Fires From Our Lineage: Rhyan Sinclair on ‘Letters to Aliens’

Listening to Rhyan Sinclair’s latest release, Letters to Aliens, during these short, brisk days delivers the comfort of furnace blast, a reminder of spring’s warmth and sunshine. The album also conjures the season’s promise of renewal and rebirth. If the Kentucky native’s 2018 debut album Barnstormer is the sound of a seventeen-year-old stepping out her own, testing her wings after fronting the alt-country All the Littles Pieces, Letters is a rocket blast of self-discovery, self-assertion, and inevitable paradox. “Dragon Spirit”, the album’s feisty first single, is part-proclamation, part-origin story: “Like a purple glitter dragon/shot out of a cannon/I made all my decisions with a reckless abandon.” Sinclair is dealt “the blessing and the curse of a fire-breather,” a complexity echoed in “All Alone in Outer Space”, where she struggles to live between worlds: “I’m on a mission to find a balance between the stars and the ground.” The album’s second single, the cosmic “Interstate Sailors”, is a victorious reclamation of identity, candied by a psychedelic swirl.

LtA is also a love letter to female empowerment. With her previous group, Sinclair used their record The Legend of Lavinia Fisher to explore the myth of the first woman to be hanged in the United States. Letters to Aliens again finds Sinclair embracing the female narrative, giving a voice to the voiceless. The songs are lineage-obsessed, whether it’s the ancestry that unites women who are persecuted for their opinions– or that “dance too freely, sing too loud”– in “Wounded Healer” or the women in “Gathering Dust” who are paralyzed by inaction. Sinclair finds herself in this sisterhood bonded by gall, circumstance, or in the case of her moving tribute to her great-grandmother, “Effie Jane”, by blood.

Letters to Aliens arrives March 4th, and in anticipation of its release, I talked with Sinclair about writer’s block, Cyndi Lauper, and the creative process. The video for her latest single, “Interstate Sailors” features stop-motion animation courtesy of her mom and dad.

Letters to Aliens feels like a journey– you begin with “Dragon Spirit” and conclude with “With Every Goodbye”, which finds you developing strength through a series of goodbyes. Does this record reflect your growth since Barnstormer and the last few years?

I think so. I found a lot of confidence through writing this record. I was going through a personal journey of breaking free of some past stuff and reclaiming my personal power. I think that’s a common thread throughout the record.

A lot has changed in the world since 2018 when you released your last record. How did the upheaval and turmoil affect your creativity?

I definitely went through a writer’s block at the first part of the pandemic. There was a collective grief and sadness, but also a pressure with all of the free time to create something every day or be very productive. I think the pressure of that, compounded by what was going on with the world, made it hard for a while. I had do some personal work– meditation and therapy, time with my dogs, playing pool with my family that I was quarantined with in order to come back to songwriting and grow as a person.

How does a song make its way from your mind to the notebook or to your guitar?

I start out with a lot of different notes of ideas on my phone or voice memos; that’s how the idea begins–that’s the fun part. Then there’s the editing process for me that’s not quite as fun. I think there’s just a moment when you realize the song is done. I’m not sure if there’s any kind of rhyme or reason to it.

I love that your songs go beyond the typical, radio-friendly 3-minute mark. How are you able to brush off those limitations or expectations to produce something tidy?

I think part of it is that this is very much a band-oriented record, whereas my previous record Barnstormer was with session musicians. Wanting to capture that live feel was a big part of this record because I’ve been playing with this lineup of musicians for a while, but we hadn’t gotten to capture it on a recording yet.

Is the full-band approach something you’d like to keep up with down the road?

I definitely would love to. They’re great! They have their own music and a band, so I hope that I’m fortunate enough to get to continue to play music with them.

What about shows for this record. Do you have a tour in the works?

Yeah, we’ve definitely got stuff in the works. We want to get back out there with this record as soon as possible– and safely as possible, as well!

I noticed that you’re a huge Cyndi Lauper fan. How were you introduced to her work?

When I was super little, I would sing along to her At Last record, which is a record of old standards. That’s a weird way to be introduced to her material, but that’s what I knew her for first. There’s just something so special and incredible about that record, her voice, and the songs. It really inspired me and still inspires me.

You’ve mentioned that ’70s groups were a big influence on Letters to Aliens. What artists drew you to that era?

