Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

Ismay Country Queer Ad

Ryan Cassata, Making Breakthroughs

Exclusive video from new surprise-release LP

By Mya Byrne, Staff Writer

Photo by Doryn Fine.

Ryan Cassata has been busy. Coming off the heels of his recent folk-Americana LP, “The Witches Made Me Do It”, he’s rush-releasing “Rebels & Ghosts”, a new collection of originals. Ryan and I touched base to chat about this new album and his other projects. 

In these times we look to our artists for inspiration; Ryan has obliged his eager fan base with this set of songs. As he says, “People need something to look forward to…when you’re stuck inside, new music is always nice to get into. For the past few years I have been writing more songs than I ever have before. I have the material, so why not release it?”  

The record was cut in 2017 and 2018, with Nate Evans (The Drive), and Ryan says it was recorded quickly. Many of the singles Ryan’s released the last few years are from this collection, including “Daughter”, which has over a million views and has been featured in many major music magazines. But he’s been holding onto the whole record for a while. I asked why he’d been holding onto it, and why he chose right now to release it.

“It’s a lot different than most of my other stuff, so I was unsure for a while. I wrote and recorded an entire other record in quarantine [to be released later], so I figured why not drop “Rebels & Ghosts” now? Now felt right. So…it’s happening.” 

The sound is indeed a striking departure from his more recent dip into country rock—this album has a distinct modern pop feel. There are many tracks that are right out of the club, that make me wistful for nights out dancing at the Stud or at Stonewall. Heavy on Wurlitzer, synthesizers, and beats, swirling along with affected vocals, some of the songs are right in the vein of Harry Styles, Rihanna, and Justin Timberlake, like “Train Traxx”, a slow groove and a great love song: “I’m away from the train tracks laying on my back / I feel real strong / The way we get along / The way we get on / I wanna spend time with you / Make memories, make breakthroughs”  It’s a very unexpected sound for him — ranging from power pop to rap and R&B grooves. I asked Ryan about this shift and his songwriting process. 

“Collaborating with Nate was a much different experience for me. We dove into the pop realm more because that is what we were both writing and producing during that time. Honestly for me…I never sit down and say, ‘Oh, let me try to write a pop song,’ or ‘Let me try and write a country song right now.’” 

He’s straight up rapping in places. But it’s his voice. He’s not trying to copy anyone else’s flow. While he’s definitely going into a heavy R&B/hip hop style, there are places where he sounds more like Lucinda Williams or Dylan’s modern-style talking blues, yet over a hip-hop beat. It’s a different experience, indeed. Where is this new sound coming from?

“It just comes naturally. Whatever flows out of me, flows out of me. Songs just come to me. I don’t know how but it has been happening my entire life and I know that this is my calling and true passion.” 

(Speaking of Dylan — it’s nice to hear a little tribute to a mutual friend of mine and Ryan, Diamond Dave, on the record, in an FX’d answering machine message. Diamond Dave Whitaker is a SF poetry and political legend — longtime host of a great open mic on MutinyRadio.fm and a pioneering FM broadcaster, his show is one of the places where Ryan got his start in SF and where I met many of my SF pals, too. Dave, who knew Bob Dylan before Dylan went to New York, is allegedly the direct inspiration for Dylan’s origin stories that Bobby created for the press in those first few years. Those stories about Dylan as a working man, traveling across the country? Those are Dave’s actual stories and memories.) 

One of Ryan’s favorite tracks is “Sober”, a painfully honest song about his path to sobriety. In between rapped verses about his own history, including mentions of passing out on the Vans Warped Tour, friends stuck on the street and wanting to be there for the people he cares about, he sings, “I wanna see you when you’re sober / ‘Cos when you’re not it just feels over / I’m not saying that I miss it / It’s just somewhat a resistance, I’m different.” Relatedly, his song “Heroin Nation” is a massive condemnation of the opiate industry and heroin distribution, reflection on the lives of lost youth, and the responsibility of parents to step up. ”What if it’s your kid, shaking with chills / What if it’s your kid, another one killed? / Don’t close your eyes.” 

Ryan’s never shied away from serious topics, but in this song, it’s more personal: “It’s about the heroin epidemic in my hometown which has killed more friends than I can count on both my hands. I hope the song wakes some people up and gives them hope that they can recover too. If not, maybe it will at least provide some comfort for friends and family and let them know that they are not alone.”

While the album is rooted in R&B, fans of Ryan’s pop-country sound won’t be disappointed. “Back in the South,” a great, bouncy ode to the small towns and people you meet on the road, is one of the standout tracks. “There’s cafes / They want to hear me play, they want to hear this guitar make rainbows on stage / Going back to what I know / Going back to what I love / To all them friendly places / I’m headed back down south.”

I also love “Gender Binary”, a power-pop-punk track that flips the bird to expectations of gender, with a catchy, NSFW chorus you’ll be singing for weeks. But I’m most taken by “Wings”, the exclusive track, with lines like “Without you, my mind is chaos-bound…Stare out my window, where did we go / Where did we go wrong?” and “I still believe in you, do you believe in me? / These wings will make us free”. Watch and listen here for this fun video (featuring a guest appearance from Country Queer’s trucker hat.)

But making records isn’t all that Ryan’s doing. If you’ve been following him on social media, you’ll know that he’s appearing in a new film, Two Eyes, appearing as a trans teen with legendary trans activist and author Kate Bornstein playing his therapist. The film premieres at LA’s OutFest in just a few weeks. Ryan also sings a song in the film, ‘You and Me Babe”. I asked him what that process was like.

“Filming and being on set helped me to think more about gender in a freeing way. I was able to get in touch with my feminine side that I may have repressed much of my life since transitioning. I wish a movie like Two Eyes was around when I was a young teenager. Watching it would have helped me to feel not as alone.”

And what was it like working with Auntie Kate?

“Working with Kate was such a blessing. There are so many intense scenes in the movie and filming was sometimes very heavy feeling for these scenes. Kate and I would hug a lot between takes. It helped me to stay grounded. She is an incredible person and I’m so honored to work alongside her. Off set we spoke a lot about gender with the director of photography Avery Holliday, and I feel like my thinking about gender shifted. I walked away from that set feeling more free about my gender expression and identity.” 

What is Ryan excited about going into the near future? The answer won’t surprise you. In what would be a dream for so many of us musicians stuck inside right now, Ryan is thrilled to get back on stage—socially distant, of course.

“I will be performing at the OutFest closing night screening [for Two Eyes] in Malibu, at the drive-in theatre. I am very excited to get back on stage. This is the longest time I’ve spent off stage. I am so excited to feel the energy exchange. It’s one of my favorite parts about my life. I am sure I will appreciate it more than ever.”

Track listing, “Rebels & Ghosts”

Rebels & Ghosts releases Aug 21 on all major platforms and on ryancassata.com.