Photo by Ruta Smith

It was a surreal release week for local pop artist Ryan Lill when his new EP Makeup streamed over 60,000 times across 45 countries. 

Brooding ballads and unaffected bubblegum pop collide on the new 17-minute EP strung together with languorous lo-fi compositions and heady vocals that capture a sultry summertime feeling. 

“I do it as stripped down as possible,” Lill told City Paper. His live performances have consisted of him on guitar or piano with a simple synth, and the recording process for Makeup maintained a similarly straightforward setup. 

The edgy new EP that dropped May 13 was recorded in about six months under Jordan Costello’s direction at Costello Studios in Summerville with beats contributed by California-based producer Mantra. 

To Lill, the creative space he was accessing for his earlier music is worlds apart from his songwriting for 2021 singles like “Ocean” and “Adore Me.” It was in penning those songs that he moved into the more solid, genuine space from which Makeup sprang, where he wasn’t writing for a specific outcome or to get a point across. 

“I stopped thinking about what this music is going to do,” Lill said. “I’m writing songs that feel like me. I’m able to get out in front of people on the stage and sing and just feel like I’m sitting with friends telling them about my life. I’m coming into my identity more than I ever have before. I’m feeling more comfortable in my body, in my skin — my emotions and my fluidity and my gender — I’m more expressive in how I dress and how I perform. It feels very empowering to me that I am vulnerable. I’m writing about my mental health. I’m writing about feeling sexy in my skin, and I’m writing about how you can feel sexy in your own skin.”

Being born and raised in Charleston is a double-edged sword for Lill, who believes that clothing or music are genderless, universal art forms that everyone has equal relevancy to express. He sees how the South can hold a boxed-in view when it comes to booking at venues or recognizing musical merit. 

“I feel like here in Charleston we have this idea: ‘Yeah, you can be different but only certain types of different,” he said. “‘Yeah Ryan, it’s cool if you’re gay, but don’t come out in a woman’s dress, don’t wear high heels.’ I’m like, ‘You don’t get to say that you’re OK with one form of the queer umbrella but not everything that it’s encompassing. Preach acceptance, not tolerance.” 

“I don’t want to be tolerated. I want someone to say, ‘OK, he’s different and that’s fine.’”

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