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Ryan Cassata on “Guard Rail,” Queer Art, and Long Island

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When we last checked in with the Long Island-raised and LA-based Ryan Cassata, a multi-talented songwriter and activist, he had just released “California Woman,” a stripped-down acoustic number with an effortless sense of vintage rock-star cool. Never one to settle down and stick with one sound, Cassata has released several other songs since then, with varying degrees of intensity and earnestness; his latest, “Guard Rail,” shows how versatile a songwriter he really is.

“Guard Rail” is as intimate and sincere as “California Woman,” but with more of a bedroom pop influence. There are synths and keyboards here, providing a rich sense of melancholy with a memorable chord sequence and some delicate counterpoint. Cassata’s vocal delivery, too, feels looser, flowing more freely than the bluesy bars of “California Woman”: there’s some clear influence from alternative R&B in the delivery, although his vocals remain free from affectation.

“Guard Rail” is about a relationship that is, as Cassata puts it, “close to the end like Montauk” (you can take the boy out of Long Island, but you can’t take Long Island out of the boy.) This was clearly a relationship of great passion and strife, with Cassata saying he would “drive over the guard rail” for his lover, even though at one point he threatened to drown himself (“so sorry that I scared you,” he sings, familiar words to anyone picking up the pieces from a breakdown.) Pairing these dramatic, almost gothic sentiments with modern, understated bedroom pop is an inspired choice: from Bronte to the TikTok age, love has always been messy and contradictory, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less when it ends.

Tell me about the story behind “Guard Rail.” Was it based on real-life experience? What did you draw upon when writing this song?

My most recent releases, “Guard Rail,” “Starfucker$,” and “Loner Boy” are all inspired by my real life experiences. The pandemic has given me a lot of time to reflect and process grief. “Guard Rail” dives into the topic of a romantic relationship that has come to a dramatic end. This song is all about regret. It’s about the concept of not having contact as the lyrics go “two weeks without talk, felt close to the end like Montauk, said I’d drive over the guard rail for you.” It’s a dark track that lays out all the negative emotions on the table on display for all to see. It’s also an apology and admission of shame.

You’ve explored a few different genres over the course of your career so far—for instance, “California Woman” was more rock/folk centered while “Guard Rail” leans more bedroom pop. Are you naturally inclined to try new things, or is it a conscious effort to keep things fresh?

I think I’m naturally inclined to try new things and I think that is because I listen to so many different genres. I get inspired by all different types of music. My new album MAGIC MIRACLE MILE coming out on October 22nd, is very experimental compared to anything that I have done before. I think that’s partially because this was my first time self-producing and I also had an unlimited amount of time to experiment and try new things as I wasn’t paying by the minute in a recording studio. Here’s a list of the artists that I was listening to on repeat while making Magic Miracle Mile:  Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Lil Peep, Bruce Springsteen, Alkaline Trio, Notorious B.I.G., Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Sam Cooke, Mac Miller, Lizzo, Ariana Grande.

There’s a balance that many LGBTQIA creatives have to strike, where they want to be true to their identities without being pigeonholed as A Gay Artist, A Trans Artist, etc. It’s something I’ve struggled with in my personal writing—is the balance a concern for you, or is it not something you think of?

Yes, I definitely want to be more mainstream but I’m also grateful that I’ve been able to help so many LGBTQ people and also have been such an active member of the community. I’m proud to be out and proud. I’m proud to be trans. But…I knew that I was a musician long before I knew I was queer.

As a fellow person who grew up on Long Island, has your upbringing influenced your work or your creativity in any way?

I think the Long Island music scene that I grew up in was incredible to come up in as an artist. There were shows all of the time. There were open mics all of the time. It was an incredible experience to grow up there and get to be part of that flourishing scene. Also, being from Long Island I grew up on a lot of punk rock and that has definitely found it’s way into my music!

I’m heading back to perform on Long Island on September 30th for Fresh Brewed Sessions.

You’re an incredibly prolific, multi talented artist. What’s next for you?

Thank you so much! Next up is the release of Magic Miracle Mile. I’m very excited to release this body of work into the world. After that, I will finish working on the follow up album. I literally cannot stop writing songs…so there will be many, many more songs coming, many more albums! Lots of shows are happening too. You can find cities, dates and tickets here.

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