A couple of years ago, we entered each other’s lives through a common friend, based on common interests: the workings of being a full-time musician. I quickly learned that Ryan’s soulful voice and captivating storytelling are only paralleled by his relentless drive to make music that heals.
This time around, we end up at a burger place. Ryan’s barely put down his guitar and he is already sharing stories a mile a minute. I nearly forget to start recording. When I finally do, Ryan is in the middle of talking about teaching himself how to play the drums. Let’s jump straight into it, shall we?
So, you taught yourself how to play the drums?
I did. It’s a very African way of thinking: resourcefulness, using what you’ve got rather than saying ‘I can’t because…’
Growing up in Zimbabwe, we didn’t have a lot of amazing physical possessions. When you grow up in that situation, you realize that you can make things.
When did you start making music?
I was singing in school choir when I was 9 years old and loving it. That’s when music was already in my life. I love singing.
When I started high school I got access to classical training. I started playing violin at 13. By the time I was 14, I had won a national competition and I was the only one in my school to get an honors grade, which is a 91–100% mark.
We also had four cellos laying around in the music room and no teacher. What we did have were all these tutorial books. I started teaching myself cello.
That’s very impressive
Thank you. There’s no way my parents could have afforded a cello or a violin. Or violin lessons for that matter. These were school instruments. That’s what made it possible. My upbringing and my education are crucial to me because they gave me access to these things.
I am thankful to that school and to my teachers. They gave me the confidence to continue with music.
And here’s the thing: people tell me all the time that I don’t sound Zimbabwean. Yes, I’ve lived in England, but this is my Zimbabwean accent. And people find it hard to believe me. Every day, I still show up as a Zimbabwean.
My school curriculum in Zimbabwe consisted of classical studies, Latin, science, violin, cello, French, Shona (which is the local language), English, Greek mythology. That’s why I fly the Zimbabwean flag: because I am now very aware and lucky to get to travel the world and I can see that the world looks at a country like Zimbabwe and thinks we are not very well educated and that our English is terrible or whatever clichés they’ve been given by the media.
Every day, I still show up as a Zimbabwean.
When did you realize that music is a full-time gig for you?
I was a teenager – just out of high school or in high school. I ended up playing in a classical string quartet with my friends. We played at weddings and functions. I even played for Nicole Kidman’s parents. They were on a safari. Being flown to different cities to play functions was amazing. Music was already offering me all these opportunities.
When did you start writing songs?
When I picked up the guitar. Previously, I had played the violin and cello, but something was missing. Then I picked up the guitar and I never looked back. This was me.
It is difficult to get classically trained musicians to improvise. When you come into contemporary music you get to compose and create. At this point, I can write songs and play guitar, I sing and I can put violin and cello on top of that. When I produce a song of mine now, it’s fully mine. That’s how I get to flex my creative and classical background.
When I produce a song of mine now, it’s fully mine.
What is the thing you love doing more than any of the others in the whole process?
The best and favorite bit for me is singing. That’s what I have to remind myself, why I do this. I love performing live, picking up a guitar and singing. Everything else is subservient to that.
What was the dream when arriving to Europe?
To be honest, frustration. I was trying to get out of Zimbabwe to go to America. If you want to be the top of your game, America is a great environment. For me, England was all I had after four years of trying. I could only get a UK visa.
So England was a stepping stone?
Yes. That’s what I would’ve wanted it to be. But then you get to England and you realize it’s a new country and a new culture. I was sleeping on the floor at my friend’s university housing. I needed a plan. I was in Central London on day two with CVs. It takes a lot to get into a new country. Everyone will tell you need savings. As a Zimbabwean, all I needed was a plane ticket.
Within a year from my arrival, I was already playing the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh and getting good reviews in the national newspaper.
In your opinion, what does it take to become a full-time musician?
No two people are the same. If you ask me, the most important thing is passion. If you don’t love music, don’t even bother. You need a lot of passion to get you through the disappointments, the dark times, the rejection. They are going to come in the masses. That’s how it is.
Work ethic is paramount as well. You have to be able to work even if you got a record deal and someone helped you become successful. If you don’t do the work you are going to get dropped fast.
Investing in yourself is very important. Today, it is unlikely that a record label will pick you up off the street. You need to build a fan base yourself. You need to produce your own music before the label gets involved. You don’t only need to do the work; you have to be able to learn how to be successful. I produce my own music. I had to learn how to produce. Today, I can make an album by myself wherever I am and it’s going to cost me nothing but the food and the accommodation. I had to build my own rocket because no one is going to build it for me. And now I get to fly.
You need a lot of passion to get you through the disappointments, the dark times, the rejection. I had to build my own rocket because no one is going to build it for me. And now I get to fly.
Have you played a home concert before?
Loads. I love them. House concerts are a big part of my culture. I am a singer-songwriter connecting with people, so house concerts are something I’ve done for many years. I was trying to find out where the home concerts happen in Europe. That’s how Low-Fi got on my radar.
Any musician will tell you how hard it is to get a gig. Regular venues want you to be able to bring 50–100 audience members before they give you the gig because they have to pay their staff. So the real question is: who is going to pay money to watch you play?
But imagine having a fan or a music lover who wants to host your concert in their living room and invite their friends. You are going to be able to connect with 20 new fans and shake their hands. How amazing is that? Who wouldn’t want to do that? More importantly, who wouldn’t want to experience that especially when they believe in the artist and know that one day they will be able to see this musician on a big stage and be able to say ‘This person played in my living room. I know them. I am part of their story’? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
But imagine having a fan or a music lover who wants to host your concert in their living room and invite their friends. You are going to be able to connect with 20 new fans and shake their hands. How amazing is that?
That’s one of my favorite parts about Low-Fi: when you go to one of the concerts and the musician is so good and you know that they are going to make it so big. And there you are, in their face.
More importantly, you are on their side. What people sometimes don’t understand is that artists need your help. I am an artist. I make art. It’s up to people to share and consume the art. There is so much competition today.
Finally, why does music matter?
Everywhere I go, I react to music. Wherever I go, I want to play music. Music is medicine. It heals. It healed me. When I was growing up and going through personal difficulties, music was my savior and Seal specifically is to blame. Seal used to squat and busk in London. He has lyrics that tell you he’s been through a lot. And look at where he is now. He made me feel better. I want to make people feel better like Seal did for me.
Music matters because it doesn’t only heal me — it heals people through me. Music brings people together. People sometimes walk past the bars I play and walk in because they hear my voice. I feel very appreciative and blessed that people from Germany and America and all over the world spend their few evenings in Copenhagen in a room with me.
Lastly, music matters because it has opened doors for me. It has taken me to 27 cities in 13 countries in the past 12 months.
It’s limitless what music does for me.