Interview: William Ryan Key

William Ryan Key

About a week ago, I was able to connect with former Yellowcard vocalist and established indie solo songwriter William Ryan Key via Zoom, and I asked him about the new EP Everything Except Desire, the legacy of Yellowcard, as well as what it means to him that so many fans still care about what he has to say in his music career. William Ryan Key has always been one of my favorite vocalists and songwriters in this scene, so I thoroughly enjoyed hearing his perspective on not only the new music, but the lessons he has learned over time. Everything Except Desire is available for pre-order from Equal Vision here.

Thank you, first of all, for your time tonight, Ryan. And congratulations on the upcoming EP called Everything Except Desire, that comes out February 11 on Equal Vision. At what point in the recording process did come up with the EP title? 

So when I wrote the last track, there’s the first four songs that I did, and were done throughout 2020. Part of one of the things I was speaking of is how do you keep doing your job right now. <Ryan pauses for a moment> It’s hard…so I had to figure out what I was doing when the pandemic hit. And my manager, who was a dear friend of mine, we put our heads together and I had never considered doing a streaming thing or an online subscription service or something like that. I don’t know. Sometimes those things have a “stigma” to them.

Yeah, I could see that…

I think sometimes people think it’s like you’re asking people for money. And that at least that was my opinion of it for you to prove prior to doing it, then you do it, and you realize how many people love you, how many people support you, with this incredible little community that you build fans that now for the last two years, have been like my buds. It’s my little family! <Laughter> We have a Discord chat now where I hang out just talking, and I’m kind of trying to wean myself off of social media as much as I can. So Patreon and Discord have been a really cool way to continue to engage with like the most important people, the people that support me the most. So I don’t view that as much as putting your life on display and spending time scrolling, you know what I mean? If I’m engaged there, I’m really engaged with the fans who are coming to shows and purchasing records, merch, and things like that. <Ryan’s authenticity really comes through the conversation here, and as he expands on his new Patreon offerings, you can tell his excitement level is genuine.>

It’s a really give and give back relationship that I’ve built with this little online community, and it’s just crazy, but that said, my first go-round for Patreon in 2020, I offered a Patreon to get a new song every month, and I kind of bit off a little more than I can chew by offering that…so I rolled that back in this sort of new second version of Patreon that I had going now. Yeah, but in that time, for the first few months, I made these four songs that ended up becoming the EP. When we decided to wide release it, I wanted to add a fifth track. Just because five’s a nice round number for an EP, and it takes about a half hour long. So I wanted to add a fifth song, and the direction I went in with the fifth song ended up being all instrumental. And it’s always fun to find titles for instrumental songs. So I tried to get back in the headspace where I was writing the songs that have lyrics, and find the title for the opening track. It sort of fits in there. And I remembered the scene from a film that I love from the 90’s called Gattaca.

Oh yeah! I think I remember that film and the scene you’re mentioning!

There’s a scene with Vincent and his brother, and they’re swimming out into the ocean. And he says something about how, “I never saved enough for the swim back.” And so I titled this instrumental track, “The Swim Back.” A lot of this EP is very much as I think a lot of artists were, where if you were writing music during the pandemic, and during this time, when you had nothing but yourself at home alone in a studio and get access to record music, you were, I think doing a lot of self reflection. I certainly was, and I was really looking inward and working on myself. I found it to be a very helpful time. For me, I think I’ve come out the other side of it. A very improved version of myself, mental-health wise. And so a lot of what the EP is about, to me, is sort of allowing myself to be vulnerable for a lot of the wrong reasons. <Ryan’s demeanor changes slightly as he begins to explain a difficult situation of a relationship that appears to be one-sided.>

