Born an Army brat, Kurt Riley has been on the road all his life. Relocating from state to state often as a boy, he turned to art and fiction as solace from the loneliness that life granted. Stemming from a conservative upbringing, he sought an escape from that stifling mindset; the exodus was granted at fourteen years old, when he discovered The Rolling Stones. Further galvanized by Delta blues, Chess Records, and classic R&B, Riley taught himself how to sing and play both the guitar and harmonica a year later.
Subsequently, enthralled by Fifties rock and roll and the brilliant groups of the British Invasion, he began composing original songs of his own in earnest. Along the way, he added piano, synthesizer, drums, maracas, castanets, tambourine, bass guitar and slide guitar to his palette, composing increasingly melodic, richly interwoven pop songs. Riley’s influences grew to include glam rock, Moroccan ritual music, new wave, 1930s pop standards, and Eighties post-punk. All of these and more informed a rich, diverse style of songwriting, which combines disparate elements in new ways while preserving the rockabilly energy and Delta blues grit that first inspired him in the first place.
At 19, Kurt Riley led an energetic garage rock band called The Steel Hearts. Based in South Florida, where he resided at the time, they played high-octane R&B covers, including celebrated versions of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Larry Williams’ “Slow Down” which had audiences on their feet. Between 2006 and 2007, the band played extensively at venues, house parties – anything they could get into. (This included an unorthodox performance at an arcade, a few seconds of which is the only footage known to exist of the band.) Bassist Sean Murphy, who was born forty years too late to be one of The Stooges, propelled the group with relentless, pulsating bass, while the soft-spoken and kindhearted Brandon Fulton hammered the drums tirelessly. Their perennial show-stopper was a relentless, punky iteration of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which Riley is proud of to this day. Unfortunately, The Steel Hearts disbanded just as Riley’s burgeoning songwriting skills were surfacing.
The Steel Hearts recordings remain unreleased.
In 2010, Riley launched as a solo artist with his first record, Brighthead. Self-composed, produced with local musicians, and released independently, it followed the strong DIY ethic he has embraced throughout his entire career. “Something about the way I write and record really aligns with that process, and I adore it. It’s like my father said when I was a boy – best to have your own small business, and to be your own boss. That way, at the end of the day, the only one you’re accountable to is yourself.”
That relentless quest to meet his own high standards was first met with Brighthead. Unfortunately, the promotional concerts for the album were cut short by unforeseen circumstances. “Brighthead vanished before she had a chance to gain legs,” Riley says. “It’s one of my biggest regrets.”
After years of working menial jobs to sustain himself whilst composing new music, Riley finally decided to attend college at 25. Only a GED recipient, he had eschewed schooling since 17, but time (and a collapsed economy) encouraged him to betray his youthful stubbornness. “There were years in there – years – where it seemed hopeless. Life without a dream to pursue is a grey horror, and I was drowning in it,” Riley recalls. “The lowest point occurred when I was working in retail. I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone in an aisle, and within was one of the musicians I’d worked with.” Disconsolate, he swore to make a change in his life. “Seeing that only solidified my suspicions that there was a substantial gulf between my ability and my accomplishments. Jealously doesn’t motivate me; a failure to use my talents did. And I wouldn’t stand for it any longer.”
Within two years, he had graduated from a local community college with honors, and became the first member of his family to attend an Ivy League institution when he transferred to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “My family always had food on the table, and no one went without,” he remembers. “But we were always struggling. Financial insecurity was part of day-to-day life, and the stress of that pressure was oppressive. And suddenly…I was going to attend a college where some students’ biggest concern is whether or not Dad is going to buy them a BMW. Jumping through the strata of society like that was illuminating, to say the least.”
