Kentucky’s Rhyan Sinclair is one of those rare songwriters who can simultaneously pay tribute to artists who inspire her and create something entirely new, within one song.
In 2018, she released her first solo full-length, Barnstormer. Later in 2018, she released the holiday EP, Marshmallow World, which was featured on the Americana Music Association’s Holiday Playlist.
In the spring of 2022, this impressive new voice in country returns with Letters to Aliens, which continues the theme of a woman on a journey, but this time the vibe is cosmic, seventies-esque folk rock with whispers of traditional country.
“Barnstormer was about finding my place and voice in relation to the world around me and expressing lots of raw emotions. Letters to Aliens is about the spiritual process of getting to the root of those emotions and breaking through them,” says Sinclair. “All of my roots show through in this music. Sonically, it draws inspiration from all of my greatest influences. Lyrically, the songs address my lineage and pieces of my story that I haven’t really shared before. I feel like the narrative of this album is particularly empowered, even in the most vulnerable moments.”
Where Barnstormer was mostly session musicians, Letters to Aliens is a band album that features Danny Flanigan on guitar, Jeff Binder on bass, Cary Shields on drums and Sinclair’s mom, Toni Karpinski on background vocals who comprise Sinclair’s band, the South 65. The band’s high-energy, joyful, musical camaraderie is at the forefront of Aliens and is an essential piece of the album’s signature sound.
“The recording process of this album felt like arriving at home,” says Sinclair. “It was the recording process I’d always dreamed of, and that’s not to slight anything I’ve done previously, but it was a one hundred percent chill, respectful, safe space. We got to really tune out the world’s noise and tune into the energy of the songs. The band and I were super in sync. An idea would pop into my head and before I could say it, somebody would suggest the same thing I had in mind.”
A number of guests and longtime friends also put their touch on the new album, including utility legend and frequent collaborator Fats Kaplin who has contributed to a number of Sinclair’s projects.
Aliens opens with “Dragon Spirit,” as Sinclair embarks on a magical quest through the psyche, retracing the steps of her inner child and navigating self-awareness. Accompanied by soaring harmonies, gritty, punch-packing electric guitar and melodic bass lines, Sinclair makes a memorable and invigorated entrance.
One of the most notably impactful elements of Aliens is the personal nature of the lyrics. Sinclair has always found writing to be therapeutic and she describes Aliens as her most revealing and therapeutic album to date.
“In order to stay in touch with the muse, I think there’s always an aspect of living with my head a little in space…that observer, narrator perspective. Sometimes that can feel like being on the outside looking in, and that can be compounded by the fact that when you’re moving at such a speed, traveling, touring, working, it can be like living in a bubble and for a while, I even used that “bubble” to run from my problems a little bit. That theme is what inspired the title track, “All Alone in Outer Space.”’
Recovery from a car accident halted Sinclair’s touring and that time off bled into the pandemic lockdown. With the unexpected free time that the pandemic dealt, Sinclair delved deeply into therapy to address past trauma and residual grief. Through this work, she felt a sense of freedom, which fueled a profound artistic evolution and informed the album’s narrative.
“I had total writer’s block for the first part of the pandemic. I had all these bits and pieces of melodies and lyrics that I really believed in, but I just couldn’t finish them. Now, I realize that I had to do the inner work first. Therapy, meditation, reading, studying ancient astrology, time with my dogs, and just really allowing myself to sit with my own thoughts and feelings…I had to do all of those things in order to be able to continue writing, because I had been going at such a fast pace before the pandemic. I had to grow and heal as a human before I could move forward as a songwriter.”
At a pivotal point in both her healing and creative process, Sinclair decided to reevaluate her songwriting approach.
“I ended my writer’s block by putting down the guitar, the keyboard, everything, and taking a meditative approach, just allowing the melodies and lyrics to come to mind naturally. Allowing silence, instead of frantically strumming guitar chords and trying to strike up inspiration. That’s how I first started writing music and it felt great to return back to that method.”
After the metaphorical dam broke, Sinclair found herself flooded with new inspiration, leading to the creation of many of the songs on Aliens, with the exception of a few songs that had been written in late 2018-early 2019.
“I didn’t have ‘With Every Goodbye’ on the initial track list for the record, because of the personal nature of the lyrics. It deals, in part, with my biological father who passed away last year. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable or safe releasing it when he was alive. I threw that song at the band at the very end of the recording session one day and it just worked. It was a really cathartic experience, kind of a full-circle moment. It marked the beginning of taking back my personal power by telling the story that I’d never told.”
Reclaiming personal power seems to be a theme that is echoed throughout the record. On “Interstate Sailors”, Sinclair casts out “submarine pirates” that lurk beneath the tide.
“I think ‘Interstate Sailors’ is about reclaiming your power, in whatever way the listener wants to receive that. I don’t like to take away someone’s individual experience of a song by over-explaining my point of view. For me, when I wrote the song, it was about my career in music and reclaiming my identity, reassessing values. There’s always going to be someone out there trying to coax you out of sticking to your course, claiming their way is better. I wrote the song with the mentality of ‘I’m going to be over here, in this lane, sticking to my course, and you’ll be doing your thing over there. We can all coexist here. This is my ship and I can steer it in the direction I see fit.’ I think that can apply to a whole bunch of different areas of life,” Sinclair says.
From the age of 11 through 15, Sinclair was front woman and songwriter of the adult roots band, All the Little Pieces, culminating in the concept album, The Legend of Lavinia Fisher. After the band dissolved, she never missed a beat, adding players along the way, finally finding a truly comfortable vibe with the South 65. Her solid, consistent 10 years of experience writing, playing guitar, singing, performing and producing comes to fruition on Aliens.
The album has a timeless feel that would be just as relevant tucked between records by The Doobie Brothers, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt in the 70’s, on a mixtape with Tom Petty and The Pretenders in the 80’s or among recent work by Jason Isbell, Steve Earle or Brandi Carlile.
“This album is a documentation of my human experience,” says Sinclair. “My time capsule, my letter on a balloon, my story thus far. With any luck, these songs will reach others who feel a bit like outsiders, misfits…aliens. I hope that people listen to this record and feel like at least a few of the songs understand them. That’s always my goal. I hope it takes them on a journey, and maybe even inspires them to get a little closer to their inner child. I’ve found so much confidence and freedom in facing the traumas from my past and moving through them, instead of running from them like I did for a while. I can only hope that one of my songs could possibly inspire someone else to do the same, even in the smallest way.”
Look for the release of Letters to Aliens on March 4, 2022