Ryan Hiller’s new album feels good like ‘Big Medicine’
PCHS grad will return for concert series
June 2, 2017
Singer and songwriter Ryan Hiller has opened for artists such as The Eagles, The Steve Miller Band, Chris Isaak and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
And though the 2001 Park City High School graduate has lived in San Diego since 2006, his heart is still in Utah.
"I regularly go to a website that shows all the music that is being played in Park City and Salt Lake City, and I think the music scene there has gotten so great," Hiller told The Park Record. "It's just as good as San Diego. I'm going to start coming back more and more."
Hiller will return to Park City next month to play a Grand Valley Bank Community Concert at Deer Valley on July 12. But before he returns to the Wasatch Back, he wants to spread some good news: the release of his new album, "Big Medicine."
"I'm excited about this," Hiller said. "It's my first full-length album and I'm excited to come and play these new tunes for you."
"Big Medicine," which was released three weeks ago, comes five years after the release of the extended-play recording "How It Works," and nine years after his debut release, "The P.U.R.E. Project."
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"Big Medicine" is also the first Hiller album to be released on the Pacific Records label.
"This is kind of why we become musicians," Hiller said. "The pinnacle of being an artist is creating something you wrote, composed and put your name on."
For Hiller, there is nothing like recording an album of original material.
"I've also performed a lot of bar gigs, corporate events and weddings, and nine times out of then, you're not expected to play your own music during those gigs," he said. "So, this is where it's at."
The downside of making an album is the cost.
"You have to spend a lot of money to make records and CDs," he said. "A low-budget independent-label release usually costs around $50,000. And even if you're as cost-effective as you can be, it does get expensive."
For "Big Medicine," however, Hiller got help from the record label.
"It was enough that I didn't have to subsidize this release," he said.
Most of the album's tracks were recorded in Hiller's home studio.
"If you check out the liner notes, 90 percent of the recordings are me in my little 150 square-foot studio," he said with a laugh. "I did all the vocals, guitars, synthesizers, organs, some bass and percussion on the album. The drums, though, needed to be recorded in a bigger room. So I went to another studio."
Still, Hiller enjoyed every minute of the process.
"I've been playing music for nearly my entire life and never had another job, so when I was making this album in the studio, I was really happy," he said. "It fired me up because this is the most fun thing to do in the business."
Some of the songs on the album were written years ago.
“I wrote 'Gotta Survive' right after I released my last CD, and 'Rise Up' was written shortly after that," he said. “'Don't Throw It Away,' I think, is the oldest song on the album."
Other songs were written more recently.
"The song 'Soul Conversation,' the first track on the album, was written in the middle of the project," Hiller said.
The songwriter also wrote other songs that didn't make the final cut.
"I put them on the shelf because they either weren't stylistically cohesive with the album or we had decided to put them on another album," he said.
A big reason Hiller held back some songs was because they didn't musically fit the context of the album.
"One of the big criticisms I had with my last releases was the music kind of went everywhere stylistically," he said.
While the discrepancy was due to Hiller writing in various styles, he also recorded the songs in different locations with different engineers.
"That, alone, gives you different sounds as well," he said.
When recording "Big Medicine," Hiller decided to make one cohesive album of 10 songs that complemented each other.
"I wanted all of them to make sense when you put them together on one record," he said. "While there are still some stylistic variety, all the songs fall under that rock and blues umbrella."
Blues-based rock is what pulled Hiller to music when he was a child.
"The sound of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan got me playing," he said. "So, with this album, I wanted to go back to those roots, but if you listen to the album, you will hear a little New Orleans and jazz influences as well as some funk."
Funk, Hiller said, is the thread that tied the new songs together.
"I don't know how I got so much funk in my blood living in Utah," he said with another laugh.
While attending Park City High School, Hiller took music lessons and was in the Jazz Band, under the direction of the late Bill Huhnke.
"There was always some friction between us because when I was in the class, I stubbornly played rock licks over the swing jazz songs," Hiller said.
Even until he graduated, Hiller, who was so bent on becoming a professional musician, took Huhnke's advice with a grain of salt.
"I remember him asking me, 'You just want to be a musician and not have a Plan B?'" Hiller said. "At that time, I never thought in my entire life to have a Plan B. But now that I've got a wife, a kid and a house, I find myself thinking that my Plan B should have been hedge fund management. I should have listened to him."
Then again, Hiller's path seemed to be laid out for him. He was given the Allstate Jazz Guitar Award and attended band camps at the University of Utah.
"It's funny because I kind of took the scene in Utah a little for granted, when I compared it to New Orleans," he said. "Nothing compares to New Orleans and that's why I wanted to study there."
Hiller began his music studies at the University of New Orleans right after he graduated Park City High School. Huhnke's attitude towards Hiller playing rock licks over jazz songs began to make sense once the musician started college.
"I started getting bad grades," Hiller laughed. "While I worked hard at music, I had this stubborn attitude that music was music and I don't need to play to a style. I thought I could put my own stamp on it.
"While I still think that in a degree, if you are going to play in a jazz group and want to sound like you're playing jazz, especially bebop, you can't bend your strings on a Fender Telecaster wired through a tube amp."
Looking back, Hiller said he wished people in Utah told him outright that he sucked.
"Because when I got to New Orleans that's what everybody told me," he said. "And I did. I was definitely at the bottom of the barrel."
The criticism lit a fire under Hiller.
"They told me if I wanted to learn jazz and speak this language, I'd have to leave Jimi at home today, so I did," he said.
Delving into jazz helped Hiller with technique and insight, which helps him play the style that he calls his "first love."
"I'm back playing on the blues and rock side of things, but I also like to fuse things together as well."
Ryan Hiller's “Big Medicine” is digitally available on iTunes and Spotify.
"If people want a CD, they can email me or visit my website and I will send them one," he said. "We had a limited amount made, but I will get them out on a per-order basis."