A conversation with the Seattle-by-way-of-East Village singer/songwriter
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
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.
I didn’t really see any people who were making music about what I was
going through. And then, even though the album had a really limited release,
I would randomly get e-mails from people in places like Wyoming saying
“I listened to your album and it’s so inspiring to me to know that other
people are feeling these things…”, you know just that kind of heartfelt,
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
JN: And how has that changed your writing? Because you
know, sometimes the flip side to happiness and stability is that the work
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.