Paradoxically, it was while attending Cornell that Riley returned to his first true love. After hearing about an opportunity to join a nascent independent record label, he wrote new material and organized a band of talented student musicians for a performance on campus. “It was this simple – if I still had the songs, and could still deliver live, I would begin again,” Riley recalls. “There are quite a few musicians in the world,” he says. “And I was not going to further congest the glut in cyberspace if I didn’t still have what it takes.”
Luckily, Riley’s fears were unfounded. Both the new material and the performance were a rousing success, and with his confidence restored, he was reunited with his best destiny. Immediately, he set to work writing a new album, Kismet.
“To live your life without reaching the your fullest extent of your potential is a tragic waste. One I refused to succumb to.”
“Kismet was a blessing from heaven,” Riley says. “It restored my faith in myself.”
Recorded across various spaces at Cornell University, the sci-fi concept album was released to wide acclaim in the spring of 2016.Kismet coincided with a massive flurry of activity including marketing campaigns, performance rehearsals, and music video shoots. Notably, almost every individual involved with the production of Kismet was a student. “Cornell teaches you how to have three jobs and like it. You embrace your workoholism. I’d been working two for a decade, so my thought was, ‘bring it on.‘”
The results were worth the labor. Press outlets across the area praised Kismet and the concert at which it made its live debut. For the first time, newspapers and radio stations graciously provided extensive coverage of Riley’s work, vindicating over a decade of toil. After graduating from Cornell in May 2016, Riley spent the summer and fall preparing for his third album – Tabula Rasa. The title, a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate,” was indicative of the zeitgeist as the 21st Century moved through its trying second decade.
“(We live in) an age in which many wish to see the slate wiped clean…many long for the ability to hit some master “reset” button on so many negative circumstances we find insurmountable,” Riley said. “Our heroes are dying; our world is warming; our leaders are fools and our culture is split in two. Who wouldn’t want to start over?”
Addressing everything from social justice to love in the the age of Tinder, Tabula Rasa reasserted Riley’s ear for pop songcraft with timely subject matter – and massive hooks. After its release, an extensive set of live dates and promotional appearances began, including the release of two music videos. Thanks to the vivification of Kismet and Tabula Rasa, Riley continued at breakneck speed; the summer of 2017 saw Riley’s first international airplay, when Tabula Rasa’s lead single “Screwing Up The World” was debuted on Sirius/XM Radio. That summer also saw the band’s first forays into the greater New York concert scene, performing outside of their home base for the first time. Subsequently, they returned to Ithaca to perform at The CFCU Summer Concert Series, where Riley shed the Tabula Rasa image for new makes and new models. “For every release, there’s an accompanying visual look,” he notes. “The ever-changing wardrobe has cost me a small fortune, but I’ve gotten quite good at doing my own makeup.” (laughs)
Upon completion of the Tabula Rasa period, Riley decided to bring the first period of his recording career (or the first panel of his “triptych”, as he calls it) to a close. “Brighthead, Kismet, and Tabula Rasa were my first shot out into the expanse. Stylistically, they share a common thread which I needed to put to bed for a while.” To wrap up the first decade of Riley’s recording career, he decided to release 5 singles during the course of 2018, starting with the Valentine’s Day celebration, Love Is In My Heart. The remaining 4 singles are forthcoming.
“These singles are a bittersweet goodbye to the years I spent underground,” Riley says. “And they encapsulate everything I celebrate as an artist – romance, perseverance, and glamour.”
What will come after these 5 singles? Riley is coyly enthusiastic about the new direction he’ll be taking in 2019. “One of my life-long dreams has been to successfully weld rock and roll with electronic music, in a way heretofore unheard. It is going to be very futuristic – akin to how The Rolling Stones would have sounded if they’d started playing clubs in Rick Deckard’s neighborhood.”
Mr. Rick Kline: bass guitar, bass synthesizer, backup vox
Mr. Charlie Jones: synthesizer, keyboards, percussion
Mr. Sesu Coleman: drums, percussion
Kurt Riley – Failure of Imagination
Kurt Riley – Love Is In My Heart
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