In the early 2000s, JoJo was blowing her contemporaries out of the water with “Too Little Too Late” and “Leave (Get Out).” In the early 2010s, the world met Ariana Grande. Now, the Quebec, Canada-born Stacey Ryan is bringing soul, intricate musicality, and untouchable vocal chops back to the forefront. Ryan, whose new EP, I Don’t Know What Love Is, is out today, has made major career moves with tracks like “Over Tonight” and the Tik Tok hit “Fall In Love Alone,” the latter of which she impeccably performed on “The Late Late Show with James Corden” back in January. The performance was a stellar showcase of Ryan’s vocal and instrumental chops, stage presence, and connection with her bandmates, exposing Ryan as the technician she is to a larger audience.
Ryan’s vocal abilities have garnered comparisons to that of Tori Kelly, Lawrence lead singer Gracie, and Hiatus Kaiyote frontwoman Nai Palm. In an era of music dominated by more intimate yet sophisticated vocalists such as Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo, a handful of modern Christina Aguilera-types are a breath of fresh air.
To hone her abilities, Ryan studied vocal jazz performance, among other areas of music, as a student of one of Canada’s pre-university programs (equivalent to an associates degree program in the US) and went on to continue her studies at the University level but dropped out halfway through to pursue music full-time. Despite her decision not to see her studies through to the end, she uses what she learned in her contemporary career. “It has a lot of influence on the music I make now, all my training,” she said. “I’m constantly thinking about jazz all the time because it has just been drilled into my brain. But, I very much enjoy the theory part of it, and having all of those cool moments in my more pop music.”
I Don’t Know What Love Is
She translates that training well into her new EP, which includes both “Over Tonight” and “Fall In Love Alone.” “Over Tonight,” co-written by pop guru Leland, is full-on belters dream with expert-level high-mixed register runs, concisely written lyrics, and tricky vocal cadences; “Tell me something that changes how I compartmentalize how you lay in my mind/Wondering how do you look in the daylight/Instead of dreaming about you, maybe you could stay over tonight.” “I always say that ‘Over Tonight’ is my favorite song I’ve ever been a part of,” said Ryan. “Writing it, coming up with the music, recording it… I just think it’s such an intricate song, but it’s also just pleasing to listen to and a cool vibe.”
Other tracks on the EP include the Meghan Trainor-like closer “Somebody Good,” the midtempo big-band influenced “Bad For Me,” and Tik Tok runaway “Fall In Love Alone.” However, the seeds for the success of “Fall In Love Alone” on the popular platform were planted with the early 2022 single “Don’t Text Me When You’re Drunk,” an old-school male/female back-and-forth R&B-inspired collaboration with friend ZAI1K.
An open verse challenge on Tik Tok, inspired by content creator Sadie Jean’s similar concept, pushed what was, at the time, an unfinished solo track to completion but with the addition of ZAI1K’s smooth vocals perfectly counteracting Ryan’s vocal acrobatics. The song began blowing up from the open verse challenges, and, once the decision was made to include ZAI on the song officially, quick action was needed to get it out in a timely fashion. “ZAI’s verse wasn’t even fully written because he had only done about three-quarters of it on his actual Tik Tok video,” she said. “It was going to take a lot of work, but we were like, ‘Let’s just do it.’”
Similar to Charlie Puth’s “Light Switch,” a song Puth had teased on Tik Tok for months in its developmental stages, “Don’t Text Me…,” may have suffered from its pre-release overexposure. “People did have a bit of what I call ‘Tik Tik demo-itis,’” joked Ryan. “They grew to love the Tik Tok version, so when the actual song came out, that sounded actually like… good, and well-produced and stuff, they were like, ‘Oh, I like the other one better’.”
The same cannot be said for “Fall In Love Alone,” which has turned into another Tik Tok darling. The track epitomizes Ryan’s pop-jazz crossover, using striking, eyebrow-raising piano chords and out-of-pocket vocal movements to deviate from the traditional pop song, but maintaining pop sensibilities structurally and melodically. Early on, Sophia Wylie, best known for her portrayal of Gina on the Disney+ show “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” shared a Tik Tok video lip-syncing to the song, and then others began to jump on the trend. They’d use filters with captions such as “What is my crush thinking about right now??” or with using the lyric, “If we never try, how will we know?”
Ryan says that almost all of the songs from the EP were written around the same time, in early 2022, and follow a thematic throughline. “We realized that a lot of these songs kind of had a cohesive message,” she said. “They’re all about some type of relationship or love. ‘Fall in Love Alone’ is about unrequited love… hoping for something you don’t really know about. ‘Over Tonight’ is about two friends who are kind of hooking up, but they actually want to be more… they just don’t want to talk about their feelings. ‘Deep End’ is about kind of doing your own thing. All of these different facets of what love or a relationship could look like.”
A force to be reckoned with, Ryan aims to be contemporary while still showing love for the genre she loves most. “When I’m singing pop music, jazz is always in the back of my mind,” she said, reiterating a previous statement. “It’s always there. I’m always thinking of theory, chords, and colors. It kind of never goes away. I’ve definitely blended the two schools of thought in my own brain.”
You can stream I Don’t Know What Love Is on Spotify: