Ryan J. Eilbeck goes on a quest to Chillicothe

The Columbus musician emerged from a seven-week audio engineering program with 'Chillicothe Sounds,' a new album from his solo project, Natural Sway

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Ryan J. Eilbeck

Over the winter, Columbus musician Ryan J. Eilbeck spent seven weeks at the Recording Workshop audio engineering program in Chillicothe, Ohio. But before he went, Eilbeck spent some time researching the area and discovered Chillicothe native Carrie Williams Clifford, a Black poet and activist born during the Civil War.  In particular, he found a Clifford poem titled “Quest”:

My goal out-distances the utmost star,

Yet is encompassed in my inmost Soul;

I am my goal — my quest, to know myself.

To chart and compass this unfathomed sea,

Myself must plumb the boundless universe.

My Soul contains all thought, all mystery,

All wisdom of the Great Infinite Mind:

This is to discover, I must voyage far, 

At last to find it in my pulsing heart.

“When I found that particular poem, I felt like it was exactly where I was and what I was feeling in my life. I couldn't believe it was from so long ago,” Eilbeck said recently by phone. “I was like, ‘That's what this is. This is the quest.’” 

Eilbeck, 36, didn’t have a singular goal for his time at the Recording Workshop (aka the "RecW”). After spending much of the pandemic at his North Linden home and bartending at Antiques on High in the Brewery District, he merely wanted to shake up his trajectory, immerse himself in sound and learn more about recording music.

Some musicians explore far-flung locales or pursue artist residencies. Eilbeck chose Chillicothe. “I went down and visited [the RecW], and you talk to people that are like, 'I made a microphone out of an alarm clock.’ And I'm like, Oh... this is the place where I need to be,” he said.  

He also planned to write and record music for his solo project, Natural Sway, while staying in one of the RecW’s rustic cabins, which he shared with a rapper who goes by 'Lil Hill. It wasn’t the isolated living area he’d anticipated, but Eilbeck worked on songs regardless, experimenting with music that eventually became his recently released, mostly instrumental 11-track album, Chillicothe Sounds.  

One evening, in the middle of the night, someone sawed the catalytic converter off of Eilbeck’s Honda. Instead of wallowing, Eilbeck made music with the converter shield and the Sawzall blades left by the thief. “I brought some contact mics to school, and I just put them right on that shield and started scraping it and hitting it with drumsticks, and it sounded scary and awesome,” said Eilbeck, who turned the sounds into a song, “CCR (Catalytic Converter Remains).” “It almost sounds like there's a voice in it. It was actually kind of freaking me out.” 

Another time, Eilbeck walked along the highway and recorded the sounds of traffic. “I tuned down [the sounds of the cars], and as I was tuning them down, I just stopped when it made me feel the most relaxed,” he said. “There’s so much rich content in just tires going by.” 

Eilbeck has always deeply appreciated music, whether it’s in his old job working at Used Kids or in Natural Sway or in gone-but-not-forgotten pop-punk act Delay. But during the pandemic, Eilbeck has approached the act of listening with a new mindset, taking lessons from experimental San Francisco composer Pauline Oliveros, who emphasized “listening to music in a nonjudgmental way — letting music and sounds pass through you,” he said. “I started to try to make myself be more patient in listening, and it has kind of bled into the other aspects of just being a human.” 

That approach has also led Eilbeck to experiment more with spoken-word sections in his music rather than traditional singing. “If I start singing, somebody might be like, ‘He sounds like a more off-key Neil Young or something,’” said Eilbeck, adding that ‘Lil Hill kindly suggested he use some Auto-Tune on his vocals. “But if I talk, maybe it reaches them, like being read to when you're a kid. It feels so good.” 

Chillicothe Sounds begins with “Stream on the Ice at Buzzard's Roost (Free Love),” which features Eilbeck’s recitation of Clifford’s “Quest” over the sounds of trickling water recorded on a hike at Buzzard’s Roost Nature Preserve. On this quest to know himself, Eilbeck discovered new things; the workshop unlocked and demystified technical aspects of recording engineering. But he also re-learned something he’d always known: “I will always be comforted, inspired and fascinated by sounds.”