The first time I met Ryan Tharp was at Wingstock 2014. Amidst the chaos and buffalo wing sauce Tharp and his band were doing a soulful, yet somewhat experimental set -- bluesy, but with a certain tinge of Radiohead. So when I managed to wrangle a preview copy of Tharp's new album, Life So Far, it was a bit of a surprise: the album was well-crafted, blues-based rock. Sure, there was a touch of prog in there, and a hint of ambient, but experimental it was not. It was an excellent record nonetheless.
"I love getting experimental," Tharp says sitting out on the patio at Magnolia Motor Lounge in Fort Worth's 7th Street corridor. "But at the same time, to me the song is the song. Minimal production and good tones kind of win over the experimental, weird stuff we were doing. I think on down the road we'll do an album like that, but I don't think for a debut album it's a good idea for me."
The experimental/improv stuff that Tharp has done on stage proved difficult to recreate in the studio. "Obviously playing it live in front of people," Tharp says, "is a whole different feel than tracking it." The one song they did that was off the beaten path didn't make the final cut. "It got crazy weird and out there, and it just didn't translate. I had it in my head, the image of what it sounded like in my head live. And when I listened to playback it was like, 'It's good, but that's not it.'"
Magnolia Motor Lounge is a natural habitat for musicians. Onstage inside there's a girl playing a bouzouki and singing while music force-of-nature D. Anson Brody runs sound. Folk singer Stefan Prigmore sits around taking in the musical spectacle. Tharp lives down the street from here, and Magnolia Motor Lounge's record label is putting out Tharp's new album. It's a regular haunt for him and his band -- when he's in town.
Tharp makes his living as a musical hired gun, and the next day he's set to head off on an East Coast tour supporting Elli Perry. It's what he's done for 11 years now, and it's all he knows. "I came out with an EP when I was 18," Tharp says, "and I didn't do anything with it. I just gave it away. Then next thing I know I woke up, 11 years later. I'd been playing music for a living, but I had all these songs I've got to do something with them.
The album drops on February 15 with nine original tracks and one cover, a song called "Hummingbird" by local music legend Guthrie Kennard. Tharp has backed up Kennard for years and covered Kennard's song in his own shows, but he couldn't understand the words of the verses. He broke the news to Kennard, who joked, "Oh, did you think my writing's shit or what?"
But Kennard came to the January Sound studio while the song was being tracked. Later, on stage with Tharp at the Uncle Calvin's with Ray Wylie Hubbard, Kennard told the audience about Ryan's version. "One time someone asked Bob Dylan about Jimi Hendrix's version of 'All Along the Watchtower,' and Bob Dylan just said, 'I guess I wrote it wrong.'"
Tharp gets back into town on the 12th and on the 19th will be doing a weekly residency at Magnolia. But not being one to sit still, after the end of the month he embarks on a West Coast tour, this time to promote his own album, 11 years in the making. He'll think about having a release party then, but Life So Far will be available from all the usual suspects: Spotify, iTunes, etc.. Check out his Facebook page for details.
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Any night of the week, you will probably find Tharp playing somewhere. He has no rock-star delusions, just a way of life he loves, making music you should go out of your way to listen to.
"Accomplishing anything in music," Tharp says, contemplating why he keeps going. "I want longevity. I in no way, shape or form care about being famous. I have to do this, it's all I do; it's the only thing when it comes down to it that makes me truly happy. It's my entire identity."
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