Jean Ryden | In a ‘Parallel Universe’

The singer-songwriter talks the public imagination and the convergence of universes

Written by

Annie Bush

Photographed by

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Photos by Angela Ricciardi and Silken Weinberg

Jean Ryden has released her debut project, Parallel Universe, following singles “Butterfly Effect,”Chlorine,” and “Tired of Goodbyes. The project is at times sparse; at others, swelling, orchestral. Parallel Universe casts what feels like a hazy projection of someone else’s memory on a gauzy curtain that divides the listener and the artist. Deliciously melancholy and strangely familiar to the ear, Parallel Universe is a particularly interesting musical offering because, though enjoyable, the work doesn’t exactly welcome outsiders in. In fact, much of the project makes one feel like an intruder– we walk into Ryden’s Parallel Universe, and she’s in the middle of an intimate conversation: “I keep having dreams I’m in your room/Everything’s how it was /Just how you left it / When I wake up it always feels too soon/ But if I close my eyes again/ Just for a second”

Ryden isn’t using the ambiguous, universal “you.” The listener isn’t the “you”, in the Parallel Universe. Let me give you a brief background on Ryden. She was born into a wealthy East Coast family whose fortune was ostensibly waning and who was feuding over a parcel of land on Long Island that, supposedly, inspired the Gatsby mythos. It is on this contentious acreage that Jean Ryden spent her youth and it is on this contentious acreage that her grandmother, her mother, and her father all died on separate occasions, within months of each other, after which she and her sister became charges of a family friend and sent to various boarding schools and then consigned to being the subjects of an insatiable gossip machine. I tell you about these weighty tragedies not because I find them to be salacious but because they have, in the most serious of senses, informed Ryden’s journey as an artist. (Her mother was a musician, and Jean Ryden is actually her grandmother’s maiden name).

Photos by Angela Ricciardi and Silken Weinberg

This is a story suffused within every note of the Parallel Universe. Ryden has said that, previous to her bevy of family tragedies, that her life before everything continued on in a parallel universe, and she’s currently trapped in the wrong one. We might be able to listen to and look at and enjoy the Parallel Universe from the musical periphery, but really, we exist on the outside of the universe, peering in behind a frosty, translucent barrier. FLAUNT sat down with Ryden to talk about the project, the universe, and her relationship with the public imagination.

“Tired of Goodbyes” is saturated with specific, beautiful details: a coffee ring atop a piano, a whiff of cologne through a swinging door, a voice from the kitchen on a cold morning. How do you negotiate the intimacy of these clearly private, vulnerable parts of your own memory with the very public-facing aspect of songwriting/performance?

I think if it doesn’t feel like giving an intimate view into your world and experience, what’s the point? I feel most connected and drawn to art that feels like I’m being let in on something personal and sacred.

There is this sinister way that audiences often metabolize an artist’s personal tragedy for their own entertainment. As you’re tending to a burgeoning fanbase, is that process something that worries you? Is being understood, or misunderstood, an obstacle when cultivating a public image?

I think everyone longs to be understood, but I feel like I am trying to outgrow the part of me that wants to control the narrative and how I read to the outside world as an artist and an individual.

You’ve spoken about how music— the creation of it, the act of listening to it— is a thread that provides continuity between you and your family. As you’ve matured as an artist and as a person, has your relationship to music changed at all? At this point in your career, how do you approach the act of songwriting?

I grew up learning classical cello when I was about 3 to 9 years old. My parents would test me on who was composing whatever classical piece was playing on the radio at the time. They were really old fashioned and didn’t really support pop culture at the time. After my mom passed, my dad bought me a guitar and that’s when I was introduced to Bon Iver, Elliott Smith, and The Shins via Limewire…over the years my taste has definitely evolved, but my favorite favorite artists have remained the same.  I’ll always feel a bittersweet sort of connection to classical music, although my relationship to it has also morphed into something different. As for songwriting, I try to write when I feel like I have something to say. Sometimes inspiration sneaks up on me after fighting for it and sometimes it surprises me and the song flows out of me. Every time is different.

Parallel Universe emerged, in your own words, from a place of existential dread. Now that you’re on the other side of writing and producing it, what can you say the project has given you?

It has given me space to speak more on my current life. I needed to say all that was said in this project in order to “move on” from it. My past felt almost like an elephant in the room that I needed to acknowledge to allow myself the freedom to write about the present.

Is there a point, ever, in which the Parallel Universe and the tangible, real universe converge? What happens at that point?

They already have, or I guess we’ll find out.

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Jean Ryden, Annie Bush, Parallel Universe, Music