Talk about an icebreaker. Upon entering Bushwick, Brooklyn's Elsewhere, fans of Ryan Beatty, eagerly anticipating the singer-songwriter's return to live performance after a long absence and not entirely knowing what to expect, were greeted by two words, projected on a screen:
In that moment—appropriating the name of an electronic music icon while hilariously poking fun at his own image as a lithe, bleached blond gay boy who last summer released the remarkably open and proudly queer debut album Boy In Jeans and a string of videos to go along with it—Beatty revealed his sense of humor before even taking the stage.
Once he did enter, it was another revelation: baggy jeans and a black t-shirt emblazoned with that self-effacing new nickname, his platinum hair restored to its natural light brown, and beaming from ear to ear. It was a more relaxed and "real" Ryan than anyone could have anticipated based on those videos and his rather stylized IG posts in recent months. Backed by a three-piece band that he'd only been working with for a few weeks, he brought a strong and supple voice to all the tracks from Boy In Jeans, from its opening declaration of new beginnings, "Haircut," all the way through to the breezy soul of "Rhinestone." Although it had been three and a half years since Beatty had performed live (apart from the occasional pop-up cover show), the 23-year-old sang with the comfort of an old pro. And in a sense, considering he's been recording and posting music since his early teens, he is.
When he spoke, it was more tentative. "This is fucking awesome," he began. "I didn't want to speak tonight, because we live in a time where you can't take back things you've said"—spoken like a guy who's spent a good amount of time trying to live down the music he made and things he's said in his past pop life, and for whom honesty and authenticity have now become paramount. Later, he acknowledged his time away from performing, and expressed gratitude for the night. "This is the first time I've performed live when I feel really happy. I'm just so happy I get to perform these songs for you." As comebacks go, it was an unqualified win.
The following afternoon, tucked into a booth at the East Village's B Bar and Grill, Beatty is still flushed from the rapturous response of the crowd. "Yeah, being on stage, at first I really didn't want to say anything that I didn't feel compelled to," he admits. "But I couldn't help it because I was just—I'm looking out at the crowd, and this is the first time that I'm seeing the audience that this album has brought, and I was just stunned, and I felt like I needed to just shout, and say like, 'This is just insane!'"
It was an open question last July whether and how quickly Boy In Jeans would find an audience, and it remains one of the finest largely slept-on records of 2018: a reclamation of a career by an artist who was a rising star in the teen pop lane six years ago, but who, for his own sanity, pulled the plug on that path and virtually dropped off the grid. Boy In Jeans marked not only a comeback for Beatty but also, he says, his first "honest" musical statement—languorous neo-soul and hazy pop married to a lyrical scrapbook of young, gay coming-of-age memories and statements of personal and musical emancipation.
Who came out to Elsewhere to witness the new-era Ryan Beatty? Longtime fans who've stuck with him for his evolution, or new devotees of Boy In Jeans? "I think it's probably a mix," he offers. "But I think it's mostly new people that—I have this thought that back in the day, people liked me because of more the idea of me, not necessarily because of my music. I mean, I thought I sounded good on those songs—they were fun pop songs—but I don't think I was making music that was inspiring or drawing a crowd of real music lovers. And to me I think this audience feels new because I feel like a lot of people that are coming to the shows actually appreciate the music and are there to witness that. And that's why it feels very satisfying to me."
It's also likely that some who came to see Ryan in Brooklyn, and will turn up for two shows this week in his hometown of Los Angeles, discovered the artist through his collaborations with Brockhampton. Beatty's become a de facto extended member of the fiercely DIY collective, having met founder Kevin Abstract (Ian Simpson) via Twitter in late 2016, and solidifying a friendship with the group the following summer, during a time when Beatty was questioning whether he even wanted to continue making music.
"They had moved to North Hollywood, and I lived really close, so I was hanging out with them every day. They make music like every day and I would watch them do their thing, we would write certain songs sometimes. And, I always say this in every interview, but the collaboration thing was never something that anybody thought would happen. It just happened." Beatty is featured on two of Brockhampton's most beloved tracks, joining Abstract on the chorus of Saturation II's "Queer" and serving a sweet solo falsetto hook on "Bleach" off Saturation III. Last summer he also joined the group, along with Jazmine Sullivan and serpentwithfeet, to perform "Tonya" on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
What Ryan and Brockhampton appear to share is a dedication to unfettered artistic honesty. Multiple times in our hour-long conversation, Beatty reiterates his aversion to contrivance, calculation, and strategy—the very qualities key to the teen scene he was once a part of. He's become, in his words, "very particular" about all of his creative choices. "All of the details are important," he says, citing one of the reasons he waited seven months after Boy In Jeans' release to play the songs live. "There was a moment where I considered not playing live shows for this album, because I wanted to work on the next thing," he explains. "And that became overwhelming in its own way. But then just one day I woke up and I wanted to do it. Also, for a second, the idea of putting on a show scared me, because I knew that it was gonna put a lot of pressure on me to make it as great as I wanted it to be. And it wasn't until we started rehearsing and stuff that I was like, 'You know what? These songs are great. I'm gonna have fun performing them.' And I know that the people coming to see these songs, they're just gonna want to see these songs be performed. It doesn't always have to be this huge spectacle."