I was involved in a situation with another person, where the more I explored it, the more I understood why I was sort of pinning after this person that was really not reciprocating or providing any type of meaningful relationship whatsoever. And then I wrote, I dug in, and I just wrote about that. I tried to explore the “why did you let yourself do that? Why did you open yourself up to someone who wasn’t improving your life?” It didn’t have a positive impact on my life. And in fact, it had such a blatant, obvious negative impact on my life that I just kept coming back for more and, so I wrote about that a lot. And so the concept of swimming back, I don’t know…I felt like I went so far with it. And I didn’t really save enough to get back. That’s where I kind of got that idea for that. So I wrote that song and recorded it in the summer of last year, in 2021. So I thought I’d dig a little deeper for another one. And the line in that film is, “he had everything except desire.” He had all of the physical attributes, all the mental intelligence and everything he needed, but he just didn’t want it.

That’s cool to kind of see how that thought process kind of came to be, and everything like that. Especially from your perspective!

Yeah, I applied that line, and the title to it, and I really applied to that situation that I found myself in through kind of 18 and 19, where this the person that I that I was engaging with, I feel like that’s that concept. I had “everything but desire” between us. There was everything, but that, and I needed to sort of sort out why. And the best thing about it dude, is exploring that and writing about it in 2020 led me in 2021, to finding what I hope to be like my partner for the rest of my life.

That’s really great to hear!

Yeah, I was really ready after all of that, and that self exploration to be ready for an actual, something real. Something that does enrich my life, a person that is a partner and she’s just the best. Life is good!

That sounds very therapeutic, too. I’m glad you found that person that makes you feel complete, so to speak. I really love the direction you want with this new record. I got the advance of it a couple days ago, so I already listened to it a couple of times through and some of the singles like, “Face In A Frame,” which came out first, and then especially the new single, “Brighton,” really speak to your complexities as a songwriter. The first two EP’s were more acoustic guitar-driven, with some piano in there as well. But let’s speak on some of those electronic sounds you went for on this record. What was the writing process like?

Yeah, so for the past almost four years now, the lead guitarist for Yellowcard who is still one of my dearest friends in the world, Ryan Mendez, he and I, we’ve been working on an electronic record for a long time. We’re under the moniker of Jedha, and so we scored a film last summer, and we’ve been working on a full length that we are honing in on finishing, which we’re really excited about. But it’s all six, or seven-minute long instrumental experimental EDM. I mean, it’s a whole new world for us. We’re gonna put out a little EP, coming very soon actually. Ryan and I are going to put out an EP, we have our we’re going to release our first two songs we ever made together.

We’ve come a long way from these two songs, but we still are proud of them. So we’re going to put these two songs out with a remix by a really cool artist that I found on Apple Music shuffle. I just hit him up on Instagram and sent a direct message and said, “Hey, would you want to remix a song?” And he was like, “Dude, I love Yellowcard. Sounds great!” So that’s gonna be really cool. His newest record is so so good. But anyways, Ryan and I’ve been working on this kind of cinematic, atmospheric, very arrangement-based, and the songs are all about, ebb and flow and the rise and fall. And I think I’m just so in love with what we’re making and exploring my capabilities as an artist in the world of electronic music that I feel like it honestly would have felt unnatural to go back and pick up a guitar. Just because I’m supposed to pick up a guitar. <You can really tell that Ryan was almost needing to go in a different direction on Everythting Except Desire, since the music he was creating with Mendez in Jedha was heading towards that path.>

