Derivative of progressive rock, yet made with an accessible bend. That’s how multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and producer Isaac Riley would describe his musical output over the years. His discography is an overflow of creativity that jumps from genre to genre looking to turn over a new leaf each time, all while keeping listeners guessing what path his mind will take this time. He recently released his album “Autumn Dreary Daydream” on April 30, but says this may be his last release in the foreseeable future. ETV spoke with Riley about his latest release, experiences he had on past albums, and why he is planning on leaving music altogether.
Riley was born and raised in rural eastern Kentucky, where bluegrass and country reigned supreme. It was not necessarily the best place for someone who wanted to cast their net wider into more complex and experimental songwriter styles such as progressive and psychedelic rock. When Riley listened to Queen, everything changed.
“I think the first time I really thought ‘I want to make music!’ was when I got into Queen,” Riley said. “Queen changed my life. They’re probably the greatest band in the world, and I know way too much about them. But I also have to hand it to musicians like Beck or groups like Gentle Giant and King Crimson for deeply influencing how I record and write, too.”
Pinpointing Riley’s musical style can be a difficult task, as no two albums sound alike. That is by design though, as he likes to experiment with genres: one album will have you listening to acoustic ballads and upbeat rockers, while others drive you into beeps and boops from Gameboy sampled sounds. Although his music can sound like it’s made by several musical artists, it all stems from the progressive rock mindset of pushing the envelope further each time and expanding his range of comfort.
When Riley first start making music, he used the Mixcraft program and its built-in instruments and presents. Even though he messed around with GarageBand in middle school, he went all in to Reaper when he got into the audio engineering aspect of bedroom production. His ability to squeeze out the capabilities of his DAW mixed with the combination of his songwriting on guitar is the core of Riley’s music. He admits that being a multi-instrumentalist lends itself to useful opportunities, but ultimately, his favorite instrument to play and learn on is the guitar, something he is very comfortable arranging on, electric or not. Of course, Riley’s voice is a big component of his music as well and said it has changed over the years.
“It’s totally changed,” Riley said. “I’m a self-taught musician in basically every facet of making music, and so the way I’ve approached my singing has always been in flux. When I started out doing the recording and trying to get comfortable singing at all in the early 2010s, I was very prone to singing in a much lower range than I do now. I also think my voice used to be a lot daintier and much lighter in its tone. My singing on ‘Stab This’ or ‘Crème & Sugar’ is a really good example of that early uncertainty in my voice. Compare that to how I sing on even ‘Try Hard’ from like a year or two later, and it’s like night and day. I think what helped was hearing people compliment my singing more frequently, which made me feel more comfortable pushing the limit.
Lyrically, Riley believed he liked writing introspective lyrics the most but after getting into Beck’s music and learning about his writing process, things began to change.
“When I was getting into Beck a lot and reading interviews and other snippets of his process, I noticed he really enjoyed just coming up with words that sounded nice when sung or invoked a specific mental picture,” Riley said. “That’s kind of been my process ever since: coming up with lyrical imagery that might sound a lot better than necessarily making a lot of sense. With that said, I have plenty of songs that have a lot of personal meaning to them, but I don’t think I’ll always divulge why.”
One of Riley’s songs, “Circus Freaks” featured on his album “Chemistry” has Riley screaming the line “I have no sympathy for circus freaks!” The line may seem like an anti-clown rant, but it offers insight into how he comes up with a lot of lyrics for his songs, calling it a David Byrne-esque approach.
“Okay, the truth is that I came up with that song name first and then ad-libbed that lyric during an early vocal take,” Riley said. “But when I came back to fill out the verses and whatnot, I think the meaning I attributed to the song after-the-fact was that there’s a lot of people out there who revel in being strange and are proud of it. It was always hard for me, in contrast, to relate to that. I got bullied a lot in school, and I was always one of those ‘weird kids,’ so I feel like it’s almost a bit frustrating for me to see people almost make light of it. Now I don’t know if that’s very fair of me and I think going back to that song I’d probably approach it more inwardly… but that doesn’t change my feelings in 2016 much.”
In the same song, the distortion on Riley’s voice during the aforementioned line elevates the aggression he is pouring out, a technique that is found on at least one song on every one of his albums.
“I distort my voice,” Riley said. “It’s a fun thing to do. I either picked it up from Beck or from ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ but it’s quite an impactful sound: the human voice screaming these words and getting garbled and squished by the audio. It can be very haunting.”
