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Loren Ryan: ‘If You’re Last To Champion First Nations Acts, You’re Going To Be Old News’

12 January 2023 | 12:51 pm | Mary Varvaris

"The time is now to make a difference – to be a mover and shaker for inclusivity."

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Hailing from Tamworth in north-west New South Wales, proud Gamilaraay woman Loren Ryan auditioned for The Voice Australia in 2017, taking on Destiny’s Child’s Bootylicious. However, Ryan failed to impress the judges, with viewers stating it was the wrong song choice, and she didn’t proceed further in the competition. She went on to achieve a #1 iTunes single with Eventually and was one of Countrytown’s favourites at last year’s Deni Ute Muster, so we’re thrilled to catch up with her and learn more about her journey so far.

Having shared the stage with Jessica Mauboy and Kelly Rowland, Ryan was known as an R&B artist before making the switch to country music. She writes original songs and translates well-known Australian songs into her traditional language. Ryan makes music that’s simultaneously fierce and fun, genuinely heart-warming, and poignant.

Her debut album Songs For Charlie is a kids' country music album that includes covers of her daughter’s favourites, as well as four original tracks. The album incorporates words and verses in the Gamilaraay language and the musical backing of the didgeridoo and clapsticks.

“[Making Songs For Charlie] wasn’t something that I set out to do,” Ryan admits with a laugh. “I never thought that my first ever album would be kids songs, or a whole body of work that I'd written and translated as kind of a tribute to my daughter."

“I was funded by ABC Kids who paid for me to go in and record this album as part of a project called Indigenous Lullabies. And so, I didn't set out to do it, but I feel like it's been my masterpiece,” she adds. Does Charlie enjoy listening to her mum’s singing voice?

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“She loves music. She's been singing on stage with me here and there and at a few gigs. I think she'll have a proper debut at the Tamworth Country Music Festival where we're gonna work on a song together,” Ryan says. “She can get up on stage and sing, she'll be almost five years old. It’ll be good for her to make her little debut.

“We went to the pub last week and had karaoke on and she’s like, ‘Can I sing a song?’ And she sang Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush! Just the chorus because she only knew those words,” Ryan laughs, proud of her daughter who did a great job on the spot.

2022 was a massive year for Loren Ryan. She released her debut album, performed at BIGSOUND, was a Toyota Star Maker Finalist and co-hosted the NAIDOC Awards on NITV. What moments is she proudest of?

“Oh my gosh. I'm really proud that I was a Star Maker Top 10 Finalist and also just announced as a Top 10 Finalist again for 2023,” she smiles. “That’s one of my highlights. Definitely BIGSOUND, too. I was on Big Mob Brekky, as well, which is an all-Indigenous breakfast show.” Ryan was also accepted into the APRA AMCOS SongHub Sessions for country music, where she got to hang out with Australian artists and songwriters from Nashville, Tennessee.

What would winning the Star Maker award mean to Ryan? “It would mean everything. It would lead to investing in my career, developing my artistry, writing songs and managing myself,” she says, looking ahead to the self-managed path. “I don’t have a big team or anything, anything you see me do comes from my hard work. The influence that Star Maker has over the [Australian country music] scene and industry would mean that I would get a great boost, a boost that I need.”

She would also join phenomenal company, as the Star Maker alumni include Keith Urban, Lee Kernaghan, Beccy Cole, James Blundell, Kaylee Bell, Brad Cox, Blake O'Connor and Max Jackson.

Ryan recently teamed up with fellow 2022 finalist Billie-Jo Porter to write her brand-new single Bounce Back. The saucy track serves as a dopamine hit and confidence boost, but where does that fierceness come from?

“I channelled that from my ambition and my resilience to do what I love no matter what,” Ryan states. “No matter what someone might say or do to me, or what I might go through, or no matter what hurdle I might face along the way. I've always been the kind of person that will do what I set out to do with or without somebody.”

