Wednesday night, The Tea House on Fruitville Rd. in Sarasota hosted a lovely evening of live indie rock offered from singer/songwriters Ryan Willis and Ben Thurmond, of the projects The Other Ryan Willis and Brother SoandSo, respectively.
The intimate setting at The Tea House—which, since opening last October, has become a staple venue for area bohemians—could not have been more perfectly suited for the stripped down performances. There is a certain vulnerability always present when a person stands before a crowd with nothing between them but guitar and microphone—with nothing to hide behind, and nothing to blame, the art becomes naked and a level of total sincerity is reached. This gives musicians and fans an opportunity to connect on a most personal level, which is no doubt a rare and worthwhile experience.
But for artists like Willis and Thurmond, who endorse a brand of indie that teeters out on a very exposed limb, proper execution almost demands this naked ambience—or, in any case, is greatly enhanced by it.
“The Tea House is a Sarasota hipster’s wonderland,” says 22-year old Liz Knowles, who attended the Wednesday night show. “Every pot, nook and cranny reeks of cozy and cool.”
Of the musicians, Ms. Knowles said, “Both acts impressed me with their style—musically and lyrically. The Other Ryan Willis has the ability to make a small room filled with friends feel like the indie stage at Lollapalooza, and at the same time a personal serenade. His gruff music, with pure raw emotion, leaves you feeling intellectually enriched.”
Starting at 8 p.m., Willis and Thurmond took turns at the stage, each performing a handful of songs while the other joined the enchanted tea-sipping crowd before re-donning his guitar. There was an apparent comradery between them, which doesn’t always exist among bands on the same bill. But these men have made a habit of working together. In fact, last April they embarked on a mini-Southeastern tour together; hitting Jacksonville, Charlotte, Athens and Knoxville.
I caught up with Ryan Willis Saturday afternoon at O’Brick’s Irish Pub & Martini Bar in downtown Bradenton. It was a nice day to sit outside and smoke cigarettes and dig the Farmer’s Market scene. We ate a delicious lunch and talked about his music.
“I really hate performing,” Willis says, looking very honest, like he’d just gotten something big off his chest—his blue eyes matching the horizontal stripe of his plaid shirt and reflecting confessionally. He ashes his cigarette, and tells me that, for him, music is a hobby, and songwriting is like therapy. “I’d prefer someone else sing,” he says. “I don’t think I have a strong voice.”
It hits me that this insecurity is what gives The Other Ryan Willis the unique power that kept everyone in The Tea House enthralled throughout his set. I tell him this, and he chuckles with resign.
But my discovery is not surprising—as a rule of thumb, contented individuals do not produce good art. They become bankers, and then they buy boats. Good art requires conflict and when an aspect of any artist’s discontent involves his art, what is yielded is a golden vicious circle, and one that will always produce.
I ask Willis if he intends to replace longtime collaborator and percussionist Jacob Peterson, who last November went to work with The Family Garden, a certified organic vegetable and fruit farm located in Gilchrist County, about an hour outside of Gainesville. Willis tells me he doesn’t have any plans of that nature, but would consider such if the right person comes along. He goes on to express happiness for Peterson, who Willis feels has found a true calling in farming.
In regard to what he writes about, Willis tells me, “Everything.”
“I never set out to write a particular type of song,” Willis says. “I start out with a phrase and a feeling, a concept, and I try to paint a picture of the scene where I experienced [that], to create it.” Predominantly, the initial phrase that provides the framework, which he describes as “like the thesis of a song,” will remain untouched.
On the somewhat cryptic nature of his lyrics—which fall somewhere between that of Kurt Cobain and Kenny Chesney—he says, “I try not to be too explicit; I don’t like having things explained to me, so I try not to explain.”
The photographs featured with this article were taken by local artist Brian Grohe.
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