The visuals for the live show—including that inspired "Aphex Twink" tag—are the work of another frequent Brockhampton affiliate, visual artist Miloš Mihajlov, who also directed music videos for 10 tracks from Boy In Jeans, which Beatty released weekly from last summer into the fall. Making them was something of an endurance test, shooting and editing every day. "We shot every video in two weeks," he explains. "We shot 'God In Jeans' and 'Camo' in the same day. It was me and four other, like, 20-year olds. I swear I blacked out for those two weeks, because we worked so hard."
Working on a tight budget, the concepts were kept basic, but varied, as were the locations—wrestling in the desert in "God In Jeans," wandering L.A.'s Koreatown in "Pink Floyd," buried in beach sand up to his shoulders in "Flash," dancing in an artist's studio in "Powerslide" and in the back of a moving truck in "Camo." They're alternately sexy, wistful and celebratory. Most feature Beatty playing to camera; some include Andrew, a swarthy friend of Mihajlov, in settings that straddle the playful and erotic; and they all communicate the image of a new Ryan Beatty. "I knew I wanted to keep the concepts simple, but also keep it beautiful," he says. "I also think this record feels very real life to me, and so I wanted to keep that in the visuals. The way that they're shot—it just feels right with the song for me. There's this grittiness to it that translates well."
Abstract took the directorial reins on "Bruise," the first video from the record, released last spring. With Beatty goofily skating on a suburban street, it could pass for a Brockhampton video, while the song itself garnered attention for its remembrance of going to a dance with a high school girlfriend -- and ending up in the bathroom making out with a boy. "I knew that I wanted to put that one out first," he says. "Just because of the story that it tells and that it just felt right to put it out first. Everything that I write definitely comes from a real place. But it's also beautiful to make something that's so personal that other people can then take and make it personal for them too."
Equally personal is the quietly poetic "Cupid," one of the few album tracks without a video, partly because it is already so visual, but a huge fan favorite. The song sweetly evokes a nighttime hookup on the baseball field with a guy who's got a girl: "Drawing hearts on my skin / With our initials in it / Ain't it nice out here, on the baseball field, when we're alone? / Press your lips against my neck / With me you don't pretend like with you're with your girlfriend / She's nice but she's not me." It's resonates, achingly—a more common scenario than many a closeted guy would care to admit. "That song is very special to me," he says. "And I didn't I didn't want to put something out just to put it out. I wanted the video to have as much substance as the song did, and I found that difficult."
This is all creatively light years away from the Ryan Beatty who emerged in 2012. It was a first chapter that many young artists might consider a dream gig, but slowly unfolded for Beatty as something of a nightmare. Inspired YouTube covers led to a debut EP, Because of You, that entered the iTunes Pop Album Chart at No. 1, a manager and an indie record deal. His parents relocated from Fresno to suburban L.A. to allow him to pursue his career (a sacrifice he shouts out on Boy In Jeans' "Pink Floyd"). There were videos, premieres with Radio Disney, Ryan Seacrest and Entertainment Weekly, a support slot on Cody Simpson's 2013 tour, and a second, self-titled EP. But increasingly, Beatty was miserable—surrounded by people who thought they knew what was best for him.
In the age of Peak Bieber, the idea was to tap into that market and get that money while the getting was good. Beatty touches on the frustration of that time in the hazy "Euro": "I can't relate to the people that relate to me," he sings. "It was all very fast and I was playing shows, putting out music that I didn't even really like, and I never felt like I had a moment to discover myself," he recalls. "I didn't feel inspired by anything around me. I didn't feel the people around me cared for me, on a personal level or were even interested in what I wanted to do. It was after all that that I went into a deep depression."
Standing one's ground creatively—even when you have clout, much less when you're an emerging teen performer—is risky business. "There's always someone waiting to take your place" is the longtime mantra of managers and agents, and pop history is littered with the careers of young artists who died on the sword of personal integrity, put their foot down and walked away from controlling labels, never to be heard from again. But Beatty took that risk, without a clue how it would turn out. In an interview with Billboard at Lollapalloza 2014, an 18-year-old Beatty spoke of developing a new and "different" sound, and acknowledged his previous releases had been "more pop" than he wanted. While he cringes when I mention those comments, they set the table for what he did soon after: walked away from the teen world altogether, and tried to fashion a path forward, making music he could believe in.
