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Debby Ryan makes transition from Disney sweetheart to music star

Debby Ryan walked into practice. She was supposed to be ready to sing. But she wasn’t. She was having a bad day – “a terrible, terrible day,” she admitted later – but she didn’t want to show it.

You would think throwing on a happy face would be easy for Ryan. She’s a Disney star; she played the leading role in the series “Jessie,” which is wrapping this year after four seasons, and was a lead in “Suite Life on Deck.” The bubbly (now former) redhead is a tween-teen idol, and thanks to the years of reruns to come, will be for at least a generation. That mouse-ear-to-mouse-ear smile is practically etched onto her face.

Isn’t it?

Ryan’s bandmates in the Never Ending know better, and so does anyone who listens to their music. At 22, Ryan has experienced true love, total heartbreak and mind-scrambling relationship confusion. She makes mistakes, she knows it, she shares them. Her brain pumps creativity like a heart pumps blood; a 10-minute conversation with Ryan shows you how fast the ideas flow and how open she is with what’s on her mind.

All of this ends up in her music – which Ryan and the Never Ending are bringing to Darien Lake for a free in-park concert on Saturday. Theirs is the first of a string of tween- and teen-friendly concerts hitting Western New York. Others include Kiss the Summer Hello (May 30, Canalside), Jake Miller (June 13, Darien Lake), Shawn Mendes (June 27, Darien Lake) and Meghan Trainor at the Erie County Fair (Aug. 13).

While the Kiss 98.5 show is a longstanding annual event (paired with the yearly Kissmass Bash in December) and the Fair has reliably provided at least one youthful act each summer, this is the first in-park series Darien has offered in a few years. For middle and high schoolers, it’s a welcome return: Free Darien concerts in the past have featured big names like “That’s So Raven” star Raven-Symoné (2009), Emily Osment of “Hannah Montana” (2010) and Miranda Cosgrove of “iCarly” (2011).

The musical depth of some of those acts was, well, surface level – which in fairness, doesn’t bother the legions of fans clamoring for a spot at the front of the stage. But according to those that know Ryan best, don’t write her off as a teen star trying to cash in on her fame by performing glorified karaoke. Kyle Moore, Ryan’s co-writer and the Never Ending’s guitarist, said in a telephone interview that his bandmate is thinking long-term and in-depth about her music.

“We all know her as a Disney starlet, and one thing I love about working with her is she doesn’t want to just do the traditional pop thing,” Moore said. “She doesn’t want to go through Disney records. No shame against people who do that or have done it in the past. I just know that she wanted to have a little more artistic integrity and a little more artistic control.”

Ryan developed a love for music and theater while performing in shows as a military kid living in Germany, but professionally she prioritized acting when she began landing commercial, film and television roles once back in the States as a teen.

Today, as she transitions into adulthood as a performer and a person, Ryan is free once again to focus on music. She has a new look (her red hair is now blond). She has a tour: The Never Ending will be opening for Fifth Harmony this summer. She has music, and the material is deeper than anything fans have heard from Ryan before. Her music is rooted not in Disney, but in the struggles that she and her bandmates, guitarist Kyle Moore and drummer Johnny Franco, face as they build their lives in their 20s. Bad days, like the one Ryan had a week ago, double as songwriting. “It’s not glammed-out pop,” said Franco, 26. “In a sense, it’s raw music.”

But the trio deals with raw emotions first. When Ryan showed up at rehearsal looking glum, her bandmates knew something was off before she said a word.

“Do you want to talk about it?” one of them asked.

“Nope,” Ryan answered.

The guys decided to let it go. “I love you,” one of them said to Ryan.

At that moment, with those three words, Ryan dropped the façade and let her emotions bubble over. “I lost it,” she recounted in a recent phone interview with The News.

But that was OK; even good. It allowed the trio to function as a support system. To them, that’s as important as the music itself. Their mantra is “people first, band second.”

“We have to make sure the three of us are on point before any notes are played,” said Moore, 27.

For the next three hours, the trio sat on the floor and talked through Ryan’s troubles. Moore and Franco didn’t know what, or whom, triggered such emotion in their friend, but Ryan didn’t have to do much explaining. After working together as a band for the past two-plus years, the trio has developed a sibling-like bond. They know each other’s relationships, struggles and dreams.

