After Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans, singer-songwriter Ryan Hiller moved to San Diego.
Since then, the 29-year-old graduate of Park City High School and an alumnus of the University of Utah’s music program has released three albums, and recently released his first music video, "Always Gonna be Something," off his latest record, "How it Works."
It was the next step in Hiller’s blossoming career, as he has worked with T-Bone Burnett, The Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller and even Jessica Simpson.
Hiller has established himself as a full-time musician and is a regularly featured artist at many San Diego venues and is a frequent performer for Mountain Town Stages in Park City, as well as Gracie’s in Salt Lake City.
Hiller answered questions about his Utah experiences, his inspirations and the funny bone.
How long did you live in Utah, and what do you remember from your time here?
I was born in Salt Lake City at Holy Cross hospital in 1983. I lived in Holladay until I was 5 years old, and then we moved to Southern California until I was 12. We then moved back to Park City, and we stayed here through my middle and high school years, and I went to my first year of college at the University of Utah. I remember seasons (hot summers and snowy winters), camping, skiing, and fresh mountain air as a kid. I remember I couldn’t wait getting home to Utah when I was young. I also got started with my first gigs in Utah as a teenager. From putting my guitar case out for change at Trolley Square to private parties at the Jeremy Ranch golf club, I cut my teeth, so to speak in Utah. By college, I had been jamming with many local bands and musicians, and was able to open for the Black Eyed Peas during the 2012 Olympics. We also opened for one of my guitar heroes, John Scofield at Kingsbury Hall. I actually think that Utah has a pretty decent music scene compared to the rest of the country. I love what they’re doing with the Twilight series and Red Butte Garden, among other concerts in Salt Lake. I really think Mountain Town Stages is doing a phenomenal job with their free concert series, and with bringing in more live music to Park City. I remember some of the best gigs I played as a kid were the free Concert In the Park concerts they put on while I was in high school. That series has transitioned to Deer Valley, and has thousands of people in attendance. It is by far one of my favorite gigs to play currently.
How often do you come back to Utah to visit and and perform?
I usually try to make it home a couple of times a year. My good friend Brian Richards at Mountain Town Stages usually influences when I plan my trips home. I also work with some phenomenal local musicians when I play in Utah. Steve Bauman is one of the best bass players I have ever worked with. He works in many local Utah bands, and also works at Summerhays music store. My other buddy Jeremy Abernathy, is not only a fantastic Hammond B3 player, but has one of the best collections of vintage organs, pianos, and keyboards this side of the Mississippi. I’ve also played with many great drummers including Jon Olson, Brian Thurbur, and CJ Burton (currently on tour with Air Supply).
How did you get started in music?
My parents played and sang all the time when I was very young, and they were my first influences. My dad is also a great guitar player. I was heavily influenced by folk, Americana, and rock as a kid, and still play some of those old songs my parents used to sing to this very day. I was, and have always been, obsessed with the guitar. I practiced an average of four hours a day while in high school, and reached a plateau in my playing until I discovered jazz. I was in the Park City High School jazz band, and I really thank the late Mr. Hunkhe, and our Utah school system for allowing me to play my guitar during school. Henry Wolking from the Jazz Department at the U of U was also an integral part of my musical development. If it wasn’t for him, and the U of U’s jazz department, I might not have been able to make it to New Orleans. The rest of my life has been shaped by those experiences. After missing my senior prom to go to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival, I knew where my destiny lay.
What inspires you?
Utah beer. Also, my primary influences as a young child were classic rock and folk. However, when I really started getting into guitar. I was a Stevie Ray Vaughan fanatic. I was really into blues — Jimi Hendrix, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Johnny Lang, Freddie King, BB King, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters. I then went into a huge funk phase, and was into James Brown, Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone, Herbie Hancock’s fusion albums including "Headhunters," to more modern stuff like The Blue Method, Outkast, and the Brand New Heavies. Once I realized I needed to jump into the jazz pool to really learn the jazz language some of my influences included George Benson, Joe Pass, Pat Martino, Django Reinhardt, among many, many others. I am honestly influenced by all musical styles, and listen to literally everything I can to grab ideas from.
Describe a perfect day.
This totally depends, and is all relative to my particular situation. Lately a perfect day is a day with no obligation to do anything. These days have unfortunately become far and few between, so when I have a whole day completely to myself without any distractions, that is a perfect day.
Does being a graduate of Park City High School and the University of Utah help you in pursuing your dreams?
Absolutely. As I said above, the transition from rock to jazz really helped me broaden my musical palate. I’m so glad that I couldn’t get my degree in blues or rock, because it forced me to step out of my comfort zone, and learn a completely different language. I was hesitant at first, but now I am a jazz addict. (Even though you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that through my original music). The local musicians in Utah that I had the pleasure of gigging with were largely introduced to me through the music department at the U.
Talk about your third album, and what your goals were for it.
Great question. My first self titled album was a conglomeration of my initial influences as a child: folk, blues, and rock. Very plain and simple, yet catchy melodically. My second album "The P.U.R.E. Project" was a great snapshot into my musical education at the U of U and especially New Orleans. I was heavily into funk through my later years of high school, and all through college, and I’d say that jazz, funk and fusion were the central themes of my second album. Unfortunately, when I released "The P.U.R.E. Project" in San Diego, it didn’t resonate with the scene that was going on there. People were mainly listening to indie and reggae, two styles that I did not fit into at all. I decided to take a step back, and focus on my roots. I wanted to write songs that would appeal to both my New Orleans crowd, and my new San Diego demographic. In doing so, I think I really honed in on where I wanted to go career wise. In a nutshell, I think "How It Works" is really a blend of my first two albums.
Why do people say beans are the magical fruit when beans are vegetables?
I hate to tell you, but beans are legumes, and also considered fruits. I also think they are supposed to be musical, not magical.
Why is it called a funny bone, when if you hit it, it’s not funny at all?
I think it is probably called the funny bone, because it is very funny to watch someone else hit it.
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