The multi-hyphenate Ryan Strong, a musician, photographer, painter and film scorer, as well as the artistic director for Baldwin Denim and Standard Style, has no use for sleep.
Ryan Strong’s home office is small and tidy. His desk was custom-built to his specifications by a woodworker friend of his, Phil Leitner, and it has Strong’s name burnt in tiny block letters on the surface. Strong plops down into his chair and turns on the large wall-mounted television, then his iMac, then reaches below to switch on a complicated-looking black box (a vacuum tube power supply for his condenser microphone, Strong later tells me) studded with knobs and dials.
“This is a new movie that I’m working on. It’s a noir thriller called The Weight,” Strong says. A scene appears on the TV, and Strong’s computer screen is a spiderweb of sound waves and graphical lines. This is the second film he is scoring for L.A. director Thomas Rennier — the first, 2013’s Lionhead, was also Strong’s debut as a composer — and he pulls up the IMD info page so that I may be prepared for the clip I’m about to watch.
He reads me the tagline — “A divorcee’s love for her ex-husband pulls her into a small-town crime ring when the sheriff refuses to search for him” — and points to the two characters on the TV screen: A young man named Thad, and Gayle, a smartly dressed woman in her late 30s, appear deep in the woods at night.
“This is within the first ten minutes of the film,” Strong says. “It’s such an intense scene. Thad gets caught up in something, and he discovers what Gayle wants him to do, which is bury some bodies.”
We watch as Thad and Gayle get out of her car and walk behind it; Gayle pops the trunk. Strong engages the piano track, and ominous, inky notes play as Gayle tells Thad to grab a shovel. As Thad drags the bodies, we hear strings come in — hopeful, angelic chords juxtaposed against the brooding piano lines.
“Getting a movie without any music to it at all is the most bizarre thing,” Strong says. “It’s like seeing someone naked. It’s so quiet, and you’re not necessarily being told how to feel. A lot of what music does in movies is tell you how to feel in a scene.”
The strings tell us that Thad’s actions, though dangerous, are perhaps for a greater good.
“You always have to be careful, because you don’t want to score it like a music video where at every little cut, there’s something that happens,” Strong says. (He’s also produced a music video here and there.) “So sometimes, I’ll turn off the screen and not even look at the movie, so it’s like I’m just writing music.”
Scoring films is a kind of side job for Strong. During the day, he’s the artistic director and photographer at Baldwin Denim & Collection, where he’s been since Matt Baldwin founded the clothing company in 2009. Earlier that same year, Strong started as the photographer and stylist at Standard Style, a womenswear boutique founded by Baldwin and Baldwin’s wife, Emily, and sister Lindsey. Today, he splits his time between both companies.
Working with Standard Style and Baldwin is a long way off from where Strong started. He was born and raised in the small town of Normal, Illinois, and moved to Springfield, Missouri, for college. He graduated with a degree in communications from Evangel University, where he originally met Lindsey Baldwin. When Strong’s Springfield-based girlfriend (now his wife) was talking about moving back to Kansas City, he reached out to his old friend.
Strong refers to his first interview with Matt Baldwin as “a meeting of the minds” — and one that started him down an entirely new path. Now 32, Strong’s position with Baldwin allows him to explore a variety of skills — although, he admits, he’d never had a particularly strong interest in fashion before meeting the Baldwins.
“I was the kid who had thrift store T-shirts and Chuck Taylors,” Strong says. “That’s still around, but now my style is more thoughtful. Working with Standard Style, I was thrown into a world that I didn’t know existed or even kind of cared about. All I knew was that I got to do photography with a company that wanted to push the artistic level. I’ve always felt that Matt and I could come up with a creative way to promote or market any product from clothes to toothpaste, and that’s what I’ve always been attracted to — telling a really cool story or narrative. Whether that’s in photography, design, films or art.”
If there’s a narrative to be gleaned from Strong’s townhouse in Mission, it is one of a focused and hugely creative individual. Like his office, Strong’s home is modest but tastefully decorated. In the living room, mid-century-inspired furniture rests on a cream carpet, large-format books on art and design are stacked on a mod bookshelf, and the bright walls are covered in abstract paintings. They are impressive to behold, these canvases with Rothko-inspired blocks of white and orange. I find my eyes drifting to them throughout the course of our interview, and I ask Strong where he found them.
“Oh, those are mine,” he tells me, nonchalantly. “I do all my paintings over here.” He leads me around the corner from his living room to a small dining room, where a blank canvas rests on a custom easel. He’s been painting, he says, since college.
Strong began to realize the tools in his creative arsenal at an early age. The son of a mechanic, he developed a keen interest in learning how to take things apart and put them back together — an interest that became an obsession with the advent of technology in the 1990s.
As a junior-high kid delving into Windows 95, Strong’s first project was changing the background on his computer screen, which evolved into creating his own backgrounds, usually with photos he would shoot himself. (This, too, was Strong’s first foray into photography, born out of necessity and his disdain for stock photos.) These he would upload onto a GeoCities website (that’s nearly a decade before Myspace, for any late-blooming millennials reading), where users could download his background designs for free.
Strong relays this early obsession with a clinical precision, and in the next moment he mentions the high school rock band he was in. He can recall every creative endeavor he has embarked on, can connect the dots between one project and where it led him to next. For Strong, the work itself was never the point; the feeling of creating something new was what excited him. That was a particular kind of exhilaration that, he says, drives him even today.
“I started with these foundations of music and photography and design, and every year I found myself wanting to push the limit,” Strong says.
It is not so extraordinary, Strong asserts, to hold himself to the same high standards that a great photographer like Annie Leibovitz — one of his chief inspirations — might. Strong’s success is due in part to his own natural curiosity, but largely, he insists, to his belief that anything is possible.
“Everything I’ve done has been self-taught,” Strong says. “I believe that if I have an idea of how a piano works, that if I bang on it long enough, a melody will come out.”
There is little in Strong’s expansive portfolio to prove him wrong. Back in his office, Strong shuts off the television screen and cues up another track — a smooth, electronic groove. Strong has integrated orchestral string samples with heady vocal samples, which he has chopped up and interspersed with a hypnotic backbeat. The whole thing is less than a minute long, but it rings with promise. I ask Strong if he’s released any of his music.
“No, uh-uh,” he says, grinning. “Should I?”
Why not, I tell him. It’s not like he’s busy. Strong laughs.
“Sleeping just seems so inefficient sometimes,” he says, and he sounds entirely serious.