MUSIC | Inukshuk Pass's Patti Ryan on "the struggle and redemption in life"

"The poetry of the songs and the display of images speak of common human vignettes, relaying messages of self love, healing, hope, and change. We call ourselves Inukshuk Pass." So writes the group's lead singer and principal songwriter Patti Ryan. "The image for each song comes like wrapping on a gift. In a similar style to Jacob Lawrence, I am moved to portray the everyday life of those coming through emotional discovery."

Ryan means literally. Along with the lyrics for Inukshuk Pass's new album Don't Look Down, she provided a backdrop for the liner notes with panels of her paintings. "Listeners of the music and people taking in the visual art may consider looking deeper to reconnect or heal relationships, their communities or the world at large, by taking steps themselves."

Don't Look Down follows 2009's Chasin' Trains. With several glowing reviews from Twin Cities sources for both recordings, the band evidently has established itself on the scene. The personnel, with Ryan, are Mark Martin (guitar), Paul Weyandt (bass) and Dave DeGennaro (drums). Via e-mail, Patti Ryan answered questions about Inukshuk Pass.

How'd you come by the name for the band?
My genetic roots are on the north shore. My great-grandfather had a logging camp and I've spent oodles of time here. Our guitar player's people are from Canada. While taking a trip around Lake Superior, we kept seeing all of these stacks of rocks. We came to find out that they are Inukshuks—a thousand-year-old Inuit tradition and tool, placed by travelers for others who may follow to indicate a good path or place for sustainable life. We loved it and decided that Inukshuk Pass would be appropriate, although hard to initially pronounce for most, but a great fit because as original artists we definitely use influences of those who have blazed that trail before us and hope to inspire our listeners to go looking for their intended path.

How'd Inukshuk Pass come together?
The bass player and guitar player have been best friends since they were about seven years old. I met the two in high school jazz band in St. Paul—directed and inspired by Felix James, who is now teaching at Walker West and is a friend to this day. I married the bass player, Paul, shortly after high school. We had a cover band that included Mark, the guitar player, for 20 years. We went by the North Enders, Patti Ryan Exposed, the Patti Ryan Band, and the Blue Thunder Band. For five of those years we were joined by our drummer, Dave, who had relocated from Long Island and needed a gig. Once the kids were grown and a bit of my energy and love could be directed to something else, I disbanded the cover band and started to work on original music with the same group, who luckily were all in. I knew that the magic created in the cover band would be tenfold with original music.

It's a unique gift to be able to paint your music, so to speak.
In my eight years as a Head Start teacher and center director, I was required to take continuing education classes. I took an oil painting class in 2008 and fell in love with the process. It makes me feel like I'm swimming underwater, which I love. My husband—bass player Paul—suggested that I do a painting for all of the songs that were coming. And boy, were they coming—woke me from my sleep at times. I had chosen to study Jacob Lawrence in my painting class and it was he who gave me permission to express myself in a folk art kind of way—portraying my deeply-felt current day reality with simple bold color and images. Each painting is like wrapping on a gift for me. I've done 36 panels to date to match the 36 songs I've written to completion.

You have an extensive repertoire, having picked songs from as far back as 2006 for the album. Still a lot left to pick from?
I've written songs since I was a kid. The first song I performed for friends was titled "I Must Be Getting Old"—I was 12 years old. So many of the songs I've written will lay silent or simply be played around the kitchen table. The band has one song left in the vault at Winterland Studio that we haven't used yet, and I have several that I've written in the past two years that haven't been arranged yet. I think we'll use one or two of them, but it's hard to say until the band starts getting together to listen to them and collectively decide which to arrange. I'm hoping we can include one written by Mark Martin—our guitar player on the next album as well. For the many years I've known him as a brilliant and tasteful player, he was never interested in writing. I basically begged him to write for our first and second album, which he did. I really like the feel of his songs and hope he continues.

How pleased are you with the new album?
It feels great. Chasin' Trains, was released in October 2009. We jumped right on to the next album cause the songs were coming and we were all having that full steam ahead feeling. The first was amazing—waiting all my life to connect in a meaningful way with a lifelong passion and all that. By the time Don't Look Down was released, life was in a funny place. Tons of change for each band member. Paul and I had been trying to sell our home of 20 years in St. Paul with no luck. I knew it was time for me to change direction in a big way which included allowing myself to get away from the poverty around me and go into it myself—which I am. We both stopped our day jobs to give art and music a real chance—Paul worked for the Dorothy Day Center for 15 years. We allowed the house to go into foreclosure. We bought an arted-out motor home and headed for the the North Shore, where we spent the summer like a couple of gypsies, selling CDs and prints out of our home and doing duo gigs at diners and coffee shops when the full band wasn't around. We put an ad on Craigslist—Artist Couple Needs Winter Housing—and a woman responded who needed someone to keep her farm up for the winter while she was in Bermuda studying the differences of ocean life and fresh water life. She's a scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers. The animals here are retired movie stars. Very cool place to land. Dave, our drummer, received a huge grant to write songs for a puppet production he's been involved with, so his life got very busy last summer. Mark has been assisting his wife with healing from major back surgery. Just a lot of change. So we're just now kind of coming to place where we all can focus on promoting the album and start thinking of the next.

What's next?
We will spend the winter doing shows in St. Paul and Duluth and surrounding areas. Midwinter we will gather for a few days to explore the new songs I'm currently working on here at the farm: three songs finished and four forming. Most of what I've written is of common human stories—the struggle and redemption in life. Always redemption. I walk around with rose-colored glasses and tend to see the best in people and the best outcome on the horizon. I want desperately for people to feel hope in times of hopelessness and to not ever let possibilities lay at the wayside. I know that not every person comes into the world with the same set of wiring or circumstances and I want to make sure that our songs and my art remain simple and without riddles for people to unmask. Whatever the next album brings will be accessible to all and hopefully, especially, to those who have the most trouble finding what is beautiful in life. This is so important to me. My work with people in poverty included a partnership with a children's mental health facility and I know that some disorders are organic and some environmental; either way, there are millions of people who struggle to become centered and feel like life is good. I'm working on an outline for a grant for a musical seminar of sorts for the chemically dependent, mentally ill and criminally institutionalized. From my own personal and professional experiences, I feel these are the folks who have not yet found who they are intended to be for some reason. Somewhere along the line- they did not receive what they need to make them resilient and whole. The next album may be released in the fall of 2011 if all goes as I think.

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Dwight Hobbes's picture
Dwight Hobbes

Dwight Hobbes (dwight [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.