So when Ryan said, “He looked right through me,” Moore and Franco already understood. “They knew exactly who I was talking about, the situation, what it was,” she said. “They knew exactly what to say, exactly when to listen.”

At one point during the conversation, Ryan tried to apologize.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know we need to practice.”

Moore interjected. “People first,” he said. “That’s what’s important – and it’s going to make us a better band.”

When they finally started rehearsal, the guys even knew what song to play first and which ones to save for later. Ryan and Moore form the Never Ending’s writing core, and the music is so personal that within the band they sometimes refer to the songs not by title, but rather by the name of the person who inspired them.

“Only these boys know who and what,” Ryan said. “That makes it amazing because they’ve been through all of it with me. They know what it is. And I’ve been through it with them.”

Or they go through it together. In the last year, both Moore and Ryan had serious relationships break off. (Ryan’s, not surprisingly, was public. Though she didn’t name him in this interview, she was dating Twenty One Pilots drummer Josh Dun.)

Their points of view were different – Ryan did the breaking up; Moore was broken up with – and they found that dichotomy to be valuable in writing “The Fall,” a not-yet-released song the band will perform at Darien. “Out of both those breakups we really went through a lot together,” Moore said. “‘The Fall’ was a first step into processing or handling what that meant and putting it into music form.”

Their opposite experiences, Ryan said in a separate interview, helped make the song fuller. “We tend to be going through very similar things at the same time and sometimes we each have a completely opposite perspective on it,” she said. “I think that gives you a really complete mindset of a song to be able to write: This is what it’s like to break up with the love of your life, and this is what it’s like to be broken up with by the love of your life.”

Many of the Never Ending’s songwriting sessions begin with a conversation between Ryan and Moore about what they did that day. (They live less than 10 minutes apart in Southern California and see each other almost daily.) Even the sheer confusion over a date can feed a song. In “One More Thing,” another unreleased song, Ryan sings about a guy whom she dated a couple of times. She’s not sure if she likes him – or not. Or if he’s a good match – or not. Listening to it, Moore said, will make you wonder, “ ‘Is this positive? Is this negative? I don’t really know.’ ”

“And that’s kind of how she felt about it,” he added. “ ‘Is this what I want? Is this not what I want?’ ”

It’s in those moments that fans will see a different Ryan, the real Ryan. It may not be the unfiltered, sometimes emotionally bare Ryan that her bandmates – the guys who, in her words, “understand my heart” – have come to know.

But the music will get you close.

email: toshei@buffnews.com

Youth-oriented summer concerts

Here are some (mostly) tween- and teen-friendly acts hitting Western New York this summer:

Saturday:

Debby Ryan & the Never Ending, 6 p.m., Darien Lake Theme Park. Free in-park concert with admission.

May 30:

Kiss the Summer Hello, 6 p.m., Canalside. Acts your kids will know from TV are R5, a Disney staple that includes “Austin and Ally” star Ross Lynch; Cody Simpson; Jordin Sparks; and host Laura Marano, who plays “Ally” to Lynch’s “Ross.” Fair warning: Not every act (read: Flo Rida) is suitable for your 8-year-old. Tickets: $30 and up.

June 13:

Jake Miller, 6 p.m., Darien Lake Theme Park. Miller is a wildly popular singer-songwriter/guitarist/rapper. Free in-park concert with admission.

June 27:

Shawn Mendes, 6 p.m., Darien Lake Theme Park. The 16-year-old Canada native skyrocketed to stardom after getting discovered via Vine. Free in-park concert with admission.

Aug. 13:

Meghan Trainor, 7:30 p.m., Erie County Fair. Note: Trainor may be “all about that bass,” but check her lyrics before you decide you’re all about your youngest Disney fans heading to her show. Tickets: $45 and up.

Aug. 23:

Fifth Harmony, 7 p.m., Shea’s Performing Arts Center. The group of five college-age women, which was discovered on “The X Factor,” will be joined by Bea Miller, Natalie La Rose and Common Kings. Tickets: $36 and up.

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