Two Different Worlds: An Interview With Ryan Koenig

You may have seen Ryan Koenig before. As a longtime multi-instrumentalist in Pokey LaFarge’s band you may have heard him singing or blowing the harp. Perhaps heard him play alongside other talents, elevating them and their art, with a wide brim cowboy hat, big belt buckle and aviator shades at festivals or in your favorite local concert hall. And while his riveting solos get the crowd riled up and moving what you may not have seen up in these parts of the Northeast is the singer-songwriter and instrumentalist crooning his heart out and rocking your souls with his own songs. 

The songwriter is on the brink of releasing a brand new record aptly titled ‘Two Different Worlds‘. The world of frontman vs sideman, the world of country music aficianado vs expert player. Thats for you to decide, but listen, you should do and do it as soon as you can. The album is equal parts barroom rompers and tender lonesome howls. Koenig shines as a band leader and his performances are soaked in the charisma and love for the style of music that he has honed over the years.

From the two step dance of Strugglin’ With A Lot to the amped up twist and shake of This Old Main Drag to the horn laden heartfelt nature of Cheyenne, the landscape of what country music’s breadth spans the entirety of the record. Doused in expert instrumental playing, Ryan’s distinctive vocal and storied songs that zig zag across the country and beyond, Two Different Worlds is a hell of a strong release for the artist that will surely put him on your radar and spinning on your record player again and again.

We caught up with Ryan to talk about this record, his history and a whole lot more. Check it out below.

RLR: So this is a debut record with you in the driver’s seat…but you are obviously no stranger to the stage or studio. What clicked for you here…or what took so long for an album to come to fruition?

RK: Yeah, there were a couple of factors for that. I’ve done a lot of other records that featured my songs. I had an 8 song EP come out several years ago that was really stripped down  but this set of songs is one that I have been putting together for almost 8 years now it seems like. I thought they all needed the larger sound treatment and I had some downtime from the Pokey touring and thats really what made it seem like the right time. For years the excuse had been “I’m too busy, I’m too busy” and when I became a little less busy, thats when it seemed like the obvious choice.

RLR: ‘Two Different Worlds’ is a great title and I could take a stab at what I think it might mean to you (frontman vs sideman, country music afficiado vs player). But I’ll let you do it. Where does that title stem from for you?

RK: The title comes from a lyric in the one cover song on the album which is from a late friend, Bob Reuter, the song ‘”It Don’t Matter“. And yeah, there is a lot of things with that. I mean,  I guess the first thing that happened was anytime I am trying to come up with a title, the 21st century thing to do is to Google it and make sure that no one has taken it. What I found is that there are several records that are called “Two Different Worlds” and all of those records are these classic country records named after the title song called ‘Two Different Worlds‘. Which I thought was interesting as well because its a nod to the classic country but its coming from a source that is really the most rock n’ roll song on the record. Then also it being from a late friend of mine, there is the two different worlds of living and dead, a lot of the topics on the record are love and loss and the feeling of middle America vs. the rest of the country. It touches upon a lot of things which is why I felt it was appropriate and it wasn’t mine to come up with. It just kind of came to me.

RLR: So I promise this will be the only time I broach this subject, but I have had the privilege of talking to quite a few artists who spend at least part of their time as side musicians to other artists and I am curious about the mindset that you take with that situation, be it recording or performing live, and if there is a different approach or emotion you inject into that situation vs. your own songs. Do you find you go at them differently? What goes through your head to prepare for each or maybe as it is unfolding?

RK: Yeah, certainly. I mean with Pokey and a lot of the groups I play with I am always in the multi-instrumentalist/harmony singer role. So the approach for that is very much ‘get in where you fit in‘ sort of thing. A lot of times someone will come to me and the song is pretty much done, sometimes even arranged with a lot of other people in mind and I just see what I can add over the top of it. Whether its a solo here or there or just some texture or harmony vocal here and there. It’s funny because in some ways it can be difficult to figure out exactly where you fit in, in a large ensemble, but then at the same time all of a sudden when I am fronting the band I realize “now I got to write the set list. I got to decide whether I am going to count it off or the drummer is going to count it off. I got to decide whether I like the solo there or somewhere else and who is going to play it.”, so yeah its certainly a different approach but as far as front and center thing, I have done that enough before that it doesn’t get to me as much. Its more of the inner workings.

