Canadian singer-songwriter Ryland James draws on his grandma’s gospel influence, the woman who encouraged him as a kid to sing like Michael Jackson, but at 19 is true to the sounds of his generation, creating soulful pop music in the vein of Adele and Sam Smith. Since catching the attention of legendary music manager Chris Smith and signing to Smith’s 21 Entertainment — a label venture created in partnership with Universal Music Canada and Republic Records — Ryland has released two singles, “Good to You” and “Say Goodbye.” The emotive ballads are just a small taste of what’s to come on his full-length album, due late 2019.
“I'm envisioning an album that is definitely ballad driven, but I also want upbeat songs you can groove to” says Ryland.
Although Ryland has spent the past year travelling the world writing songs in Los Angeles, Stockholm and London, both new singles were written in Toronto. “Good to You,” with Locals Only Sound (Gray Hawken and Curtis Smith), is about being lost or in pain, but this person brings you out of that dark place, while “Say Goodbye,” co-written with Baldwin House founder Andy Delisi, is about a relationship that has fallen apart, but you’re making a last-ditch effort to reconnect before moving on.
It was “Good to You” that kick started Ryland’s album. “We were trying to find my sound because I'd been doing straight pop and I wanted to experiment and go outside the box. That brought in my gospel inspiration,” he recounts. “I remember going into the sessions for the first two days and it wasn't going the way I wanted. I wasn’t comfortable with the sound I was doing. Then on the third day my mom drove me there, and I didn't even want to get in the car to go to the session because I was so discouraged. But I did. I got out of the car, I walked into the studio and they had just the music for a verse, the melody and a couple of lyrics for ‘Good to You’ and I absolutely loved it right away."
“I sat down, and all these ideas and lyrics and concepts poured out. I wrote it into my notes on my phone and then we all worked together to build the song. It came out really quickly within a couple hours. I always know that the song is really good when it just all falls out and comes together so naturally. It's still one of my favourite songs because I remember that I almost didn't go into the session that day.”
Ryland very easily could have followed another unconventional path — sports. Raised in Deseronto, a small waterfront Ontario town of less than 2000 people. Ryland’s parents are both hockey players and he shared their passion for athletics, playing hockey, soccer and running track & field. But his parents always told him that he started singing as a toddler and by age 10 he knew that’s what he wanted to do.
“I was watching Britain's Got Talent and a kid around my age sang ‘Who's Lovin’ You’ by The Jackson 5 and I really wanted to sing like that,” he recalls. “My grandma is very musical too; she plays gospel piano and she said, ‘You could do that.’ So, I tried, and I guess my family was blown away and said, ‘Keep at it.’ That was the turning point for me.”
Ryland performed at local events from waterfront festivals to school musicals, selecting songs by everyone from Michael Jackson to Justin Bieber, and as his voice changed tackled jazz material by Michael Bublé and the classical style of Josh Groban. “I've gone through all the phases over the years,” he says.
Seeing other teens online playing instruments, as well as listening to songs by singer-musicians Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes, spurred him to take up piano and guitar. “I watched tutorials online and took a couple of classes in high school to learn basic music theory, and from there I got a theory book and I learned both at the same time at home on my own,” Ryland says. “I was more drawn to piano because it has such a wide range, the bass, the treble, and everything in between.
“Around that time, I started to song-write too,” he continues. “When all I could do was sing, I didn't even understand how a structure of a song worked. Once I started to learn chord progressions and melodies and what all the different parts were and basic music theory, I was able to start writing.”
Ryland also took a semester-long songwriting and production course called Let’s Make A Demo, offered at his high school, Napanee District Secondary School. “I especially took inspiration from Tori Kelly at that time with her songwriting and guitar playing. It was the instrument that helped me get into songwriting.”
Meanwhile, Ryland posted cover songs — and some originals — on social media platforms almost every day. “I built a following from that and some of the original artists noticed and liked my stuff,” he says. Some of Ryland’s covers have garnered the attention of some of his favourite artists including Carly Rae Jepsen and Shawn Mendes who tweeted ‘...Checked out some of your covers! Keep it up man. Sounds great’ which boosted Ryland’s confidence. “I was beyond excited when I saw [the tweet] from Shawn” says Ryland, “it was reassurance that I was on the right path with my covers, from an artist I admire and respect and who is an example for me.”
In the summer of 2016, 21 Entertainment asked him if he wanted to work with Tyler Shaw. “I recorded demos with him for a day and since then I’ve been working with 21 on getting an album together.”
His goals aren’t dissimilar to many other artists: “People tell me that my music really touched them and helps them feel that a situation they're in is okay. I hope I can get to a place where every single time I write that it affects people in that way. I also want to get on big stages and perform my songs for the world.”