The grind of making albums has its ups and downs for all artists, and Riley has had his fair share on both ends of the spectrum. The making of his water-based “Another Ocean” was described as a nightmare by Riley due to a deeply personal matter at the time, landing squarely between a place he calls “really solid” and “completely half-baked.” Personal problems sometimes leave their mark on an album and it can be seen as a stain or a badge of honor. This can be true for technical problems as well. Riley’s 2021 album “Perception of the Human Mind” was being worked on confidently in early 2020 when in April of that year, his laptop decided to have a hard drive failure, and months of progress were lost. Even though a lot of the original material was able to be recovered, the album sounded different than intended as a result, which can be seen as a positive or negative depending on who you ask.
On the flip side, Riley sees the albums “Gunsmoke,” which features the popular “Fusion Candle” acoustic track, and “Dial-Up Planet,” as highlights in his discography because he mainly focused on having a good time while taking his work seriously, without tipping the seesaw in either direction too far. Despite the quality of the finished work, Riley said that his evolution as a songwriter/producer has changed from his first release to his most recent.
“It’s very funny because recently I’ve come back around to doing more progressive sounding music, a lot of throwing back to 1970s British prog,” Riley said. “In doing that, I’ve ironically sort of wound up back where I began when I first released my debut in 2014! In-between then and now, I dabbled in so much… I did a faux-1968 ‘Moody Blues/Zombies’ pastiche album, the aforementioned ‘Another Ocean’ was somewhere in the middle of ’80s King Crimson and Talking Heads, and even ‘Dial-Up Planet’ is this strange amalgamation of vaporwave and ’90s/2000s rock music, which I took a lot of influence from stuff like Radiohead or The Flaming Lips. But who knows what’s next, right? Maybe I’ll finally break away from these grooves, maybe it doesn’t have to be so round.”
Riley’s latest album “Autumn Dreary Daydream” was originally conceived as an album about computers, but he decided to take it in a direction that was unhinged, over-the-top, and leading into Avant tendencies, though still catchy and danceable. Check out the album here:
“Eventually, I really didn’t like the direction I was taking with it, so I sort of retooled it,” Riley said. “For a while, I shelved the material because I was dissatisfied with it… until April of this year when my grandmother Flora passed away. That deeply impacted me, and I felt like I had to do something to pay tribute to her. She always liked my music a lot and she was so proud of me, even though I haven’t really done much with it, being honest with myself. So I made the effort one day to record a track for her, which wound up taking a few days of my time. Originally, I was just going to put that out as a single on its own but I had become increasingly irritated with making music for music’s sake and so I thought maybe I could look at that shelved album one more time… maybe approach it a little differently, finish it off, and put it all together. That’s how I got ‘Autumn Dreary Daydream’ basically, haha.”
However, Riley’s drive to continue making music seems to have come dry. For those looking forward next musical release, the wait may be longer than expected.
“I think making music became very repetitive for me,” Riley said. “I started to feel like I was beholden to the same theory trappings as every musician usually is, and it started to grate on me a lot. I didn’t like it one bit. If I were to ever come back to it, it would have to be with something else in mind. I think prog-esque is very fun! But… I don’t want it to be all I’m ever doing. I have to constantly be changing. Right now, I just don’t think I want that to be my main course. It wasn’t even what I wanted my career to be, it was just a hobby that I got really competent and productive with. I have many people tell me that I’m a very gifted musician, and part of me is afraid that’s all I’ll ever be.”
Going away from music will allow Riley to follow a passion he has had since he was very young, and that is making art. Whether it’s drawing or animation, a type of visual art is something he wanted to pursue but always put it on the backburner as he has gotten older.
“The passion was always still there,” Riley said. “I’m just very self-conscious and probably extremely perfectionistic about it. So I would sometimes lean back onto music instead of honing that ability more. I want to change that! I want to maybe put music on the backburner more, and focus on that and maybe I’ll find something that makes me feel a lot more fulfilled in my life. Who’s to really say? I’m willing to go wherever the winds take me, but I do have goals and passions that I’d like to see through while I’m letting them.”
We at ETV look forward to seeing where the winds take Riley, and if brings us back to music, we’ll be there to cover his next release. To listen to more of his music, check out Riley’s Bandcamp here.