Interview: Ryan Shaw on Imagining Marvin, Artistry in a Pandemic, and Going Forward with Live Music

Ryan Shaw discusses his new album, Imagining Marvin, and the role he feels artists can play right now in a time of social justice and a global pandemic.

By: Dec. 15, 2020
Interview: Ryan Shaw on Imagining Marvin, Artistry in a Pandemic, and Going Forward with Live Music

I was thrilled to have a "zoom sit-down" with three-time Grammy nominee
and Broadway star Ryan Shaw on his new tribute album to Marvin Gaye, Imagining Marvin. After his roles in Motown the Musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, Carnegie appearances, and more. As a performer and songwriter myself, I wanted to know from Shaw's perspective, what does true artistry means right now? How can Gaye's
words and music how his words can guide through this time? what Gaye would think of how far (and not far) we've come?

Ryan Shaw spoke quite candidly about the role he feels artists can play right now in a time of social justice and a global pandemic. How can true artistry engage us and drive a society towards inclusion and positive change? Can Gaye's music help us get there?

This interview has been edited for space and content.

AO: Ryan, I've read so much about you, including your twitter feed and what's on your beautiful website, and I've been listening to your new release, Imagining Marvin, which is just fantastic. How did your November 27th launch party go?

RS: It went great. A lot of fun and people seem to really be enjoying the album.

AO: I can see - and hear - why! Now, you chose an epic icon to imagine. I can't wait to dive into this journey you must have taken while recording and writing this, as well as the impact he had on you. Marvin Gaye said, sang, and meant a lot in the scope of arts, music and the world, affecting time during which he lived. How do you feel his words resonate now?

RS: Marvin, I feel, was definitely an iconic artist whose album stands the test of time. In a way, his words show how far and how not far we've gotten; so I think now it's important, and a good reminder that we still have a lot of work to do on that front.

In terms of Marvin as an artist, it's always big shoes to fill when you approach a catalogue of any iconic artist, so I didn't want to do a covers album, but a tribute album. It gave me the freedom to be myself, which was important to me, that people would feel his influence and essence on my recording, which is why my album is called Imagining Marvin. Last year, the pandemic changed many things, but last year was also his 80th birthday, and I realized that he had so many influences on my artistry, where he was just there - like when I first got to New York, one of the first songs I sang, which got me noticed in 1998, was What's Goin' On. Then, fast forward to playing Stevie Wonder, and also understudying Marvin, on Broadway in Motown the Musical, and my 3rd Grammy nomination was for covering the Beatles song Yesterday -- but my version was actually inspired by Marvin's cover of Yesterday. Not many people know he covered that song - it's not super known but probably the best. So when it was time to see what the next step was for me, and what made sense to do, there were also songs I wanted to write that showed what Marvin had given me, opened the door to explore, from Sexual Healing to What's Goin' On, that gave me a wide spectrum to explore.

AO: Would you put "imagining" as "reimagining" in the same category when creating this album? How does that differ from cover and tribute?

RS: Imagining is inclusive of reimagining- the reason why it's not "reimagining" is that there are five original songs inspired by Marvin. If he was still alive, I wonder what he would still be doing - that was the point of the record. Marvin, throughout the span of his career (and having conversations with Berry Gordy who was all over the place at time) Marvin didn't just want to be what he was known for, he wanted to be involved in activism and political issues. He also wanted to be a crooner and do an American standards album in a "travel with the Rat Pack'' kind of situation, and if he was alive today, went to another label, and got more creative freedom... or joined an Indie label and become an independent artist, since now that's a thing... what would he be doing? It gave me the freedom to imagine, from my own artistry perspective. So there are original songs which Marvin inspired, whether it be a lyric or rhythmic feel, or whether it be through a vocal interpretation that I chose to do: so all of his songs are reimagined. They are not carbon copies of what they were because we already have that. If I want to listen to Marvin Gaye, I'll just get the record. But what you are hearing in Imagining Marvin is - I opened Pandora's box of all the options he could have chosen to explore as an artist, so that was really fun to explore.

AO: When you talk about his activism and the wonderful strides he took with his music, do you feel that you are planting seeds for others to manifest a more positive future ahead through your imagining? Aside from Marvin's own vision and maybe combining yours and his, when people sit down and listen to his beautiful music, what is the vision that you want people to actively strive towards through listening to your imagined Marvin tracks?

RS: We all hope what we do as artists inspires others to do things. For me, it's never the goal. When I get into a movie, I feel "oh I gotta write some songs" - it doesn't have to be specific to what I'm feeling but if the story is told properly, it will inspire me to create other songs that are original.

