photography by Beth McGowen

All bands dream of creating sounds that can’t be pigeonholed. Philadelphia’s RYAT (pronounced riot) has done it with an innovative blend of electronica, jazz, pop and modern experimental music. Their dense asymmetric rhythmic textures, swirling multi-layered vocals, unexpected shifts in tempo and cryptic lyrics, produce music that inhabits an intoxicating twilight zone between sweet dreams and nightmares. The tunes on Avant Gold, their latest album, have elements of free jazz, rock, classical music and electronica, but don’t fit easily into any of those categories. “I want people to have their own interpretation of what they’re hearing,” says the band’s vocalist, songwriter and namesake, Christina Ryat. “[The music] is whatever you hear in it.”

Ryat came to her multi-dimensional sound naturally. A singer since she was a girl, she gravitated towards music with an outsider vibe. “I was raised in Ringoes, New Jersey, a farm town full of hippies,” she says. “I loved music and joined the choir, but I wanted to do something cool, so I wrote my own vocal parts for the songs we were learning and got my girlfriends to sing them. I loved finding music no one had ever heard of.” Ryat majored in Vocal Jazz Performance at Kutztown University; her teachers encouraged her experiments in avant-garde music. “I had instructors who let me find my own path. I didn’t wanted to be confined to jazz or classical and they allowed me that freedom.

When I moved to Philadelphia, I met a bunch of DJs and producers like King Britt. They told me I could produce my own music if I had the right programs, so I got a laptop and some keyboards. I hid out in my apartment under the loft that had my bed on it. I learned the programs and had improvised sessions with my musician friends. They’d play live, then I’d chop up the tracks and add my vocals and keyboards. I learned how to produce and found out how to record the sounds I was hearing in my head. That was the beginning of RYAT, but I didn’t play any of the music live at first. Then I saw (Bobby McFerrin’s son) Taylor McFerrin on stage. He helped me to figure out how to use my keyboards and samplers to create a live performance.”

While she was honing her sound, Ryat collaborated with other musicians and artists. She met her current musical partner, keyboard player and guitarist Tim Conley, in a jazz group called As Human. “I went to a jam session at Tim’s house. I started singing with a sax player who was using a bunch of pedals to shape the sounds he was making. When I sang with him, he played with me like I was another instrumentalist, with a lot of give and take. Most of the time, players follow the singer and you get stuck in the singer/songwriter box. That’s not the box I want to be in. When they treated me like I was another musician, not a singer, I knew I wanted to be in their band.”

After As Human splintered, Ryat asked Conley to join her for a lengthy tour under the RYAT name. They played for three months in Europe and the States without a set list or any written material. “Every gig was improvised,” Ryat says. “We’d loop and layer beats then, since we’re both multi-instrumentalists, I’d play bass and keys while Tim did some guitar work and percussion. When we got off the road, we were ready to make a record.”

Avant Gold was recorded in a cabin in the Catskill Mountains with producer Greg Augenblick. Like the live dates, the album was largely a spontaneous creation. “I’d start a song on my laptop. When I hit a block, I’d hand it off to Greg or Tim, so we all had a part in arranging and composing the music. Most of the album was written in a couple of weeks. When the basic tracks were done, I stayed on for a week to fill in the vocal parts. We’re all so crazy that we’d try something in 13/4, like ‘The Fish That Lived Out of Water’ and find a way to make it work.”

Live, the music takes on another dimension, thanks to the improvised visual effects supplied by VJ Anna Purna Kumar. “Her visuals put people in the zone,” Ryat concludes. “She worked out the effects with us at rehearsals, so she can ‘play’ the music visually. She can do things that surprise us as well as the audience, so every gig is an event.”

– J. Poet

For more infomation on RYAT visit: www.ryat.info