Finding “Virtue” with William Ryan Key

William Ryan Key at The Fillmore in Philadelphia Photo by Ryan Smith

If you don’t know singer/songwriter William Ryan Key, you should. The name may sound familiar to pop punk fans, as Key hails from the band Yellowcard. But what is he doing now? To answer this question, I recently interviewed him for i99Radio, where we talked about his new solo career, his latest EP, what he thinks it takes to survive in the music industry, and upcoming plans for 2019.

Key is releasing his second EP, “Virtue,” per self-release on Friday, Nov. 30. This follows his debut EP, “Thirteen,” that Key released earlier this year. Both EPs are a part of his label, The Lone Tree Recordings, a brand that Key created for his solo music. Key notes that each EP has a flair of intimacy present within the tracks, but the physical sound gets bigger sonically.

Virtue EP

Virtue EP Cover
Photo courtesy of williamryankey.com

Explaining the difference even further, Key says, “On ‘Thirteen,’ I talked a lot about the lyrics and songwriting but with ‘Virtue,’ the thing to talk about is that musically, I expanded and grew the sound as far as instrumentation, adding the drums to the songs, doing a lot more work with the electric guitar, and not just me and the acoustic. I think building the sound on ‘Virtue’ was one of the most important things for me during the process.”

With his first EP, Key was hesitant to explore his sound with multiple instruments, as he was not sure what fans would think about his overall transition from front man of a pop punk band to a calmer-vibe solo artist. He wanted to test the waters before going more elaborate.

Key confesses, “When I made ‘Thirteen,’ I didn’t know what was going to happen with it, like with touring and playing it live. So part of making that EP was a conscience effort to be like, ‘I’d like to make these songs so that it’s just me and the acoustic guitar, and if I get up on stage, I can have some of this rawer ambiance going on on tracks and stuff in the background to fill it out, but it’s not a bunch of crazy stuff.”

When starting his solo career, Key kept his future live performances in mind. He didn’t know what he could pull off or if audiences would have interest in him on stage with new musicians following his former band.

But then Key saw potential. “It [the start of live shows] went well enough as I did the New Found Glory tour, and then I landed this spot on the Mayday Parade tour, so I felt more confident going forward with more instrumentation,” Key explains. “I could have a drummer, and a guitar player, and stuff like that with me. Post-rock bands such as Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai also were a huge inspiration in regards to adding more instrumentals.”

On “Virtue,” Key collaborates with two of the members of the band Hammock, a band that has inspired him musically. He found joy working with them on this latest EP.

“I’ve been a big fan of Hammock for a long time,” Key shares. “They’re based in Nashville where I currently live and I’ve gotten to be friends with one of the founding members. I hit up Marc Byrd [one of the three band members] and was like ‘Hey man, can I send you a couple songs and see if you’re interested in it?’ as I was working on the EP. He got back to me with a really positive reaction and said ‘Let’s do it!’ It was such a cool thing for me, as they’re a huge inspiration and I listen to their music a lot. So the song ‘Downtown, (Up North)’ has cello parts that were written and produced by Marc and Matt [Slocum] from Hammock.”

Key just wrapped up his fall tour with Mayday Parade, This Wild Life, and Oh, Weatherly, which he explains as having “good vibes,” with everyone working well together from setting up the stage to just hanging out when they had some extra time.

“I’m just super grateful for the guys in Mayday Parade for giving me this opportunity to be on the tour,” Key admits. “I’ve known the guys of Mayday for a lot of years so it’s been cool to spend this much time with them. I’ve only ever done Warped Tour with them before. Also, getting really close to the guys in This Wild Life has been awesome since we’re going to Europe to do a co-headlining tour right at the beginning of next year. So I’m really glad we got the chance to do this tour together to get to know each other.”

Key acknowledges Sacramento, Ca., Charlotte, N.C., and Salt Lake City, Utah, as being memorable dates on this tour.

“The thing is, I’m going out to these shows, playing new music for the majority of the crowd, music that they don’t know the words to, and it’s such a different vibe from Yellowcard. I’m really doing something completely different, so I can really tell when the show is really on and when I can really connect with the crowd,” Key explains, regarding his city choices.

If you’re a fan traveling to one of Key’s shows, he recommends being open to a diverse playlist as his sound combines a multitude of genres.

“It’s tough because I’m trying to invent this hybrid of two genres that I love, [the first being] singer/songwriter kind of folk, alt-country Americana, with artists like Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, or Elliott Smith,” he ponders. “Artists like that, but also some of that post-rock stuff like Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai. So put on an Elliott Smith record and listen to a couple of songs, then an Explosions in the Sky record and listen to a couple of songs. We’ll meet somewhere in the middle at the show.”

I also asked Key about advice he has for any aspiring artists, or if he gained wisdom that he wishes he knew in the past when it comes to the music industry.

“I wish that I would’ve known that social media was going to be a thing. But, I think that’s just me being old,” Key muses, but then turns serious. “I mean, I think that we still live in a world where live music matters, and performing for fans matters— finding the thing that makes people attracted to the music you write. You can’t really advise that, though. If you find yourself writing songs that you find people gravitating towards, just get out and play as much as you can. Anywhere, all the time, within reason that it makes sense to you. Any shows that you get, that you want to be a part of, do it all. That’s the way you get people connected to you.”

