Mountain Melodies: Original Sound

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After a transitional period of self-discovery, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Keef is emerging as a solo artist by playing his music his way.

by ANITA STIEFEL

If you don’t recognize his name, you will soon. Ryan Keef has established himself as one of northeast Alabama’s premier performing musicians, and with the recent release of his second album and a tour of the Atlantic Coast in the works, he’s set to break out as a solo artist. [s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()] Keef, the son of a Lookout Mountain preacher, is the shy, quiet type until he gets on stage, and then it’s no holds barred. He describes his unique sound as an Americana-bluesy blend of Southern grit and raunchy rock with a quirky, indie vibe.

“Who are my influences? Anyone who has ever picked up a musical instrument or has picked up a pen, pencil, blood, whatever and written down lyrics,” he says. “That’s like asking someone how big is the sky or how much water is in the ocean. I’m influenced by everything I hear.”

The 28-year-old Keef first played a guitar at age 12, but it wasn’t until high school that he got serious about music. “My dad bought me a crappy little guitar, and my grandmother was and is the only musically inclined person in my family that I’m aware of,” he says. “She knew three or four chords and taught them to me, and I’d play them for awhile, then get bored and move on to something else. Through the years I’d learn a little, then put it down, then learn a little more, then put it down again. Eventually all my friends were playing guitar, so I decided to get serious. I dug in and learned so I could play with them. I took lessons briefly, but for the most part I’m self-taught.”

Keef has been playing regionally with local bands for the past decade, most notably with Electric Voodoo, Trial by Jury and The Handlers. He and his bands have opened for artists such as Anders Osborne and Jason Isbell.

Keef played guitar in Michelle Malone’s band, touring nationally in 2008 and 2009. Malone, a singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer from Atlanta, has collaborated with artists from Gregg Allman to the Indigo Girls, and her songs have been part of television programs including “True Blood,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Felicity” and “Brooklyn South.”

“It was a great experience,” Keef says of the tour. “It was my first time traveling to New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Philly, St. Louis, and I learned so much from the experience.”

After that Keef returned to his Fort Payne home and recorded his self-titled, first album of roots music. Despite critical success, he says he wasn’t completely satisfied with the project. “It was forced,” he admits. “I recorded the songs people are always asking me to play, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I was burned out, and I was trying to do what other people wanted.

“The only song I perform from that album regularly is ‘Coat of Armor,’” he says. “It’s about one tiny event that had such a big impact on me. It may be short and simple, but I still have a conviction about it.”

Just after Christmas of 2013, Keef says he went through a period of self-awakening. He isolated himself in his home studio for a month, during which he wrote and recorded a second album titled “The First Discovered Distance.”

“The second album was the opposite of the first,” he says. “The second one I did for myself, for the reason I started creating music in the first place: to create something original that I can be proud of. It was a transitional period, and I was going through a rebirth of some kind. I think of it as embracing insanity for a short time in order to expand my own mind. I felt reclusive and didn’t want to leave the house until I finished. It was about self-discipline. I set goals each day and set out to accomplish them. Within a month, the project was done.”

Keef played all the instruments on the album, including guitar, resonator, bass, charango (an instrument that originated in South America and is similar to a mandolin), keyboards and drums. To create organic sounds, he experimented with homemade percussion instruments such as broom straw and mallets made of socks and sticks. Keef also sang all the vocal tracks.

“There are many layers to the vocals – it was a symphony of voices I was hearing in my head,” he explains.

His favorite song from the second album is “Natural Satellite,” a love song between the sun and moon. “It’s a metaphor that elaborates on embracing crazy,” he explains. “The moon is written as a woman, but in reality is me. It’s about all my insecurities.”

In summer 2013, Keef recorded a live album with fellow Fort Payne musician Reno Roberts. The duo, Ryan & Reno, began the project while sitting on a beach.

“We were on the beach with our guitars, and we recorded ourselves with our cell phones,” Keef explains. “When we got back home to Fort Payne, we kept it going. We got about 25 friends to come over so we’d have an audience to play for, and we recorded the songs on Voice Notes on our iPhones, and it turned out great.”

Keef’s albums are for sale at Amazon.com and CD Universe, and songs can be downloaded from iTunes, ReverbNation, CD Baby and All Music. See upcoming performance dates and locations at facebook.com/ryankeefmusic.

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