Riley Pearce Captures Life While It’s Happening On ‘The Water and the Rough’ (INTERVIEW)

Photo credit: Cedric Tang

Riley Pearce recently released his debut album with Nettwerk Music Group, The Water and the Rough, though he’s been making and performing music for a number of years. This album has a specific intentionality to it for Pearce, who rented a house in which to write and record the songs, wanting to focus on capturing that particular time and mood. This was not a zone for seeking perfection, but rather one in which to make sure the human element shone through. Hearing that, you might expect a somewhat rough and ready album, but that’s actually not the case at all. This is Pearce’s most layered and atmospheric work to date, there’s just an organic feel to that experimentation.

Songs like “The Water” take in the contrariness of life and the different ideas we have to navigate to find out what truly matters to us, while “Keep Moving” and “Nostalgia” challenge us to find the momentum and the tiny glimpses of warmth that might keep us heading in our necessary direction. The songs on The Water and the Rough are contemplative but not at all prosaic, and part of that is down to Pearce’s own observational detail in lyrics and the ways in which he builds mood, song-by-song. I had a video chat with Riley Pearce from his home in Australia about the development of the songs and what mattered most to him when making The Water and the Rough. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: Some people tend to think of recorded music as happening in a specific time and place, and I hear that you chose a very specific time and even location to record The Water and the Rough, which seems to commemorate that even more. 

Riley Pearce: I think that’s naturally how I write. I’m always writing about things in my life, so albums naturally form various chapters of what I’m going through and how I’m seeing the world. That was moreso through the pandemic, when it’s become quite a defined and relatable chapter. 

HMS: Several people have told me that memory had been really important to them during that time as a positive thing, and I see that memory plays a big role on this album, too.

RP: I think it’s great to be lucky enough to have memories, and to be lucky enough to grow old. Some people think of growing old as a sad thing, deteriorating, but to have these memories that you can go back to and be proud of is beautiful. Life is so beautiful and there’s so much magic out there. All the people and places in your life become part of that through memory. I think that’s what life is all about.  

HMS: We can definitely get caught up in the rush and not realize these things, or perhaps not value them enough. What happens with me is that I see photos much later and realize, “Wow, I did that? That was awesome!” 

RP: Exactly. Sometimes you need that outside perspective for a lot of things. Sometimes in music, it works in reverse! You love a song because it was the latest one you wrote, and two years later, you say, “What the hell was I thinking? This is the worst song ever!” [Laughs]

HMS: I notice that you’ve done a fair amount of acoustic playing, and online, and that goes in with your general feeling that you don’t want things to be too perfect. Do the songs feel different when you play them that way?

RP: Definitely. I primarily write most of my songs on acoustic instruments anyway. They have that live adaptation of the recorded version, and that often changes from the acoustic version. But over time, when I play them acoustically, they tend to morph a bit into something else anyway. I think I’m just drawn to acoustic instruments and the non-slick versions of songs. If it’s an okay song, it doesn’t need all the polish to be appealing.

HMS: I’m glad that on this album you did allow yourself to put in the extra layers, too, to create the soundscapes that you were thinking of. That’s something that artists have been allowing themselves to do more, being off the road.

RP: That’s often the hardest part, to get that idea down, and all the translations that happen to get it into its recorded state. It’s like a game of Chinese Whispers to get to that point.

HMS: Does accidental stuff happen, making discoveries on the way when recording?

RP: One hundred percent, you just stumble on the sounds that you were looking for. There’s a lot of those serendipitous, magic moments, that happen in the studio. Or sometimes it’s just a great vocal take that makes everything easier. 

HMS: That’s why it should be recorded in a house, where you can just go and do a take whenever you feel like it!

RP: A lot of it’s down to the feeling with performance. It’s not about everything being shiny. 

HMS: One of your most recent singles and videos has been “The Water” which is super fun and interesting. It’s slightly unnerving, but thought-provoking. Can you share anything about your mindset when you first started writing that song?

RP: I was listening to a lot of Jose Gonzales during the writing stages and the demoing stages of the album. I just loved how he was able to make the guitars feel droney, and there’d be this underlying drone, with something a bit more dancey and groovy on top of that. I was getting more into demoing my own stuff at home, so I was layering things on. I had this first half of a song built with a ridiculous number of layers. 

We ended up stripping that back quite a bit. I had these last three or four lines and thought it would be cool if that ended abruptly, and then started again as a song with a very different feel. I love when artists do that in their songs and it’s unexpected. So “The Water” ended up being a song of two parts, and for me, it connects to moving to Melbourne to pursue a dream, then the pandemic, then a whole shift of my mindset and all the realizations that came from it.

