Ryan States did what most people just dream about: He ran off to join the circus. But he stll wants to make music of his own
RICH LOPEZ | Staff Writer
Ryan States has his future set — good (and rare) for a musician. Where others work day jobs and try to book gigs by night, States might have the best gig of all. As the keyboard player in the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey circus, his day job is as a musician. And when he had time on the side, he used it to record and release an album.
All in a day’s work for States — or in his case, two years.
“Yeah, it took that long to put together,” he says. “It’s hard to say when I really began, and other projects come up.”
Two years for an album isn’t abnormal, but for States, working around his grueling schedule called for creative ways to finish his 2009 CD, Strange Town. (The circus stops in Dallas July 27, performing 21 shows in 11 days.) In doing so, it even has its own unique claim to fame.
“This is the first record ever completely made on a train,” the out singer brags. (Yes, the circus does still travel by train.) “I experimented with remote recordings. Sometimes I’d have musicians in my train room, other times I’d get their tracks via email. I was putting music and musicians together without any kind of network out there.”
The result was an 11-track CD of singer-songwriter rock that recalls the likes of Jackson Browne or Michael W. Smith and sounds beautifully cohesive in its production value. Recording has moved beyond the studio, but States pulled off a polished package considering his unconventional approach to Strange Town.
“I’m really happy with it,” he says. “It turned out to be simpler to collect tracks and work from my computer on the train. I could be there working, tracking and editing music all I want. With our work schedule of shows and rehearsals, time was the biggest challenge for me.”
Although the album is available, if you want to hear States live, the circus is the only place to do it. At 37 — seven of those years with Ringling — States is clearly a seasoned performer, but he’s yet to perform his own music.
“I did make my debut performance on Queer Voices in Houston performing live, but I realized I hadn’t performed my own stuff outside of my living room or a talent competition,” he says. “Plus, I really didn’t think I could do that on the road.”
The logistics behind booking shows while touring is daunting, but expanding to individual venues is on his radar. And while Dallas has plenty of venues where he could perform (he’d like to perform at a place like the Vixin Lounge, he says), States — who used to live here — didn’t book one. He felt he wasn’t prepared.
He first needs some back-up musicians: His album was recorded with an amalgamation of musicians culled from across the country via the Web. But could there be some lingering insecurities about going at it alone — even with a backing band? Hard to say. States wants to perform his own gigs, but his reasons for the delay come off somewhat as a case of the nerves.
“I’ve not yet performed in front of an audience I could see,” he laughs. “I look forward to getting something bigger together. I am preparing for it, though. I think I should be ready with everything by fall.”
In the meantime, he has plenty to keep him busy at the circus.
“We’re not playing a song because there is really no end,” he explains. “It’s rock, it’s circus music and people are surprised it’s live. But we have to keep an eye on the show. If something happens or gets off course, we have to keep up or slow down. I’ve never had a gig like that and because anything could happen, we have to be ready at the drop of a hat.”
States is clearly stimulated by his work with the circus. He has all of life’s necessities: A place to live (albeit on wheels), a good musical gig and time for his own work. He even has his traveling circus family. So to say his future is set is likely an understatement.
“I’ll be here for a while, at least another year. It’s nice to have steady work and just show up,” he says. “I don’t really like a lot of attention, but as for my music, it is a new challenge to be pushed up to the front. I’ve always been a side man, but I know now I can be whatever I want to be.”
Pitching a tent
Eight years ago, Cristian Zabala received the phone call that would change his life forever. Following a 2002 audition for Cirque du Soleil that seemed to go nowhere, Zabala had assumed he wasn’t what they were looking for. But then came word that the casting director wanted him for the Alegria, performing as an acrobat. He had the athletic prowess for it, but what the Argentine-born performer really wanted to do was sing.
“When I was 17, I was doing musicals and dancing in school,” he says. “For me it was good enough to just be in the show, but they asked me to sing and because I’m a countertenor, I’ve been the only male singer in that show.”
Now Zabala can be seen in Dralion, the production from Cirque that fuses Chinese traditional circuses with more contemporary themes. Zabala’s character, L’Âme Force, threads together the four elements depicted in the show. He’s also living the proverbial dream, but he wouldn’t say that it was all by accident.
“I’ve always had that luck to do what I love to do. I believe in the law of attraction,” he says.
He means that in more ways than one. Zabala’s significant other is also the artistic director for Dralion. They first met while working on Cirque’s Quidam. By the time the stint was over two years later, they were full-fledged boyfriends. When this show opened up, offering them the opportunity to work together, they took it. The decision was not lost on the rest of the cast and crew.
“I get some teasing from everyone for being the first lady, but it’s funny,” laughs Zabala. “I joke about it, too. Since I am from Argentina, I always say they call me Evita Peron.”
When the timing is right — and they are in one place long enough — the couple plans to get married. Hopefully the wedding will take place in Buenos Aires (where same-sex marriage was recently legalized), although he says they are still considering their options.
Although excited to pursue that chapter, Zabala isn’t in a hurry. His gig with Cirque is artistically fulfilling — he even hesitates to call it work, but more a calling.
“This has never had that connotation of work to me,” he says. “I know it’s always my choice. Sometimes I could call in sick but even when I don’t wanna go, the show brings me back to a certain reality. I’m not religious but I am very spiritual. My purpose is to entertain and give it to people. It’s wonderful.”
And when all is said and done, Zabala isn’t too worried about the future. He has another year with the show.
“This one thing I know. I will always work. It’s a weird feeling but because I want to be singing, somebody will give me the chance.”
Cirque du Soleil: Dralion at Dr. Pepper Arena, 2601 Avenue of the Stars, Frisco.
July 27–31. $40–$95. Ticketmaster.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 22, 2011.