Stacey Ryan: “It’s kind of crazy to start my career in this new age”

The self-proclaimed "queen of jazztok" on connecting with her fans and learning to be alone

If you’re on TikTok, you’ve met Stacey Ryan. The 22-year-old singer-songwriter has had a couple of viral moments on the app, her most memorable being an open verse challenge for a song she hadn’t even released. The video, which features Ryan singing a brief intro before handing the floor to her invisible partner, has been viewed over 17 million times, inspiring thousands of duets.

Since then, Ryan has released the track for real, put out a debut EP, I Don’t Know What Love Is, and toured with Joshua Bassett. She was embraced by Bassett’s fans to a degree that blew her away. “I remember at some of the shows,” she says, “they would be chanting my name before I came out on stage. As an opener, that doesn’t really ever happen”.

Now Ryan is preparing to head to the UK for her own headline show at Colours Hoxton on July 5. We caught up with her ahead of her arrival to talk about her career so far and what it’s like to be a young artist finding an audience on TikTok.

Stacey Ryan - Fall In Love Alone (Live On The Late Late Show With James Corden / 2023)

A lot of your audience first discovered you through an open verse challenge you did on TikTok for your song ‘Don’t Text Me When You’re Drunk.’ Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about?

So that was definitely my first really big moment on TikTok. I remember I was in school, and I had the whole situation of a guy sending me drunk texts and then regretting it the next day. I didn’t’ like the way it felt, so I wrote a song about it. I was at school, I was in a practice cubicle, and that’s where I wrote the first part of ‘Don’t Text Me When You’re Drunk,’. I posted it to TikTok, like, right away. I remember it doing pretty well for an original song of mine – I think it got 100,000 views, which I had never gotten on an original before – but then people like Meghan Trainor started commenting on it. That’s when we decided to do the open verse.

I was kind of hesitant because the song wasn’t ready to be released, so we kind of went into overdrive. We just saw the sheer number of people who were so excited and so looking forward to being able to listen and stream the song. I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t know if this will ever happen again in my whole life”. That feeling of refreshing your TikTok notifications and seeing the number going down to zero and then climbing all the way back up to 99 in 10 seconds. It was so crazy to see. And just to think that many people were seeing my face and hearing my song and sharing and creating alongside it was just so amazing. My career couldn’t have started in a better way.

Yours was the first open verse challenge I remember going properly viral on TikTok.

Yeah, there were so many amazing people who contributed to my song. And the whole duet idea was not even on our radar. I was going to put out the song by myself, but then Zai1k did a version that was so amazing, and people were so excited about it… There were thousands comments from people wanting to hear the full song with Zai1k. So it was kind of a no brainer. I felt like he brought this really amazing hip hop/rap touch to a jazzy pop song. I think they really lent to each other really well. I think that’s why the collab did as well as it did because we were kind of joining two musical worlds together.

How long had you been working on music before that point?

I’ve been doing music essentially my whole life. I remember my parents telling me, “You’ve been making up songs and singing since you were literally born”. My dad plays piano. So every time I would be around the piano when I was younger, I’d always want to play on it. And then I took lessons for years. In high school, I was in an intensive music program where I learned music theory and stuff like that. I also played the trumpet. And then when I went on to college, I chose jazz as my major. I really dove into the world of jazz, but also into the surrounding styles and theory and knowledge behind it.

Still to this day, I’m shocked that it happened the way it did. I finished my semester from school, and I told my parents, “I want to take off from school and try to do the music thing, see what happens…”. I had just started working with management and producers at this point, so it was something that seemed doable. I finished my semester on December 15. Exactly two weeks later, the open verse came out and changed everything.

Stacey Ryan, ZAI1K - Don't Text Me When You're Drunk

Why was jazz the genre that you gravitated towards?

I’ve always just had a deep passion for music as a whole. That includes all styles of music. But when I went to school for jazz, it really just gave me a deeper knowledge of music as a whole. Learning the roots gave me a deeper connection. Pop came from jazz – I feel like we owe a lot to it. And a lot of people don’t know that. That’s the really beautiful thing about jazz: there are endless possibilities. It’s hard to do the same thing all the time because there’re so many combinations and different notes and chords. I think there’s so much beauty in that.

At what point in that really early stage of your career did you decide you needed to be on TikTok?

I started posting on TikTok just for fun, just because I enjoyed it. This was in quarantine. And I was trying to make better quality videos. I remember talking to my manager for the first time in the summer, and then we met in October of 2021. The year before ‘Don’t Text Me When You’re Drunk’ came out our strategy was just to tease some songs. And I had already been teasing those songs a little bit on TikTok. I didn’t really have a team, I didn’t have a label yet. So I was just kind of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck.

TikTok brought me so many opportunities – it got me signed to a label. And everything else happened because of that.

Stacey Ryan - Deep End (Official Music Video)

There’s been quite a conversation around TikTok being a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s an amazing platform for artists to get their start, but it also feels like you can’t not be on there. Do you feel like that?

Definitely, yeah. I’ve had a lot of tribulations. I obviously owe TikTok a lot, but as a platform, it’s constantly changing. The algorithm is always changing. TikTok yesterday is not the same TikTok as it is today. Videos that maybe did super well in the past don’t do well anymore. People’s preferences are changing, and trends are always constantly changing. I see a lot of amazing musicians, friends and artists who are having so much luck on TikTok. But then for others it’s been really tough. I’ve been traveling a lot recently and it hasn’t been easy. Traveling and putting out content at the same time is a very difficult thing when you have to juggle both at once.