It’s that resilience that has inspired Ryan’s entire career in music. She spent much of her early career singing covers, and most nights, people would yell out for a Cold Chisel cover. Ryan began to wonder, “How can I make at least one of these songs more of my own?” and that’s why she translated the iconic band’s hit, Flame Trees, into her traditional language.

“I love [Flame Trees] because of the storytelling that's in it. There are points where it doesn't even rhyme – it just tells us a beautiful story and you're just hanging on each line and that feels like this beautiful poem that's been put to music and I love moments like that,” she reveals. However, the challenge of taking on one of the best-known Australian songs and featuring Gamilaraay language was nerve-racking, to say the least.

“I felt nervous. I had translated it during COVID and uploaded a cover on Facebook that just went crazy,” she exclaims. Once COVID restrictions eased, Ryan decided to go into the studio. “I got permission from Cold Chisel. I sent them a demo version I had with the lyrics and the translation, and they said they loved it. So, I was nervous to start off with, then I was singing it everywhere. I’m so thankful that Cold Chisel let me put my language onto this song.”

Of course, Ryan hasn’t totally abandoned her R&B roots – she loves country and R&B music equally. “The storytelling [of both types of music] covers emotions that feel really isolating, and you no longer feel like you’re the only one going through them alone.

“By voicing them, you find other people who might be quiet about those things. We all experience things so differently, and I go to country and R&B for the experiences and emotions,” Ryan continues. “R&B is quite soulful, and it gets down to the hardest things. And then country music is, you know, the foundation of country music is built on humility. They lend those things to each other quite beautifully.”

As a Gamilaraay woman in country music, Ryan faces a kind of discrimination that really shouldn’t exist anymore – tokenism. “There are so many Blackfellas in the industry of Australian country music that are up and coming and they deserve to have a shot, but they won’t even try because of racism,” she begins.

“Events and things like that will tokenise us and put us on as the Black face. Some festivals need more Black faces in their environments. Mainstream media is out here underestimating Black media, but more radio and media coverage helps.

“If you’re one of the last people to champion First Nations acts, you’re going to be old news. The time is now to make a difference – to be a mover and shaker for inclusivity.”

Loren Ryan’s goal is to form a movement with fellow musicians to stand up for what’s right. While she doesn’t name names, “[Festival organisers] think it’s okay to have one Black person on the line-up,” Ryan adds. “And it’s quite intimidating to be the only Black act walking into those spaces. I’d love to create some kind of alliance to say, you know, when you get booked for a festival, instead of asking for a tech rider or hospitality rider, I’d love to see musicians create a diversity wrap-up that says:

‘I don’t want to play this festival unless there’s x amount of female representation and x amount of mob representation.'

“I think the power lies within the musicians as well, to demand this from festivals, booking agents, and promoters. It’s in our hands to do something.”

Ryan has been making friends and putting her thoughts in their ears throughout the years, she laughs. “There's been so many incredible artists out there who are willing to pay forward and one that certainly comes to the forefront for me is Fanny Lumsden.”

Lumsden’s third album, fallow was released on March 13, 2020. Recorded throughout the blistering 2019/2020 summer amidst the disruption of the devastating bushfires and released on the day the music industry shut down due to COVID, the album was embraced by the public, radio, and critics, winning Lumsden many accolades including an ARIA Award for Best Country Album, 5 x Golden Guitars and AIR’s Country Album of the Year.

Fallow & Variations was released on March 11, 2022, and features reinterpretations of its 12-song catalogue. The album saw Lumsden, Dan Stanley Freeman and several guests head back into the studio, with Matt Fell back at the helm, to show another side to fallow.

“Behind the scenes, she’s brilliant, and Fanny is an ambassador for like, BIGSOUND Country, which was a kind of attached event,” Ryan starts. “It happened at Southbank Piazza. Of all the people she could have put on and all the people who applied for it, she said, ‘Let’s put Loren Ryan on. Let’s not have this all-white, male line-up.’ She was like, let’s have a stack of female representation and showcase a range of country music.”

Songs For Charlie is out now, listen here. Loren Ryan will perform at the Tamworth Country Music Festival tomorrow; Friday, 13 January. Find more details on the website.