these top players.
“Brand New Day” ended up becoming the theme song of the FOX TV series Lie to Me. Also, “Breathe” and “Long Train Home” have had TV exposure. Do you think that TV and the internet is a good alternative for an artist to find an audience?
I love that. That’s where it’s at for me. I love radio and I’m doing my best out there. I’m very into radio, because it really brings you to the fans directly. You can have a contest with a station and meet the fans directly – have a meet-and-greet and all that. That’s beautiful. But, I got into music because of a movie called Singles. Cameron Crowe directed this film. Before then I was into what I was into, but I heard Pearl Jam for the first time and formed my band the next day. It was because this soundtrack became my bible. Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Hendrix. All this stuff was on it. So, I always felt the marriage between film and music and visuals and music [was vital]. One of my best friends, Randy, he directs a lot of my videos. We grew up together, literally from nursery school. He’s always been following us with a camera. So I look at music, even when I’m in the studio, and even that, Serletic would tell you, he kept the bar up when we were making 11:59 for radio. He was like, “okay is this radio? Can this be on the radio?” I appreciate that and that’s why he was involved. I would answer, “Could this be the closing credits to a film?” That’s the goal for me. I write with that in mind. I write with the stories. I always call myself a lazy filmmaker, because what they do in two-and-a-half/three hours, I have to do in three minutes. (chuckles) I just love that marriage, so to have a song on Lie to Me portrayed in such a cool way and have my songs shown in movies is awesome. I just got word that I think in a week or two, there’s a show called Vampire Diaries and they are going to be playing my song “Losing Your Memory” – which is one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s stuff like that that gets me so excited. I was in the studio dreaming stuff like this would happen. I have a song called “This Could Be the Year” that sports teams over and over keep using for their highlight reels. It was literally written with that in mind, so it’s a real cool satisfaction and evolution to see it happen.
You did a really cool thing with your “Breathe” video, actually literally helping unemployed people get jobs through a web site you set up. How did that project come about? How well did it succeed?
Simply, man, I was on the road trying to do songs and I was playing “Breathe” every night and afterwards people would come up to me saying, “Oh, my God, thank you for those words, because I went through this and this is helping me.” I realized it was an important song to people. When it came to the time to make the music video, I wanted to honor that. I don’t want to just make it fast cars and throwing money on a bed and booty shakers and stuff. I wanted to make it something a little more potent for the times. My best friend was out of work at the time and we had this idea just to get some people work. I think at the time, especially, with the way unemployment is and was you could hear something on the news and read it, but when you go out there and actually meet these people like I was, it had a whole different meaning. We had the idea to make this video and put together a website together to try to get these people work. It was in my eyes very successful. It got some people out there. Some people got some work. At the very least they were hired for the day. We put the money to good use by hiring these people.
You had mentioned earlier you have to be a little careful with social media not to turn into a John Mayer, but are you very involved in social media – Facebook, Twitter or whatnot? What is it like to have such immediate contact with your fans?
Very much so. Yeah, yeah, don’t get me wrong. I’m very much involved, mostly because my communication with my fans is so vital. I’ve built up such a great passion out there with these people. They get my music and I get them. They are just beautiful people. It’s an incredible thing to send a blast out to everybody instantly and hear their feedback. I could write a song right now and hear what my fans think of it in ten seconds. It’s pretty amazing. I think there is a time and place. I do think there is still a time that you need to go and escape – take some peyote and go trip in the desert and write the next Doors album. (laughs) But other than that, there are times when you’re out there touring that it’s fun to have this relationship with your fans. It’s been very satisfying for me. I use it all the time. You’ll catch me on Twitter and occasionally I’ll just be like, “Hey, first person to Twitter back will get a phone call,” and I’ll just say hello to a friend, you know?
It looks like in April you will be doing a series of trips for VH1’s Best Cruise Ever with Train, Lifehouse, The Script and Colbie Caillat. What do they have planned for those and what will they be like?
Well, I don’t have too much detail, but I’ve toured with Train and I’ve played shows with The Script, so I’m really excited to get to hang with them in a confined space. We’ll probably at one point go up in the front of the boat and reenact the ending of Titanic, where she throws the diamond off. (laughs) It should be fun. There is something cool about what they’re doing – they bring fans and you’re kind of locked down with them. Again, in the years of social media, it’s easy to forget that it’s human interaction that we really desire. I think that it’s bringing those type of people that would be Twittering me back and forth, to basically live on a boat with us for a few days and get to see some music all around. It’s such a cool idea and a cool marriage of music and leisure that I’m just so psyched about it.
As a musician, do you prefer live performance or fooling around in the studio?
I truly love live. I got into music in the first place because I thought I wanted to go touch people. I don’t have the stomach or the lack of ethics to be a politician, but I do know I love people and I do know I love making a positive impact in this world. There’s a war going on. There is evil and there is good out there. I like to think that we can balance it in a positive way, use music to heal. So essentially, that’s what I do love about touring. But, look, when I get in my studio mood, it brings me back to being thirteen and fourteen, locking myself in the basement as being a mad scientist. While my friends were learning the cheat codes ofZelda and all the Nintendo games, I was learning how to play drums and record on a four-track. It brings me back to those days, so I do love locking myself away for a little while and making music – but now you’re catching me at a time when I’m out here promoting the album, so it’s all about live right now. I love it.
Do you have any other tour plans set up?
Right now, we’re actually sitting tight. I just got back from Seattle where I did something yesterday. I’m doing a show in Vegas on February 11th which I’m really excited about. It’s Vegas, of course. I have some random stuff here and there right now. But really, I’m waiting and seeing. The New Year hit and the plan was to get on tour again, which I will be very soon. So, I’m sure I’ll have an announcement soon to make and hopefully get out there very soon and do it all again. I’ve been out there for two years straight so it’s fun to be home for a minute. (chuckles)
What would people be surprised to find out about you?
Huh. That’s a good question. There’s probably so much. (laughs) Man, I don’t even know where to start. Little things like just a few days ago on my day off in New York, I painted a community center for Habitat for Humanity. I go down there and get dirty. (laughs again) I guess, maybe a newcomer won’t understand the intimacy that a fan can have with an artist. I pride myself on that. There’s a lot of people out there that I know personally now, because of music. I know a lot of bands that hide themselves away after a show, but I really, really take pride in getting out there and making these real life relationships with so many strangers that have become friends. Maybe that’s something people don’t know. They turn on the radio and hear my song and they think, “That’s another whatever-you-want-to-call it rock star.” Or musician. Or asshole. (laughs) However they are going to classify you. I think they might be surprised that coming out to a show you might get more than you planned on. It might be a real life changer. That’s how I like approaching every day and every time I get on the stage. I think we are all here for a reason. It can be more impactful than… sometimes people search for spirituality in other places, in churches or mountains or trees. For me it’s at a live show. That would be a surprise, I think. For a lot of people going out they’d be like, “I didn’t know it would be like this.”
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Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 11, 2011.