In an alternate reality, Ryland James might have ended up a professional hockey player—like both of his parents. In a normal timeline, the Canadian pop crooner—who’s been pouring his heart and sandy voice into every one of his soulful pop ballads—might be planning a tour. But instead, he’s at his childhood home, looking through the window and past the front yard, with its three giant pines, to the empty street in Deseronto, about halfway between Toronto and Montreal along the bank of Lake Ontario.
He, his two younger sisters and their parents are passing time together until life resumes again. At least no one’s fighting.
“Of course, you have your few little feuds, but nothing out of the normal so far,” he says.
In his profession, it’s common to isolate yourself to write, but this isn’t quite like that.
“I’ve been trying to keep a good schedule, so I wake up; I’ll usually write for a little bit,” he says. “I made myself write for 30 minutes every morning just to keep the creative juices flowing. I usually stick to a workout routine. I do some reading. Then I’ll usually try to create content because that’s a lot of what we’re doing at home right now, and then making a lot of TikTok contests, GIFs, covers. I’ve been doing a lot of live streaming with my fans.”
Without concerts, it’s the only way to connect with fans, so even though James wasn’t too interested in social media engagement before, it’s what he’s diving into right now. He’s done the typical bedroom performance, for which he wrote out a setlist. He’s done requests. He’s tried Q&As. And now he’s reaching out to fans to ask how they’re doing, too.
Ryland James is still relatively new in the music scene, but his many fans are dedicated. The big breaks have happened more recently. At first he was a shy kid who liked to sing.
His grandmother, who lived a few doors down from his parents, was a former church pianist and would play him gospel and soul music at her house.
She taught him to sing harmony and was the one to notice how he was drawn to music. When he was 10, he saw another boy sing a Jackson Five cover on “Britain’s Got Talent,” and his parents and grandma decided he could do that, too.
“I just kind of copied what he did. I belted out this song, and didn’t even know I could sing like that,” James said. “They’re like, ‘You should keep going with this.’ From that age, 10 years old, I just knew I wanted to do it. I became obsessed with it. I followed and started posting covers and doing stuff online.”
Hockey was another interest, but not a permanent one. His father played for several teams in the Ontario Hockey League and had signed to the NHL’s Calgary Flames before injuries, and when he found out he was going to have a child, he decided to step away.
His mom’s resume was even more impressive, playing professionally in Canada right before the formation of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). Around that time, women’s hockey became an Olympic sport and she tried out for the 1998 Olympics as one of the top prospects. She also stepped away to start a family.
Ryland James grew up playing the sport, as a center and left wing, but would take every other year away from the sport after growing bored with it.
“To this day, I still do play hockey, if I get the chance. If there’s free ice time or whatever, I’ll go out and play,” he says.
James still has all his teeth, which is a definite benefit now that he’s performing on larger and larger stages (coronavirus quarantine excluded).
In 2019, he undertook his largest tour yet, opening for his personal artist role model, Alessia Cara, of whom he’d been a huge fan for several years because her music transformed him from a loner in high school to someone who was comfortable inside his own body.
Growing up in a small town, he didn’t have many classmates also interested in doing music—but more so, he didn’t have anyone else interested in what interested him; straightforward, unadulterated balladry.
And then Cara released Know-It-All when he was a 16-year-old high school junior, in 2015.
“There was no group I fully felt like I belonged to. I just kind of kept to myself,” he says. “When I heard the lyrics to ‘Here,’ it just hit me so hard because it was the first time I heard somebody explaining exactly how I was feeling. I went to listen to the rest of her album, and just every song had a different perspective on being sort of that wallflower introverted teenager, and I really related to that; I listened to it all the time.
Cara was another person not too far away in age from James, who felt the same way, and was able to become a successful artist without changing who she was. So he pushed forward with his videos, while dreaming of sharing the stage with Alessia Cara.
He convinced his parents to take him to Toronto for the Much Music Video Awards, where Cara was performing and nominated for an award. They went even though they didn’t have tickets and got there late. His mom noticed people sitting on a nearby shop rooftop and watching the outdoor performance, and paid the shop owner to let them up as well.
They climbed four stories up an outdoor ladder on the windy night and made it to the top just as Cara was accepting the award, thanking her manager. James wanted to know what it took for someone to get a manager.
He didn’t have to wait long. The very next week, Cara’s management Tweeted at him and offered to represent him. A few years later, he was opening for her on a North American tour—his first time touring outside of Canada.
“It was this big giant full circle moment,” he says. “Everything I was doing on this tour was new. I was learning how to handle myself, learning how to handle that many shows in a row. Traveling, first time on a bus; sleeping overnight on a bus.”
But back to the current reality. This was supposed to be a breakout year for James, with a headlining tour. He’s finished his solo debut album, which is scheduled for release later in the year, but now everything is up in the air.
James was slated to play at BottleRock and said he was still committed to the rescheduled festival dates, but it’s not impossible that California will not allow gatherings of BottleRock’s size for the rest of 2020.
“It’s so hard because everything is so up in the air, and we have no idea how long it’s gonna last,” he says.
Following the Alessia Cara tour, he released single “In My Head,” which was certified Gold in Canada. He followed that in late February with the anthemic “Shoulder To Cry On,” the video for which he filmed last year in the desert north of the Angeles National Forest.
“We picked the location [because] we wanted a place where we could get really big, dramatic, wide natural scenery shots in the middle of this desert [with] that empty vibe,” he says.
Of course, it’s easy to find an empty vibe all over the world right now.
Another single is on the way, he says. At the end of quarantine, James may have many more songs. When he writes, he says, his goal is to be brutally honest about his feelings in a way that gives listeners a window into what’s going on in his mind—which he’ll continue doing even if he’s stuck at home
“Every song that I sit down to write, I want to make sure that it impacts people in a really emotional way,” he says.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.