premiere: ryan playground's debut album is an ode to love and freedom
Get to know the Montreal-based singer and producer who joined forces with another Ryan (Hemsworth) to create 'elle.'
Music has always been on RYAN Playground's mind. The songwriter and producer started banging on drums and toying with guitars at just five years old, later experimenting with violin. Growing up in Montreal, she also developed interests in snowboarding and skateboarding, soundtracked by helpings of pop punk courtesy of Blink 182 and All American Rejects. These teenage inspirations still help shape her sounds, but not at all how you'd think. Presently, Ryan applies that early aptitude for experimentation and energetic individualism to creating forward-thinking electronic tracks -- a clutch of which form her debut album, elle, premiering on i-D exclusively. "Today what influences me the most is basically the people with whom I share moments and music," she explains.
One of those people is also named Ryan -- Hemsworth, that is. After her manager booked a few of the curatorial beatsmith's shows in Montreal, he asked if Hemsworth would be interested in producing a track for her album. "I went to Toronto, met him for real, and we chilled a little. Things really worked out," Playground explained of their initial collaboration. But her Canadian countryman and fellow electronic explorer didn't just lend his magic touch to elle's production; his label Secret Songs is releasing the project. "I've been so inspired by his music and I don't think I've ever told him, but it was sort of a goal for me to work with him some day," Ryan explains. "And then it just happened -- not out of nowhere, but it was still a surprise!"
Hemsworth has his hands in one of the project's previously released tracks: the introspective but insanely catchy "Folders." Teamed with another early release -- the piecing, drum-driven "Are You Mad" -- the efforts showcase the dexterity of Playground's vocal range and serious production chops. These standouts are joined by a dynamic series of energetic highs and heady lows, making elle a difficult sound to pin down. "There's no real pop structure in the songs I make. I've heard a lot of comments about my music not being structured with verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge or something like that," she explains. "But that's not what I want to make. I want to do it differently."
As the singer, songwriter, and producer of her own material, Ryan is certainly doing things differently in today's landscape of perfectly packaged pop princesses and their hit-making machines. Maintaining complete control of creative output and vision is rare -- just ask Grimes. "In the beginning, it was very important for me to do everything on my own because I wanted people to understand that I could do it. Ever since I was little, I've wanted to beat the boys," Ryan explains with an audible smile. "Now, I think people do understand and I'm more open to work with those that inspire me."
Though Secret Songs has created an international web of underground dreamers, Ryan's got a tight creative community right in her hometown. "In Montreal, lots of new artists are close with artists that are more established; we all hang out together at night or at parties. It's great because we can share the new stuff we make and how we make it -- share tricks and offer support," she explains of the city's thriving scene. "My best friends are all musicians here, so it's so much fun to see new ways of doing things." Though Hemsworth is a bit further flung, the Ryans still swap new material and bounce ideas off each other. "Whatever new songs he sends always really impress me, and I send him my stuff as well. We have this great musical relationship just because we love what each other does," she says. "It's super inspiring!"
On the subject of inspiring relationships, one in particular forms the album's crux. "The album is called elle, so it's all about my girlfriend," says Ryan. "I really want people to deeply listen to the lyrics and try to attach to them in some way, or to understand what feeling I'm going through -- and what other girls and boys are going through I'm sure. I want people to focus on the energy of being in a relationship that, to some people, isn't supposed to exist, but is the strongest thing."
Though those feelings are communicated through emotionally charged vocals that reach dizzyingly high lilts, Ryan captures all the manic, complex, affirming energy bound up in love in her beautiful lyric-less tracks, too. "There are two songs on it called 'Ascension' and 'Liberté.' For me, those two tracks are saying the same thing: that this relationship was the ascension to being more free. It's the main message of the album, and one I hope people take."
Text Emily Manning
Photography courtesy Scott Pilgrim