AO: Truly original - I definitely know what it's like, listening to someone trying to write what they feel others will want and cringing like, "Wow, that lyric was so cliché I am going to pretend I didn't hear that!" What message are you looking to share through your original lyrics and music?

RS: (laughs) Yeah, it was all those things, it had to fit me. Based on the feedback I've gotten it's already inspired a bunch of people, so it's already a bit layered, but when people ask what advice I'd give, that's a different question. If you're asking me what message I want it to share, I would hope it inspires other people, and they feel how Marvin meant something to me. It was true to both my artistry and (to) honor Marvin's iconic presence.

AO: They say that you can't force someone to change, but if you radiate your own energy and what inspires you, that's the power the arts have. When you are stepping into a role, portraying or understudying Marvin Gaye, how do you take a different stance vs. the creative freedom vs. recording your own music, especially now that Broadway is trying to change and encompass new viewpoints?

RS: It wasn't too much of a change, because you are portraying a character that everyone knows, so you do have to embody new gestures and thing like that, you can't ignore certain physicality, phrasings.

AO: Was that intimidating for you?

RS: Yes and no. You have to dive into the world - but, when they show up on opening night, then it's intimidating! But jumping into those roles, it wasn't. I don't have an ego but I'm aware that what I do is God-given and special. I feel there was something about Marvin and Stevie that was special and unique to them, so I stepped into that. I wanted to honor Stevie's essence but it had to be me to be believable. So I would do my own inflections and riffs, but in the spirit of him, so it would be believable.

AO: Aside from feeling his presence when you took the stage as Stevie, did you ever hear what he thought of your interpretation?

RS: When Stevie came for the soft opening, it was crazy. Berry Gordy was sitting backstage on the couch. I said "It's a scary honor to meet you." He said, "Nothing to be worried about. You were amazing. I was rooting for you the whole time." There's a riff in Signed Sealed Delivered that Stevie hasn't done that I did, (sings) "There's a lot of foolish things that I really didn't mean and I want to tell you baby." He comes back to me and sings that riff and tells me, "I like that" and so, for me, I was validated!

AO: I know you began singing in the Pentecostal church when you were only three years old, and took your first solo when you were five. Music, specifically religious music, continued to be an all-important part of your life. What message would you have for a small child learning to use their voice and learning what role the arts can have in this wacky world?

RS: I would say absorb everything and use it to develop who you are. A lot of artists are looking to "be the next" - a lot of labels are just plugging people into the next "thing" rather than looking at original individual artists - that's where the novelty comes from: something genuine, original, quirky. Whatever it is, it needs to be original. Now everyone sounds alike. Where's the originality? I know a ton of singers who are original but the producers don't pick that up because they are looking for the next "whatever they hear on the radio" - so my advice would be to absorb everything, but stay true to your own artistry, and never become a carbon copy of what you "think" you should sound like.

AO: When talking about the journey to finding one's own voice, Gaye pushed the envelope for his time and made a huge difference in doing do. How do you feel that he did, or in what ways are you trying to push the envelope as an artist?

RS: I wasn't trying to prove anything but honor his spirit and interpret how I thought he would be now. But in terms of the variety of things he wrote, he wrote Sexual Healing, which was unlike anything you'd heard on the radio, when I first heard it. It inspired my original song "Sin" - especially growing up in the Christian community, which talks about marriage out of wedlock, which is controversial, and I am part of the Christian community, but it's real. Here in America we like to say, "don't say that" but we do that, so why not be transparent about that?

My other original song, "Strong Men Can," deals when men and mental health. This was my first single, which approached a big social issue - especially with men, where we say "strong men don't cry, don't get emotional." When we're born, the first thing we do, coming into this world, we cry - men and women cry when we take our first breath. After we started to grow, we were told, "Don't do the first thing you've ever done. Don't cry, don't do these things." Often what we were told or trained to do is against what we were born with.

AO: It's also why, as vocalists, we end up needing voice lessons to free up our vocal chords, because we've been taught to restrain yelling, crying, and that's where all the tension in our throat stems from. That's why the vocal release is the best outlet to get all of those stifled emotions out - sensations that we're entitled to feel. Speaking of artistic energy that flows naturally from us, for your original songs - some you've described songs like "Sin" as stream of consciousness. What was the process of translating that stream of consciousness into the form of a song?

RS: I started writing for the studio, and my first trips as a writer were New York based, but then I would spend a week in Stockholm, 5 days in Copenhagen and 3 weeks in London for three weeks, come home for 2 months; when you work with different producers... I learned to be diverse in what I wrote. Some producers would pull up set tracks, some would pick up a guitar and we would create organically with what comes. Sometimes I'd be inspired by a record I heard, asking "what would Marvin do with this" - a lot were co-writes, some I'd sit down with a keyboard and write, and some were written over a decade ago, just sitting there waiting for its day. By the time the record came out, they were ready.

