INTERVIEW: James Riley



PHOTO CREDIT: Ray Tarantino

James Riley


IT has been pretty neat...

 PHOTO CREDIT: Ray Tarantino

speaking with James Riley about his new track, New York Minute, and its fascinating story. He discusses his musical tastes and who has compelled him; some of the rising artists we need to be aware of and whether there are going to be gigs upcoming.

I ask what we can expect from the upcoming album, Transatlantica, and what it was like to make; which artists Riley grew up around and what he does in his spare time – he picks a great song to end the interview with.


Hi James. How are you? How has your week been?

Hi, guys. Yeah, my week’s been pretty good. I’ve been up at the Extinction Rebellion protest in London a fair bit, which has been interesting and inspiring, if slightly overwhelming.

For those new to your music, can you introduce yourself, please?

Sure. I’m a transatlantic Folk and Soul songwriter from South London. I say transatlantic because I’m half-American and I lived in Nashville for two years - and those themes tend to influence my music a fair bit.

New York Minute is your latest track. Is there a tale behind it?

There is, indeed, a tale. I had just moved to America and I was spending a lot of time in New York City hanging around BedStuy and Bushwick, where I have a few friends. I kept on seeing these huge clouds of cascading birds flying above the tenements and the subway and just remember thinking how improbable it seemed in such a built-up place that this display of wildness was so present.

Later, I was walking through the Garment District downtown with my partner at the time and a hawk literally fell down (*SLAM*) on its back and died on the sidewalk in front of us. We watched the light go out of its eyes. Seconds later, a sparrow glanced off my shoulder and fell down on the sidewalk, also dead. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed.

We later worked out that probably the hawk was chasing the bird, and one or both must have panicked and flown straight into the sheer reflective glass of the building we were walking right next to. It was just such a strange moment – apparently it happens quite often in Manhattan –, this mad collision between literally the pinnacle of human civilization and this wild animal energy – it’s one of the things that fascinates me the most about that city.

So, I guess the song was initially inspired by those uncanny encounters and then it developed from there.

If we only had a minute in New York, what should we do?

I would suggest you get a cup of dollar coffee from a one of those bodega booths down by Knickerbocker Av. in Brooklyn; then walk out in front of traffic so just so you could enjoy the authenticity of N.Y.C. traffic honking at you…and you could enjoy shouting back “Hey, buddy! I’m waaaalking heeeeya!” Then, if you still had time, I would try to find some dumplings.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ray Tarantino

Your album, Transatlantica, is out soon. Are there themes that define the record?

Yeah, definitely. Most of the record was written whilst I was living in Nashville, working loads of crazy minimum-wage jobs; trying to maintain a long-distance relationship and working harder than I’ve ever worked to develop my voice as a songwriter. It was both an inspiring and quite a hard time…

I was alone a lot, a long way from home; I was feeling simultaneously inspired and disillusioned by my surroundings. I was starting to understand my identity as songwriter more than ever before and understand America and Nashville in a new way - as well as my place in it - as a half-British transplant into the Deep South. It was mostly written in the six months leading up to Trump’s election also, which was a crazy time for obvious reasons - a lot of uncertainty, loneliness and frustration as well as of hope, possibility and inspiration. I think elements of all of that can be heard on the record.


What was it like to record? Was it a fun process?

It was actually a ‘third time lucky’-type scenario with this record. I had tried to record an album a few months after coming to Nashville, with a producer who loved my sound, but had his own process in mind for making it. We got in the studio with a Memphis Soul band – all of them where amazing players but we had almost no time to work out how I wanted the tracks to sound (the musicians were being paid by the hour) and so we just had to write the charts, roll tape and see what happened. It resulted in something very high-quality but ultimately sounding nothing like what I had imagined.

After much deliberation, I scrapped that project and started again, working with a producer who took an opposite approach; working in a very low-key type way, involving just my acoustic guitar and me. We were getting some good results but sadly his personal world was in crisis and he eventually moved back to New Zealand (where he was from).

