BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Back in 2009, singer-songwriter Ryan Cabrera began writing songs for his just-released Wake Up Beautiful EP and forthcoming fifth full-length album, though most of those early tunes were eventually tossed out. On January 4 of this year, the Dallas native’s favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys, finally ended a playoff appearance drought that also dated back to 2009. Coincidence? Totally. But hopefully for both Cabrera and the Cowboys, 2015 will signal the start of a new era of chart and gridiron domination, respectively.
Not unlike the stable of young talent that has fueled the resurgence of so-called “America’s Team,” Cabrera is counting on a whole new team of managers, record label representatives and publicists to help him climb back to the top of the charts. “I’d been under a certain umbrella or team that I didn’t set up or know everybody and it wasn’t really a team,” Cabrera said during our conversation on his tour bus, hours before kicking off the Radio Revival Tour with Secondhand Serenade last week in Sacramento, CA. “Everyone was more so just doing what they wanted to do and not having the same vision for where I wanted to be and where I wanted to go and where I needed to go,” he added. “So we weren’t always on the same page and at some point I realized I need to leave everybody at that time and start new. Obviously it was a hard decision, but definitely worthwhile in the end.”
In the end, the benefactors of Cabrera’s career wake up call will be his legion of diehard fans that were anxious to get their hands on new music and excited to see their hero back onstage. The five songs on Wake Up Beautiful and the upcoming full-length album, plus the current Radio Revival Tour which runs through April 26 in Tempe, AZ, serve as sonic touchdowns for loyalists longing for renewed good times.
We talked about our mutual favorite football team the Dallas Cowboys; you’re working with a whole new team on the release of this EP and upcoming album. Give us the lineup.
I went like two or three years just playing shows and waiting for the right team to start and then I met [manager] Nick [Lippman] and we hung out and I saw right away that he’s very efficient, he did his homework, he knew everything; I was a little taken aback by that, I was like, ‘how do you know all that?’ And I was like, ‘okay, this is actual management,’ so then I learned what real management was, what it meant. And then we started to assemble a team and he introduced me to [Dynamic Music label founder] Mitch Davis, and he came over to the house, listened to the songs and liked what we were doing. We started to work together a little bit and he started A&Ring some of the previous material and we kept making it better and better and better and better. Nick introduced us to [talent agency] ICM; they came out, saw me perform and I signed with ICM and then signed with [PR firm] MSO [Mitch Schneider Organization] and met with [MSO Account Executive] Angela [Villanueva] – hit it off with her – and the next thing we know we have the best team in the business.
Before we launch into our conversation about your just-released Wake Up Beautiful EP and the kickoff of the Radio Revival Tour with Secondhand Serenade, I wanted to ask about your initial musical wake up call. Was there a moment where you said to yourself, “I wanna do that” [music]?
It was when I saw Dave Matthews play. I was never like a fan, at the beginning; when I was younger I listened to punk rock and rap and heavy metal, so I was like a punker kind of kid. And I’d heard of Dave Matthews and I heard his music on the radio but I never really like it – I didn’t understand it – and then I saw him play live. He played a song called “The Stone,” I watched him and from that moment on I just became obsessed and then I picked up the acoustic guitar – threw my electric away – and then just studied him. I loved the way he played. That was kind of the moment where I was like, ‘Okay, I wanna do that! That’s me!’ And then I tried to be him at the beginning, you know, I copied him and his style, and then right around 20, 21, is when I kind of ventured off and really found my own style of songwriting and being onstage and got comfortable with myself.
From what I understand, “I See Love,” the last track on Wake Up Beautiful, was the fuse that lit your songwriting fire for the rest of this five-song EP and forthcoming fifth full-length album as well. Talk a bit about that song.
It kind of came out of nowhere. I was writing and writing and then I started working with Nick and I thought I had some great material and then he set me up with [Grammy winning producer] Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift) out in Nashville. I went out there and one day me and Nathan and [songwriter] Andrew Fromm, in literally maybe 20 minutes, “I See Love” was just born. I got really, really excited and I was like, ‘Okay, the rest of the record has to be as good as this.’ We just set the mark way higher, so we threw out everything previous pretty much to that and started fresh from there and took “I See Love” as kind of the spark. From then on, I was like, ‘this is the vibe of the record and every song has to be as good as ‘I See Love.’’ The rest weren’t, so that was when the record started to happen.
Let me quote a lyric here: “And the sun shines on everyone, everywhere every time you kiss me/when I look anywhere, baby I see love.” I mean what loved one wouldn’t want to hear that line?
(Laughs) Exactly! A lot of people write me saying they used it as their wedding song, and I actually got to perform it at one of my friend’s wedding in the Bahamas. He flew me out there and I got to sing their first dance. So it’s kind of a special thing to have a song that means so much to people in that sense.
Now the EP literally takes off like a “House on Fire” [title of track one; first single]. A lyric in that song goes: “We can be the kings and queens of hope.” Tell me about penning this uplifting anthem.
It’s a tune about you and someone else just taking on the world. Instead of looking at things that could be spun in a negative way, it’s like, no; we’ll be the masters of positive thinking. And what might normally get you down or get in the way of things, it’s like, no we’re gonna do it anyway; we’re gonna set the whole town on fire, we’re gonna make this a good thing, no matter what and no one can stop us. So if you’re the king and queen, no one can tell you know; like, it’s your world.
For those who haven’t seen the video, it’s great.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, I love that video.
But of course it starts with a downer; you’re getting fired.
