Versatile musician Ryan Koenig talks with C&I about his new album, Two Different Worlds, out now.
Multi-instrumentalist Ryan Koenig’s career recording and performing — on harmonica, guitar, guit-jo, banjo, Dobro, fiddle, mandolin, washboard, bass, bones, and jug — has taken him all around the world.
Performing with the rock ’n’ roll band the Vultures, the original blues group the Rum Drum Ramblers, and Americana-roots act Pokey LaFarge, Koenig has honed his considerable skills to become a versatile solo musician.
The St. Louis native’s newest musical endeavor, Two Different Worlds (Big Muddy Records), shows off additional talents as a songwriter, singer, and bandleader. It’s a fun, energetic album but doesn’t hesitate to offer up a tender and reflective tune, as Koenig does with his grow-on-you vocals on the poignant Tex-Mex Western-flavored goodbye ballad “Cheyenne.”
Recently, Koenig talked with C&I about making music and making his new album.
Cowboys & Indians: What do you hope your fans will get from your new album, Two Different Worlds?
Ryan Koenig: I think it will give fans a chance to see me in the role of a singer and especially a songwriter. Many of my St. Louis fans have already seen me in that light, but for others around the world, I hope this can showcase a new element of my creativity.
C&I: Where did you gain inspiration for this album, and how do you think it stands out from your other work with Pokey LaFarge, the Vultures, and the Rum Drum Ramblers?
Koenig: I get inspiration from all the different musicians I play with and from all the places I go, and I also have an extensive record collection. I think this record represents a bit of all of that, especially the edges of my record collection not represented as much in my other work, such as classic country and Tex-Mex.
C&I: You got to work with Jack White on his Grammy-nominated album Blunderbuss. What was that like?
Koenig: Jack White is excellent to work with. His studio is modest and comfortable, and for someone of his stature, he is extremely approachable and friendly. He has a specific vision for his music, and though I was aware of that before we met, after playing and touring together I really appreciate his talent.
C&I: How do you go about songwriting? Melody or the lyrics first?
Koenig: I often come up with the chorus first, usually based on one lyrical hook. Sometimes the melody is obvious; other times it takes a bit of tweaking. Some of the songs for the record I finished in 15 minutes; others took me almost a decade.
C&I: You have recorded and performed on harmonica, guitar, guit-jo, banjo, Dobro, fiddle, mandolin, washboard, bass, bones, and jug. How has this versatility contributed to your style of music? Do you build songs around your instruments?
Koenig: I think playing many instruments increases your understanding of music and thus broadens your taste. On this project I mostly built the songs around my singing and rhythm-guitar playing, but in the Southwest Watson Sweethearts, my duo with my wife, Kellie Everett, I have to build songs around my banjo, fiddle, and Dobro quite often.
C&I: What was your overall vision for Two Different Worlds, and, with such a wide set of genres in your repertoire, how did you develop your distinctive sound?
Koenig: The record started as a straight-ahead country record in my mind, but when we started playing some of the songs live, I realized how much of my rock ’n’ roll was shining through. This definitely skewed how I wrote the last few songs for the record. I think often the best songs can’t be put in a genre even after they’re finished. Most of my favorite artists blur the lines between many genres.
C&I: Did you always want to be a musician or did you fall into it? Anything you’d be doing instead?
Koenig: I started playing as a child. The first time I got paid to play music was at about age 13 or 14. I always have been interested in music. Music has always been such a part of my life that any other option always seemed like a Plan B. I worked in the service industry and a warehouse to support myself before I made the jump to music full time. If I couldn’t do music today I’d probably start tending bar. I love entertaining and hearing people’s stories, and the service-industry culture in general.
C&I: Is there a song on Two Different Worlds that you’re most proud of?
Koenig: I’m pretty proud of the whole record really. If I had to pick one song, I’d say the Bob Reuter cover “It Don’t Matter.” I’ve always wanted to record that song, and Bob was a good friend of mine. He’s not only one of my favorite songwriters in St. Louis, but I’d put him up against any of the greats. After his passing, I vowed to record and perform his music, and realizing that goal has been very important.
C&I: Are there any songs that didn’t make the album that we can expect sometime in the near future?
Koenig: There are a few songs that didn’t make the album, but none of them are recorded yet. Some of these are being put toward other projects such as the Rum Drum Ramblers. I also intend to make an actual solo record, as in just me and a guitar, fairly soon.
C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring? Any particular places that you love to perform?
Koenig: Being as busy as I am with Pokey LaFarge, Jack Grelle, and other groups, I’m not trying to tour heavily for this record just yet. I’ve already taken it to Chicago and Nashville, and would like to hit New Orleans and Austin sometime this winter. Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Knoxville are also priorities. I’d love to take the band more places, but in the meantime I will be performing some of my songs during the Pokey LaFarge sets.
C&I: Lastly, as a musician from St. Louis, what are some of your favorite local hot spots?
Koenig: Off Broadway is one of my favorite places to play or see a show in the world, hands down. I have always been at home there and have been playing there for over a decade now. The Blues City Deli is also an amazing St. Louis institution. I go there every time I’m in town for music and food. There is a country dance hall called Stovall’s Grove that has been in operation since 1935. There are so many good rooms in town, such as KDHX Radio, The Old Rock House, The Ready Room, Blueberry Hill, FOAM, The Sinkhole, San Loo, The Venice Cafe, The Livery, The Focal Point, The Schlafly Breweries, The Handlebar, Joe’s Cafe, Yaquis, Das Bevo, The Tick Tock Tavern, Beale on Broadway, B.B.’s, and The Broadway Oyster Bar. I couldn’t possibly list all the places I see or perform music at regularly. I urge anyone in or outside of St. Louis who hasn’t heard of or been to these places to look them up. Even if a club doesn’t have the kind of music you like every day, they will soon enough.
For more information on Koenig and his upcoming tour dates, visit his website.