Q&A with New Orleans-based Sean Riley - the history of Southern Blues with contemporary themes throughout

“Culture is everything in New Orleans, from the food to the music to the architecture. New Orleans is and shall always be a celebration of African American culture and it wants everyone to be involved and join the celebration. There is always a fear that the growth and gentrification of any city will hurt the culture, but if you live in this city you should already know you’re here to be part of it and help preserve it.”

Sean Riley: The Holy Water of NOLA

Sean Riley is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist living in New Orleans. Referencing roots Americana music as well as the Delta Blues, Riley’s music explores the history of Southern Blues with contemporary themes throughout. Sean has weekly residencies at the House of Blues, Frenchmen St., and throughout the city. New Orleans musician Sean Riley can make record-worthy music anywhere he goes; in the clubs, in his rehearsal space, in the studio and in his living room to be exact. As leader of Old Riley & The Water, the singer/songwriter has collaborated with his local bandmates as well as friends from out of town to create his debut EP record Biting Through (2018). Recorded at the band’s rehearsal space as well as in the main living space of his Creole Cottage in uptown New Orleans, this collection of Blues songs speaks to love, loss and missteps.

Old Riley & The Water is made up of Sean Riley on guitar and lead vocals, along with a fluid cast of excellent New Orleans musicians as well as Joshua Cook on guitar and backup vocals, who also produced the record. He attributes his love for the Crescent City for providing him with the motivation to create this project. Music, bookings and a calendar of performances can also be found at oldrileyandthewater.com. “The musicians and people of New Orleans are a major inspiration for me every day,” says Riley. The songs are all originals with the exception of a Howlin Wolf and Willie Dixon number whose influence of Delta Blues is layered throughout. Riley also mixes in Rock and Soul elements particularly on “Kind-Hearted Woman”.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and New Orleans culture? What does the NOLA mean to you?

It’s humbling to be amongst such great Blues musicians on a daily basis, and to be in a city with such a rich history. The music scene here has this amazing culture of collaboration and support amongst musicians, and I have learned the importance of being true to yourself, being open to new experiences, and to observe everything going on around you. New Orleans culture finds YOU every day if you’re listening. You learn by seeing, hearing, and putting yourself out there in order to achieve what you set out to accomplish. Go see shows, get inspired, get the gigs!

I’m proud to call NOLA home. It’s is such a hotbed of musical talent, and for me it means working hard to be your best while still having fun. Every day I am energized by all of the amazing things that the city has to offer. Every gig just makes happy to be working and living here.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

I am heavily influenced by the blues masters of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi Delta, and Chicago, and I love the greats from the UK. I also have a soft spot for the songwriting of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, JJ Cale, Nick Cave, Willie Nelson. I guess my sound is a bit of a mashup of low country Southern blues mixed with Americana, folk, road sounds and a dash of poetic preacher. 

My drive and desire to play music stems from the first time I heard real blues music. I was hooked and still am. I’m inspired daily listening to the local radio, by my record collection, and also from learning new songs and working on old originals.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Meeting other musicians in New Orleans is always so cool. Everyone is very open to having others sit in during a gig and play a bit. It has been amazing to meet blues players like John Mooney, John Fohl, Johnny Mastro, Alvin Youngblood Hart. Great guys and such fun to watch and chat with.

Best advice would have to be don’t undercut yourself as a working musician. Play your heart out on every gig! And treat every gig like it’s  the biggest room in town. Also, Chris Thomas King once told me “if you’re in New Orleans play New Orleans blues! Always try to make em dance. The Blues did in fact originate in New Orleans, with players like Papa Charlie Jackson and Slim Harpo.

"I wish the blues were more about groove rather than over-the-top guitar showmanship. We get it, you play fast and well, but the song might have little soul and no real feel."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I used to busk on Royal Street and my regular spot was in front of one of the art galleries.  The gallery owner always used to throw me a couple bucks as my playing would help keep the husbands happy while their wives browsed and bought stuff in the store.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I wish the blues were more about groove rather than over-the-top guitar showmanship. We get it, you play fast and well, but the song might have little soul and no real feel.

I hope people still enjoy the music and get to see new players take the reigns. I fear the younger generation could be turned off by the blues because it is so different from pop music nowadays.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Auto-tune should never exist. Also, I sometimes wish that musicians or labels or whatever didn’t have to pander so much to popular culture.

What touched (emotionally) you from Wolf & Dixon songs? Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre or do you think it’s a state of mind?

The groove and swagger. The immediate sound they put forth. Wolf’s thundering vocal and driving tone, and the strong, sometimes genius, songwriting of Willie Dixon. It’s dangerous blues, yet so danceable and fun.

Blues is synonymous with rhythm and is definitely a state of mind. All music can ring blues if it’s got that feel.

"I’m proud to call NOLA home. It’s is such a hotbed of musical talent, and for me it means working hard to be your best while still having fun. Every day I am energized by all of the amazing things that the city has to offer. Every gig just makes happy to be working and living here."

How has the New Orleans music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

In New Orleans music you can hear African beats, Caribbean soul, and sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic environments of European styles. The wonderful thing about living here is that you feel you’re in another country all together. Also when I visit places in Europe, Australia, Asia you can find people celebrating New Orleans culture, whether it be food or music or the city’s history. Just mentioning New Orleans brings people together when I’m traveling.

What is the impact of Crescent City music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Culture is everything in New Orleans, from the food to the music to the architecture. New Orleans is and shall always be a celebration of African American culture and it wants everyone to be involved and join the celebration. There is always a fear that the growth and gentrification of any city will hurt the culture, but if you live in this city you should already know you’re here to be part of it and help preserve it.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

The Checkerboard Club in Chicago. November 22, 1982. The Rolling Stones sat in with Muddy Waters. What a cool place. Keith and Ronny Wood felt underdressed so they wore ties and cheap suits. Why? Mutual respect on both sides. My favorite two bands on one stage. Or any Saturday night at Junior Kimbrough’s Juke Joint. Or August 1941 when Alan Lomax had recorded Mckinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) at Stovall Plantation. Wait, how many days do I have?

Old Riley & The Water - Home

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