Way back in February, we started getting emails from an independent publicist about a new California-based singer-songwriter named Phoebe Ryan. What little notoriety she had came from an endearing cover of R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)," but now, Ryan was ready to showcase her own original music. We checked out her stuff and immediately recognized it as surprisingly spotless pop music with huge, catchy hooks and genuine emotion. Ryan's songs "Mine" and "Dead"—which we both wrote about—felt remarkably polished and radio-friendly for such a new and relatively unknown artist.
Flash-forward several months, and those emails promoting Ryan were now coming from Columbia Records, meaning she'd inked a deal with a major record label who was rightfully pushing her as the next big thing, with her Mine EP as her calling card. Right now, Ryan only has a few songs and videos out, including the latest for her song "Homie," but she assured us that a full-length debut is on the way. Here, she tells us how she began making music, what led her to Los Angeles, and what success looks like to her.
What was your entry point into music?
Music was always really important hobby for me. I did the whole piano-lesson thing when I was growing up, but music didn’t really start becoming a career choice until I decided where I wanted to go to school for college. I was choosing between theater schools, and I randomly decided to check out one music school—the Clive Davis Institute at NYU—and I ended up going there.
Did you have any sort of performing background before that?
Yeah, I did theater for a very long time. The first play I was ever in was in kindergarten, and I was always in theater camps and doing all of that stuff.
When you’re young, how do you know that you have the talent to do it? Do you seek validation from others, or is it a feeling of self-confidence?
When I listen back to really early recordings of my singing, I’m just like, “Wow, I was awful.” I can’t believe people actually encouraged me. I can’t believe people were actually like, “Oh, you can do this.” But you definitely need people that are supportive in your corner telling you that you can do it. From a young age, my parents were always very supportive. My mom is an artist, so she’s always been gung-ho about me being creative and expressing myself.
How did you transition into playing live music at venues?
My intro to the live-music scene was in New York. I was in a band in college called Town Hall, and we used to play everywhere like Rockwood, The Bitter End, just kind of all over the city.
What was arriving in L.A. like?
I had been prepared for the move for a really long time because while I was in school, I took some trips out there and just fell in love with it and the creative environment. I knew that it was the place where I needed to have a jumping-off point in my career as a songwriter. So as soon as I moved there, I sort of just hit the ground running, working with really talented producers and songwriters who taught me a lot in those early stages of learning how to write.
What is the process like in terms of finding your voice and your sound?
Part of the reason I moved out to L.A. was to work on my skills as a songwriter for other artists, and through doing that and experimenting with a lot of genres, you sort of learn what you are best at and what inspires you the most. So I met this producer, Kyle Sherer, who was in Nashville at the time, is now in L.A. I met him, and we worked on the “Ignition” cover together, and as soon as we did that, I was like, “Okay, there’s something very special here. We need to keep going and start the process of getting more songs together for me as an artist."
Did you record the “Ignition” remix specifically to get attention on the Internet?
Yeah, totally. I think it was a really interesting idea to come out of the gates with a cover. It’s so easy to get lost in the shuffle nowadays, so I wanted to make something that would really set me apart. The whole mash-up happened when we were just in the studio messing around.
You’ve got a knack for writing big, catchy pop hooks. Is that talent genetic or something you had to be taught?
The two people that I work with most often—Kyle Sherer, my producer, and Nate Campany, a co-writer I work with—I just feel like they bring out the best in my ideas, I bring out the best in their ideas, and then all together we are able to really come up with some awesome stuff. And I listen to tons of pop music, so I feel like you kind of soak it in and you just absorb what you’re hearing.
What’s your process like in terms lyrics and subject matter?
A lot of times I will come up with a single word—words that fit into my life at the moment. And I will try and think about what they mean to me and think of how I can come up with some sort of depth of explaining why it’s important to me.
When do record labels start coming into the mix?
We started releasing all of the music independently just to test the waters and see how people would react, and it got some attention from a bunch of labels. I had gone into Columbia—they just were amazing and were obsessed with pretty much all of the songs. They loved what I was doing and it seemed like the perfect fit.
What does success look like to you? Is it closer to Taylor Swift or St. Vincent?
I see the big pop stars and see how much they affect people’s everyday lives, and I’m just like, “Wow, that would be so incredible if that happened.” But honestly, in my heart, my personal idea of success is just riding until the wheels absolutely fall off—just going as hard and working as hard as possible—and seeing what happens. You can have dreams and you can have visions of what you want to happen, but success is just hard work.
Do you have a timeline for your upcoming debut?
I don’t have any specific dates available right now, but I definitely am fully in the writing process. It’s been so incredible. We have some really, really amazing songs that I’m so excited about.
Is the idea of having your debut on a physical CD important to you, or have you fully accepted that we’re living in a streaming economy?
No, I mean, having the physical thing in my hands would be cool. I’m really a huge fan of vinyl, so if it was really like a full, awesome-artwork vinyl with a piece that you can just hold in your hand, I have to have that. That has to happen.