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 new independent 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," he says. "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.
Riley has just released his third album, Tabula Rasa. "This is 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. 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 reasserts Riley's ear for pop songcraft with timely subject matter - and massive hooks.
"Serendipitous. That's the word I'd have to use. My life was spiraling down the throat of the porcelain goddess, and I got a second chance. Now it's time to show 'em what I can do."