Personal meets political on new Mery Steel EP 'Dreams'

Joel Oliphint
Ryan Stolte-Sawa of Mery Steel

“I spend a lot of time thinking about capitalism and justice and how those two things are diametrically opposed,” said Mery Steel singer/guitarist Ryan Stolte-Sawa. “If you have capitalism, you have people being exploited. And our devotion to capitalism has also brought the planet to the brink of its existence. That’s a really difficult thing to grapple with.”

About a year ago, while wrestling with these issues, Stolte-Sawa channeled her frustrations into a song, “This is How We Live,” the third track on new Mery Steel EP Dreams, which arrives on Friday, June 26. “The house and the car/Summer, spring and fall/The kids in the yard/Yeah, we want it all,” Stolte-Sawa sings over a crystalline, simply strummed electric guitar before the rest of the Band to Watch joins her for the chorus.

“When you start to think about, ‘How can I change my life? How do I orient myself to these bigger social and environmental and societal issues?’ a lot of people are like, ‘Well, I'm just trying to live my life. I'm just doing what I know. I'm just trying to be happy,’” Stolte-Sawa said. “I think that's a big obstacle to a lot of folks thinking about this stuff. … Actions that seem so small and mundane and insignificant are implicated in these bigger systems of oppression and destruction and exploitation.”

If a meditation on the ways in which the creature comforts of white America are hurdles to change feels particularly prescient given the ongoing protests in the streets, Stolte-Sawa is not surprised about the relevance. “The interesting thing about what's going on right now is that it's never not been going on in either of our lifetimes or our parents’ lifetimes. It goes all the way back to the start of America and beyond,” Stolte-Sawa said. “I wrote this song over a year ago, but it makes sense that those themes are in there because those themes are the underpinning of the day-to-day lives that we all more or less blissfully lead.”

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The two other songs on Dreams came about during lockdown, and rather than waiting for the pandemic to completely recede from view to collaborate, Stolte-Sawa and her Mery Steel bandmates decided to record their parts for the songs separately in their homes, then enlisted the help of engineer/producers Tony Rice and Glenn Davis to tie it all together. “It was a much slower process than if we'd all been in a studio together. But I think removing the pressure of being observed and having a clock running helped us get better takes,” Stolte-Sawa said. “It's always easier to achieve what you're trying to do if you're not under the pressure of being observed.”

The result is a polished recording that builds off of the deserved buzz from Mery Steel’s Live at Brother’s Drake album released in March. Going through Mery Steel's recent recordings, it’s truly hard to believe Stolte-Sawa has only been writing songs for a couple of years.

While Dreams track “This is How We Live” finds the personal butting up against the political, leadoff song “Apologize Already,” an Americana-inflected indie-pop tune coated in unspoken pedal steel laments, implores a former lover to say the two words she never heard them say: I’m sorry.

“Back before I even had a band, I had a friend of mine make Mery Steel-branded shirts that say, ‘Apologize Already.’ I was pretty sure that the first release I was going to put out would be called Apologize Already. ... The songs that I started writing for Mery Steel were inspired by and fueled by the intense feelings that I still had left over from that relationship,” she said. “It's also a little bit about how that person called me six months after we broke up to ask me to absolve them. They wanted me to say that it wasn't all their fault, and I didn't want to do that. And so I said no. I would be happy to have that conversation with that person. But they owe me an apology.”

Normally, Mery Steel would play a release show for Dreams, but the pandemic is quashing those plans. Besides, Stolte-Sawa isn’t keen to exert a big promotional push for the EP during this time of social unrest. “Is now the time to be adding noise when so much of what people are consuming right now is rightfully on protests and on social reform? I worry, as a person who cares about my community, about taking attention away from that,” she said. “That influenced my decision to just put this music out and let people listen to it on their own time and enjoy it on their own time, whenever they need it.”