I was really ready to do something different. And I was already so immersed in searching for sounds and then building tracks the way that I did for the EP,  so that when I went to start writing that first song for Patreon, that’s when I just immediately went to percussive loops and synth pads, and all the things that I’m trying to teach myself how to be more proficient as a writer, and a producer using those tools. I think the challenge of it makes it really fun for me to write again, you know what I mean? The idea of how different it is from anything I’ve done before,  but I’m also wanting it to be really good. It’s a really fun challenge to create in a space that isn’t necessarily the most familiar for me. So yeah, I think Ryan and I’s project is really what inspired me to go in the direction I went with this EP that Ryan mixed. For the first four tracks, my friend Eric Telaga, who was actually Yellowcard’s engineer on all the records from Paper Walls on, made the instrumental opener, “The Swim Back.” So Ryan was very involved in the process, and I was bouncing ideas off him all the time. Self-producing is a very interesting space to be in. Part of it is awesome, because no one can argue with you over a part. But part of it is terrible because you lose having someone to argue with you. It can be a good thing a lot of times because you lose focus on whether it’s good or not. I mean, if you’re just sitting there by yourself listening to the same 30 seconds of music for six hours in a day and saying…”this is terrible!” <Laughter> So I was bouncing a lot of ideas off of Ryan. I wanted him to be involved in any way that he could. We’ve developed such a cool relationship as writing partners, and producing together. We just love working together, still so much. <You can really tell Ryan is being incredibly genuine with his friendship and working relationship with Mendez. It’s a pretty neat feeling to see an artist I admire so much talk about the insight behind why his partnership is so productive.>

So he did some percussion on a song called “Heavens” on the EP, all of that top kit loop stuff. That’s all Ryan, it just was so collaborative. It was kind of like having a co-producer on it with me, I guess sort of because he would just take the time to let me bounce ideas off of him and just enhance the songs. So it’s fun, man. I love the space that I’m in musically. And I think putting this EP out is a real stamp on it. Especially if you’re along for the ride, cool. If you’re not, I totally understand because it’s very different. But this is the one that kind of I think makes the statement.

Yeah, definitely. And you kind of see the progression as you go experimenting more from 13 to Virtue, and then to this one. You know, you really put yourself out there as being a true artist where you’re not making the same record over and over again, which is something that almost everybody appreciates. But anyways, I wrote the review for Virtue that came out in November of 2018, and I was absolutely floored by your evolution as a songwriter. What lessons did you learn about yourself as a songwriter, and also as you move in this progression of being a solo artist?

I think obviously, the first thing, the first mountain to climb, was not being in Yellowcard anymore. And I spent about a year feeling sorry for myself, and not creating anything. Not really knowing what I was going to do. I thought I was gonna produce records for other bands, maybe, but not a lot was panning out. And it wasn’t really the kind of hustle that I enjoy. Everything always just led me back to writing my own stuff. And so I made a very clear-cut decision, and said, “Okay, I’m gonna make a little something with 13, my first EP.” And the evolution really has been interesting. All the things that play into 13, when I made it, I had some touring to do. And so I had to really be conscious of what I could do on the road. Not much, right? I mean, I’m gonna be back in a van with work gloves on, again. I mean, it’s crazy. Yellowcard was such a wild experience when you think about the fact that we left home in late 2000, and we were on our first bus in the spring of 2003. I mean, it was overnight, so to climb back in the van again, 14-15 years later, it was very humbling. <Laughter> And fun, though, man, it was awesome. The Virtue tour was so fun because I was out with some really good friends of mine on the road, and I had more of a full band experience, and it was being in the van with the buds. But that’s it with 13. Going back to the sort of origin of it, and what I’ve learned…I had to do something that I felt like I could do on the road, and do well, and provide a show that was up to the standard I hold to myself to put on a show. So I thought, well, that’s basically just a guitar, then that’s what you can do right now. And that tour cycle opened up some more touring and I thought, “Okay, well now maybe I can open up possibilities for the road a little bit more and start adding some drums and bass and more of my sort of Virtue-vibe that you can hear all over it. So many of my influences just bleed all over that thing. I wanted to make a Mogwai record with vocals…something in that vein, and I also wanted to bridge the gap. So there was a lot of acoustic work and stuff from 13 that sort of carried over into virtue as well. But when I went out and did those shows with a full band, it was so awesome. It was crazy hard. We did some winter touring in the van and it was an adjustment for sure. 

Yeah, it’s snowing actually, out here in DC right now.

