Rhyan Sinclair feels an undeniable pull to country music, especially from the classic artists who made their mark before she was born.
One of the primary influences for her new album, Barnstormer, is the 1987 album Trio, recorded by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt. The acoustic palette of that album is echoed in Barnstormer, which is the first solo album for the teenaged Kentucky musician.
“I write with an acoustic guitar and some of the songs tend to translate better that way,” Sinclair says. “Sometimes, though, twangy telecasters and an electric sound work better, so it just depends on what the song calls for. The whole Trio album is acoustic and that was a huge inspiration. I think the bluegrass instrumentation of that inspired the more acoustic songs.”
When she was 11 years old, Sinclair decided to put together a band called All the Little Pieces that would combine elements of roots country, jazz and blues. The group transformed into an award-winning rock band that performed frequently in Lexington, Kentucky, and beyond over the course of five years. When Sinclair’s songs started heading into country and Americana territory, band members started drifting away. When the touring cycle wrapped up for the band’s prior release, Sinclair decided to organize a tribute to the Trio album. By rehearsing the album and researching the catalogs of its three principals, new songs started pouring out. All of that paved the way for Barnstormer.
“From the moment I was able to comprehend the fact that the words in songs carried meaning, it was something I was super fascinated by. I’ve always loved writing stories and plays and singing, so I guess all of that being said, writing songs was a natural progression,” she says.
Sinclair co-produced Barnstormer, acknowledging that her collaborators Sean Giovanni and Jason Groves were respectful of her opinion and vision. “Being young and female, I know that isn’t always the case and I was so fortunate to work with great people,” she says. She worked with Giovanni in Nashville on the title track as well as “Kentucky Night Sky.” The remaining selections were cut in Lexington with Jason Groves at Sneak Attack Recording Co.
“In Nashville, it was a bit intimidating at first. All these incredible session musicians walk in and start listening to my songs and reading the charts. Then they started playing and it was amazing. A very different process than I was used to, but a great experience. And I’ve basically grown up at Sneak Attack. I was 12 when I recorded the first All the Little Pieces album there. This was my fourth project there, so it is like a second home.”
Barnstormer opens with “From Here,” a lament that is thick with pedal steel and regret. In contrast, the track “Barnstormer” calls to mind the feisty sides of Miranda Lambert and Dixie Chicks, whom Sinclair cites as influences. She also notes that Barnstormer has hints of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, as well as stylists like Smokey Robinson, Band of Horses, Chris Isaak, Norah Jones, Beck, and Lone Justice’s Maria McKee.
Remarkably the album keeps pace even on the most reflective pieces, which is a testament to her talent for writing melodies.
“Most of the time, melodies are something that hit me all at once and I just go with it. I feel like if I overthink them, they lose their natural momentum. I can sit down and write lyrics anytime, whether they’re decent or whether I have to trash them, but melodies are very inspiration-based for me,” she says.
One of the most uplifting tracks on the album is ironically titled “The Sad Song.” She explains, “I think there is such an underrated joy that can be found in sad songs because someone out there can relate to that sadness and it can make them feel less alone. There is so much beauty in that.”
Listen closely to the lyrics of Barnstormer and a portrait of a young traveller emerges. “Old Lost Town” explores what might happen if she could ever get out of her hometown, while “What Time Is It in California?” finds her contemplating a pivotal visit to the West Coast. That wandering spirit is key to Sinclair’s musical perspective.
“I want to travel to as many different places as humanly possible,” she says. “I definitely feel an overwhelming sense of home when I’m on the road. There’s such a sense of freedom in it and I think it’s where I feel most inspired. I’ve written most of my lyrics riding in the car, I think. For me, it’s not just about the destination but the journey there. All the little in-betweens and places you pass through. I’ve left pieces of my heart in all of the places I’ve gone. It just so happens that travelling is part of being a musician and that is very fortunate for me.”
Sinclair concludes Barnstormer with “Free at Last,” featuring fiddle and harmony vocals from Lillie Mae, banjo from Eliza Mary Doyle of The Dead South, and harmony from Sinclair’s mother, Toni Karpinski.
Sinclair says, “My mom has exposed me to awesome music in a bunch of different genres. She loved a lot of country music but mosh pits were more her element, so my musical upbringing was definitely not dominated by country music. I think that’s why there are a lot of different sounds and whispers of other genres throughout my songs but somehow country just became where I really felt at home and where all my influences could come together. It’s my true love. Flash forward and now my mosh pit momma is singing harmony on old honky-tonk standards and writing country songs with me.”
Although Sinclair’s musical direction has taken a number of turns as she’s matured, one thing has remained steady – her desire to make a deeply personal connection with listeners.
“I hope people know that I can be counted on to share raw emotions, whether it’s heartbreak or joy,” she says. “I just want it to feel as real and intimate to someone listening to the album as it felt to me when I wrote it. My hope is that these songs will speak to people on a soul level. I think it is such a liberating thing when you hear a song that understands you and what you’re going through. That’s always my goal.”