RLR: I feel as though there was this point a couple of years back where country purists were proclaiming “country is dead”, but in recent years I feel in recent years with the rise of Sturgill and Isbell and Margo Price and all these folks coming out, there is a sort of revival. I feel like with this record you are lending your voice to keep tradition alive, but the arrangements really accomplish bringing a style and a vibe that is completely modern and has a contemporary flair. One word that came to mind when I was first listening to the album through was “captivating”. Its vibrant and fresh, but we still get that classic flavor and plenty of weeping steel. How do you feel about being a part of bringing this kind of music into the limelight today? Was that something at the front of your mind in the studio in sort of taking a classic country vibe but giving it a bit of a shiny new coat of paint?

RK: I am not sure if it necessarily…I wouldn’t say it was something that I was actively going for. But at the same time, in everything I do, as much as I like all forms of old music and have a wide array of old influences, its often been my friends and peers that influence me the most. When you are drawing from a huge amalgamation of old music, but its the people in the modern times that are influencing you the most I think its almost impossible for it not to sound a little bit fresh. I think the people who sound dated are the ones that aren’t listening to what is coming out now. Bands like The Deslondes are great buddies but also a huge influence. Someone like Daniel Romano, friend but huge influence. The list goes on and on. Especially all the people in St. Louis that I get to play with. You know Jack Grelle, Pokey and Mat Wilson from the Rum Drum Ramblers. All of their songwriting is based in tradition but has a modern flair and being around everyone like that its like I am essentially throwing everything in a similar pot and pulling something a little different out. All of us listen to all kinds of things and we just get what we get, I guess.


RLR: Yeah I know, growing up I feel like I always put the music I was listening to on this pedestal. But now some of my best friends are my favorite songwriters and I feel really lucky for that.

RK: Yeah. Thats certainly where I am at too. I remember being a kid and going to see all these punk bands I was really worshiping at the time and getting to see people and being completely starstruck. Today, its like the record I am anticipating the most I might just wind up picking up from the guy that made it, you know?

RLR: Yeah, so in looking at your history, from what I understand, you kind of started out singing and playing guitar in punk/garage band called the Vultures, but seem to kind of play everything. What was that like?

RK: Yeah so that band was myself, Joey Glynn the bass player of Pokey’s band. He was on drums in that band. This girl Ashley Hohman, is a visual artist this days, recently left St . Louis and had a lot of bands in St. Louis. She was the bass player. Around 2005-2008 we pretty much toured the entire Mid-West and east coast when I was freshly out of high school. She was essentially skipping high school to do that.

RLR: In that same vein, thinking back to that time, what was on the record player, in the discman or other avenue for auditory consumption when you were growing up and how do you think that effected you as a player and writer today?

RK: You know there was a lot of those days that led me to country music. Then when I was first getting into rock n’ roll I would listen to all kinds of punk and I heard bands like MC5 and The Germs and The Sonics and all these bands. They were reaching towards, essentially, Chuck Berry. And Chuck Berry, being the St. Louisan that he is, is inevitably a fusion of country, blues, jazz, soul…all these things that are quintessentially kind of floating around in middle America and St. Louis is kind of the drain that they all find their way down. Thats what really sealed the deal for me on that band, when I started getting really into Chuck Berry I was like “Ok this guitar shuffle-ly riff, thats going to be the basis for all of the songs”. This is how I am going to solo. Then branched out from him. People like Bo Diddely was a huge thing. Link Wray. All the 50s and 60s kind of pre-punk stuff. At the same time I didn’t really know how to get those tones. I didn’t know all of the theory that was behind it. So, we were trying to be Chuck Berry, but we were kind of coming off as a punk band. We would play like a rockabilly show and the guys’ ears would be bleeding and we would play a punk show and everyones like “where the fucks the sockhop?”. It was always a little bit in between, but people liked it in general.

RLR: Lets talk about your songwriting for a little bit. The stories within the songs seem to span the country. There’s also often an assumption that songs in the first person are autobiographical, but there is also something to be said about making a song relatable, you know palatable to a broader audience. Dancing a line between “this is where I am really at” and making it easy for the listener to relate to and input themselves on it as well. How much do you try to write about what you know, keeping it personal versus what you can imagine and consider from another person’s perspective or expanding upon a story?