Yeah, you guys are getting dumped on! But it was very fulfilling. And being able to get back out and see fans, people that that held on after Yellowcard, and were excited about what I was doing. And they were coming out to shows and singing every word to these songs that I had on these little self-released EPs. And all that stuff is…<Ryan takes a moment to pause and think about his extreme gratitude to the fans who have stuck around.> It’s why you do it. It’s amazing to see. But I think the biggest thing I’ve learned for myself is just confidence, and just feeling like I’m able to step out on my own. I’m still making music every day of my life, so I don’t gauge whether or not these EPs are blowing up or getting some huge featured playlist, or what the monthly streams are. That is not how I’m gauging my success. And that’s a huge growth for me to to not use numbers and statistics to feel like things are successes or failures, which maybe they aren’t, and maybe I should. Maybe it means it’s not successful, I don’t know. But my point is that I’m doing what I love, and I’m still doing it on my feet, and I’m still making a living and creating music every day. 

It’s probably more important to you at this stage of your career. You’re doing the music that you want to make.

Exactly! So I’m not gonna cater to what maybe I think people want to hear from me, but I’m probably wrong. Whatever my notion of what people want to hear is probably incorrect anyways, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to create the music that I think is right for me and just put it out in the world man. Whatever the numbers are, just don’t matter to me and that’s been a huge growth process for me, because I used to live in that space where nothing was good enough. And now I have this peace of mind to be like, the expectation should be that you’re given the opportunity to still have this recording studio, and that you have and make music, and I know that it doesn’t matter.

Yeah, but a lot of people still care about the music you’re producing...

And that’s the thing. I feel like I’ve found a lot of gratitude over this process, and for the people that support me. I feel like having the online community through Patreon and Discord and these new outlets has been really beneficial to me to feel the love from all these people. And it keeps me going. And I think one thing I’ve learned is that touring is not necessarily what I want to be doing. That’s something I’ve learned over the process, that I love doing the shows, but I love making the music way more. And that was something when I partnered up with Equal Vision…which is also something that’s just amazing to me. I’ve said in my little bio that’s been floating around, when I referenced a very clear memory of going to CD Connection here in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and buying Saves The Day’s Through Being Cool. And now to see my record with an Equal Vision stamp on it, it’s just the coolest thing now. And so to get that kind of support makes it feel like there’s a record company that’s excited to be working with me, and it’s not because of Yellowcard. And when I say it’s really cool, I feel like it can get taken out of context. Like, that Yellowcard isn’t really cool. <Ryan pauses for a moment to clarify his thoughts on what he meant by the last statement.>

It’s not that at all, it’s just that it’s just that having this opportunity and someone who wants to work with you, and in a space that isn’t the thing you’ve always done, or as you said, the thing people expect from you, They’re out there, and they’re kind of bringing out the open arms, saying we love it. Keep going down that road. It’s different for Equal Vision to be putting out music like this. So they’ve been awesome. When I went into talking to them about working together, I was pretty open about the fact that I probably wasn’t going to tour. If I was going to release something, I likely wouldn’t tour, and they were totally cool with that. They said, “the space has changed a lot and you were just going to work it online and put the music out and have fun with it.”  And you know, I was like, Okay, great!

Did that mindset come in because you’re not touring because of the pandemic? Or how did that work out?

For me, or for them?

For both, I guess?

Well, I would assume that it’s a little bit of both. I would assume people have learned that record companies and artists both have learned a lot about what’s possible through this crazy shift that we’ve gone through. And so for me, I think it’s going to be more about content than it is about traveling. I want to be able to just keep creating music. And right now we’re just starting on our sort of relationship together. But Equal Vision seems to be really excited about that idea of it’s not necessarily about going out and grinding it out on the road. Just keep making music, and we’ll keep pumping, and keep populating the streaming sites with new new songs and new EPs, new records, or whatever it’s going to be…that really excites me because as I said, I spent a lot of time the last couple years really trying to get Ryan and I with Jedha and myself on my own. And really trying to get into film and TV scoring. And so it’s really important to me, and a lot of the stuff you hear on the EP was pretty heavy handed with wanting to sort of showcase my ability to create different energies and different vibes using really cinematic sounds. And so I think just being able to be in the studio and creating non-stop is just going to be really, really cool for what I’m trying to accomplish going forward with my career.