William Ryan Key and i99Radio

William Ryan Key poses with i99Radio sign.
Photo by Ryan Smith

Referring back to the topic of social media, Key goes on to explain that he’s a bit skeptical on how that transposes for some artists, in regards to developing a true artist/fan connection.

“Even for all the social media that is happening, and even if you have 10 million subscribers on your YouTube channel, I’m sure with some of those people that it does translate. But I feel like with a lot of them it doesn’t translate to fans coming in person to see them play music, buying their merchandise at shows, doing those types of things that keep one going as an artist. I don’t know anything about that YouTube world as far as becoming successful as an artist in that medium. But I would say if you want to be a live/touring musician, it’s that live shows are the most important thing. Obviously, keep working hard on your songwriting skills, and keep collecting as many influences and inspirations from artists that you love as you can, and try to channel it, but just get out and play.”

As he continues to promote “Virtue,” Key stresses that the focus is going to remain on promoting the music rather than doing music videos like he did with two songs on his “Thirteen” EP.

“I think we’re finding right now [that] navigating the music business in this day and age is a tricky thing, and choosing where [to focus] is key,” he says. “You have to be very, very particular with what you choose to spend money on and making those choices; what are you going to get the most returns from? I feel like right now, not that we wouldn’t do it down the road, but we’re feeling like it’s diminishing returns to spend money on music videos. I don’t really feel like my fan base demographic, whether it’s new or carrying over from Yellowcard, is really a YouTube-engaged fan base.”

However, Key is not totally opposed to posting videos at this point, as he shows interest in possibly posting live videos of his performances in the future. Instead of an elaborate presentation, it would just focus on him performing.

“Going forward and doing live versions of stuff, doing my own songs and cover songs, is a different story as I can easily just do that at home without the production,” Key explains. “On ‘Thirteen,’ I did a music video where I had a good friend come in, direct, and shoot; it was really cool and people really liked it, but I look back and think maybe I could’ve used that money on marketing somewhere else— something that would’ve gotten a better return on the investment. So right now there is no plan to pursue any music videos for ‘Virtue.’ We just want to make sure we get the actual music out to as many people as we can.”

So what do fans have to look forward to, other than the recorded music? Key provided some insight on his plans for 2019.

“We’re about to announce my first solo U.S. headlining tour,” Key says excitedly. “And so, that’s currently a focus— marketing and promoting my first tour on my own. That tour is going to be a real gauge/barometer on how seriously I take this going forward; how well those shows do I think will help me make a lot of decisions as far as how much more music do I make? Do I go sign to a record label? Do I make a full album? Those goals are not necessarily set, but doing this tour and having it do well is a very clear, attainable goal.”

William Ryan Key performing

William Ryan Key performing at The Fillmore in Philadelphia, Pa.
Photo by Ryan Smith

Key additionally spoke about his plans already announced for the new year.

“I also have this tour in Europe co-headlining with This Wild Life, so the first four months of 2019 are super busy and focused on my solo stuff. Then after that, I’ve been playing rhythm guitar with New Found Glory [on tour] and they have a lot of stuff coming up in 2019, so it looks like I’m going to be playing with them as well. I’m excited about that since it sort of helps me exercise my rock-and-roll muscle. It’s going to be a jam packed year.”

In the meantime, Key is gearing up for his upcoming EP release, and his next gig happens to be an Emo Night Brooklyn appearance in New Jersey on Dec. 8.

“The Emo Night thing is kind of like playing guitar with New Found Glory: it’s just a cool way for me to stay connected to my roots, where I came from, how I came up on music,” Key says. “And so, getting out there on stage and jumping around like an idiot for an hour or two to all those classic songs with fans, it’s just a fun night to hang out and enjoy music.”

Key mentions that it’s important to recognize that Emo Night isn’t just guys traveling around, listening to music on a laptop, but instead he explains that “It’s a conduit for people who just want to come and bang their heads; an event that people can go to and hear all their favorite bands in one night.”

Key feels humbled by the reaction he’s had so far with the singles he’s released from the new EP, the particular stand-out being with the EP’s title track “Virtue.” As his tour wrapped up with Mayday Parade, he ended his set with that song.

“It’s one of my favorite songs that I really have ever written in my life so I really love playing it,” Key says. “It feels like 16 years ago, being in the band and just starting out, and playing old songs that no one knew, and we’d just get up there and play them. And that’s a cool experience to just return to. ‘Virtue’ has really been effective and I’ve had multiple fans/people approach me at the merch table at the end of the show and say, ‘Man, that last song you played is incredible. What was it?’ It’s been effecting people in a really good way.”

Fans can stay up to date with William Ryan Key on his website and social media accounts, listed below. Pre-order his new EP “Virtue” and also check it out on Apple Music and Spotify. Other streaming services can be found here. Tickets to his future shows/tour dates can also be purchased on his website.

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