RK: I think that most good songs have an element of the personal to them. At least songs when sung by the person that wrote the song, at least. At the same time, I just thought back. The first country song I can remember writing was, I was probably 16 or 17 and the song was completely fictitious but it was all code for what was really going on. It was essentially taking the feeling I was having and putting them into this other character and situation. So there is definitely some of that on this record. For years to, I tried to be dead serious and completely, everything is what it seems. Songs on the record like Last Resident. Thats the oldest song on the record and that song is just like all true. Word for word, its true. As time went on, especially some of the newer songs on the record that are story songs, like the first two tracks, Edie and Struggling with A Lot, those were situations where I realized a song could be personal but not about me. You know? It could be someone that I know. A story that has happened to them, even if it didn’t happen to me I was there and they told me. Then there’s other songs on there that are largely code. Once again, the Bob Reuter song, singing someone else’s song and making it personal. I remember the first time I heard him play that song. We used to play together a lot. He was another huge influence, on my songwriting, my playing. The entire breadth of what I’ve done. I  remember playing It Don’t Matter with him the first time and thinking when I heard the opening line that he had written the song about me. And that was before I realized the song was written in like 1981 or 82. Just always thought, I understand everything he is saying here. This is eventually something that I have to say. I think any good song, there is a touch of the personal but there are a lot of ways you can construe the personal part of the song.

RLR: So even to set this interview up, you seem super busy all the time. You seem to really be a road dog…always touring. A two pronged question: So what is your writing process like in terms of songs. Do you set aside days when you are home? Are you always writing on or off the road? And then, how much of your touring influences your writing? I think its obvious with Miss Edie referencing every where from Bowling Green to Dallas, there’s Amarillo references, etc. How much seeps into the stories?

RK: Yeah, you know I think its a lot. I wish I could just find time to sit down and write.You know a lot of the times its just jotting a few things down and going with the mindset of “if it sticks then it must be good. If it doesn’t then better luck next time”. A lot of the stuff I wrote for this record and I tend to write, I’ll have a concept that will come to me and then I’ll sit down and write most of it within a few minutes. Then I may tweak it for months or years.

The traveling certainly, once again the first track about Edie, was a friend of mine that was the last person I expected to see in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This is an English lady from somewhere outside of Oxford. Once again, there with Pokey and The Deslondes, The Deslondes back again. She shows up and she’s on this hitchhiking trip across America. Which is also crazy to me because my experience with hitchhikers and train hoppers and these life long travelers, they have a very different look to this kind of fashionable, small English lady that is now trying her hand at this across America. So yeah, thats kind of where that story comes in. Then the next track is about a friend of mine, Chelsea in Knoxville, which is a place that I love to go. Its kind of, you collect these stories from being around. As much as it may take away from my ability to just sit down and focus on writing, there is kind of a lot of stories and experiences getting thrown at me all the time. So I just have to figure out which ones make it to pen and paper.

RLR: There’s one line that has especially lodged its way into my brain “always wanted to read a lot of books, but I wound up listening to records instead”…going back to balance.Which is from the track you covered from Bob Reuter. That can be perceived as a humorous kind of a line, a bit self deprecating, but on the same token its pretty heavy when you think on it. Regret and self reflection. Do you feel there is a catharsis in writing in that fashion or listening to songs of that nature? The whole “sad songs make me happy” mentality?

RK: That is specifically the line I was mentioning before when I thought “wow, this song is completely about me”. And its not, actually, but yeah it is. Thats absolutely why I wanted to include that song. That line is heavy in that way. Yeah it would be great to have time to be your ideal self and the self that you thought you would be growing up. But its kind of like, ok here we are and this is what I am doing in reality. My library is the library of music and lyrics rather than fiction or poetry. 

RLR: Well how about that refection of the past and such? Is it therapeutic to write or enjoy songs in that vein for you?

RK: Oh certainly. I mean I am a fairly sentimental dude as it is. I’m always the one who is like “wow, that was ten years ago. Remember what we were doing then?” Thats another reason why the songwriting has a lot of that. Why I wanted to make this record now, because this is essentially a reflection over almost ten years worth of stuff. Its all what has risen to the top after that time. Its like shit, if this is whats coming out now, by the time, within the next 2 or 3 years, theres going to be a whole lot more.

