There was a time when female pop stars were practically assembly line products, and the mere existence of a teal-haired, college-educated singer who writes her own tracks would have been noteworthy. But today, the field has more dynamism and diversity than ever. So if it isn’t her appearance or even her story that makes Phoebe Ryan a standout, then what is it?
To find the answer, one doesn’t need to look any further than the song that made her a star in the first place: her combo cover of R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” and Miguel’s “Do You…” The track pushed her into the national consciousness, showcased her sheer creative prowess and even got a hat-tip from the Pied Piper of R&B himself.
“I was out at dinner and my manager showed me his phone for a second and I saw that R. Kelly tweeted it and called it a ‘gem’ and I started crying in the restaurant,” Ryan gushed.
The two songs blend together perfectly over producer Kyle Shearer’s tasteful flip of Kesha’s “Animal,” but it’s Ryan that really sells it. In the hands of a less talented artist, the track would’ve come off as a gimmick, but she owns every bar. You don’t even smirks as she sings, “Runnin’ her hands through my ‘fro bouncin’ on 24’s,” because once the verses kick in the record simply stops being a cover.
On her original tunes, she boasts an accessibility and self-awareness which proves undeniably endearing. Songs like “Dead,” and “Mine” were highlights of her Mine EP because of their duality. The sound is synth-heavy and shimmery – it’s quintessential radio-ready pop – but the lyrics are earnest and genuine.
“I’ve made mistakes, been dishonest/Self-estranged, did what I wanted/I was a fake, I slept just the same/I’m not a saint, no, I’m not a saint,” Ryan opens with on “Dead,” and the lines flow so smoothly it takes a few listens to get their true, darker gist.
That’s the power of Phoebe Ryan, and we owe her rise to musical prominence in part to the higher education system.
Ryan’s story, like so many other aspiring singers, begins in New York, though from there it takes a bit of a left turn. She didn’t arrive starry-eyed and start banging on record label doors. Instead, Ryan enrolled in NYU’s prestigious Clive Davis program to learn audio engineering.
“I think in my heart I always knew that I wanted to be a recording artist, but at the same time I just was really open to learning everything I could possibly learn and soaking up information I couldn’t get from anywhere else,” she said.
While her classmates were aspiring to a life behind the boards, Ryan had designs on a career behind the mic. She joined bands, and “played pretty much every venue you could think of in New York except for Madison Square Garden” as an undergraduate, soaking up plenty from the city outside the classroom.
“Just living in a huge city where you’re a very small person, and there’s a lot going on, you’re kind of at the whim of everything else that’s happening around you. There’s something powerful about that, I think,” she said.
Along the way, she picked up a few writing credits for acts like Oh Honey and Tritonal, and actually left school more focused on penning others’ tracks than crafting her own. However, that didn’t stay the plan for long, as irony intervened and “Ignition/Do You…” spread like wildfire across the digital grapevine, attaining No. 1 status on Hype Machine along the way.
After that, the snowball started rolling. She inked her deal with Columbia, dropped Mine and performed at Bonnaroo all in less than three weeks. Understandably, Ryan still sounds a little stunned by it all, especially playing one of the nation’s biggest stages despite never even having attended a music festival before.
“I was so nervous to play just because when I was in the little backstage tent and I was like, ‘No one knows who the hell I am, there’s going to be like twelve people standing way far back. It’s going to start raining I’m going to be depressed about it,” Ryan confessed. “But I got on stage and there was a little sea of people, and it was like one of the bigger crowds that I’ve played to. It was just amazing.”
Ryan’s currently on tour with Say Lou Lou, and said that while performing her music is still quite fresh, she’s been able to find some zen and comfort on stage.
She’s focused on writing original tunes right now, but won’t rule out a return to the cover well, either.
“I feel like covers have been so important, just throughout history, they’re the best things ever, everyone loves a cover. I’m definitely not opposed to doing more…,” she said. “…Right now it’s just Phoebe Ryan, but you never know.”
After running through her background, creative process, and reaction to all her recent success, there was only one question left to ask Ryan: What’s the story behind the hair?
“I had never done anything before with my hair, I’d never even gotten highlights. It just overcame me, I was like, ‘I need to change something about myself, I need to try something new.’ I don’t know if I was going through some sort of early 20s crisis, but it just happens,” she said.
What was a spur of the moment, post-grad decision may well become the visual calling card for one of 2015’s brightest, and most gifted breakout stars.
Check out Ryan on tour: