St. Louis multi-instrumentalist Ryan Carpenter has just returned from Vienna to God's favorite country, America. He slurps a gin and tonic as it stains the table with perspiration. He leans back and speaks.
"You know, I've never been much of a writer. I arrange a lot," he muses. "I have written songs. And I wrote songs for this Evangelical Christian band I was in -- Harlot Bride. Super good name. I wrote a few songs, but not many. I am more into taking songs other people have written and reworking those."
Carpenter recently refashioned several songs for fellow STL ex-pat Ian Fisher. Carpenter and Fisher gallivanted across Europe to record the second Ian Fisher & the Present album, as well as a segment for Germany's singer-songwriter promotional show TV Noir. And Fisher went ahead and booked a gig at Munich's Residenz Theater.
The duo began this European odyssey in April 2011. "My girlfriend broke up with me, I found out that I was going to be working the whole summer at the Muny, and Ian e-mailed me," Carpenter explains. "He wrote, 'Hey, I don't know what you're doing this summer, but what do you think about coming over to Austria and playing for a little bit? I'll show you around.'"
"I said, 'Yeah! Why the fuck not?' I came to St. Louis, worked all summer at the Muny then shipped out," he continues. "I got over there, I was in Berlin for a week. We recorded an album. We toured in Denmark for two weeks then he said, 'Hey, you can do whatever you want for a while but then you have to meet me back in Vienna.' It was like three full months of stuff booked."
Europe has been receptive of the two, he insists. "People over there want to hear this American style we have. It's a bit country, especially with the pedal steel, and Ian has a very rural Midwestern take on his songwriting. They like that stuff, but they want to hear it from Americans. People are doing that style of music in Vienna and Berlin, but it's not the same. The music is not completely understood there as it would be here."
"It's made me really aware of what American music is."
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Carpenter speaks of the Press and Cultural Affairs (PCZ) section of the Consulate-General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a sector of the Dutch government that funds creative professionals in need. "You just have to apply for it, and it's not hard to get. You can receive money to fund your work. If you're a member of their society, you get money to live."
"You don't have to worry about not getting groceries to live. There are also grants. A lot of grants. It's great, but the art that it produces is shit. It's uninspired. In a matter of speaking, the struggle produces better art. If you want to do something in America, you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It has to come from your gut, because it's not as easy here as it is over there. And that produces some really exceptional stuff. That's the American style of music that can't be re-created over there."
Now that Carpenter has returned to St. Louis, he will begin his sixth year with the Muny as its pianist. "I fucking love that place," he says enthusiastically. "The Muny is this family, and God, I love that. It's so beautiful." Carpenter does not seem to have grown used to the Muny's hectic rehearsal schedule or its "all or nothing" mantra. Even as he lists the upcoming plays -- Billy Elliot, Tarzan, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, The Addam's Family, etc. -- he unseats himself in palpable glee.
"There's a reason people talk about 'Muny magic.' It's this thing that happens when you have your first rehearsal onstage. Nothing is right, everything is messed up and then you go out there on Monday night to open. There are upwards of 9,000 people there, and everything works. It is completely unexplainable. It is to be envied, but I will be damned to Satan's Hell if it is not a true thing."
The Muny's production of Tarzan began Wednesday, June 25, and ends July 2. It's Carpenter's first show after his six months in Europe. Tickets are on sale now.
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