That’s great. So it sounds like you have a great relationship with your label. And also, you did some touring stunts with your pals in New Found Glory, a couple of months, maybe a year ago? What was that experience like, and did you learn anything about yourself as a musician getting back to the grind of touring?

<Ryan’s eyes light up and smiles> It was so great, man. Going from being the lead singer, and that the whole entire machine depends on my fragile little vocal cords…<Laughter> I’ve been busy hanging out with New Found Glory’s guitar tech who was Yellowcard’s guitar tech for 11 years. So one of my closest friends in the world. So I’ve gone from having all of the responsibility to perform and sing, and direct the show, to now half the show just hanging out with my buddy in the back. I mean, it was so great, dude. It was so refreshing and just fun to play guitar. Fun to play rock and roll, and something that I don’t know that I’ll do again, you know what I mean? It was a cool way to get out and play that kind of music and experience those kinds of shows. And to be honest, with the pressure off of your shoulders, and being able to look out in the crowd and kind of just enjoy that. But you know, I got a lot better at enjoying that in Yellowcard as I got older. But I spent most of my time in Yellowcard as a tightly wound ball of stress and anxiety that wishes…I try not to live with regret. But I’ve certainly learned from my inability to fully enjoy the moment I was in, at a lot of times in my young adult life. And so when New Found Glory offered the spot, I was like, “Man, all I gotta do is run around and have fun like this! I’m gonna soak this up!” And I did, and I really loved it. Plus, the guys in that band, they’ve been some of my closest friends in the music world, as far as fellow bandmates and fellow bands that we’ve toured with. So getting to be on the road with them for two years, or however long that was, it was just really cool. Because the other thing is a lot of the weight of the inner workings of the band are off the shoulders as well. I was sort of in this weird limbo between like a “hired gun”, and not an actual band member. Because I was on the bus with the band and this felt like I was in the band, but I wasn’t really. And so if they had something they needed to deal with, band-wise, I didn’t have to go! <Laughter>

That’s like a cameo appearance!

I got all the good stuff. But there’s not a lot of negative stuff with NFG to be honest. They’re pretty miraculous in their level of positivity, and the relationships within the band are just so strong. And so it was refreshing. And it was inspiring, and I came out of all of that really fired up to go make music and I think that’s the most important thing I got out of it.

So looking back at the legacy of Yellowcard, what do you remember most fondly about that band? And what do you hope Yellowcard will be best remembered by?

<Ryan pauses for a few seconds to collect his thoughts on the band that solidified his career.> The thing I’m most fond of, as you say, the thing that moves me the most about Yellowcard was the the level at which we were able to travel the world to meet fans on every continent except Antarctica. To see the world, and be given the gift of travel through doing something that I loved. I don’t know what else there is, I don’t know what else there is to say, I don’t know what I don’t know how to express my joy about that enough. I love that in my adult life as we did all of that as, as someone who now is sort of in the middle of the game, and can sort of turn and look back at the first half, I realized just how much I love traveling. I loved seeing the world, I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of it. And I owe all of that to Yellowcard. I owe learning the love of travel and the passion for seeing the world to my time in Yellowcard. And then the sort of icing on the cake of getting to travel and see the world is also getting to meet all of these people all around the world that love your band and support the band. And if you go to the Philippines and you play a sold out show in front of 1000s of people that know every word to a song you wrote in your bedroom in Jacksonville, Florida, when you were 19 years old, it’s pretty hard to quantify how that’s reality, you know? So I think I personally will always look back on my time in Yellowcard, and reflect most positively on the traveling that I got to do with the band is just amazing. And as far as what I’d like us to be remembered by, that’s it. I think that I’m really happy with how the final tour came to be…

And having that moment to say goodbye. And it was all planned out really well.

