By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Ryan Sims twirls his e-cigarette between his fingers in the Los Angeles studio of his producer, Justin Gray, as the Canadian-born knob-turner does his magic.
Gray rocks back and forth as he adds keyboards to the song “Redhead.” Sims patiently listens. He’s proud of his new album, My Side of the Story, due in October, but there’s just something about letting the outside world hear it.
“I am excited to let people who hadn’t heard anything take a first listen,” Sims says. “It’s like showing off your new baby.”
The album is the culmination of what has been a trying year for Sims. In the last 12 months, the Cave Creek resident broke his foot, entered rehab for opioid addiction and ended a long-term relationship.
“Just getting out here and being several hundred miles away from Phoenix for a month is extremely cathartic,” Sims says in Los Angeles. “On top of that, having the kind of schedule you keep when you’re recording a record just keeps your mind focused.”
The working respite helped ease the anger he was feeling about his ex-girlfriend.
“I didn’t like who it made me become,” he says. “I was so angry with her. I would really lash out. At the same time, I couldn’t help it because I was just so mad.”
To create My Side of the Story, he went backward, listening to his first three records. It was an eye-opening experience.
“I give really good relationship advice. Now, if I could only take it,” he says. “Literally, most of my songs in some way involved a relationship—the good the bad and the ugly. Listening to your own advice is not an easy thing. Emotions get in the way of being practical.”
Gray and Sims’ manager, Darrin Pfeiffer, collected a dream team of musicians for Sims to work with: former John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff on drums; the Rolling Stones’ bassist Darryl Jones; Elton John’s keyboardist Kim Bullard and Lady Antebellum’s guitarist Jason “Slim” Gambill.
“This was the perfect combination of people to create this Americana-country-rock hybrid sound that is Ryan Sims,” Gray says.
A former Detroit-area hockey player, Gray is no slouch himself. He has worked with John Legend, Mariah Carey, Joss Stone and James Bay.
“Ryan has all the best elements of classic singers like classic Joe Cocker and John Mellencamp mixed with more contemporary singers like Chris Robinson and Ray Lamontagne to create a unique identifiable sound,” Gray says.
The resume of his other producer, Doug Grean, boasts projects with Sheryl Crow, Ricki Lee Jones, Glen Campbell, Scott Weiland, Slash, The Crystal Method and John Taylor of Duran Duran. Grean co-produced one song, “Before I Saw Myself,” and co-wrote the single apparent, “American Things.”
“Ryan is one of the most talented guys who has ever walked through my door; top 10 for sure,” says Grean, the former guitarist/touring musical director of Weiland’s the Wildabouts. “The combination of a good voice and a good writer is a rare thing—especially today. He has both things going on, not to mention he’s a handsome guy. He’s a triple threat.”
But what about the Grammy winners with whom he has worked?
“They may have been more famous than Ryan, but not more talented,” Grean says.
Rising from the ashes
Sims’ strong work ethic and friendly demeanor is well known. The former singer for local—and national—favorite EastonAshe, Sims has pursued a solo career since the band broke up in 2011. He competed on The X-Factor later that year. He also put in time as a songwriter in Nashville.
But it all began in Cave Creek, a town where he played regularly. He’s been associated with Harold’s since high school. He’ll celebrate the release of his album there on Saturday, October 14.
“I was bussing tables in high school and I’d see all of these great bands,” he says. “I probably saw more than I should have at 16 years old. Now, a lot of those old band members are my friends and colleagues, like Mogollon. It was amazing to see those guys tear it up in honkytonk bars back then and I thought, ‘I could do that.’”
And he has. His early 2014 party at Harold’s for his self-titled debut record sold more than 1,500 tickets.
“It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a show,” Sims says with a wide grin.
Turning to L.A.
Sims and Pfeiffer, the founder of Chart Attack Records, met years ago when the local singer was working in a different project.
“I saw Ryan play at a dinner me and my then-partner attended,” Pfeiffer, the former drummer for Goldfinger. “We were floored. We thought, ‘Where did he come from?’ We asked him to do a proper showcase. He played four or five songs and that’s when I was taken back.
“Every song was better than the one before it. His voice was strong. His lyrics were hooky. I couldn’t wait to get these songs recorded and out in the world.”
That didn’t pan out but Pfeiffer has big plans in mind for Sims.
“Anybody can pick up a guitar. Anybody can write lyrics. Anybody can write a melody,” he says. “But is it good or not? Anybody can paint, but is it good enough? Ryan’s songs—‘songs’ plural—blew me away. Everything he writes has the potential to make a mark in the industry worldwide.
“He has tons of charisma. He’s a good-looking kid. He’s easy on the eyes. He’s a great guitar player. He has a really strong voice and he’s got great songs. That’s a vicious cocktail for success.”
Sims hit the ground running in Los Angeles, where he collaborated with Grean and Gray to write songs. He admits it wasn’t an easy task.
“I have a hard time co-writing with people sometimes,” he says. “I can be a bit of a bully in a songwriting session, if I don’t feel the person who’s writing with me is contributing.
Sims calls Gray and Grean “incredible writers,” however.
“They pushed me to a higher level than I was used to going,” he says. “I think the music on the album will reflect that.”
Sims pauses when asked what he learned from the recording process. He then says, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to learn. Don’t trust people? I have more adventures to come when I get back to Phoenix. That’s for sure.”
Part of that is his ongoing recovery from opioid addiction, which stemmed stenosis in his neck. After suffering for some time, he found out his problem could be solved with ablation. Even though he no longer needed the medication, he continued to take the pills.
“My story isn’t different from any other stories,” he says. “I think it was irresponsible of the doctor’s office. The procedure I received at the end fixed me completely. I wasn’t offered that until eight months of being on heavy amounts of pills.
“I think, a lot of times, rehab comes with an ugly stigma. It takes guts and bravery to walk through those doors and say, ‘I need help.’ It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re getting strong.”
Ryan Sims, Harold’s Cave Creek Corral, 6895 E. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, 480.488.1906, haroldscorral.com, 8 p.m. Saturday, October 14, $20-$500.