It would take three years for that path to reveal itself. Following a 2017 pop-up show where a beaten-down Ryan performed a cover of Amy Winehouse's "Valerie," he was approached by Calvin Valentine, a producer with a heavily hip-hop CV. "It was really hilarious," he recalls. "I think we both took risks that night, and it paid off, because there had been people who had approached me before, wanting to work with me. And I think a lot of times it's hard to cut through the bullshit."
Beatty was understandably wary, but took the leap. "Honestly at that point, I had nothing to lose," he admits. "I was like, 'Sure, let's do it.' And the day of the session, I was so close to not going. I was so close to being like, 'Ehh, nah. I'm good.' But I was like, 'Fuck it.' I thought, 'The worst that could happen is I'm there, I'm bored, uninspired, whatever.' But that same day, we made 'Euro.' And it just took that one song to where I was like, 'Let's go.' The next day we had a session and we did 'Bruise.' And it was weird because I was still getting to know him, we were getting to know each other. We would have these like three-hour conversations before the session where I think we just had an understanding for each other, and we just met at the right time, right place."
The songs on Boy In Jeans came quickly. "There wasn't ever a song that I can think of that I struggled writing," Ryan says. "I don't know, it was just really easy for me to write for some reason. I think because I had a lot to say?" Not least of which was expressing himself openly as a young gay man. Beatty had come out to his family in 2015, and publicly the following year, with a bold Instagram post in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre. "Proud to be a raging homosexual," he wrote. "It's taken 20 years of suffocating in the closet for me to become comfortable enough to say it, but now I can finally breathe." And he exhaled beautifully into the songs on the album, which in its unadorned, confessional candor has won comparisons to Frank Ocean's tour de force Channel Orange. As a teen in 2012, Beatty was inspired by the coming out letter that famously accompanied that album, but like Ocean, who jealously guards his own privacy, Beatty has some strong feelings about the culture's tendency to confer immediate queer icon status on a celebrity who's come out.
"I think it's so important that there is not one definition of how you should carry yourself when you come out," he says. "I know there are kids that look up to me because of this record, and because of maybe how explicit I was about the things I was talking about. But I just want to be myself, and I don't want to be a spokesperson or anything." There's a myriad of ways to own one's sexuality as a public figure and for gay men in pop it's gotten markedly easier: contrast George Michael's tortuous path to coming out with Troye Sivan's virtual LGBTQ sainthood.
Having been through the liberating experience of speaking his truth, how would Beatty feel if—hypothetically—there was a young, major pop star who was, today, in the closet? "Well, if somebody was in that situation, and they came out, I think that would be huge," he replies. "But also, there is definitely a sense of empathy, because everybody's reality is different, and in the struggle for acceptance, there's so many factors, like the family situation, or maybe what they have personally gone through. So, I have empathy for that. But at the same time, I just think that maybe part of the reason why it's scary is because there's not enough normalization of it. And something like that would be a huge step in helping make it more normal."
Even among Ryan's collaborators, Kevin Abstract is happy to tweet about boy crushes and post images of boyfriend Jaden Walker, but eschews going there in interviews, while Tyler, the Creator, with whom Beatty partnered on two songs last fall, jokingly deflects such questions but stokes speculation with canny lyrics about "looking for '95 Leo." As for Beatty, he's happy and proud to be seen, but only to share his truth in as affecting a way as possible. "I get asked a lot of questions like, 'How does it feel to represent, as someone who's gay?' And I'm just like, 'I don't know what that means.' I'm just trying to make music that inspires me and hopefully inspires other people."
He's achieved that with Boy In Jeans, a record that deserves to be heard live. While Aphex Twink says he does have more live shows planned, he adds he's "not in the headspace" to do a full tour right now. But there's much more to come. Even if this lovely, personal record didn't light up the charts, Beatty has every reason to be proud. He's a pulled off a rare feat in music—a second life, on his own terms.
"I know that I'm going to be putting out a lot of music," he says. "So the idea of it not just going off immediately doesn't worry me one bit. Because I'm very confident in my ideas and what I want to continue to work on, and I know that I can make something great. And this record was proving to myself that I can do that."
There was a time when Beatty thought he might never find a way out of the teen pop box, going so far as to delete his old videos from YouTube. But now, little by little, particularly with the embrace given to Boy In Jeans, he's able to look back on those bad old days in a more Zen way. "It's all part of my journey. I'm not ashamed of it," he concludes. "But now? I feel like I get to finally, truly be myself. And I'm not afraid to say the things I want to say in music."