UNI alum reflects on graduation in song



UNI alum Clayton Ryan will release a music video for his song “Prairie Fire” on Friday, Jan. 31, with the full album dropping at the end of March


Clayton Ryan first picked up a guitar when he was four years old. At the time, his mother was learning the guitar as well, and it’s something he has enjoyed doing ever since. After attending UNI to learn more about music, Ryan is now trying to figure out what capacity it will have in his life.

In his new song “Prairie Fire” releasing this Friday, Jan. 31, Ryan explores the variety of emotions he experienced as he graduated from UNI. This song from his upcoming album, which will be released in full on Friday, March 27 at the Octopus, serves as a goodbye to his friends in the Cedar Valley as he’s gone on to pursue his music career. Ryan said his emotions culminated into two separate themes for the song.

“The two themes are about saying goodbye to people in pursuit of the life you want,” he said. “Everything makes sense and it’s comfortable at college; to leave that behind is difficult. It’s saying goodbye to people for self-improvement. You don’t realize how much of an impact you have made on other people. I was grateful for the time that I’ve had with other people. There are people that I won’t see again and I know why, while some of them I don’t know why. It’s about facing people in your life for a short time. The song was me coming to grips with how rapidly the change was going on.”

Ryan described the song as one where he sat down at the guitar and it just came out. While some of his songs have taken a session of serious thought to convey his message, he finds that this can subtract from their authenticity.

To express his messages in video form, Ryan worked with UNI graduates Aaron Van Maanen and Neal Johnson of Good Era Film. He called them to see if they had time before he left Iowa, and they filmed the recording in the jazz studio at UNI. There were two warm-up takes and in the third one he felt an outpouring of emotions.

Throughout his musical career, Ryan has been drawn to a variety of genres. Despite being called a country artist, he feels as if genres such as indie-folk have also influenced him.

“I’ve always been a fan of folk and blues music,” he said. “When I was a kid, I jammed on my guitar. In school I studied classical, jazz and pop. Music that’s country is no different than classical works. It’s no different; it’s the human expression of feelings. It’s one of the few capacities where I can make sense of the world. It’s such a small fraction of my life that’s easily manageable. You know it’s there and in your control. It’s not a burden.”

As he learned more about music through college, Ryan tried experimenting with a variety of styles as he composed music. At first, he tried to make his songs more complex, but then he tried to dial the instrumentals back down. Moving back and forth between these two styles, he tried to find a balance between what he liked and what he heard that other people like.

“Music is out there now in the most unlimited capacity,” Ryan said. “From Count Basie to Lizzo, there’s authenticity to all of it. No one cares what you listen to. No one cares; we all try to make sense of life and music.”

Although his music combines elements of country with folk, Ryan said his biggest inspirations are from classical music and musical theatre.  He enjoys the exaggerated nature of musicals, and he’s even started working on his own musical outside of his job. Both of these genres get him excited about what he does.

As other students are preparing to graduate and leave UNI, Ryan encourages them to be adventurous.

“I hope that people take as many risks as possible,” Ryan said. “There are very few things that you could mess up so badly that you couldn’t go back. At the age of 20, nothing that you do is all that important. Don’t leave a stone unturned. Life is like a buffet; take your time until you’ve tried a few plates. Nothing is solid; nothing is final until the last breath.”