“One of my fans actually pointed out that towards the end of my tour, my speech started getting happier and happier,” Royal & the Serpent tells BLUNT.
The New Jersey-born artist, otherwise known as Ryan Santiago, is reflecting on playing her new single, ‘Happier in Hell’, to audiences earlier this year. “At the beginning of the tour, I personally was struggling a little bit more mentally, so the song was a lot harder to sing. I was crying sometimes when I was looking out into the crowd and seeing other people crying to it. And I said a little speech before the song every night.” She concludes: “As the tour progressed and by the end, it was almost an uplifting ‘we can do this’ rather than ‘I’m having a hard time and it’s okay.’ So I think it became sort of healing along the way.”
While audiences empathising with what Santiago continues to go through does help, a personal struggle with who she was and what she valued underpinned her persistence through hardship. Across her 2022 EP, IF I DIED WOULD ANYONE CARE, she thoroughly details her trials (‘BETTER’), epiphanies (‘I DONT EVEN LIKE U’) and universally relatable nightmares in relationships (‘F*CKBOI REJECTS’, ‘THAT SUX’). No longer settling for the aforementioned’s display of the ambiguity of a situationship, Santiago has finally gotten to a place where she makes herself a priority over mediocre partner prospects.
“I think I learned to choose myself over anybody else,” she emphasises. “And I will say that the second I started choosing myself and doing things that were good for me rather than chasing the idea of other people, is when I, A; fell in love with myself first, and B; got to fall in love in a healthy way, in real life, with another person. And I think that would’ve never happened had I never learned the lesson of picking me over somebody else.”
That said, we all know that finding the one or many people that enrich our lives through love isn’t an instant fix for what we’re already struggling with. Santiago has documented that sentiment with her unique brand of alt-pop rock fusion, doing what so many artists before her have done to help listeners understand that it’s not only just okay, but normal, to not feel perfect 100% of the time.
“It’s sad to know that more of us aren’t happy,” she observes. Mutually crying to songs with her audiences isn’t exactly all sunshine and rainbows, but the truth is always Santiago’s preference to artificially forcing joy. “At the same time I find that when I am happy, I’m bored and I don’t even know what to write about anyway. So there is something sort of comforting in sadness in a weird way. And it’s cool that we can all feel we’re together in that.”
While playing shows in person has been a vehicle for Santiago to facilitate that experience with her fans, it’s not the only way that her message has been passed through to them. Snippets of ‘Happier In Hell’ went viral on TikTok even before the single was released, so that by the time it was actually out, half of her audience already knew every word. Despite her like counts continuing to rack up, seeing her audiences mouth the words back to her in the same room has been incomparable.
“I get it and they comment and they’re there, but it’s hard to really accept the fact that they’re a part of what I’m doing…”
On the numbers on the screen, Santiago has trouble translating stats to reality. “I know that there’s numbers there and those numbers represent people, but it’s really hard to understand that actually. I get it and they comment and they’re there, but it’s hard to really accept the fact that they’re a part of what I’m doing. It all happened when ‘Overwhelmed‘ was going around on TikTok back in 2020. I think a lot of the followers came from that, which is amazing and I am so gratefuI. don’t know, I feel I want to be better at understanding that there’s people on my side and people that want me to win, [but] I think TikTok has a tendency to bring people down…It’s just a really interesting platform to navigate mentally.
“I try online and there’s definitely, I think, an aspect of that connection through the screen, but there’s really nothing like meeting these people after the shows and hearing their stories and getting to see them face to face, hug them, look into their eyes. There’s something really powerful that happens there that I feel like is just irreplaceable.”
Having navigated the return to live music in the States, in addition to performing at Coachella in April, Santiago is uniquely positioned to comment on what it looks like to both play and attend a show in a post-pandemic world. Her take? It may not be the same as it was before, but what we had in music prior to lockdowns may not have always been the idealistic setup we made it out to be anyway. No matter what, we’re in a better place than we were a year ago, which is more than some of us could have envisioned at our lowest points since 2019.
“I think overall it’s really beautiful and special to see people connecting again, people in rooms again, fans dancing at shows again, people hugging and people smiling and…Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe it never was. But I think we’re definitely moving in a really positive direction. And that makes me so happy because I think the age of only getting to watch shows online is no longer with us and that was really hard for artists and for fans. So I’m just happy that we’re getting to do stuff in person again, even if it’s not exactly how it used to be.”
You can listen to ‘Happier in Hell’ below.