Interview: Rhyan Sinclair Comes of Age on ‘Letters to Aliens’
Rhyan Sinclair may only be 21, but she’s far from being a new face in the country and Americana music scenes. The Lexington, Ky. native has been writing, recording and touring since she was 11 and has found a tight groove in recent years with her backing band The South 65.
Sinclair documents her past decade on the road and the moments of self reflection and growth along the way on Letters to Aliens, her sophomore album released on March 4.
While a handful of the album’s dozen tracks were written prior to the pandemic, most of it was composed in the heat of the lockdown, a time of universal uncertainty that Sinclair at first struggled to produce under.
“I had the weight of everything going on in the world on my shoulders,” Sinclair tells The Boot. “It seemed frivolous to sit down and write music. I had to re-frame a lot of things because I was so used to traveling and playing music all the time. Now I had an endless amount of free time but didn’t know what to do with it.”
An introduction to therapy helped to bring her out of a creative funk, and to cope with her emotions and past trauma so that she can be the best version of herself.
“Therapy helped to inform a lot of the writing on this album,” says Sinclair. “Talking my problems out has helped me to overcome past trauma and escape the weight of some of the things that were tying me down emotionally.”
The sessions led to what Sinclair describes as her most empowering album to date. This is exemplified on tracks like “Interstate Sailors,” in which she likens the grind of a touring musician to battling the oceanic waves in a naval vessel. Taking the wheel, she sings, “Interstate sailors / Trudge on under water / With sails flying high, with sails flying high / This is my ship and I'm gonna steer it right down the highway tonight.”
Throughout the song Sinclair reassures herself that she’s headed down the right path, belting out “If you want it that bad, then you should put the work in / I know where i'm going and I'll stick to my course” and “It's a strange ol' craft, but it's a mighty raft / And it carries me even when the ocean runs dry,” the latter surely referring to music opportunities drying up at the onset of the pandemic.
In addition to building a sense of empowerment from her own experiences, Sinclair also draws strength from her family, past and present, on songs like “Where I’ll Be Found” and “Effie Jane.”
The last-mentioned in particular sees Sinclair, in a co-write with her mother Toni Karpinski, exploring the life of her grandmother Effie Jane whom she had barely a memory of herself prior to the tune’s crafting.
“I only met Effie Jane once and hardly remember it because I was so young,” says Sinclair. “This song was a way for me to learn about and connect with her in a way I never had before. After writing this song I feel like I know all about her even though we barely got to spend any time together when she was still with us.”
As much as Letters to Aliens is about growing up and learning to be a strong, independent woman, the practice of staying in touch with your inner child permeates throughout as well. For example, the album’s lead track “Dragon Spirit” tackles this directly while others, like de facto title track “All Alone in Outer Space,” sees Sinclair reminiscing about how she used to write letters to aliens that she’d put inside balloons to release into the sky.
The psychedelic, cosmic country affair is further sent out of this world by multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin (John Prine, Jack White), a long-time collaborator of Sinclair’s who added theremin to the otherworldly tune. According to Sinclair, the partnership with Kaplin began nearly six years ago with a cold pitch she wasn’t expecting to get a response from.
“I was looking for a utility player to record with and began thinking of who my top choices would be in a perfect world,” says Sinclair. “I’ve been a Jack White fan for my entire life so I took a shot in the dark and pitched [Fats] on my concept album The Legend of Lavinia Fisher. I think the ghost story idea of the album intrigued him because he said yes. I’ve been lucky to have him on the three albums I’ve recorded since then as well.”
A huge confidence boost and moment of validation, Sinclair’s relationship with Kaplin has bolstered her already blossoming career as she embarks on her second decade on the road and in the studio. With the world still facing so much uncertainty around COVID-19, her newfound confidence is more important than ever, helping to ensure that no matter what waves come her way she’ll never buckle to them.
“I hope these songs will help give people strength and get in touch with their inner child like writing them did for me,” Sinclair notes. “The last couple of years have been rough but have also helped me to realize that I’m heading down the right path. I’m more confident than I’ve ever been, and I hope people notice and can pull from that when they listen to the album.”