AO: For a lot of songs I've personally written over a decade ago, they sit on the backburner, then you know when the time is right; sometimes something happens, like this pandemic, that influences how the song evolves. What effect did the pandemic have on your songwriting or the songs you had already written?

RS: On one particular number, the song Love in Pain, before the pandemic I did the song live in New York to make sure it worked for me. I wanted people to think "Oh, this is great - or wow, it's Marvin" instead of "oh this is a Marvin song" - the album was 10 songs and finished. Then, I was renewing my contract with Round Hill. We didn't know Rob Thomas was also signed. So Rob and I started writing together - and our song, which would have never happened, turned out great. The pandemic definitely affected this album.

AO: Rob Thomas said some wonderful things about you. You both are creative powerhouses. How was your outlook on creativity different and similar?

RS: Rob is an amazing collaborator, and human being with no ego, even with all of his success. Rob is like a sponge. If you have a concept, he takes it in and immediately turns it into something that you're like "Yeah!" Derek Furman also wrote the song, and five minutes later Rob would come up with something we had just discussed. When we get into the virtual room it's about the energy that's there, and we just bounce off each other because we know the end is somewhere in the room - we just wait for it. We've done another session with another song that wasn't right for this record but there will definitely be more songs in the works. We're sharing photos of our Christmas trees now - we're becoming friends, so it's cool

AO: Your duet with Shoshana Bean - was there something you both discovered through this duet, or were you both influenced similarly or differently by Marvin Gaye? What was it like recording a duet with her? You've mutually called each other "amazing" and a "beast?" - Supreme compliments, definitely!

RS: I met (Shoshana) around 2011 in LA - she was doing her residency at one of the hotels, and by the end of the night I was in awe. I didn't know her, but a friend of hers had introduced her to my album a while ago and she said she was a fan. We had seen each other throughout; I saw her in Waitress, but (we) never had worked together. Her background singer lost his voice and she said I was ridiculously quick study - we had been talking about working together a while: so when is the show? She said the day after tomorrow, and "Wow I really owe you big time." So when the album came out she was like "Absolutely, I'll do it!" The craziest part was that she worked a complete week, landed back in LA and recorded the album, jet lag and all. That's what she gave us. That's how much of a beast she is, she's ridiculous!

AO: I was so happy when I saw "Shadow of Your Smile" as the last track of your album. You had said Gaye always wanted to be a crooner. Why did you pick that song and what was it like for you delving into that crooning style?

RS: Right before he passed he was working on an album of American Songbook - it's called Vulnerable and it's my favorite Gaye vocal because his singing is so pure. I literally sang it note for note how Marvin sang it - it's the only song I didn't do any riffing because it is so pure, you just sing it how it is - if you are doing a version of that inspired by you, just sing it how it is.

AO: My mother thinks Barbra did this ultimate version. I think after this, this will be the ultimate. Last question - no one knows what the post-COVID music and arts landscape will be like, but how do you visualize all of this and your role in it going forward?

RS: Nothing happens before its time. It was time for me to do this. People are home and listening. The goal is to put enough effort and interest into this that by the time we tour and hit the road, I'll continue to build this and my brand. Hopefully another album will be in the works, we'll see. The possibilities are infinite. The goal is to take the project out and let it shine, which is live (performing). The studio is one thing, but where I shine is live.

AO: That's what we do as performers, we need to physically engage with a space and audience to really feel alive and make an impact, right?

RS: There's nothing like it because it's transformative. When I perform, I'm here, but I'm also somewhere up there. I'm an emotionally connected singer. There's nothing like it. I don't know what I did for a riff until I listen to it because I'm halfway in another realm, so when I travel there, people just travel with me. I always connected to where the energy is in the room - you feel what the community is feeling. When I was touring with my band, I would never have a set list, I'd have a master list that I'd draw from based on what the crowd is feeling.

AO: People want to be in that grief, sin and unpleasant emotions in a healthy way, and that's what the arts do. People don't want to numb out to it, and it's great that music like yours can really penetrate that.So speaking of live, do you have digital events coming up?

RS: For the rest of the year, my launch party was the digital thing. My birthday is Christmas day so I might have a live pop up show posted on my site, but what's scheduled right now is the first quarter of next year. I definitely see this as a live event.

AO: I know we'll all be looking forward to that!

Ryan Shaw IMAGINING MARVIN is a 2020 release on the Broadway Records label and available on all streaming platforms, as well as the Broadway Records website HERE.

Visit the Ryan Shaw website HERE.

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