Years ago, at a house in Xenia, I was in the shower when my friend Bobby sneaked in, put a boom box on the counter and yelled, "Listen!"
High volume, a haunting male voice leaked, then poured out of the speakers. That was the first time I heard the late Jeff Buckley's album, Grace.
Buckley's lyrics mix temporary, sexy scenes with lasting, torturous love, using words so concrete and personal that it seems he might be in the room. Achingly soulful, his songs are smart, internal and external and the vocal range makes them utterly vibrant, similar to local singer/ songwriter Ryan Muddiman's work. Muddiman's songs hold the same ethereal feel — a three-minute dream binge.
I'm writing this article on yellow paper by early morning candlelight. Power outage. It's a fitting scene in which to describe Muddiman's (vocals, guitars, organs) shadowy sound. Listen to his "Damn."
It begins with, "Damn, you're beautiful." Echoing and intense, the song moves with a slow, passionate flow, making intelligent use of intoxicating highs and fiery drop zones.
Muddiman's voice holds a slick, irresistible depth. Artistic heart-hurters, these songs move beyond sensuality, touching on spirituality, tackling the pain vs. hope mix. Listen closely and hear a slight rustle or a sniffle in the background, sounds that leave a deliberate, rough Indie touch, a style used effectively by artists such as Cat Power on her early Moon Pix album.
Muddiman delivers words gradually, moving into an emotional, incense-burning scene, giving a shout out to unrequited love. Key repetitive chords anchor rhythm, but the vocals stray, allowing emotion to consciously change the direction.
From Cincinnati, Muddiman is lively with brown hair and eyes; a set of brown beads is wrapped around his left wrist. He smiles quick and often. Energetic and not giving himself enough credit, he looks shocked when Jesse Rodgers (who plays bass with him) gives him a compliment.
"Ryan is uninhibited and honest," Rodgers says. "I can be myself and not worry about putting on some fucking image. I found a musical soul mate in Ryan. I'm his friend, but really I'm a fan. People enjoy it because it's important. He doesn't hold anything back."
At age 6, Muddiman got his first acoustic guitar.
"Back then, I was into guitar-hero stuff, like Eric Johnson and Hendrix," he says.
Self-taught, Muddiman says, "I play what I hear in my head. However it comes out, it comes out. Sometimes it's Rock & Roll, sometimes it's not."
Bassist Rodgers is warm, soft and easy-going. Beginning with guitar at 12, he says, "You get the fire and it doesn't go out."
Five years ago, Muddiman and Rodgers met at Bar Humbug, a Covington venue now called Clique. At the time, Rodgers played with Riverside Union (still a current side project) while Muddiman performed solo. In 2004, Muddiman did 60 to 70 local solo shows, later forming Terravada, a trio that split up in early 2006.
For years, the two ran into each other, but they didn't start playing together until recently. Presently, the duo's main focus is on recording their first album, which has been in the works for the past year.
With varying influences, Muddiman also looks to movies for inspiration. "Don't Forget to Feel" came to him after watching Garden State. "Novel," a sensual, vocally driven tune, shows amazing range. Switching into a more playful sound, Muddiman covers Blind Melon's "No Rain," and his version sounds like a sweet, jazzy raindrop.
From shouts to whispers, this self-reflective music is driven by heart. But is there a place for artistic, experimental songwriting in Cincinnati's scene?
"People have to take down preconceived notions of what they expect to hear in Cincy," Muddiman says. "There's so much good music here. If you have the opportunity, go see it and listen."
Muddiman wants listeners to feel a connection, to walk away with a new energy. Sparks.
"When people say it affects them in some deep way, I feel like I've done something worthwhile," he says. "People say it sounds dark, but for me it's uplifting, a liberation of spirit and mental stress. Introspection. Not in a self-absorbed kind of way, but introspection on a transcendental level."
Ryan Muddiman (myspace.com/ryanmuddiman) and Riverside Union play with Ric Hickey Saturday at East End Café.