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Smashed Feet And Swagger: Royal And The Serpent’s Ryan Santiago Lays It Bare

From community garden activism to packed-out Troubadour

“I’ve always been vulgar and wild and different and outspoken,” says Ryan Santiago, AKA Royal And The Serpent. “I love shock value.”

Santiago, whose Insta is a punk feed of body horror, dead-eyed portraits, heavy eyeliner, and topless photos, has had shocks in her life. One of the most pivotal was the smashing of her heels that abruptly ended years of competitive dance.

“I was about 14 or 15 [when] I jumped off a stage and shattered both of my heel plates,” says Santiago, 28, talking to SPIN before a show at West Hollywood’s Troubadour. Until taking that wild leap, she had been dancing competitively from the age of six.

“I got my first guitar for Christmas that year, because I couldn’t really move.” The first song Santiago learned was “Teardrops On My Guitar”: back from when Taylor Swift was country-pop. Subtle songcrafting influences may linger, but there’s zero twang in Royal And The Serpent.

Royal and the Serpent, Credit: Alex Vivian / SPIN

Santiago’s taste for paint splattered, heavily tattooed, underwear-and-thigh-boot photo ops is all part of her band’s ethos, as is a fondness for spit, cum, and rats, with lyrics to match.

“When you can hear a lyric and laugh at it, I feel like that’s the best reaction I could ever hope for when someone’s listening to my music.”

And people have been listening. Santiago’s early, independent singles grew a following which caught the attention of Atlantic Records, and she was signed in 2019.

Santiago now headlines historic venues like the Troubadour, commanding the stage with vitriol, swagger, and sheer delight. The broken feet proved to have “set me off on a way different path, and in a way, I’m really grateful for that,” says Santiago. “I thought for my whole life I was going to be a dancer; that was my passion. I’d been dancing pretty competitively and intensely for years, so that and musical theater helped me be familiar with the stage.”

A tension between high-voltage volatility and insightful reflection charges her performances, her songwriting, and manifests in the band name, Royal And The Serpent, which captures a war between the higher self and the ego.

Paris Jackson and Buzz, Credit: Alex Vivian / SPIN

“It came to me more than I chose it,” she says. “It’s the idea that all of us have a good and bad side, and it’s about those two things coexisting. The most powerful meaning that I’ve found has been ‘royal’ being the higher self and the serpent being the ego, and figuring out how to make those two things work within us. The songwriting is about the tension between the two; all the songs are both.”

Santiago’s sound is a textbook alt-mix of pop-punk, grunge, melodic hooks, and trap beats. What really sets her apart in the broader alt-scene are her lyrics – her claustrophobic, cutting, self deprecating, crystal-clear, vulnerable, first-person lyrics.

Credit: Alex Vivian / SPIN

Her fanatical fanbase is growing, pulling her from LA band to international touring act. Following her breakout in 2019 with songs like “Temperance” and “Salvador Dali,” Santiago’s biggest hit came in 2020 with “Overwhelmed,” a song she’d written several years prior about her crippling panic attacks.

It resonated with the anxiety-ridden world of the pandemic. That track, also her first official single after signing with Atlantic, kicked off a string of successful EPs: Get A Grip in 2020 and Searching For Nirvana in 2021, along with two releases this year, If I Died Would Anyone Care this past January, and Happiness Is An Inside Job, which came out in late October 2022.

“My first EP of 2022 was about being in one of the darkest places of my life,” she says. “And my latest project is about my journey from that dark place. I was getting kind of tired of getting up on stage every night and singing about being depressed, so I really wanted to write music that was uplifting. I wanted to uplift myself when I was on stage every night, and I wanted those words to resonate for the people, too.”

Royal and the Serpent and Fans at Safe Place for Youth’s Community Garden, Credit: James Arterberry / SPIN

Another way to help create positive momentum is by giving back to others, as Santiago recently discovered when volunteering with LA-based Safe Place For Youth, an organization for homeless youth, and Ally Coalition, a foundation backing LGBTQ support services. “We were here with Safe Place For Youth, and we got to work on their community garden,” she said. “We planted some lettuce leaves, painted their amazing tool shed, and did a little performance. It was really special, and I love any opportunity I get to perform in an intimate setting.”

Santiago says all shows matter: from that Venice community-garden acoustic show to fewer than 20 people one night to a packed-out set at the Troubadour the next.

“I just speak my truth and I write my story in my music,” she says. “The fact that people relate to and that it means something to them is beautiful. I’ve always found it very natural to write whatever the thoughts I’m having in my brain are. It’s therapeutic. And if other people don’t like it, don’t listen.”

Credit: James Arterberry / SPIN