Ryan Cassata Confronts His Trauma in Moving 'Catcher in the Rye' Video: Premiere

Ryan Cassata, "Catcher in the Rye"
Courtesy Photo

Ryan Cassata, "Catcher in the Rye"

For singer-songwriter Ryan Cassata, trauma is just as much a physical place as it is an emotional state. That place is his conservative hometown in Long Island, New York.

So when Cassata began thinking about how he would film a music video for his new song "Catcher in the Rye" (which he is premiering with Billboard), he decided to do something brave -- go back to the hometown where he experienced a significant amount of trauma growing up as a young transgender child. The new video sees Cassata walking through the overcast town and visiting the various spots of his trauma before planting a small transgender flag in a post and moving on.

"There were definitely a few moments where I felt like I was going to cry, and even moments where I felt scared," Cassata recalls of shooting the video. "I'm still afraid of my hometown, and that means there's still a lot of work that needs to be done."

Billboard caught up with Cassata about his new music video, how he's hoping to offer fans a message of hope with his upcoming album (out Friday, March 27), and how he's handling the ongoing coronavirus outbreak as an independent artist.

Before we chat about your new video, I want to talk about the coronavirus outbreak. You were scheduled to play SXSW before the festival was canceled earlier this month, and now the tour dates you had planned for the release of your album are being paused. How are you dealing with all of this?

The outbreak has caused a lot of anxiety for me; I'm super empathetic and worried about lots of people. I've been meditating and exercising daily and staying in close contact with friends and family. I've also been frustrated, mostly because I am not able to tour right now as I was supposed to be.

I am using my time wisely, though -- getting lots of rest, as I haven't had many travel breaks for the last few years, also writing lots of new songs, making lyric videos for many of the songs on this upcoming album, doing live-stream concerts and connecting with my audience to spread as much positivity as possible. Everyone in the world is going through this right now and I want my following to know that none of us are alone in this. Stay safe, stay inside, stay six feet apart, stay healthy. We can all do our part to save lives right now.

I also made this Spotify playlist to help support other indie musicians. There are artists on this playlist from all demographics and lots of other queer artists, but not just queer artists. There's also artists from lots of different countries on here. Many of us have been affected by not being able to be on tour or sell merch at shows.

For some good news, though, your music video for "Daughter" became a finalist in the International Songwriting Competition! That's being judged by stars like Coldplay and Dua Lipa. What does that mean for you to get that kind of recognition?

I think I actually found that out the same day as SXSW! I mean, when "Daughter" came out, I thought everyone was going to hate me for what I was saying in the lyrics -- like, I seriously thought the trans community would hate me. Like, I cannot believe how much people like that song.

Let's talk about "Catcher in the Rye." This is a song about finding love after experiencing trauma. What made you decide you wanted to write about that particular feeling?

So I actually don't really think when I write, so I was never like, "I'm gonna write a song about this." Like, when I am writing, it just happens. It feels like something outside of myself, so I guess I really just felt inspired.

I was thinking a lot about going back to my hometown because when I wrote this song, I hadn't visited my hometown in over a year, which is pretty long for me. I was thinking about it, and at the time, I had started a lot of healing work with the trauma I've gone through, with a lot of it coming from that hometown. So it was in my brain more, but I never decided to write a song about it. It just flowed naturally.

What made you land on "Catcher in the Rye" as a title? Do you have a close personal relationship with the Salinger novel?

We read the book when I was in high school; it was one of those books that you have to read in class along with everyone else. We would only be able to read, like, a chapter a day. I was so obsessed with it, and I really related to Holden, especially his relationship to his hat, and how it was his safety blanket. I read it so quick, to the point where my teachers would catch me reading the book when we weren't supposed to be reading ahead. But I just so deeply related to his loneliness in the book.

That book definitely shifted something in me, and a part of me still feels like that person I was in high school sometimes. The lyric in the song is "You're reading The New York Times," and that's about my partner, who ... she's reading the news, these really mature things. And I'm stuck on this element of the past, which is why I say "I'm holding on to The Catcher in the Rye." He always says in the book, "Where do the ducks go?"

And then you have those lyrics mirroring his "Where do the ducks go?" line when you start singing "Where do the geese go?"

Yeah, ducks and geese are all over my hometown, so they were not hard to find for the video. But in the song, that evolves into "Where do the queers go?" Because I think that, being an outsider, you constantly are asking where you're supposed to "go."

The music video shows you actually in your hometown, visiting a number of different spots where you experienced pain. What was it like being in the physical spaces of your trauma while creating art about moving forward from it?

It was really intense. There were definitely a few moments where I felt like I was going to cry, and even moments where I felt scared. We had an all-trans crew, so I was definitely like, "OK, we definitely stand out here," and I got kind of scared. That sucks that I'm still scared in my hometown.

My mom invited me back home for an event recently, and like my first thought was, "Are there going to be gender-neutral bathrooms?" I'm still afraid of my hometown, and that means there's still a lot of work that needs to be done.

I wanted to ask about the crew. What did that mean on the day of shooting, to be with people who understood and could help you feel safe?

Having that crew definitely provided me with a lot of support. It set up a safer place, it set up a place where I felt like I could express myself fully, and like I didn't have to hide any parts of me and say my ideas. And one of my ideas was putting the trans flag on the post at the end of the video. Telling the crew that, they were like, "Yes, that's awesome." I don't know if that would have gone the same way, or if I'd have even had the courage to bring up an idea like that, without them.

Your album The Witches Made Me Do It is out on Friday, and you've spoken about how the album came from a dark, painful place that you have since been able to recover from thanks to therapy and recovery. What is it like looking back on those emotions as someone who is in a better place now?

I definitely listen to it now like, "Wow, this is a lot; this is pretty dark." The first two songs that were released from this album are not as dark, but the rest of the album gets pretty dark, and it tackles some really deep topics. Like, there is a song about the intersection of queer love and the Catholic Church, and the oppression of that. That gets really dark, but also in a way that's healing as well.

I feel like I still have a really long way to go, just because I've experienced a lot of stuff, a lot of really traumatic events. It's taken a long time to heal, but I finally feel like I'm at a place where I can actually help other people in person that have gone through similar experiences.

Yes, it's been really hard, but I feel like everything I went through is useful because it's allowed me to help other people in my life, and even strangers. It's a gift, because there's no greater reward in this world than helping others. That's what feels the best for me.