Ryan Lee Creates ‘Tiny Desk’-Style Channel for Santa Cruz

Backyard studio Paradise Garage serves as a place for recording performances

Besides putting together a loose collective of his friends for Magic Waters and releasing an EP, Ryan Lee has been promoting the local scene with online audio and visual concerts at his Paradise Garage home studio.

Santa Cruz’s Ryan Lee never imagined a record label interested in his solo recordings. In fact, the only reason he recorded the three songs on his Pinky Swear EP, which was released last week on Gold Robot Records, was because he needed some recording samples for his recently constructed home recording studio. That way if a band was interested in doing a recording session, he could show them the three songs as an example of his recording expertise.

But he was proud of the songs. He’d written every part, and played all the instruments (guitar, bass, drums, and vocals). Over the years, he’d played in many bands on all these instruments, but he’d never crafted and recorded his own music. One of his friends liked it so much, they showed it to Hunter Mack, owner of Gold Robot Records. Mack quickly got in touch with Lee, wanting more information about his project.

“I was not expecting him to want to release the EP. I don’t have a band,” Lee says. “I have two kids and a busy full-time job. I’m not going to be touring anytime soon.”

Mack was unphased. He too had kids and understood the difficulty of juggling life as a musician and a parent. He maintained his position. He liked the songs and wanted to release the EP.

The name of the record, Pinky Swear, references Elizabeth Warren’s campaign trail pinky promises she made with her young female fans to remember that running for president is what girls do. On the title track, Lee juxtaposes criticism for the way many politicians are beholden to the NRA with optimism toward the new generation of progressive women leaders. Other songs on the record discuss his family, while also looking to the corrupt nature of politics with a bent toward hope that the next generation will be less jaded.

He made these recordings two years ago. The main reason he built that home studio, which he calls Paradise Garage—a tiny shed in his backyard—was to record other bands’ albums. After completing the studio and landing a surprise record deal, he realized that he needed to reconsider his dream of being a recording engineer.  

“Recording an album is very time-consuming. There’s several takes and overdubs. You can spend two days recording drums,” Lee says. “I have a 1-year-old and I work full-time as a fundraiser. My wife works full-time.”

The more Lee thought about it, the more he realized his true passion lies with mixing and mastering (as recording nerds know, where the real magic is done). He started bringing local bands over to Paradise Garage to do audio and video live performance recordings. After his first recording, he brought in videographer friend Nick Johnston (of Friendly Stranger Films) to collaborate. The quality shot up immediately.

It’s a tight space. When local band Bad Maps did their Paradise Garage session, they crammed in there like sardines, which adds to the charm.  

“It’s definitely inspired by the same setup as Jam in the Van or Tiny Desk,” Lee says. “It’s an interesting experience because bands come over—me and my wife and my two kids are running around the backyard. There’s a playground in the back. I don’t know if these bands know what they’re getting into. But all the bands seem to have a lot of fun and appreciate the video.”

Paradise Garage has its own YouTube channel, with several band performances already uploaded, including a Magic Waters performance (featuring a thrown together band of his friends). Lee has several more ready to upload. He’s hoping to get a new one up every week. He wants to feature local bands—and when touring bands start rolling through town again, make it a destination for out of towners.

For now, his EP that he recorded two years ago is getting its official release. He’s hoping other people get excited about his music. If that’s the case, he might keep releasing new music. Fortunately, he happens to have a fully functioning recording studio in his backyard shed.

“I have like ten other songs that are done,” Lee says. “I really wanted to finish those.”

The Paradise Garage YouTube channel can be found atyoutube.com/channel/UCao3UyuXttfIzeKdkcEfuug/videos. Order the ‘Pinky Swear’ EP at ffm.to/pinkyswear.

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