Yeah, just having a real s**t day (laughs). Yeah, it’s just a dude who’s kind of down on his luck; he gets fired from his s**tty 9-5 job which he doesn’t like, anyway; he gets [mud] splattered on his face by a bus; he gets on the bus and his girlfriend breaks up with him over a text, so nothing could be worse so he just says, ‘F it, I’m bouncing, I’m leaving, I’m going on an adventure,’ which he’s not used to doing. All of a sudden he takes this eye-opening journey and missed this girl that frees him up and he lets loose. We kind of wanted to make it like a mini movie. We didn’t want it to be like a typical music video, and its shot really beautifully.
The second track “Sing Along” is exactly what the title implies. At first listen, I was immediately transported to a crowded Irish pub.
Yeah, it’s just camaraderie and enjoying the people around you and also letting loose; they find a common bond in music. When you go to Ireland, they don’t play music in the pubs; everybody’s singing music. They’re not afraid to sing and have a good time and smash their mugs together and break the glass all over; all different kinds of people finding this one collective beauty which is music. There’s gonna be highs and lows in life, and fights, and sometimes you’ll give in, sometimes you won’t, but the one universal thing in that song is the song.
The power of music.
The power of music, yep! And getting together; it just makes you happy.
I understand you and your producer Justin Gray played all the instruments [on the EP].
Yep. We played everything; just me and him in a room.
Why did you decide to pursue the literal DIY route?
Because we knew what we wanted it to sound like. There’s something about the feel of him playing the piano or me on guitar or me on the mandolin that made it ours. This has the feel of what I wanted. There’s a million better guitar players that could have done it but it’s not the same feel, you know. Like Justin knows there’s a million better piano players but they don’t have the feel that he has and that’s what made the songs what they are. We were like, ‘we don’t need anybody else to do it, let’s make it ourselves.’
Are some of the songs that are gonna be on the full-length already done?
Everything’s done. Yeah. The whole record’s done. We just wanted to give people a taste of what’s to come with the album. Because it’s been so long, we thought that shoving 13 songs right away is too much, so we wanted to give you half of it just to kind of get you in; get you invested in the record and wanting more. So now that you got the record and if you love it you’re just excited that there’s more coming, not that far from now.
[The songs] “Forgot How to Fly” and “All We Have” both hit home for me just this morning. I was on Facebook and I see a friend’s post that says: “Relationship Ended with…” I’d never seen that type of post before. We’ve all had our relationship ups and downs.
Yeah, those are the two semi-sad songs, but still in an upbeat light. “Forgot How to Fly” is just about missing someone and trying to figure out how to be happy without them; kind of find out who you are. In the song it’s like you forgot how to be yourself because you’re so used to being with that person that you don’t remember who you are. I think the sentiment of that one is just trying to figure out how to be yourself again without that person.
What’s the secret to learning how to fly again?
Being honest, no matter what; being understanding and allowing another person their beingness. Let them be who they are, don’t make them into who you want them to be because it will never work. Allow them to be them, and that’s it, no matter what. If you try and take something away from them, then why are you with them in the first place?
You’re kicking off the Radio Revival Tour here in Sacramento [the tour got underway on March 12]. Being a longtime radio guy, I have to ask you to tell me a little bit about the name of the tour.
It’s just a fun thing to come back and to go back to radio. It’s been such a long time without being on the radio, so I don’t know, it just felt right and it’s just kind of a fun tour. Me and John [Vesely], Secondhand Serenade, had talked about touring together – we used to live together about six years ago – and we just never did it and then it finally came into fruition. People are getting an eclectic show and I think it’s cool to do something like this because people get more for their money. There’s people who will come to see Secondhand who’ve never heard me, and you’ll get new fans, and there’s people who will come to see me who maybe have never heard Secondhand. I think everyone will walk away being very happy with all the acts, even though we play kind of different genres of music, but it still fits in the pop mold.
You said earlier that’s it’s been awhile since you’ve had something on the radio; what changes have you seen in radio?
Ah, everybody’s in different cities (laughs). A lot of people aren’t even in radio any more, they’re now doing other random stuff and there’s a lot less of everybody than I remembered, all over the place. It’s weird to go back on radio tours and be like, ‘Dude, why aren’t you in Chicago?’ and he’d be like, ‘No, I’m in Cleveland now.’ Or like go to North Carolina and be like, ‘Dude, I thought you were in Salt Lake City?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, no, I moved here two years ago.’ It’s just wild to me. And they’re playing a lot less music – like their rotations are way too frequent and there’s not as much variety nowadays so it’s a smaller window. It’s a tough world; it’s a lot different than it was before. It’s much more relied on call-out now than it was back when we last had a single. There was people who would take more chances; if they believed it was a hit they would actually play it. Now it’s a little scarier, I think, for everybody.
Finally, just talk a little about the unique fan experiences you’re offering on the tour.
Yeah, we’re doing all kinds of fun stuff. Before the show, there’s fans who get to come to the soundchecks, they get to come and do meet-and-greets, obviously. I played Connect Four with a girl earlier; we played Heads Up! ; we prank called her friend. You know just different things. People have more access now than they did back in the day, so it’s kind of fun because they get to know you a little bit and you get to make a unique stamp on a fan’s life.
And I hear you’ve crank called your mom, too.
Yep. Yep. She loves that.
Alright, Ryan, thank you very much.
Jim, thank you. My pleasure.
Oh, by the way, anything else you want to cover or talk about?
Nah, I think you covered everything – in the best way possible, too.
Alright then, very cool. Safe travels.
**To hear audio of my conversation with Ryan and the song “Sing Along” off Wake Up Beautiful, check out Episode 21 of my weekly Current Classics podcast. “Like,” find link and listen HERE.