Yeah, and I think having that as sort of a legacy and people remembering us and saying farewell…it wasn’t always a positive space. Yellowcard was a very tumultuous roller coaster ride of a band from the beginning to the end, but we did have those final shows, and there was something special there. There was something really magical about each night on that tour. And some of my all time favorite moments in the band, I would say probably like a lot of the top five is filled out from moments on that tour, or shows on that tour, because they were just so impactful. So I don’t know…<Ryan again pauses, but shows gratitude towards his time in Yellowcard.> I hope people remember us as doing justice to saying goodbye to the band.

Yeah, and one of my favorite lines came from the last record and it was “Don’t let the past be the reason you’re not here.” And that’s really stuck with me. The basic point of, don’t let things that happened in the past be the reason that you want to go forward and make relationships with people, unless it’s not worth your time, kind of like what we talked about in the beginning of this interview. Do you have any last words for your fanbase?

Well, I have my little Patreon communities up and running again and I’ve shifted the focus of that, in a lot of ways. When I first started it during the pandemic, it was very focused around more and more kinds of live shit. I would do a live set for a full hour live show every month. And I was releasing new music, but what I enjoyed most about Twitch, and what I’ve tried to carry over into Patreon, is allowing it to be a space where people sort of have a window into all of this creation that we’ve talked about tonight. So the Patreon is much more focused on live streaming from the studio and creating everything I’m working on, assuming it’s not something that I’m not allowed to show. Like if I end up getting a show or something I’m working on. But for the most part, everything I’m creating…the window’s open. And if you want to come be a part of the community, or if you’re interested in music production, I think it’s extra cool. But even if you’re not hanging out with us while I make music and just chatting and meeting everybody, the friendships I’ve seen developed between fans from all over the world through this community have been really, really cool, man. I’ve watched and seen some relationships build and happen through the chats and and through the Discord stuff, and it’s people who loved Yellowcard, and who I’m very grateful continue to support me, but they share the love of all these things. Like someone’s from Belgium, and someone’s from New Zealand, and they realize now that they’re off on their own and they’re best buds. They’re chatting and going to meet up and I mean, there’s just some really cool stuff happening there, and I’m really glad I was able to create a space for fans to continue to hang out and share their love of Yellowcard, if that’s your thing. But also just the level of support I get and the things they say, it will bring actual real life tears to your eyes. Sometimes I’m just like, “wow, how did I get so lucky to have a second chance at doing this and making music all the time?” And it could have very, very easily been over for me at the end of Yellowcard. And I’m doing what I love, and I think I’m moving even closer to the real goal as I say, where I’m really enjoying releasing these EPs and putting out music that that I’m writing, and the lyrics in that direction, but scoring and composing is very much where my heart is at, and where I’m trying to get to. I’m starting to smell it. I’ve got a couple of irons in the fire right now this year that I’m really excited about. And, I love the idea of the Patreon thing, where everything I’m going to do is just gonna be an open book. So I’m working on this collection of quick two-minute long, score-oriented pieces for a friend of mine who is like a sync person for TV and film and wants to have about 10 tracks. So we’re having fun on Patreon in the studio. I mean, there are no rules there, man. It’s just like ripping strings and the orchestral vibes. It’s so awesome. So I would just say if you’re interested in getting a little window into the studio, and making some buds, the Patreon community is really cool. But I think that’s it. I’m gonna try to make as much music as I possibly can this year.

That’s good news to hear! Thank you so much for your time tonight. And I wish you guys nothing but the best, your bandmates in Jedha like Ryan Mendez and everyone else. Thanks so much, and I hope to connect with you again soon!

Author’s Note: Some of this interview has been edited for length and clarity. I again want to thank William Ryan Key for giving such a gracious amount of time to discuss his new album, Everything Except Desire, as well as the other music-related topics we discussed in the interview.