Local boy James Riley has recently returned from a two-year adventure in Nashville. Working on a new album, set for release in Autumn 2017, James is bringing his folk and soul sounds to the Dulwich Festival, supporting Patch & The Giant. We caught up with him to find out more about his musical background and what we can look forward to hearing from him at the Festival.
How did you get into music and song-writing?
When I was about 3 my parents bought me a guitar… which sat unused in my room until I was about 11, at which point I decided that somehow or another I needed to meet some girls. Somewhat ill advisedly I began to learn country songs.
What are your musical influences?
I started off when I was a kid listening mainly to my parents’ record collection, which consisted largely of 60’s and 70’s songwriters… Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and so on. When I was around 8 my parents divorced and my Mum took me and my sisters on a long road trip through the Midwest, which in retrospect was probably quite a cathartic experience for her. The whole way from Minnesota to Vegas we listened to cassette tapes of 90’s country stars… Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Mavericks, Nancy Griffith and Lyle Lovett. Looking back I think that experience was hugely important for me musically.
You have been living and working in Nashville in the United States. Why did you go there and how did this help your song-writing and music career?
I think I went to Nashville mainly to help myself shed a skin artistically. I was becoming really comfortable in the UK until I left…. I had a bunch of regular gigs, a huge band and nice living situation, and I felt like it was having a detrimental effect on my writing… in the year before I left I had only written one song I was happy with. And so I decided I needed a new perspective and a challenge, both of which Nashville provided. The main thing that Nashville taught me I think is that creative work requires a work ethic. You need to show up for work every day, and treat the muse like she is your employer. Otherwise you can’t expect to get anything good made.
What makes a good song?
I think the one thing you need as a songwriter, or as any artist is a sense of perspective. You can sit there and recount a scene, or a situation, or describe something, but until you have a perspective on it you’re not really saying anything in my opinion. Certainly that’s the thing that connects me with a song, is the sense that I’m discovering something, I’m being let in on a secret. That someone has realised something and they want to share it with me.
Describe your process of song-writing.
Most days I sit at my desk in the morning and noodle around on my guitar. Sometimes a fragment of something will come along from somewhere and I’ll jot it down or record it. Sometimes I’ll sit there for hours and have nothing at the end of it to show. But it’s all part of the process. Quite often after a whole day of banging my head against a wall and not producing anything later that evening or the next day a whole song will arrive unannounced and I’ll have to get it all down or record it while it’s still fresh, while it still makes sense. I spent six months trying to write this song in Nashville, and one day whilst trying to finish it a huge thunderstorm appeared out of nowhere and shook my whole house. Inspiration hit like a bolt and I started scribbling down a brand new song, and by the time the storm had passed there it was, completed sitting on my desk in front of me. That song is on the new album, it’s called “Lightning Strikes”, whereas the one I was trying to write for six months isn’t. But I don’t think I could have gotten to that song without all the head banging that came before it.
Tell us about your new album.
I was really lucky to find the right producer and group of people to help me make this record in Nashville after several abortive attempts. A close friend introduced my producer Matt Odmark to me, and instantly I felt a sense of artistic chemistry. I was in the process of finishing up a record with another producer who I was living with at the time, but the process was becoming strained and dragging on and on. Matt really helped me find a way through that, and as soon as I realised the album wasn’t going to happen with this guy, Matt was the first person I called. We decided to collaborate and the whole thing came together really quickly. The first single from the album’s going to be released later this year, and I’m so excited to get it out into the world. It’s going to be my first full-length record.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m really excited about being back in the UK for the moment, but having spent 2 years in Nashville, I’d really like to return and make a bunch more albums there. It’s hard to talk long-term these days as the future of music seems so uncertain. I think huge parts of the industry are completely lacking in vision at the moment, blindly following where the money goes, no matter what the quality of the art. I think the only thing an artist can hold on to these days is the belief that somehow, good art will prevail, because people fundamentally have great taste when good art is presented to them. That’s my remit at the moment, is to try and create good art and hope that somehow it will change the world.