SALUTE has really started to uncover the lives of music makers who for whatever reason, are nurturing their work under the radar. When we discovered James there quite quickly emerged a journey that spanned the Atlantic as he developed not only his own individual writing and performance style but also significant achievements with his former group, The James Riley Band. We caught up to discuss the value of music, the melting pot of London, and the interaction of displaced national identities as a theme for folk music.
- SALUTE: It was nice to hear that you grew up in Brockley. What was it like growing up in South East London? What kind of music did you grow up on?
Yeah it was great man, I really identify with the area. I’m also half American on my mum’s side so I listened to a lot of music from the States – stuff like James Taylor and Bill Withers, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell.
- SALUTE: How did you get started making music? When did you write your first song?
I started writing songs when I was really young, like 11 or 12. That’s when I started playing the guitar. It was a bit of an outlet for me because I wasn’t very cool as a kid. That was my one shot at being cool – having a guitar (laughs).
I had a three piece band at school and we used to play down at the Amersham Arms and down at Ivy House and all around south east London. It was kinda like a country band so I was trying to write those types of songs.
- SALUTE: Was there much of a local scene for you in London with the country/folk sound or did you find a lot of stuff through the internet?
There was definitely an audience for my music in London. It was crazy having such proximity to Bass music in South London, so we would end up on the same bill with rappers and electronic dance music. There was a building in Deptford where we played at a rave with punk bands and hip-hop heads. So it was always really diverse. There was an appetite for folk sounds but I always identified with the diversity of sounds that I encountered.
- SALUTE: Did you go to uni?
I went to Sussex to study Anthropology, which was really interesting but it always came back to music for me. My dissertation was a comparative study of buskers in New York and London. So I was always trying to bring it back to this other part of my life. Throughout uni I was playing electric guitar in a funk and afrobeat band. We had a little scene in Brighton which was really fun.
- SALUTE: Dope, love that groove guitar! Just taking a step back, you mentioned your mum is American, did you go back and forth to the states much growing up?
Yeah man, my mum is the youngest in a large family from California. I had loads of family in the States. We went back and forth quite a lot when I was growing up.
One year my mum decided that we would drive across the states from Minnesota down to California. Going through all those backwater middle of nowhere places. We listened to all of these 90’s country tapes. Folks like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, the Mavericks. That was really formative for me. Seeing colossal epic landscapes, listening to country music. I came back from that trip and wanted to play country music and from then picked up a guitar. I identified pretty strongly with the American side of my family.
- SALUTE: What did you family say about the decision to travel Europe? What was it like being on the road like that?
Whilst I was at uni I had been busking in Brighton to keep things ticking along, and so when I finished I decided that I wanted to go busking and hitch-hicking through Europe. My parents got it you know? They were like you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
I had some really incredible experiences going down from Amsterdam all the way to Istanbul. I had an incredible time in Greece as well. All the ferries were on strike and so I was in Athens for like 5 days. I met a whole group of other buskers in the street. A Romanian band turned up and we made like this busking super-group. I was writing a lot of songs by this time as well which I decided to record when I got back to London.
After getting back to London I won the Mayor of London: Gigs competition in 2012 which was really cool. I really wanted to orchestrate my songwriting more fully at this point so I got in touch with a few friends and we started a band, eponymously named ‘The James Riley Band’ (laughs).
We made an EP with this 9 piece band. We threw a release party at Bedroom Bar and sold out. We toured around the UK doing festivals like Secret Garden Party with no management, no label backing, nothing. We played to an audience of 30,000 people at the Olympic park in 2013, opening for McFly and Eddie Izzard (laughs). It was a great gig. It was all an awesome experience but I was pretty much responsible for everything which really affected my songwriting. It was scary to get to a place where you’ve only written one song that you’re happy with in a whole year. So that year, 2014, I went to New Orleans at Mardi Gras. I spent three days in Nashville, playing spots like the Bluebird Cafe and met quite a lot of people.
On the flight home I decided that I was going to move to Nashville. It just seemed like the thing that an aspiring songwriter would do.
- SALUTE: Cool, from London to Tennesse. What was it like in Nashville?
So I spent two years in Nashville making a record, but coming back to London I have come to appreciate just how diverse London is and the diversity of musical influences. Even in the songwriting scene there would always be people playing acoustic stuff that is influenced by Roots Manuva or something. In Nashville there’s this pretty stringent form of pure songwriting which doesn’t have that diversity of influences.
It was mad when I first got there because I really didn’t know anyone at all, and I don’t drive. So day 1 in Nashville I got on Craigslist and went and bought a bicycle. I started working in a hotel which lasted for like two weeks. Then I became a salesman and a cycle-courier and started to make some money so I had a means to stay and pay my way.
I met a producer, Ray Tarantino, who was also a songwriter. He’s an amazing photographer as well. He wanted to help me get along as a songwriter after seeing me playing nights after work. He had a negative experience with a major label as a writer himself but quite soon after meeting, he said he wanted to make an album with me.
All this new experience kick started my writing process again. We got in to the studio with an awesome Nashville session soul band. Insane levels! Nashville is like that, full of incredible musicians. I had one of Beyonce’s backing singer on BVs for one of the tracks.
We spent a day in the studio playing through the tracks, but on the day there were some creative differences. We came out of it with a record that sounds awesome but it wasn’t what I imagined.
I was working crazy jobs but I was writing a lot of new things and meeting new people. At one writer’s night, I met a songwriter, Matt Lovell, awesome guy. He played me his stuff and it was really awesome. Incredible voice and southern soul.
Matt’s Record had been produced by Matthew Odmark, from Jars of Clay. They regularly have showcases at the Jars of Clay studio and Matt invited me to come down and play some songs one night. Turned out that there were 200-300 people there and it was a pretty big deal.
I played three songs that went down really well and Mattew Odmark was immediately like ‘I’m a fan, let me know if I can help out in anyway’. Basically, we got to work and by this stage, I had loads of new songs and ideas. We did a couple of days pre-production and then we went straight in and recorded a whole bunch of tracks.
It was so good being able to work with Matthew and his musicians, who really listened to what I had imagined, it was a dream process. After 2 years of trying to make it happen, the album was basically done in three weeks.
- SALUTE: Boom! How has it been being back in London?
I got back on a plane in December 2016 and came back to London. I’ve been building the promo for the album release and making videos. I’ve played at Glastonbury, Secret Garden Party & Wilderness this year. I’ve really enjoyed being able to make a living off of music, that was big. I’ve got a residency now at Blues Kitchen in Brixton which is great and the album is set to drop early next year which is really exciting.
- SALUTE: Powers! What do you think of the SALUTE initiative and competition?
There’s so much good art that goes unrecognised these days. Changes what people think is possible and there’s a lot of stuff that could be culture defining music that just doesn’t get through. The fact that SALUTE exists is really validating for independent music.
Music has kind of lost some of the cultural power it once had, because of how it has become a commodity. The thing that is lasting about music is the craft of being a writer, a musician, and a maker of music. It’s awesome that you want to support that impulse and recognise that people need help to cut through to the next level.
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