Singer-songwriter Ryan McMahon is no stranger to life as a touring musician.
The 40-year-old has built up a “very small, but very, very loyal fanbase,” across Western Canada throughout his work both as a solo artist and with his band Lion Bear Fox.
Parksville’s Ground Zero Acoustic Lounge is the official second stop on the Ladysmith-based performer’s ‘In Line for a Smile’ tour that will take him through venues of all shapes and sizes across B.C. and Alberta.
McMahon aims to put on a show and create a personal connection with his audience.
His work straddles the lines of country music with a singer-songwriter twist.
“I’m all for a shared experience. There’s a lot of interaction with the audience, there’s a ton of laughter,” said McMahon.
“I like being entertained. And the world’s on fire right now – quite literally in some parts.”
McMahon has found himself inspired by stand-up comedians, and the way that medium of performance is stripped back to just a person with a microphone laid bare in front of an audience.
“There’s no instrument, no piano guitar drums behind them. So it’s just you and them,” said McMahon.
He also mentions the late Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip as a big influence, with his raw, powerful stage presence, unconventional antics and ability to bring an audience from laughter to tears and back again.
“It’s just me and my acoustic guitar – another white, bearded confessionalist with a guitar. But I try to do that on a smaller scale everywhere I play. I want to reach the skeptic at the back of the room, which is of course a man. I want to have a shared experience with everybody there,” said McMahon.
“I love making people laugh. You can have these super sincere tunes, but also have a degree of levity between them.”
The venue at Ground Zero suits that ethos well. An intimate performance venue that draws an attentive audience, McMahon has played the room before and enjoyed the ability to stop time for a few hours through the power of song.
“It’s a happening, a moment in time. And it’s ours, and the world we can shut off just for a little bit.”
Though he’s passionate about what he does, the 40-year-old music scene veteran is quick to speak about the struggle of making it as a musician in the 21st century.
“Things have just changed. Everything is on the socials, and so you have to have content every single day, of some kind. Sometimes it’s just like ‘this is my tuna salad. And this is me at the restaurant having my tuna salad. Where do you like to have your tuna salad?’ And people are engaging with you, and all of a sudden that’s what’s important,” said McMahon.
“It’s hard to envision, like, George Harrison having that same interaction, because he was too busy being awesome at his craft.”
He hypothesizes that the time taken away from artists being able to dedicate themselves entirely to their craft has contributed to a bit of a monoculture of sound.
“People have a tendency now to all sound the same, and disposable, and that’s because I think we’re spending our time on other things, that maybe aren’t so closely related to the music,” said McMahon.
“It’s such a hard time in human history to make music. Everything is so … disposable and you just kind of, we’re always kind of treading water, and it’s tough, but just when I’m going to quit, I end up writing another ten songs.”
With a fresh round of songs comes another tour,
“You have to really love it to want to do this. … It’s one part absolute love of the craft of creating a song, and then delivering that in front of a live audience, and the second part is desperation, AKA it’s too late to turn the car around now,” said McMahon with a laugh.
It’s no secret that sales of physical albums have dropped off a cliff since music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music took off. Though musicians get paid per stream, touring gigs are now more than ever a musician’s bread and butter. McMahon is alone when he’s on the road, so he’ll be driving himself to all 22 of his shows between Jan. 9 and Feb. 29.
“It’s really really exhausting,” said McMahon.
In terms of promotion, though, McMahon has a partner in crime – he and his wife Cathleen run a small record label called Elbowroom Recordings. The label is small, managing McMahon, his band and Port Alberni-based bassist Lance Lapointe. ‘In Line for a Smile’ is his sixth full-length album to date.
Though the road is bumpy, McMahon is passionate about his craft and about the importance of music in general.
“There’s always going to be a need for live music. Like, summertime’s going to come, and people are going to go – ‘where’s the festival? I want to have a good time, I want to go camping, let’s four of us get in the car and go see the Arkells,’ or whoever you’re going to see,” said McMahon.
McMahon plays at Ground Zero Acoustic Lounge in Parksville on Saturday, Jan. 11. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. For more information head to www.gzalounge.com/upcoming-concerts.html .