Meet Ryan Koriya, the flying multi-instrumentalist from Zimbabwe

London-based rocker Ryan Koriya will be playing Zambezi Fest in Northampton this weekend. We talk to him about his passion for flying, his new EP and being Zimbabwe’s answer to Seal…

Camden Rocks (Medium)Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Ryan Koriya’s animated spirit was as evident in our interview as during his recent performance at Camden Rocks. His unbridled energy raised the roof; even more laidback songs were tinged with an undercurrent of excitement, with a soothing sound echoing that of Ben Howard or John Mayer.

I caught up with him before the show:

How did you end up with your current band?

I always find with being a musician it’s hard to find other musicians. Especially ones on the same wavelength as you or those who want to get involved with what you’re doing. I’m a singer-songwriter; like John Mayer or Sting, and when you see those guys at a gig they have people playing with them. I essentially needed a backing band and got in touch with a London college where people study music and asked if they could find out if anyone was interested in auditioning. I auditioned these guys in December when I got back from finishing my EP, London’s Burning. It’s a funny story because they actually come as a package – they’re three guys from Sweden, drums (Linus), bass (Lukas) and guitar (Andreas), and also play together as a trio.. And in a way they were looking for a lead singer, so it all kind of works out.

How would you describe your music to somebody who has never heard it before?

My music is like something you prepare, like food. Because I think of music like soul food. I want it to make people feel warm, but also keep them a little hungry. My music is about trying to inspire people. I’m a guy who went, ‘Okay, I want to be a musician, it’s one of the most difficult things to try and do and most people advise against it but I’m just going to be myself’. As a musician I make music that is both relaxing and empowering. ‘Dark Days’ is a good example; the song is driving but its also chilled. It has a relaxing effect but also a momentum. I really want people to see my EP as half an hour of music that after you’ve finished listening to you’re going to see the world in a brighter shade.

You did a wonderful cover of Bon Iver’s ‘Flume’ for your cover series – which artist would you like to cover most?

You’ve hit it on the nail – Bon Iver is my hero in a musical sense. Not just the way he writes songs but his voice is gorgeous. I saw him live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and he opened his mouth and I melted. I sound like a gushing groupie but I’m very specific about voices. Bon Iver’s voice is just amazing so I cover him a lot. In Australia I was busking on a street corner in Byron Bay and I started playing Bon Iver’s ‘Skinny Love’. Guys from the pub across the street came running over like ‘Mate, we heard Bon Iver, we had to come!’ It was cool because Bon Iver is indie, you know? He’s not a pop musician but I can travel to Australia and people still know who he is. It was encouraging for me to go ‘Hey, if I keep going I may be just as lucky one day’. I also love covering Coldplay and Damien Rice. David Gray has an amazing set of songs from the White Ladder album I cover a lot. Snow Patrol, Sting… there’s quite a few! I love doing Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ and a bit of Oasis. I sometimes cover Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ which can be interesting!

Who would be your dream person to duet with?

Again so many! Bon Iver  because I’m really inspired by his production – it’s the way he records his music. The sounds he gets and the arrangements – I would love to be in a room with him and knock out something amazing. It would be fun to do something with John Mayer and as for females, Sade would be cool. The big time for me would be Seal – he’s one of the reasons I do music. I would be like ‘Dude, it’s on. You name the place and time!’

You play guitar, bass, violin and cello – what’s your favourite?

Guitar, because it was the doorway to song writing for me. I grew up playing classical music, so violin and cello in orchestras and quartets are very specific in melodic use. I picked up the guitar when I was 20 and it changed my world because I thought ‘Woah, I’m playing an instrument where I can think in chords!’ It’s my favourite when it comes to singing. In terms of playing? The cello. It’s one of the most beautiful instruments, the tone is amazing. My ideal combo is guitar, cello and vocal. I might actually do something like that in my next project. A very Damien Rice approach.

Did you always know you were going to be a musician?

It kind of sneaked up on me. If you asked any family member, from when I was three I was always going to be a pilot. And then I left school and the economy was bad so university was out of the question and flying was expensive. So I sort of fell back on music. From the age of eight I sang in choirs and when I was 13 I started cello and violin. I realised music was something I always loved, it was my passion and so was flying. I remember being very young and listening to my parents’ Michael Jackson vinyls, so yeah, music has definitely always been a part of me.

If you weren’t a musician what would you have been?

Definitely a pilot and I still will. When I have money to burn, literally in the form of fuel, I will definitely get a flying licence. I love flying and travelling the world. I did a 26-hour flight to Australia and was like ‘Not a problem!’ People say ‘Oh my gosh, it’s difficult!’ but I love it! I also miss acting. I did it all the way through school.

Do you ever get distracted on stage?

Oh yeah. The band will attest to that. I’m terrible. I’m very scatty and I’m always thinking. If something doesn’t go as planned I get distracted easily. In a professional sense, when something goes wrong you just keep going, but I remember one time the drummer came in when he wasn’t supposed to and I was like ‘What the heck!’ and forgot the words and had to make them up! That’s why I love music – its spontaneous. Anything can happen! Sometimes I make just make up words to songs to see if people notice – sometimes they do, most of the time they don’t!

Do you prefer performing in more intimate or larger venues?

Both, totally. I’m a man of variety which explains why I’m always on the move. I love playing in London but then I don’t want to stay too long. Last week I was in Barcelona where they had these small rooms where you’d play to a dozen people but there’s this amazing energy in there, you know? I love intimacy. I’ve had amazing experiences in a friend’s kitchen in Edinburgh and playing to two other people! But I also aspire to bigger venues. Today I was online watching Arcade Fire a few years ago playing at Reading Festival and going ‘Oh! That is my job! That’s me!’ I would love to play something that big. A festival stage feels like I’m in the kitchen and the guitarist is in the bathroom. It means I can run around and headbang by the drum kit and then go sing to the crowd.

What’s your favourite country to perform in?

That’s a difficult one. I just played Australia for the first time and really enjoyed that because there seems to be a love for live music. One Sunday night I ended up being shut down by the cops at 1am, when my busking sort of turned into a street party! I had no idea it was that late because it was so much fun. England’s also good because of the industry here. There are so many great venues. But when you’re in a place with nice weather like Zimbabwe, its such a natural thing. There’s a friendly nature about it. In England we are known for being reserved. You have to work harder for it. I guess it’s a challenge to make them shake their booty!

Where do you draw inspiration?

For me every song begins with a feeling and I follow through with that. A lot has to do with my own experiences. Songs like ‘Dark Days’ came from growing up in a sunny country and struggling with winter. I wasn’t used to having darkness come so early and I got quite depressed about it. But the song is actually very positive. It’s sort of like ‘Okay, you’ll be fine. Winter comes but it goes’. It was also about someone I knew who was in a bad relationship and finally left it so those dark days were over. So yeah, its normally very personal. It’s not often I look at things from an outside perspective.

What’s an unforgettable touring memory?

This is a random one. I was playing in Putney and a friend was at the front. I have this thing I do in a certain song when I’m playing bass, where after the last chorus I don’t need my pick any more so I throw it into the crowd. And this friend would always pick it up or catch it. So that night I saw her and aimed for her chest, hoping to get it into her top. After the show she said she couldn’t find it anywhere. Then at 2am I got a text from her saying she had found it at the bottom of her bra. It was definitely a good throw!

The London’s Burning EP is out now on iTunes and Amazon. There are two free songs to download from

Ryan will be playing Zambezi Fest in Northampton this weekend.

By Yomi Adegoke.

(Photo by Gauri Chauhan)