PHOTO CREDIT: Ray Tarantino

Finally, after these two failed attempts and a year and a half in Nashville, by chance I met a fellow songwriter at a writer’s night, a guy called Matt Lovell. We became friends and he asked me to play a show at his producer’s studio. I met his producer, Matthew Odmark, who had previously been in a successful Rock band called Jars of Clay. Myself and Matthew began meeting up for coffee and talking music…he has a very ‘Sherpa-like’ energy and he helped me navigate several challenging scenarios, including my ‘breakup’ with my previous producer.

After my second album attempt fell through, I asked Matthew if he wanted to help me make my record. He said, “agreed”, and after that the whole thing started rolling really quickly. The tracks were demoed, the players chosen and, within a couple of weeks, I had my record. It was a dream.

When did music come into your life? Did you grow up around great sounds?

 It’s a massive cliché but I really did grow up on my parents’ record collection. My mum grew up in seventies California and so I heard a lot of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell; Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor from the time I was young. After my parents divorced, me, my mum and my sisters took a massive road trip through the northern U.S., from the Minneapolis all the way down through the Dakotas and the Badlands; Wyoming, Montana…all the way down to Vegas.

It was the nineties, so we were stopping off in gas stations to pick up cassettes of Country music: stuff like Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter and The Mavericks. I think the combination of that music and all that wild landscape, at such a young age for a little English kid, left quite a profound impression. I think that’s a large part of reason I ended up moving to Nashville in the end.

Are there any other plans in place for 2019? Will you just be looking to get the record out and make an impact?

My plans for the rest of the year include, obviously, to release my record and hopefully to get some people to hear it. There’s going to be several more singles coming out over the summer up until I release the album around September. At the moment, things are in flux and I can’t honestly tell you what the future holds. Of course, I’m really hoping the album is going to make an impact. It’s been a long road getting it to a point where I’m happy to release it, so I can’t wait to hear what people make of it.

I’m playing a few festivals this summer, which I’m really looking forward to. There’s one in particular I’m looking forward to in Portugal…after I’ve played that one I’m planning on walking the Camino Portugues up to northern Spain (which will should be incredible).

PHOTO CREDIT: Ray Tarantino

Which three albums mean the most to you do you reckon?

John MartynLondon Conversation

Keith JarrettFacing You

Will SmithBig Willie Style

If you could support any artist on the road who would it be?

Probably someone like Sting. Or Dylan. Or Joni Mitchell or maybe Queen. You know, one of those people who changed what people thought was possible with a Pop song.

Might we see you touring later in the year?

Yes sir, yes ma’am. There will be a full U.K. tour when the album comes out, towards the end of summer, and a few bits and pieces in between. Check out for more info.

Is there any advice you’d give to artists emerging right now?

Make sure you are spending enough time doing what you love and not spending most of your time on social media. It’s advice I am constantly trying to give to myself.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Thomas Jane Smith

Which upcoming artists do we need to keep an eye out for?

Thomas James Smith - a gifted singer-songwriter and arranger with a stunning new album coming out this year.

James Patrick Gavin – lovely guy and a world-class fiddle player with a colossally ambitious solo Folk project on the boil. Stay tuned.

Alice Phelps – dazzlingly talented harp player, singer and songwriter with a new album close to completion.

Simeon Hammond Dallas – Pint-sized lady with an enormous voice and a real knack for making words sounds amazing. Also, a busker by trade. Respect.

Hey Buddy – Psych/Funk outfit from Brighton. Monster musicians with a slightly tongue-in-cheek, millennial bent.

Sam Castell-Ward - I work with him through a learning disability charity. Eloquent Psych/Folk with a searingly intense perspective on the world.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Simeon Hammond Dallas

How do you unwind away from music? Do you get much free time?

Sure. I’ve started to swim a lot recently. I find it very meditative…there’s no distractions and you’re just concentrating on your breathing and processing, basically. It’s actually pretty much helped me lose some baggage. That and therapy, which I also would recommend to everyone. Other than that, I like to go on very long walks and get out of London when I can. I love to read. Poetry especially. I read fiction but my frequent lack of focus means it often takes me a long time to get down to reading a whole book.

Finally, and for being a good sport, you can choose any song you like (not one of yours) and I will play it here.

It’s actually one of the ones off my favourite albums which I mentioned earlier: Lalene from Facing You by Keith Jarret. Sublime Gospel/Blues/Soul piano meditation by one of the absolute masters


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