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Former Utah singer-songwriter Ryan Hiller is now thriving in San Diego

Published November 9, 2012 2:26 pm

Local sounds • With his third album, U. grad Ryan Hiller's focuses on his roots.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans, funk- and jazz-inspired singer-songwriter Ryan Hiller moved to San Diego.

Since then, the 29-year-old graduate of Park City High School and the University of Utah has released three albums, as well as his first music video, "Always Gonna Be Something," from 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. He also returns to Utah for frequent performances at the Mountain Town Stages series in Park City, as well as Gracie's in Salt Lake City.

In an email interview, Hiller answered questions about his Utah experiences, his inspirations and the funny bone.

How long did you live in Utah?

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. 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.

What do you think about the Utah music scene?

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.

How often do you come back to Utah to visit 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, [including] Steve Bauman , Jeremy Abernathy, Jon Olson, Brian Thurbur and CJ Burton.

Why is it called a funny bone, when if you hit it, it's not funny at all?

Because it is very funny to watch someone else hit it.

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. 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. 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., was also an integral part of my musical development. If it wasn't for him, and the jazz department, I might not have been able to make it to New Orleans. 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. 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 Shepherd, Jonny Lang, Freddie King, B.B. 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.

What were your goals for your third album?

My first self-titled album was a conglomeration of my initial influences as a child: folk, blues and rock. 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. When I released "The P.U.R.E. Project" in San Diego, it didn't resonate with the scene that was going on there. 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.

dburger@sltrib.com

'Always Gonna Be Something'

Hear Ryan Hiller's music at http://www.ryanhillermusic.com.