Monday, March 2, 2009

Ryan Vaughn: Outside the "Box"

Ryan Vaughn may strike you as just another Village hipster with a cool air of confidence and a dream. Excited blue eyes accentuated by Clark Kent glasses, a genuine smile, and a warm greeting make you feel instantly at ease. There's more to this unique and talented drummer/percussionist, however; he's one of the most honest, driven, and well-spoken young artists in the up-and-coming New York City music scene.

This 25-year-old NY implant burst his way onto the scene in 2004. The first beat on his drum came at the age of 10 in a California school jazz band. That percussion experience put him ahead of the game when he moved to Arizona the following year, where Ryan's competitive nature pushed him to continue being the best in his class and stay ahead of the curve. After high school graduation he enrolled in Mesa Community College, earning two associates degrees before transferring with a full ride to WPUNJ's prestigious jazz program.

"My dad had a job he hated and retired way early and always encouraged my brother and I to pursue something we enjoy and have fun, but be smart about it," Vaughn said. He credits his parents, brother, aunts and uncles with being one hundred percent supportive of his career choice and talent, despite not coming from a "musical family."

In sitting and talking with Ryan, enthusiasm and passion for his art radiate through the room. I first saw Ryan perform on a cajon (accent on the "a")- a large wood box on which he makes original sounds that rival a full African tribe in the height of fertility season. The rhythms, beats, clatters and reverberations he was able to make out of what seemed like a simple box and some kitchen utensils blew me away. The "utensils" include shakers, tambourines, sticks, cymbals, etc. "I'll [see something] make it my own and try to do it better," says Vaughn, "Everything makes sound... I'll play the table, I'll play the floor... There's always more, there's never enough."

An artist who can discover rhythms that never existed before, and who can breathe life into a piece of music rejuvenating it's very essence; three words that Ryan used to represent his sound are: "Organic. Primal. Colorful." Vaughn explains, "Organic- I don't strap stuff on myself... I need to be able to move around, pick it up off the floor... I want to be very earthly and worldly... all honest, not contrived. Primal- You hit things. They make sound. Man hits box. It's all physical. Colorful- I create textures... It's like painting with sound." And what an exquisite picture he paints.

After sitting for awhile sipping our 9th Street Espresso coffees, we dove into the topic of the New York City singer/songwriter scene. Vaughn has impressively established relationships with virtually every singer/songwriter in the city in the past 5 years. One quick glance at his gig calendar and you'll see that is no exaggeration.

Spending his first year working, commuting, sleeping two hours a night, checking out different venues and artists, he would attend shows alone, collect cards, load up his database, and send e-mails, hoping to get his name out to as many people as possible.

It was his persistence with Jill Stevenson after seeing her play The Living Room that landed him his first NY gig. He went on to play with the Josh Dion Band and later hooked up with Dan Torres. With Dan, he spent time writing and playing in California, leading to a six-month tour in England, before returning to New York last year and hitting the scene hard. Most recently, Ryan was featured on The Conan O'Brien Show as a percussionist for Joshua Radin, an opportunity that came up, quite literally, because of a dream and a friendship with Radin's drummer. "Somehow the universe takes care of you. Sometimes you just have to have faith... that you're gonna make rent," Vaughn says with a slight smirk, as though taunting the Universe to test him.

For Vaughn, and many of the artists who live and breathe the culture and music of NYC, the singer/songwriter scene is extremely personal. A community of like souls, making music and trying to survive. From folk to country to rock, the essence is all the same- original music and personal lyrics, untainted by professional producers. Songs are their "babies," their "seedlings," continuously played out to see how they grow. Sometimes the arrangements will never change; sometimes they will evolve ten times over. Ryan compared the writing process to two schools of thought: "Beethoven wrote nine symphonies and spent forever trying to get it right. Mozart just cranked them out. Most singer/songwriters fall into one of those categories."

Vaughn pointed out these musicians recently had one of their most successful nights in years at the live music bar Piano's NYC, on a random Tuesday. Why? Because people need music right now. It's cheap, it's entertaining, it's an escape from the problems we deal with every day. It's comforting, a warm blanket to wrap ourselves in on these dismal, cold winter nights. Every song provides a hug- some warm and squishy, some tight and fierce, some sort and comforting. We find reflections of ourselves in these artists, identifying with their pleasure and pain; their musical journey offers a glimmer of hope.

Ryan Vaughn's passion and ambition is so addicting and infectious you feel inspired to do more with your life after speaking with him. Musicians who strike a personal chord for Ryan include Dan Torres, Wes Hutchinson, Sasha Dobson, Mieka Pauley, and Pete and J, to name a few. They're incredible singers and songwriters, along with being smart business people. Networking is second nature to them; understanding the give and take, and immersing themselves with like minds. As for Ryan, his words say it best. "I want to play with the stars, I want to be a household name, I want to change the world. I want it all. I want big."

For more information on Ryan and upcoming shows, check out


  1. Well, I'm officially the both of you! Great stuff!


  2. Positively electric and stirring! The most dynamic percussion - with "just" a box and a beat - he roars!

  3. So you're comparing singer/songwriter's from NYC to Beethoven and Mozart? Hmm.