Over the last few years, producer and multi-instrumentalist Slow Hands (AKA Ryan Cavanagh) has kept a firm grip on his signature languid, deep-house sound with a series of EPs and singles. But on his debut album I'll Find Me (out November 8 on Wolf + Lamb), the Vermont native changes tacks—reaching into his musical roots, and combining elements of folk, funk, and alternative genres with his groovy, dance pop background.
Even the aesthetic has changed. In place of his usual suit, tie, and the slicked-back hair are a cardigan, a fedora, and a beard. It's a more rustic, grounded look, and it's hardly surprising when Cavanagh tells us that part of the album was recorded in a renovated maple sugarhouse in Vermont. Over email, he told us about how he found his way back home after getting lost in the constantly-shifting world of dance music, and the idea behind the stylish video for "Phonograph Love," which is filmed in the same candy-colored hues of a car commercial.
THUMP: Can you talk about the musical shift on your new album from your previous work, which had more of a typical deep house sound?
Ryan Cavanagh: I am not sure it's so much of a shift, honestly. It's more that I don't solely identify with the DJ world, and have consciously written songs, not "tracks." Deep house, tech house, minimal techno, progressive, trance—these are all sub-genres of a genre, and we are so obsessed with this in the world of DJing and electronic music.
I left music school because the program I was a part of wouldn't allow me to study anything but classical and jazz until my senior year, and it's been my mission to dodge genre restrictions ever since. Whenever I sit down to make music I sketch from inspiration, and more often than not, those inspirations are folk, funk, or country. So it's only natural that I fuse [those sub-genres] with the musical style I have been involved with for so long. But I have done that since the very beginning of the Slow Hands moniker. The album is a documentation of this musical self discovery.
The entire album was recorded in a maple sugarhouse in your hometown of Vermont, right? Was that a way for you to reconnect with your musical roots?
It was actually recorded between New York and Vermont, my two homes. The sugarhouse story stemmed from a prior interview and just got bigger and bigger, but I like it! I recorded the bluegrass version of I'll Find Me in a friend's renovated sugarhouse in Tinmouth, Vermont. At the end of the day though, Vermont and the people I grew up with have played a huge role in my music. Most of my friends up here specialize in bluegrass and old time music. Gold Town, the guys I recorded the bluegrass version with, are the encyclopedias of music. When the people you grow up playing music with can shred jazz, bluegrass, and metal equally well, you get a pretty wide musical exposure.
The music video for "Phonograph Love" is expectedly stylish but also a bit dark and frantic, with all those fruit-crushing and milk-splashing sequences. What kind of emotions were you trying to evoke in that video?
Crystal Mafia and I were really trying to convey the frustration expressed in the lyrics of the song. The idea is that I am chasing something unattainable, while at the same time giving it a very 1960s Easy Rider, psychedelic vibe. It's the visual representation of purity (white), and broken heartedness (red). Upon reflection on that song, I think there was a huge amount of naiveté on my part when I wrote it, or maybe that's just the very definition of a crush—that the person you have affections for unintentionally hurts you, and that they seem selfish because you want them to feel about you the way you do about them.
It seems a bit a ironic that the inanimate objects take on a soulful presence in the video while the characters—you and Crystal Mafia—a bit detached from reality. Does the surreal vibe of the video reflect an attitude you have toward music or life?
Well, after five or six years on the road as a musician and DJ, a good portion of your life can certainly feel pretty surreal. I also feel fairly detached at times mainly because I think I am at the end of a phase in my life, and that is a big part of this record. I refer to being a professional DJ a bit like [how] people talk about bungee jumping: it's a rush, and everyone should trying at some point in their young life. But at some point, it kinda makes you self-reflect. I think it's time for my music to change direction, and to go back to my roots.
You told the Windish Agency that for you everything used to be about melody, and that until two years ago you've never listened to lyrics. What inspired that change in that past couple years?
The biggest thing was that I realized I was a terrible lyricist. Nothing spawns a challenge like the awareness of your downfalls. I also read quite a bit, and wrote a lot when I was younger, so when I started writing lyrics it was this amazing creative rediscovery. It's so fun to come up with unique phrases, vocabulary, and analogies in conjunction with rhythm and melody. Now I write constantly, my phone is full of words I hear and like, descriptions of people and places I see—a frantic, collaged diary of letters.
You've performed on rooftops, in clubs, at festivals, and even at a free show in Tunisia to support fans through the country's recent political upheavals. Do you draw inspirations from the experiences you've had traveling and performing all around the world?
Tunisia is really something else. I can't explain my connection with that place and its people. I just love it there—it feels like home. Politically, I feel so proud of them with the recent announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize, especially after the stupidity of a few who have affected them so negatively in recent months. This positive attention is so well deserved and should reflect on not only their government, but also their people as a whole. They are the ones that took to the streets and made this happen.
Slow Hands' debut album I'll Find Me is set for a November 6 release via Wolf + Lamb. Pre-orders are available on iTunes.