There are quite a few, and I think that there’s a wide range of influences of mine that come up on the record. I definitely think that Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor are definitely influences, as well as random influences, more so, like The Killers and Cyndi Lauper.

Several of the tracks are quite psychedelic in nature, whether it’s the lyrics or production. What’s the story behind the cosmic vibe?

I’m really inspired by cosmic stuff. During the pandemic, I studied ancient astrology, and I think that comes through in the music. I feel a real pull to the cosmic.

How did you find your way to ancient astrology?

It was something I had been reading about for a while. I was able to kind of delve more deeply into that and study throughout the pandemic. It was a cool thing to learn about.

Women’s stories dominate not only this record but also your previous material. How important were female musicians and their stories to you when you were younger?

So many female musicians were what I was raised on– Cyndi, Norah Jones, and Linda Ronstadt. I think that this record is definitely a woman’s record, but hopefully in a way that’s accessible to everybody. But it’s definitely telling women’s stories. I think real women’s stories are super important.

How about a song like “Wounded Healer”?

That one is definitely inspired by women’s empowerment, how women’s voices have been suppressed, or once suppressed, by deeming them witches, and how society in some ways continues to see them as witches in a different way.

Do you feel that you’re a part of that lineage?

I would definitely hope!

What about “Gathering Dust”? You string together these wonderful, sometimes brutal stories. Are these people you know?

I created three different characters that were combinations of things that I’ve personally experienced or things that I’ve witnessed, and I created those characters based on that. I think the last verse comes back to the narrator’s perspective, which is my perspective. It was written during the pandemic, so I feel like some of that feeling of isolation comes into play with this song.

I wanted to ask about that last verse, because the narrator is worried about wasting time. It brought to mind my own anxieties about the pandemic and the “free time” I had… Was I spending that time wisely?

Yeah, definitely, the feeling whether it’s the pandemic or not, just the feeling like the world’s continuing without you.

The song about your great-grandmother, “Effie Jane”, is such a beautiful, beautiful story. You’re bringing her to life for your listeners. How important is history to you?

I think there’s definitely another common thread through this record– ancestry and lineage. This song is really special to me because I got to go write it with my mom about my great-grandmother. I’d heard stories about Effie Jane all my life, but I got to learn even more about her through writing this with my mom.

I’m curious about the tension in “All Alone in Outer Space”. The speaker doesn’t feel on Earth or in space; they’re an observer on the outside looking in. Do you feel that way as a creator?

I’m just kind of a weirdo– or an alien (laughs)– so I think there’s definitely an aspect of trying to maintain an observer’s perspective that can feel like I’m on the outside sometimes because there’s that unspoken promise as a songwriter to maintain that. I think it’s a record for anybody who feels like a weirdo or an alien.

How else are you living between spaces?

There’s an aspect of the travel that goes along with being a musician, the one foot in that, but also the longing to be at home. There’s the isolated feeling that can exist also within that travelling and going at such a such a speed that you run out of momentum a little bit.

What’s your relationship like with your older material, whether it’s Barnstormer or All the Little Pieces? Is there still a connection to it, or do you feel a disconnect, like it’s from a different life? You’ve been playing since you were eleven or so…

I still connect with Barnstormer and the last All the Little Pieces record, The Legend of Lavinia Fisher. I connect with those quite a bit, and I love to play songs from those live. But as far as the older All the Little Pieces stuff, I started the band when I was eleven, so some of those (laughs)… I’ve gotten enough distance from it now where I can appreciate it for what it was and not be embarrassed by it, but I probably wouldn’t add it back into the setlist!

You mentioned suffering from writer’s block, which is a frightening place to find yourself if you’re an artist. How did you overcome it to finish Letters?

I had to take some time to work on myself as a human. Also, I needed to kind of re-evaluate my writing approach a little bit because I was getting to the point where it was too much of me sitting down with a guitar and putting that pressure on myself to make something work. I took a more meditative approach with this record, and it got me back in touch with my voice.

What as the meditative approach like?

Just sitting down and meditating, letting the songs come to me as opposed to seeking them out.

Letters to Aliens is available through all your favorite digital platforms on March 4th! Like & Follow Rhyan Sinclair for news & LIVE performance updates!

Charlie Farmer is a Georgia writer and professor who loves his wife, his daughters, his students, his cats, his books, his LPs, and everything else one should love in life.