TikTok rewards consistency. If you’re posting once a day, that’s better for the algorithm. If you post a video and it does well, you feel amazing – but the next minute you can post something you worked really hard on and no one sees it. It’s easy to get stuck in that mindset. Like, “if I’m not doing well on TikTok then I’m not doing well as an artist…” If you go viral on TikTok, that’s what everyone wants. If you’ve been there before, and you’ve had the viral moment or two, you’ve felt that feeling. And then when it stops, it’s hard.

It’s such an interesting time to be a new artist.

Oh, yeah, definitely. The internet has never been so involved in people’s careers until literally these past two years. It’s kind of crazy to start my career in this new age. There’re pros and cons. Getting discovered on TikTok, I didn’t even have to leave my bedroom, which is awesome. But then if you don’t pop off on TikTok, the odds of you getting signed are lower.

Your EP came out just a couple of months ago. Where did the title I Don’t Know What Love Is come from?

Actually my friend came up with it. We were driving in the car with her parents, and we were talking about my EP and how we were choosing the songs. We were trying to come up with names. I didn’t really have any ideas yet, and she was like, “What about I Don’t Know What Love Is?” And I remember when she said that I liked the way that it sounded, but I didn’t know how it correlated to the songs yet. When I sat down and thought about it a little more, it actually made a lot of sense. The songs are all about different kinds of relationships, whether it be one-sided love, or like some friends with benefits action, or not wanting to get involved. It’s about so many different parts of relationships and love, but it’s not about that feeling of, “I finally am in love, and it’s easy, and it’s going so well.” It’s kind of all the sides of love that are not that. So that’s why at the end of the EP I’m like, “I don’t know what love is,” because after navigating all these different emotions and relationships, I still haven’t found that one big love.

Stacey Ryan - Over Tonight (Live In The Studio, Los Angeles)

It sounds like that conclusion sort of revealed itself to you as you went.

I think the way the EP came together is kind of funny because we wrote all the songs in the span of a month, and we had like 20 songs. Some of them were experiences that I was having in the moment. Some of them were experiences that I had lived previously, and we went back and found those emotions and wrote a song. But some of them we just kind of wrote a story essentially, and it didn’t have anything to do with me or the writer. But when we were going in picking out the songs for the EP, we just chose our favourites. But I feel like those songs were chosen for a reason, even though we might not have known it.

You’ve been teasing a new song recently which is about feeling alright with being alone. Where did that concept come from?

‘Fall In Love Alone’ is my big song, and that’s about not wanting to be alone. But personally, I have struggled a lot in the last year with coming to terms with not being in a relationship. It may sound silly, but it’s hard to be alone sometimes. I remember that day that we wrote the song – I had just ended a situation-ship sort of thing. It felt good to be out of that, not because it was bad by any means, but it was just not what I was really feeling in the moment. Over the past couple of months I’ve been living my life and having an amazing career, so I kind of haven’t had time to even think about a relationship. In the song that we’re teasing, it says I won’t push it away if it happens, but I’m also not in a hurry for it, which I think is a really cool sentiment to have. Because it takes a lot of time to get there – at least for me it did. I think it shows growth. I love that for me.

It’s nice for fans to be able to see that personal growth through your music.

Exactly, and I think it’s great, because someone literally said, “Why is every song that she puts out always describing my life?”. I think that’s just because we’re all humans and we’re all living through these exact same experiences. If we can reach other people and share that we all go through the same things, and all have the same feelings, it’s important – because you have to show you’re just human. And I think that’s what made ‘Fall In Love Alone’ so universally relatable, because we literally all have been there so many times. On the new song, the sentiment is different, but it’s the same kind of thing where we’ve all been there. If someone can have a voice and can be the one to say, “Hey, sometimes it’s good to be alone,” I feel like people may start believing that.

@staceyryanmusic kind of ironic that i also wrote fall in love alone but hey #goodtobealone ♬ original sound – Stacey Ryan

Who are the artists that validate you like that?

There are so many artists that I look up to that are just so amazing, that if I could collab with them, my life could end, and I would be happy. I like different artists for different reasons, because some of them like Yebba and Tori Kelly and Lawrence, not only are their songs amazing and also relatable, but their musicianship is incredible, and that’s what draws me to them. But then also people like Lizzie McAlpine and Laufey, who are TikTok friends of mine, who also just have the most amazing songwriting skills and really know how to dig out every single emotion from a lyric, which I think is such a special talent.

There are so many people that I’m like, damn, I wish I could write like that. I wish I could say things the way they do. But then also there’s people probably thinking that about me, about songs I write. I love that because I get to appreciate other artists and also still want to better myself, being inspired by my friends, which I think is one of the greatest ways to push yourself or try something new because of how inspired you are by other people.

It seems like all the young artists that are coming up on TikTok are so supportive of each other. It feels like a really friendly space.

Oh, it definitely is. There are so many people that I’ve met through TikTok who I’ve then met in real life and it felt like we had already known each other for some time. There are so many people on TikTok but when you find your core group of people, you really thrive. Especially when you can meet in person. Put your heads together, you know. If it’s a collab, or you’re writing together, or you’re just making content. It’s super interesting to bridge the gap between only having known each other online and then like meeting IRL.

What’s your biggest goal for your career in the future?

I mean, there’re so many. I really want to play Madison Square Garden and like, sell it out. But that’s my super far beyond dream, like super giant maybe-will-never-happen dream, which I would be fine with… well, maybe I wouldn’t be fine with it! But something maybe more in reach is just, like, putting out a debut album, which we’re on the way to doing. I’m so excited to see what that is gonna bring for me because I feel like the debut album – it’s the beginning. Which is so fun to feel that I haven’t even really started yet, you know?

Stacey Ryan will play Colours Hoxton on Wednesday 5 July. Find tickets here.