After a tumultuous couple of years, Moncton songwriter Ryan Hillier emerges with No Excuses, a masterfully structured, career defining work of art.
Since releasing his first EP in 2013, Ryan Hillier has made performing and recording music a major part of his life. Now an established solo artist with a known knack for clever wordplay and engaging storytelling, he almost gave up music completely just a few years ago. He had a band that seemed to be going places. They broke up. He had a partner he’d been with for many years. They broke up too.
“It seemed like everything had gone very wrong for me and music was easy to blame,” said Hillier, thinking back to the fall of 2017.
To top it all off, he became homeless following his decision to end an “increasingly abusive” relationship.
“I piled my clothes and a few other belongings into the tour vehicle of Eastcoast Love Story, the band I had been in and who had taken an indefinite hiatus at that time, which was parked at our place,” he said. “I remember that I sat in the driver’s seat of that converted shortbus for a while, thinking, although about what I can’t recall. Finally, I started it up. I lived in that bus in my friend’s driveway for about a month.”
During his time in the bus, Hillier tried his best to maintain some degree of normalcy in his life. He kept performing and even played an Music NB showcase during this time. But he knew he was in a bad spot. He’d started to drink more and was certain he was edging closer to a breakdown.
“I kept putting myself out there as a solo artist moving to the next step,” he said, “but it was clear that I was in no condition to push forward and what I really needed was to take a serious step back, heal myself and regain some stability.”
It was around this time Hillier received an invitation from fellow Moncton area musician Kendra Gale, one that would change his life for the better and set the course for his decision to make “one more album.” Gale had just bought a house in Riverview and offered to rent Hillier a room.
“I knew he was living in the Eastcoast Love Story band van in our friend’s driveway,” said Gale. “It was getting into the colder time of the year and we didn’t know each other super-well but I’ve always thought he was very sweet. I just moved into my house and was living alone so I thought it could help both of us a lot. He was one of the best roommates I’ve ever had so it worked out great in a lot of ways.”
“The little office room in the basement became a wonderful haven for me, and I experienced wave after wave of emotions rolling back as I constructed these songs. It was as cathartic a process as you might well imagine.”
Not long after parting ways with his four-wheeled bachelor apartment, Hillier set up a tiny studio in Gale’s basement and began writing songs and recording demos. At the time, it was the most therapeutic thing he could think of.
“I figured since I was going completely back to square one with everything, the least I could do was make something for myself as a way to process all of this tumultuous life experience and keep myself occupied through a very difficult winter,” he said. “The little office room in the basement became a wonderful haven for me, and I experienced wave after wave of emotions rolling back as I constructed these songs. It was as cathartic a process as you might well imagine.”
Over the next four months as he walked back and forth to work in downtown Moncton across the Gunningsville Bridge, Hillier used the time to unravel his thoughts and try to understand how exactly he came to be in the situation he was in. Taking advantage of this daily time to reflect on things eventually paid off. Not only did it aid in shaping the music he was writing, it also helped him write an important chapter of his life. In February 2018, on his 34th birthday, Hillier quit drinking and has been sober since.
It was around this time he decided to get back on track with his one true love – music. He started playing shows again and by April he had an album’s worth of songs written and demoed. It was at this point that No Excuses really began to take shape. Eager to keep up the momentum he’d gained over the winter, Hillier set out to find a band interested in learning the slew of new material he’d put together over the past six months. He wanted to start recording an album before the year was up.
“His songs were a pleasure to dig into and it gave us a different type of creative outlet. For me in particular, I got a chance to stretch out a bit as a guitar player. They’re deep, heartfelt songs.”
– Alex Madsen, The Divorcees
“After completing the demo of the record, I started playing again, doing small house shows and occasional one-offs,” said Hillier. “I had sent the demo of the record to The Divorcees guys, who I had known for many years. They were excited at the prospect of working up some arrangement and we started rehearsing in late August.”
“We were really flattered and honored to work on this record with Ryan,” said The Divorcees’ Alex Madsen. “His songs were a pleasure to dig into and it gave us a different type of creative outlet. For me in particular, I got a chance to stretch out a bit as a guitar player. They’re deep, heartfelt songs.”
With a band in place, Hillier reached out to Chris Colepaugh who expressed interest in producing the project and would also end up recording and mixing the album at his Sunburst Studios in Riverview.
“I’ve known Ryan for a long, long time,” said Colepaugh. “He used to come see Cosmic Crew shows way back in the day. I’ve kinda followed his progression I guess you could say, through Eastcoast Love Story and then as a solo artist. So when I was asked to produce the album I was all in. I listened to the tapes, went to a few rehearsals and we started recording in January of last year. The biggest challenge was coordinating schedules between six or seven people but in the end it was such a blast to make.”
The energy and excitement shared between Hillier, Colepaugh and The Divorcees can easily be heard across the album’s twelve songs. The arrangements are complex and packed with clever surprises that begin popping up within the first 30 seconds of the opening track when the band completely drops out after the introduction and just hangs in the air, as if suspended for one last huddle, one final affirmation that what they’re about to dive into is something really special.
“When you listen to this record, even though there’s a lot happening at times, your main focus is always Ryan and his acoustic guitar.”
– Chris Colepaugh
“There’s a lot of things going on,” said Hillier, “and there are so many guitars! This was the bulk of the work on the record. When you have three absolutely knockout guitar players at your disposal, Alex, Shawn [Thomas] and Chris, the potential to make something special is unlimited.
“Making things complementary when you have multiple guitars playing is such a careful science and this is where I knew Chris was the right person to have in the process. He’s been making guitar music forever and if you listen to his stuff it’s such a testament to how good his ear is about those elements. His record from 2016, RnR, has all kinds of cool double tracked guitar parts that are just awesome. He was super-dedicated to honing everything and putting each song in a unique place, sonically speaking.”
Despite the staggering depth that each of the album’s songs possess, the simplicity of where each song began is not lost. Hillier, his guitar and his poetic lyricism remain at the forefront of every song on No Excuses.
“These songs are just so good,” said Colepaugh. “Lyrically and musically. Everything about them. My goal with this project was to make everything an extension of [Hillier’s songwriting] and not dependant on. When you listen to this record, even though there’s a lot happening at times, your main focus is always Ryan and his acoustic guitar.”
Production on the album began just over a year after Hillier moved out of his old band’s van and ended on the one year anniversary of his sobriety.
“If I had to boil the album down to a single statement, quite broadly it would be that while sometimes life can be very dark, there is always a lighter side. I feel that it’s a struggle for us to see that side today,” said Hillier. “The way that certain information systems have taken such prominent roles in our lives, what we are seeing often does not match reality. In fact, the album is structured, somewhat unintentionally, to take this sort of journey from very dark places to more lighter places, at least in subject matter and tone.
“This record certainly is a move in a direction that I’d like to continue going, in that I always want to be following my instinctual feelings and not necessarily what I assume is the right thing to do. If I’ve learned anything, in life but especially in music, it’s that your own thought processes often just get in the way of what you’re really reaching for, and that if you just let go of all those thoughts you’re holding onto you will be better able to stretch out – to just let your body and your soul get at the good stuff because it’s reaching for you all the time from the other end, whatever the truth of the moment is.”
No Excuses will be officially released May 27, 2020.