On June 12, 2012, singer-songwriter Ryan Humbert releases Sometimes The Game Plays You—an analog album for a digital age. It’s a from-the-heart Americana pop album with big, modern hooks steeped in the cherished heritage of great American songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, and Bob Dylan.
Back home in Akron, Ohio, Humbert is respected as much for his music as he is for his non-profit work with local charities. His dedicated fan base contributed over $15,000 to fund his latest album; $5,000 of which was raised through two private parties at fellow Akronite Chrissie Hynde’s apartment.
Humbert’s impressive 150 shows-per-year itinerary has had him opening for such diverse and esteemed artists as Train, Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Elvis Costello, Chris Isaak, Third Eye Blind, Matt Nathanson, Pete Yorn, Foreigner, The Zac Brown Band, Josh Ritter, The Gin Blossoms, and Shelby Lynne. With this finely crafted album of emotionally resonant pop-rock, a local legend is stepping up into an international arena.
There is real-time warmth to Sometimes The Game Plays You, with the sound of Humbert’s limber band digging into songs they helped construct, and songs in which they feel creatively invested in. A faint count-off can be heard before the album opener, “Waiting For The Lightning,” which bursts forth with euphoric power-pop chords, saloon violins, and shimmering guitars. The effect is hopeful but the sentiment is not, like taking someone out for comfort food to break some difficult news. Humbert sings: “The rain came down just like my guard/Thinking you were my good luck charm/But you sold me half of what might have been/For the low, low cost of an arm and a leg.” The nature of hook-filled music with heartfelt writing is the wonderful complementary contrast of Sometimes The Game Plays You.
“Since the last record, Old Souls, New Shoes, a handful of people close to me went through divorces” Humbert explains. “Being a bystander and watching that has resulted in a darker, relationship-oriented thread throughout the album. But I didn’t want the album to end on a negative note. There is a time for sadness but you still need to wake up the next day. Sometimes you conquer the day, and sometimes it conquers you, and that’s okay. It can still end on a positive note.” The album ends with the pairing of “Sometimes The Game Plays You” and “I Will Find My Own Way.” On the title track, Humbert sings with plaintive optimism: “You’re broken down, you’re skipping town/ Hoping you don’t have to say goodbye./ You’re out of breath, you’re scared to death/ You’re ready for a brand new start.”
It’s the final sentiment of an album that dynamically reflects the emotional span of a painful, but ultimately redemptive, time. From the contemporary, country-flavored pop of “Everything” (one of the best songs the Gin Blossoms never wrote) to the delicately bold acoustic romance of “Tattoo,” Sometimes The Game Plays You is a classic and multidimensional album that satisfies many moods.
The aforementioned “Tattoo” is an intimate confessional. With just voice, cello, and guitar, it’s sweet and starkly sincere. Humbert sings: “You, you’re my tattoo/ It’s like you’ve left your mark, Written on my heart/ You, you shine right through/Once I let you in, there’s no going back again.” Says Humbert: “I’ve never had a song as vulnerable as ‘Tattoo.’ When I first started performing it live, I began receiving positive feedback almost immediately. I’ve been playing it for years and didn’t have it on an album. We tried to record it two separate times but had trouble getting the perfect take. We took my original demo, had the cellist play to it and that’s what you hear on the album. That song is just words and guitar. I don’t have many songs like ‘Tattoo.’”
Another album highlight is the requiem for ill-fated love, “Boulevard to Nowhere.” Humbert sings: “It’s the boulevard to nowhere baby, The only place we’re going’s crazy/ Close your eyes and find that maybe/ You were right at home/ It’s the highway to a broken dream/ Where things are never what they seem/ Playing for the losing team, But taking home the gold.” Here, Humbert’s backup vocalist Emily Bates warmly blankets his heartfelt vocals with a comforting melodic richness, perfectly showcasing the duo’s nearly decade-long association and Springsteen/Scialfa style synergy. The track appears on the album as a full-band reading, with a teardrop guitar solo and thundering drums, but it also appears as a revelatory, elegantly spare acoustic bonus track. “I spent a great deal of time on that one,” Humbert reveals. “I kept going back to it, and I knew it could be powerful. In fact, the first time I played it for Emily, she cried.”
Humbert produced the album himself in Nashville with engineer Brian Harrison (Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, Garrison Starr) capturing the warmth of the music live on tape. Humbert’s cohorts included his trusty backup band, along with marquee names like Ken Coomer (Wilco, Steve Earle), John Jackson (Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne), Dave Roe (Johnny Cash, John Mellancamp, Dwight Yoakam) and Audley Freed (Black Crowes, Dixie Chicks, Jimmy Page, Jakob Dylan), among others.
Humbert explains: “We worked fast and furious. We recorded 18 songs in four short days, and six more in another two-day session. There was no time to second guess yourself. When you’re recording to tape, you don’t have the luxury of hitting the ‘undo’ button. If you mess up, you mess up.” The album has a refreshingly organic vibe of musicians in the same room rubbing elbows with one another. “The people who helped me shape these songs were with me on the recording, so it sounded like a group of musicians playing together versus a larger production,” Humbert says. “Having a band that you play with on a regular basis changes the way you write, changes the way you perform, and lends a certain sound.” The album was mixed by Chad Carlson (Taylor Swift, Chris Isaak, Trisha Yearwood, Jewel), who brought out the bold dynamics and delicate shadings of the recording. Humbert has three leftover tunes from the sessions that he plans to release as the Tender Loving Country Gold EP.
“When I was young, I never knew I would end up being a singer or songwriter,” Humbert says. He would often peruse his father’s extensive CD collection, test-spinning albums by Waylon Jennings, Bob Seger, and Neil Young. “I didn’t find my niche though until I listened to Americana artists like Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, and Lucinda Williams,” Humbert says. “That’s the music that truly inspired me, but still I listen to everything from George Jones to Arcade Fire. I’m just drawn to hooks. I’ve bought records by The Clash and Patsy Cline at the same time.”
Humbert attended the Pittsburgh Art Institute and graduated with a graphic arts degree. He worked in promotions for the National Gallery of American’s Young Inventors and was the Development Director for the Akron Triple-A radio station 91.3 The Summit FM, where he created the station’s logo and helped boost membership numbers. In addition, he has also produced for many local artists, the most notable being singer Tracey Thomas, onetime singer of the Akron ‘80s new wave sensation Unit 5. Humbert’s savvy marketing approach, his networking skills, and his sincere commitment to his charity work have bolstered his music profile in an honest, fluid, and very natural way.
“I think there are a lot of really talented musicians with a very precious mindset about marketing—and that’s okay—they still make fantastic music. I worked in marketing, development and design at a Triple A radio station for nearly 5 years,” he says. “I learned what worked well for bands and how you can put a spin on those things to get people’s attention. I enjoy the marketing and the hustle just as much as I enjoy being onstage.”
With Sometimes The Game Plays You, Ryan Humbert is poised to hit it big in the major league, making fast fans with his heartfelt emotion, high energy and infectious hooks.