HMS: Your life was a dual-part story in a similar way. You have some tendencies toward traditional song structures in your work, but this one really branches out more and experiments. It has a really driving rhythm, but it’s not confining.

RP: That’s what we tried to do with the music video, too. The first half is very structured, and we used fixed camera angles. The second half is a bit more airy, washy, and water-like. It’s more flowing. 

HMS: There’s an amusing lyric about being disappointed by both sides of things that made me laugh. People always want contrasts where one thing is bad and one thing is good, but in the video, you can see the character getting frustrated with everything and going off in a third direction.

RP: That’s the thing—you’ll always find the bad in things if you’re looking for the bad in things. It’s about that shift in mindset where you ask, “What’s important to me?” Then you try to make that a priority. I think that’s part of the message of the song. 

HMS: It sounds like knowing yourself is a really important thing, too. Because if you’ve been pursuing something you’ve been told that you want, but you find that you don’t really want it, in the end, it could be a big waste of time. 

RP: I always have a problem with the term “wasting time” because I know that to get to a realization, you often have to go through those things anyway. Maybe you have to go through it. For me, from the outside, being in Perth, which is one of the most isolated cities in the world, all of the music stuff happens on the East Coast, like in Melbourne, and I thought that was where I needed to be. 

But once I was in Melbourne, I had this realization that community is a thing that you can create on your own, and you don’t need to force your way into a community that’s already there. You can be the one to start a community. I had a lot of realizations about how I wanted to define being a successful musician and how I wanted to work in music. I realized that my version of success is different than the forced narrative of success. 

HMS: That’s really big! That’s a life-changing series of realizations. But you’re totally right. We shouldn’t define things as a waste of time when they might be part of our development. I did get the sense that some of the songs on the album had a bird’s eye view, like you had come to new ways of thinking. “Keep Moving” is one of those songs. Did you need to write that as a mantra to yourself?

RP: I think at the time, it probably was a mantra to myself, yes. At the time, I was doing a lot of running during the pandemic. There wasn’t much else to do, and we were living in a tiny apartment. I found it really therapeutic to go and explore different places in Melbourne. There’d be one place I’d stop and getting a nice view of the city and it was something to take me out of things and almost make me forget about the pandemic. I’ve never been a crazy-good runner but that song summed up what running was doing for me at the time. It was a great thing to turn to. I tried to listen to faster tempo music when running.

HMS: My favorite time for listening to music is running and I was living in a small space and doing a lot of running then, too. As the song says, “Do what you can.” People were far more used to being in motion during those lockdowns so it was a weird biological shift, so running helped. 

RP: Running is also a great mental jewel. Part of you always wants to quit, and part of you always wants to run faster and keep up with that person ahead of you. I love that battle and the feeling afterwards. In life, there’s also a lot of related stuff. I’m an organization nerd and I have a lot of to-do lists. Sometimes you have days when you don’t feel like doing anything or don’t have progress, and I always try to remind myself, “What small, little things can I do to keep the wheels ticking on this?” As opposed to just never getting to things.

HMS: Sometimes all you can do is make another list!

RP: I love a good list.

HMS: The song “Nostalgia” ties into what we were talking about earlier, about how memories can be really positive. It’s more common to hear, “Don’t look back too much.” It’s nice to find a middle ground in this song. 

RP: I often remind myself that nostalgia isn’t something you want to be living in. I feel like I sometimes spend too much time there. That song came from a camping trip with my family. My brother lives in the UK and has for six years, but when we were kids, we used to spend family holidays in this one spot. When he was back visiting, we went up there, and we hadn’t been there in ten plus years. We spent time there in the town, revisiting all the spots from when we were kids. It was this small nostalgia trip that we allowed ourselves and it felt really nice to write a song about it. 

HMS: That’s cool that it was tied to physical places, actively remembering things, rather than sitting at home.

RP: Yes, that sort of thing doesn’t often happen intentionally. More often you see something and it triggers a memory, but this time, we said, “Let’s go do this thing.” It’s a three-hour drive to get there, so it was intentional.

HMS: Now you have a new memory to look back on. The video for that includes footage from the making of this album, too, so that’s a new memory. 

RP: The documentary had so much stuff captured that there was plenty to use in the video, too.

HMS: It has that feeling of capturing moments when no one realizes they are important or need to be captured because you’re busy making the album. 

RP: Isn’t that a saying, that life is what happens when you’re busy making plans? When you’re busy making albums, that’s when life happens. 

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