As the self-proclaimed “little king of cosmic folk,” Ryan Rickenbach has a lot to live up to. It also begs the question: What the hell is cosmic folk?
“Well it sounds nice,” Rickenbach explains. “It makes people stop and think a bit. I don’t know if I can elaborate beyond cosmic folk being a unique expression of the universal.”
And the little king monicker?
“I was born Ryan, which is Gaelic for ‘Little King’. You can either choose a new name or live up to the one given to you. By forgoing a more traditional path in life in favor of creating music, I feel like I’m meeting that challenge. I’m my own little king, creating my own little cosmos.”
Born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, Rickenbach received his first guitar – a student-sized electric with a built-in amp – at age ten. But, instead of actually playing the guitar, he had his mother take a picture of him with it to send to a girl in his class. “I figured she might as well know what was to become of me,” Rickenbach explains.
Later, Rickenbach would get his hands on an acoustic guitar, marking the beginning of his music career. In high school, he began writing songs, gathered some musician friends together, and recorded his first album. “It sold seven copies,” he recalls. “The school paper gave it four stars. That was very generous.”
After graduating from the University of Maryland, Rickenbach moved to New York to pursue an earlier passion of his – the theater. He joined an acting studio that took him as far as Melbourne. When the studio dissolved, Rickenbach found himself working for DHL, “driving a picker around a warehouse all day and listening to Triple J.” Realizing it was time to move on with his life, Rickenbach returned to New York to pursue a different path. “I did a show in New York that cast me as a young songwriter in the sixties, hanging around Gerde’s Folk City and that crowd. I knew as soon as the show closed I didn’t want to pretend to be songwriter, I wanted to live it.”
By chance the show introduced him to Cass Dillon, a fellow songwriter and artist who went on to produce Rickenbach’s first professional record, “Stasis EP,” released in April of 2016.
In case you haven’t yet heard of Rickenbach, just know there are plenty who have. That’s because Rickenbach is “kid famous”.
In the wake of his first release, Rickenbach spent his nights performing to the usual nighttime crowds. During the day, however, he found himself entertaining a slightly younger set.
“I teach music to babies and toddlers, which is something I never thought I’d hear myself say. I have to watch myself in certain pockets of the city. I can’t curse too loud when the subway is late, my students might recognize me.”
What started as a part-time lifeline from the hospitality industry evolved into a nearly full-time effort of working with children. As Rickenbach’s classes became more popular, he soon began expanding his teaching to older children, offering songwriting lessons to kids of all ages.
“In some sense kids are a blank slate. There are no prejudices. They have no experiences to draw from. But they also have incredibly distinct personalities from birth, which in itself is fascinating. But the opportunity to introduce music to their lives is a real privilege. At times it’s been some of the most rewarding artistic work I’ve done. They manage to give me as much as I give them.”
Perhaps his experience working with children is what makes Rickenbach such an extraordinary performer. And, perhaps, it’s his own musical heroes who have paved the way for Rickenbach’s truly distinctive sound.
Rickenbach draws influence from what he calls his holy trinity: Elliott Smith, Hank Williams, and Steely Dan. “Those three always grab me and pull me into their universe completely,” says Rickenbach. “You’re fully in their perspective when you listen to those songs. That’s what I mean when I talk about cosmic folk.”
For Rickenbach, his songs are often a form of catharsis, as he writes about his experiences surrounding regret, desire and self-doubt. Rickenbach will also be the first to tell you that many of his songs are about women. “My songs are rarely about a specific occurrence or a single person. I really try to write thematically. And there are times when I’m not that excited to revisit certain themes. But songs about women…I always feel willing to come back and say hello. Some would say that’s the Gemini in me. Though I’m partial to the Jungian perspective.”
Rickenbach’s newest song, “Adelaide,” breaks from his usual form in its specificity, telling the story of one of his dearest friends who quit his job, cashed in his retirement, and embarked on a cross-country journey that ended tragically in a car accident.
“His passing was a seminal moment in my life,” recalls Rickenbach. “He was an extremely intelligent and deeply loyal friend. The word ‘Adelaide’ is a beautiful sounding word to me, one I think aptly represents a paradisiacal hereafter.”
The video for “Adelaide,” which was produced by Phil Sokoloff and Rob Dezendorf, is dreamily impressionistic while remaining grounded in nature by scenic shots and steady movement through the landscapes his friend travelled through in his final days.
“I didn’t want the video to be sentimental or macabre.”, Rickenbach recalls. “I wanted it to have vibrancy. To be full of life. Whenever you’re surrounded by an abundance of life you’re also surrounded by the mystery of it, so through this I hoped to emphasize the gravity of existence. Phil and Rob shot a ton of beautiful footage with a concept in mind, but the hard part was putting it all together and making the narrative coherent. We passed drafts back and forth, but it wasn’t until the three of us sat down for a marathon editing session and put our heads together that we were finally able to look at each other and say ‘this is it’.”
With the release of “Adelaide,” produced by longtime collaborator Dillon, Rickenbach plans to keep doing what he does best: writing and performing music. There also may be some traveling in his future, as the desire to disappear in a foreign place remains one of his strongest forms of inspiration. Of course, wherever he goes, there’s no doubt he’ll find a way to create his own little cosmos.