It was ten years ago when The Vultures were done, Pokey traveling is starting up and I am starting to experience a lot of the country that I hadn’t experienced before. I’d been east and in the middle, but I had never been overseas. There’s a lot more memories where that came from. I’ve always enjoyed reflecting on the past in my own life and in history in general and how the pieces come together to be where we are at now. One of the reasons I like living in St. Louis so much is there’s not very many transplants. I can go to the bar and talk to someone about “remember what it was like 12 years ago on this very same street when none of this stuff was here. When the north side didn’t look like it looks now.” Adam and Joey from Pokey’s band are both high school friends of mine. The bass player in Jack Grelle’s band I have known since he was 11 or 12. These kind of connections that lend themselves to that kind of songwriting and that kind of thinking, but that kind of environment too.

RLR: Your wife Kellie also lends her musical voice to this collection of songs and you guys perform in a duo as well. What is that dynamic like for you guys? Do you spitball ideas off of each other constantly or is there more of a “work on this for a while, get it right, then bring it to each other”?

RK: A little bit. We have a project called Southwest Watson Sweethearts, which is just us two doing duets and she’s playing rhythm guitar and I am playing leads. We are essentially playing side-person to one another. In that project, definitely, everything is spitballed off each other. On this record, I mean really she is talented in so many ways. Her ability to arrange harmony singing is always amazing to me and miles above what I can do. So a lot of the bouncing ideas off her came from being in the studio and me having this framework of a song and saying “I kind of think I want one or two singers here, I can kind of hear this part” and she’s like “oh no” and instructing. So yeah, she is great at that. As far as lyrics, the lyrical content is more bounced off one another in our own project. But yeah, she is certainly an expert arranger. She knows 10 times the music theory that I know. If we were around each other more there would probably be more collaboration but she’s on the road more than I am.

RLR: Sonically speaking, if there is one thing that really stands out its that the songs have this wonderful balance to them. Equally shit kickin’ soul and barroom brawl mingling with some really heartfelt sincerity.The slow two step of “It’s Easy to See” and the quick shoulder shake inducing vibe of This Old Main Drag…from the solemn slow dance to the barroom brawl, its just makes me want to move. But there is always resolve and nothing is every too much, an ebb and flow seems to be woven into the fabric of the stories and songs. Thats kind of a hard thing to maintain, everyone wants to play louder solos or add a dubstep drop. Was maintaining that balance and letting the songs breath a conscious choice for you? How much of that is intentional in your presentation of these songs? To play these songs live and see a crowd moving along, is there an element of that?

RK: Yeah I think there is some intention to it. But I do think a lot of it just comes with the style. Most modern American music, really most music in general, evolves from some kind of dance oriented thing. Country music comes from string band music and rock n’ roll coming from the blues. The blues from ragtime. Everything’s got these dances to it. I think that if I was playing live shows more there would probably be a few more uptempo numbers just cause that is generally the most engaging. I like any kind of record that has a lot of different rhythms to it. A lot of different feels to it. Some might make you sit back and think or this is a heavy, sentimental one. Or this ones more of a rocker. A lot of it too, comes from such a wide variety of influences. Something like Main Drag, obviously the rhythms on that come from way more of a rock n’ roll and punk rhythm. Honestly, too, Matt Meyer, the drummer on the record and is also Pokey’s drummer and was with Miss Tess and The Talkbacks for years. He’s a master of coming up with all kinds of different and very appropriate grooves. Even the slow jams, he is great at giving it a danceable quality where someone else may play it a little more straight.

RLR: To close really, what comes next? What are the plans for the record once it hits?

RK: Well, doing a couple things. Throughout the next couple months a lot around St. Louis, one in Chicago, one in Nashville, probably closer around November-December-January when Pokey and Jack’s stuff winds down a little bit, thats when I’ll really try and branch out a little bit further. Its also just good with this record to have something to sell on the road of my own. I just need something definitive. You know, the music is the best business card you can have. You can tell everyone all day long all you can do and say go to my website or look it up on Youtube or find me on Facebook or whatever you want to say, but if you can give someone some actual sounds they can listen to, that can sum it up. 

As far as new projects, the Rum Drum Ramblers, which is one of the longest running groups I play with, and I am sort of a 50% songwriter on that with Mat Wilson, we are very overdue for a record and we have been working on that. And for the next thing for me solo, I have always wanted to just make a “me, solo record”. Just me by myself. So that may be the next thing for me. Woody Guthrie, guy and a guitar, Utah Phillips, Blaze Foley kind of thing.

Two Different Worlds sees the light of day on October 13th. You can pick it up over on Big Muddy Records website.

And follow Ryan on Facebook or check his website out for tour dates.