After years of touring and recording as a side musician, Ryan Stolte-Sawa finds her voice
Ryan Stolte-Sawa has a beautiful voice, and she can play just about any instrument you put in front of her, particularly violin, piano, guitar and bass. Piano came first, but during her high school years at Fort Hayes, she excelled at violin and considered pursuing performance in the classical music world. At the same time, indie-rock acts recruited her to play on records and join them on tours.
And yet, despite all of those musical bona fides, Stolte-Sawa didn’t write a song until recently. She didn’t even consider herself an artist. The thought hadn’t occurred to her.
“My boyfriend and his friends were really deep into this world of critique and college-y overthinking of stuff. And it freaked me out. It really intimidated me how critical they were of their own stuff and of other people's music. In the absence of a supportive element, I felt like I couldn't really achieve goodness with music,” Stolte-Sawa said recently over a steaming bowl of spicy pho. “When you're a girl and you're hanging out with dudes, there's a level of overcompensation that occurs. I think I had a lot of internalized misogyny that contributed to my feeling like nobody really cared what I had to say.”
Growing up in Toronto, Stolte-Sawa’s family supported all of her early musical endeavors. Her dad, whom she often accompanied on John Prine tunes, bought her a Casio keyboard in elementary school. “My dad would try to get me to write songs for a long time, and I would get bent out of shape about it. I just didn't feel ready,” she said. “The creative process always felt like this ivory tower. I thought that it had to be scaled in a really particular way and that it was really treacherous.”See you at Ace of Cups on Saturday, Jan. 25, for Bands to Watch. Until then, get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Stolte-Sawa moved to Beechwold in 1997 toward the end of middle school, and by her teens she was playing violin in local rock act Flotation Walls. She quit her job for a while to tour, but a relationship rooted her back in Columbus with a partner and a mortgage. “I chose the path of most security instead of choosing to change my lifestyle to support playing music full time, which I regret to this day, because that was 10 years ago, and I started writing music two years ago,” said Stolte-Sawa, now 34.
Stolte-Sawa continued playing the side musician role alongside songwriters like Adam Remnant (Southeast Engine) and Val Glenn (Time & Temperature), as well as a stint in Dark North, touring Europe for six weeks with the New York band. On that overseas trip, something began to change. Stolte-Sawa realized she needed to end her long-term relationship and recommit to music. “All it took was enough distance, and to be surrounded by people who are making art and who wanted to see me do that, too,” she said. “They were just like, ‘Why aren't you doing this all the time?’”
But a few more things needed to happen before Stolte-Sawa could fully recognize herself as an artist with something to say. “I needed to have space to myself where I wasn't cohabiting with somebody,” she said. “And I needed to start making friends who made music and weren't precious about it. I think the preciousness of how so many of my musician friends treat their songwriting, it gave me the wrong impression about how things could be.”
Touring with Adam Remnant (formerly of Southeast Engine), for instance, helped her put songwriting into a healthier perspective. “When he listens to songs, he listens for inspiration, and he talks about what he's listening to a lot,” she said. “Getting to hang out with Adam has been enlightening, because I've learned that songs aren't these black boxes. There are pieces that you can pull out. … I learned how to hear the pieces, and then I just got over feeling like I wasn't qualified to do something [with them].”
In January of 2018, Stolte-Sawa found herself taking the songwriting lead with a group of randomly assembled local musicians at the Rock Potluck. Soon after, she started dating someone who assumed she was already an artist; he treated her like one from the get-go. Then the switch finally flipped.
On New Year’s Day of last year, Stolte-Sawa met up with musician Max Platitsyn to work on some tracks by their friend, Charlie Smith (Stellar Trust, Family Man). While rehearsing, she stumbled upon a keyboard riff that both she and Platitsyn liked. “Max was like, ‘We should record it,’ and so we recorded it. This is at noon, and I think we polished off a 12-pack of PBR between us. By the end of the day, we fully tracked a song. Except for the lyrics,” she said. “I went home at the end of the night and got in the bath and got my laptop on a stool in front of me with my legs hanging over the side. I had my phone open, and I was swiping on Tinder and having conversations with people on Tinder. I wrote up these lyrics and worked up this melody, and then went back the next day and recorded it. And we had a song.”
She and Platitsyn continued working on synth-pop songs for a project they dubbed Very, but Stolte-Sawa also began writing “sad guitar songs” that didn’t quite fit the band's dance-y vibe. So she reserved those songs for a folk-rock project she dubbed Mery Steel, and in February of last year she booked her first show at Kafe Kerouac alongside Sam Corlett and Mukiss (Caeleigh Featherstone).
“All my friends came out, and they were all so supportive and so excited,” she said. “And people who were not my friends also were really excited about it.”
Stolte-Sawa shelved Very (though a finished album may still see the light of day) and focused on Mery Steel, recording and releasing three gorgeous singles (“Riverland,” “Minuet” and “Tender Get”) and putting together a live band, Mery Steel & the Soft Adults, featuring Stolte-Sawa on guitar, Platitsyn on bass, Henry Allen on drums and Milo Petruziello on guitar and pedal steel. Recently, the band recorded and filmed a show at Brothers Drake that Mery Steel plans to put on YouTube as a live album, plus a forthcoming vinyl release with eight of the show’s best songs. Although trimming down the hour-long set could be tough; every song sounds like a keeper. It’s the work of a fully formed artist and songwriter who has something to say, and she’s finally saying it — with passion and a level of craft that would fool anyone into thinking she’s been writing songs her entire life.
“I missed so much time. I just lost it. So I really want to make sure that I’m grabbing every opportunity that I can,” she said. “I don't need to make money making music. I would love to, but I'm going to keep doing it because it's good for my heart. It's good for my soul. And I hope other people feel the same way. I feel like people really connect with the songs that I'm making. And that's just the best feeling I've ever had.”