By John Norris
I have my morning coffee and muffin run to thank for my introduction to Chris Riffle. You see, Chris’s day job requires that he contend with rush hour queues of hurried East Villagers (and their dogs) looking to sate that AM latte jones at The Bean, our corner java joint. For us Bean regulars though, it means that over time we get to learn of Riffle’s true passion: creating quiet acoustic folk gems that are by turns wistful, wounded, firm, tender, smart, and utterly personal. Riffle’s been at this for a while. Growing up in the opposite side of the country, in the land of cycling, recycling, flannel and troubadours, the Washington state native (born in a one room cabin, no less) released his first album nearly seven years ago – a quirky collection of bouncy boycrush pop called The Sun Is Up. He made the move to New York in 2007, where he’s won over a growing host of fans with regular gigs at the venerable Sidewalk Café and The Living Room. As evidenced on the new full-length Introducing…Chris Riffle, over time Riffle’s music has gotten, if less in-your-face, considerably more nuanced and ever more compelling. I recently sat down for a chat with Chris at his place, only a stone’s throw from The Bean.
JN: So I was telling someone about you the other day, I described you as an acoustic folk dude, singer-songwriter, from Seattle, who works at my coffee place. And they said, ‘wow that’s kind of a cliché’!
CR: Yeah I guess. It’s funny I never worked at a coffee place until this one. I actually worked at a pizza place in Seattle. But you know I don’t want to sit at a computer all day, and I just love the interaction with people. It’s a great job, when I have a show I can network it, talk to people. It’s always entertaining!
JN: You’ve been here a couple years now. Does New York feel like home, or are there things you still miss about Seattle?
CR: I think that the East Village is something pretty special. I think there’s a real community feeling here and I like that. I think in some ways it’s almost better than the neighborhood I lived in, in Capitol Hill. Because that was getting super hip. And the East Village is hip too but in Seattle you wouldn’t see a bunch of grandmothers in the neighborhood, whereas here, there’s all kinds of people. And I really appreciate that, and working in a coffee shop I feel like I know all these people.
JN: Well I feel like most of them have been turning up at your shows, because at each one I have been to the crowds have gotten bigger, especially the recent record release party at the Living Room.
CR: Yeah that was a lot of friends and their friends and about ten members of my extended family, some people flew in for it. It was wild. It’s interesting, I went back to the (smaller NY club) Sidewalk last night, to play on open mic night, and you just draw a number out of a hat, and I drew number 49. And, so you don’t go on until like 2:30 in the morning and by that point nobody’s there, and it was definitely a drastic change from that release party.
JN: Your band these days includes Jimi Zhivago, who produced your album. And in the thank yous, you say that he helped you realize how essential a producer is. Is a producer something you wondered whether you even needed?
CR: Yeah completely. Because I studied audio recording, and I enjoy the production side of it and I actually thought in the future I would like to be a producer. But it’s really nice to have somebody else there who hasn’t been as involved in the songs coming into it and trying to make it into a record, a compete album. His input and experience was really valuable. I think I had to let go a bit, and that was a good thing.
JN: How long have you had the songs on the record? Have they been around a while, or are they more recent?
CR: Well most except for “Everything You Need Is Here” were pretty much done when we went in the studio. And I would say some are from an older era. Like “Roll Over”, “Walk Away”, “Younger Years” they’re from about four or five years ago. “Believe in Now” I wrote when I moved to New York. We actually recorded fourteen songs but only ten made it on the record. A couple ended up being a little too upbeat.
JN: It’s a very quiet record, very intimate. And definitely so if you compare it to that first album which was brighter and poppier. This is for sure more hushed.
CR: I think that’s just me changing. I love that more poppy stuff, and I still occasionally write songs like that. But I think really what I like is more mellow, folkier things, that’s what I connect to. I love it for example when Elliott Smith has a vocal so quiet you feel like he’s almost whispering, and his raspy voice is just right there. And in the mixing we wanted the vocals really up front.
JN: “Younger Years” is one of my favorites and I think even in the short time I have been seeing you it’s changed a bit, no?
CR: Well for a while it got a bit jazzier, and that’s not what it was meant to be. So in the studio we took out the bass and redid it, and I was like ‘there’s the song the way it’s meant to be.’
JN: And there’s one cover on the record – the Donovan song “Catch the Wind”?
CR: That’s one of my all time favorite songs. My mom and dad used to sing that to me.
JN: Speaking of the past, that first album which you
self released in 2003 but actually recorded back in 1999, is really remarkable
in the way that you honestly and matter-of-factly sing about guys – songs
like ‘Wonderboy’ and ‘XY Boy’. Not everyone would be comfortable doing
that with their first release.
CR: Well that first album was ultimately like, a coming out album. And you know, I’ve progressed past that. There’s a lot of songs from then that I don’t really relate to now. But you know it was like a time in my life when I felt like that was important. I never had a big ‘mom, dad I’m gay’ moment. They figured it out, it was never a big deal, they were always really supportive. I wasn't that nervous about it.
JN: So that album was in a sense a political statement?
C: Yeah in a way I felt like it really was. I mean that
was what I was going through and I felt like writing about it, and I didn’t
know many albums that were like that.
JN: So now, you’ve been in a relationship for a while?
CR: Yeah, my boyfriend Tim, we’re great. He’s the reason we moved to New York when we did, he was accepted at Cooper Union. He’s an artist.
JN: And how has that changed your writing? Because you know, sometimes the flip side to happiness and stability is that the work changes.
CR: Yeah in the past I definitely wrote a lot of break up songs. I was always struggling and dealing with that searching feeling a lot of the time, and I was either going through a break up that was really intense or just dealing with things that made me want to write. And once I was in this relationship I thought, am I not writing about things that are relevant anymore or interesting? But then I think it was when I wrote the song on the album “Believe In Now” which is not about ending a relationship or anything, and I remember playing it at some show, I ended with it, and everyone was so into it, and connecting. And it was great. And it’s continued to happen with that song and so now I think there’s a lot of things you can write about and it’s challenging sometimes to find them. “Everything You Need Is Here” is another, I really like that song too, and that’s just kind of about the struggle of being artistic and creative. And I think a lot of people relate to that as well.
JN: So what do you hope happens with this record? Are you super ambitious, or do you just hope it finds its audience?
CR: I am ambitious in the sense that I want to travel and play music. I wanna get out of New York City. I love New York and I would love to come back here and play but I want to be around different expressions, different inspirations. I need that.