Navigating sound wave jealousy with Natural Sway

'Buried & Hissing,' the new album from Ryan J. Eilbeck's ever-evolving project, continues the Columbus songwriter's joy-filled relationship with home recording and sound exploration

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Ryan J. Eilbeck of Natural Sway

In recent years, Natural Sway has become the creative repository for Columbus musician Ryan J. Eilbeck’s endless fascination with sound.

“I'm so jealous of sound waves,” Eilbeck said recently by phone. “They're themselves all the time. And when they're obstructed, they are still themselves. They just kind of work around it in a new pattern. Sometimes they even go right through.”

Often, it’s the discovery of new sounds that excites Eilbeck the most and kickstarts a home recording session. Those surprising sonic moments might come from a Casio keyboard, or they could come from the garbage, like a cassette titled Learn to Sing Harmony: Part II that Eilbeck found in a pile of free tapes headed for the trash outside of Used Kids Records, where he used to work.

“I sat and listened to the whole thing,” said Eilbeck, who zeroed in on a moment when the two vocal instructors have an awkward interaction. “That snippet is so hilarious to me. I was like, oh, man, they’re mad at each other.”

Eilbeck used the audio fragment to preface “When She Leaves,” a track on the new Natural Sway album Buried & Hissing, out on Wednesday, Feb. 16. “People ask me if I watch Netflix shows or whatever, and honestly it sounds like I live under a rock because usually I'm listening to stuff like I just described,” Eilbeck said. “I just listened to a 40-minute jazz record of a woman whistling — like, bird-whistling jazz standards. I'm just sitting there with my headphones on reading the liner notes, like, Oh, my God. This exists? I am happy I'm on this planet.”

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That’s the feeling Eilbeck is constantly chasing when he listens to music, though it rarely happens with highly produced releases. “When I listen to popular music on the radio, a lot of times I don't feel much. You can't really pick out a guitar. It’s like, well, that's the idea of a guitar. That's the idea of a kick drum. But when I home record, these things just become so alive,” he said. “In the sounds, I'd like to invite people towards my music, but also I'd like to invite them towards their relationship with themselves — to make them think, ‘What do I really respond to and like?’ We live in a time where you're just smashing hearts and smashing thumbs to say, ‘Oh, yeah. That's for me.’ But I want people to be like, ‘Is it?’ I want the listener to think deeply and personally about the sonic world that you respond to and why you respond to it.”

Ryan J. Eilbeck of Natural Sway

Buried & Hissing has plenty of disparate sounds from which to pick. A collage-like album, it reminds Eilbeck of his time at Used Kids, when everything from jazz and country to reggae and hip-hop made its way onto the platter, soundtracking his days with music of every style and era.

Eilbeck begins the album talking about sound, naturally, noting (and cursing) a neighbor’s lawnmower as he tries to record the song, titled “AC,” which also begins with commentary on listening. “I hear someone’s air conditioner/And when it goes off track, it sounds like dueling swords,” Eilbeck sings over fingerpicked electric guitar, light drums and bass.

Initially, Eilbeck recorded “AC” in a basement shower stall with one mic, intending it as a demo. “Then I came upstairs a week later and tried to track it out real pro, but the first take just sounded so much better because I was feeling it. So, I just left it. … Maybe at some moments what I do sounds a little bit unprofessional, but at the same time, that texture, that feeling” is what he’s going for, Eilbeck said, like on the song “EXP,” a short drone track with shifting, minimalist tones. “It's the texture of the analog keyboard that I was sitting with and listening to. I was like, ‘Wow, I feel like something's happening to me physically, just making this and listening back to it.’”

Contrast that with “Take My Heart,” a tender, fairly straightforward love song and the most inviting track on Buried & Hissing, which Eilbeck wrote for his brother (and Delay bandmate) Austin in honor of his marriage.

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“I was meditating on what I really admired about their relationship, and it was their ability to be honest with each other and show up for each other, but also award a healthy amount of autonomy to each other. It made it really easy to sing to that idea of love,” said Eilbeck, who also took inspiration from his dad, a longtime musician and songwriter. “A lot of the things that lead him to write are big life events. So, if one is coming up, he's going to put together a little CD or cassette tape of his songs, and he's going to make some other family members, friends and neighbors sing some songs, as well. And his buddy Tom … is going to put a nice print on the CD that's kind of clip art-esque. And it's coming in the mail.”

Eilbeck’s strong family bonds made the album’s most personal song, “Vasectomy Haiku,” even more difficult. “My family is so loving and just exemplary of why you might want to procreate,” said Eilbeck, who wrote the oddly haunting tune while recovering from his own vasectomy, ice pack in hand. “But for my personal walk and experience, it has not been a door that I've felt driven to go towards. So that was hard and emotional to announce to myself and step towards. … I wrote it real quick, and I made myself laugh, but I comforted myself, too. It was kind of like my inner voice in my head talking to myself about it all.”

While the decision was difficult and intensely personal, Eilbeck didn’t want to shy away from recording a song about it and putting the music out into the world. “Part of the reason why I want to make art is because I'm like, hey, this is me,” he said. “Those moments that are a little different than what's traditional — those are some of the ones I want to share the most, as hard and emotional as it can be.”

Eilbeck also made a tape loop of a bugle call that runs through parts of “Vasectomy Haiku,” a reference to his dad’s days playing with a bugle group in the Army. And the song’s digital tones come from a MIDI keyboard that used to belong to his dad’s cousin, who died from HIV-related illness at a young age.

The song means something to Eilbeck. All these Natural Sway songs, along with the spaces and the circumstances in which they were made, are sacred. They’re imperfect, full of experimentation and first takes and warbled notes about Burger King and diatribes about lawn mowers, but they’re not tossed-off or undercooked. They’re Eilbeck’s attempts to inhabit a place of discovery, to channel the feeling of a sound wave doing exactly what it was meant to do.

“[Home recording] is something that's so special and personal to me. Sometimes it sounds almost too personal, you know? Like, is this too raw? I almost feel guilty asking people to listen to it,” Eilbeck said. “But then, also, when you get people that respond to it, and they're like, oh, that was fun. That took me away. That transported me. That excited me. I could literally feel it... then I'm pretty jazzed.”