A Conversation with Ryan Wasoba on His 19-Second Song Project
May 6, 2019 | by Jocelyn Hoppa
Music comes in many different packages, and that’s part of the fun. But really, to create anything, some kind of framework is necessary or the vast unknown can cripple a creator under the sheer weight of possibility.
What if your only parameter was to make 19-second songs? Not 18 seconds nor 20 seconds. On the dot, 19 seconds, the one rule you don’t get to bend. What would that be like? What would come of it?
Well, here's the answer to a question you never knew you had (the best kind!): Ryan Wasoba’s 19 Second Songs, Vol. 1.
Aside from some guest vocals, this succinct musical vision was created, played, and produced by Ryan himself. And it’s obvious from the jump he’s not at all taking a piss with the 19-second song format.
In most of the 19 tracks found on Vol. 1, the listener is rewarded with a surprising amount of depth and completeness — a point, a joke, a wink, a story told in a short amount of time. And then, sure, you’ll also be granted access to a few 19-second songs that are about a car dome light or something else seemingly banal, but it's all delivered with Ryan's well-honed wit.
A long-time musician, music journalist, and current owner/producer of Bird Cloud Recording in the St. Louis area, Ryan knows his way around a song. You may remember him from the band So Many Dynamos, and their album Flashlights from the mid-2000s. He currently plays in instrumental metal band, Thor Axe, which began as a So Many Dynamos side project. He produced Foxing’s 2013 stunner The Albatross and continues to build upon his career as a producer. (You may’ve also seen his byline in NR!)
Ryan took some time to answer questions I had about this project. Throughout, you'll see some homemade videos he made and posted on his Instagram account as he was rolling these songs out to the world.
NO RECESS!: So did you just sit down one day and say I’m gonna bust out some 19-second songs because that’s all I have time for, or is this the result of collecting song ideas over time?
RYAN WASOBA: I came up with this idea probably five years ago. Every few months I'll think of some new type of band that I want to start, or types of songs I want to write, and I always abandon the idea before I get started because it's either dumb or impractical or I'm just not willing to put in the time.
This one kind of stuck with me over the years, until I realized it was the way I wanted to make music at this point in my life.
NR!: On average, how long does it take to write and record a succinct 19-second song?
WASOBA: That's tough to say because the construction happens in different stages.
They always start with a general idea of the lyrics, and that sits on a note in my phone for a long time until I sit down to actually record. Literally sometimes the lyrics take 19 seconds to write. When I'm recording the songs, it's about an hour from the first time I plug a mic in until I call it done.
NR!: What were some of your own benchmarks for what would make a successful 19-second song?
WASOBA: I want the songs to be a self-contained statement, not a preview of what a longer song could be. It's flattering when somebody says, "I wish that song was longer." But really, by the time I get through it, I don't really have anything else to say.
NR!: Does having your own studio sort of help you find the time and place to carve out these songs? Or, no, because you’re studio seems to be fairly busy these days?
WASOBA: I'm fortunate to have the resources at my disposal, but I definitely push my own projects to the back burner and there's always a list of things I need to do for my recording clients.
Also, the burnout of working in music is real. Playing guitar and writing songs might be an escape for some person, but it's not what I want to do after I've spent a whole day on someone's record. That's a very low-level complaint of having a cool job.
NR!: As a writer, I often find shorter write ups to be more challenging than prattling on for 2,000 words. What was your experience when attempting to provide a complete picture with each track in under 19 mins? Did it come easy to you?
WASOBA: That's totally true for music journalism. I always struggled to do those 150 word album reviews when I was grinding them out.
What the 19-second limitation has done is made me less precious about what I'm writing. I think as songs stretch out, they fight more to maintain attention. The time between the 3:00 mark of a song and the ending is so daunting. This is my loophole.
NR!: Was it ever difficult to stop continuing to write a particular song? What happens when the song naturally wanted to end at 26 seconds?
WASOBA: There have been a few songs that probably should be 23 or so seconds. But cutting them down opens up some new avenues. Some of the songs with odd timings are that way because I had to remove beats here and there to make it fit!
NR!: Were you ever just like “that song is silly but fuck it”? One of my favorites is “Together” (lyrics: You’ve got to get your shit together) — it’s something I’d sing to myself while wandering aimlessly around my house. I feel like I probably have.
WASOBA: Thank you! That's another example of how the time limit makes me feel more free. I put out an EP seven years ago, and it has this kind of goofy song called "Ants!" on it. I don't hate the song, but it has no business being three-and-a-half minutes.
I'm way more likely to embrace a silly or funny idea for a song because it's in and out so quickly. The opposite is true, too; I'm more willing to explore something more serious than I would usually get for the same reason.
NR!: Do you have loads of these songs in “storage” — are there plans to keep releasing volumes of this project?
WASOBA: I have my next volume planned out. My plan is to do batches of 19 every few months, kind of my sped-up version of an album cycle. I'm trying to fast track my way into being one of those artists with an overwhelming amount of material to consume.
NR!: I think I overhead you saying you played these songs live… how’d that go? Think there will be more live outings for this project?
WASOBA: Yes! I did one show last month, and it was really fun. We did 21 songs in 11 minutes (even stretched some of them out a bit). I'm trying to do the live shows rarely so they're special, but I already have two more on the horizon. I know that's not a lot, but it feels like a lot.