Q&A with New Orleans Roots Music wizard, Sean Riley - a familiar face in the Crescent City's music world

"It’s the history really. The culture in New Orleans is everything and people that continue it’s legacy come from a place of absolute love for the city and what it gives to the world. I think people that visit here, or simply just listen to the music that originated in New Orleans, realize how unique it is. It’s like no other place on Earth."

Sean Riley: New Orleans Musical Tribute 

Stone Cold Hands (release date: March 8th / Pugnacious Records), titled the new album from singer/songwriter/guitarist Sean Riley. Based in New Orleans, Riley is a familiar face in the New Orleans music world, playing frequently throughout the city, from the Bywater to the French Quarter and Uptown, as well as regional shows in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Riley also tours extensively in Europe and Australia. Sean Riley plays solo and with his backing band The Water, aptly named for the fluidity of different musicians joining him on stage. Stone Cold Hands is the first full length offering from Sean Riley & The Water, following the Biting Through EP released under his original moniker, Old Riley & The Water. Stone Cold Hands features nine original songs by Sean Riley, all showcasing his distinctive voice, lyrics, guitar style, and arrangements. The lone cover is Jimmy Reed’s “High and Lonesome,” a swaggering Mississippi juke blues tune. Sean says: “This record is my musical tribute to New Orleans, and Southern folk traditions,” says Riley. “It's a celebration of the highs of dance-filled evenings, communal feasts, and all-night parties - to the lows of facing grief, fear, and the loss of what we hold dear. The songs represent the ebb and flow of emotions, from high-energy house party rockers to tear-in-my-beer barroom reflections and down-on-your-luck country blues, back to the uplifting spirit of self-worth and love.”

(Sean Riley plays solo and with his backing band The Water/ Photo by Bridgette Charbonneau)

Stone Cold Hands features some of Louisiana’s most-lauded musicians. Multi-instrumentalist and practitioner of Zydeco and Afro-Louisiana music Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes plays accordion and harmonica on four tracks: “Dance Me One More Time,” “Truck Route Blues,” “Out All Night” and “Jump the Line.” Cajun/Zydeco musician and “Louisiana’s Rockin’ Fiddler” Waylon Thibodeaux shines on "Rosie’s Rag” and “A Losing Hand.” Phil Breen shows his versatility and strength on keys and organ for the title track, “Stone Cold Hands,” as well as “Go Easy on Me,” “A Losing Hand,” “Rosie’s Rag” and “Shine a Little Stronger.” Tiffany Pollack graces the album with sweet harmonies on “Stone Cold Hands” and “Go Easy on Me.” She is joined by Megan Harris Brunious and Whitney Alouisious to create a tingling three part harmony to the album bookends, “Dance Me One More Time” and “Shine a Little Stronger.” Last but certainly not least is the record’s thumping rhythm section, consisting of New Orleans’ own limitless drummer Mike Barras, and acting as both bassist and producer, the unwavering Dean Zucchero.

Interview by Michael Limnios                      Archive: Sean Riley, 2018 Interview

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

Music has allowed me a chance to travel, and visit places outside my comfort zone. The best feeling is an audience from another country, speaking another language, enjoying with the music you made or the songs you’re playing that come from you hometown or country. Playing New Orleans music helps because its beloved around the world.

Why do you think that NOLA music continues to generate such a devoted following?

It’s the history really. The culture in New Orleans is everything and people that continue it’s legacy come from a place of absolute love for the city and what it gives to the world. I think people that visit here, or simply just listen to the music that originated in New Orleans, realize how unique it is. It’s like no other place on Earth.

"To surround yourself with people you admire and listen with your whole heart to the music around you. I Feel very lucky to be able to play my music with amazing musicians and have people enjoy the experience. Keep the party going!"

(Sean Riley / Photo by Shannon Kirk)

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album Stone Cold Hands?

I wrote the majority of the songs during and shortly after the pandemic. I was living in Australia at the time so it very much a disconnect in all sense of the word. After I got back to New Orleans I got into the studio and we busted out basic tracks within a few days. It felt so easy and we were getting the sound we liked. After which we brought in some of the best Louisiana musicians that were friends and bandmates. Not a bad day in the studio really. Pretty satisfying!

What touched you from Jimmy Reed’s “High and Lonesome”?

Jimmy Reed has always been one of my favorite musicians and vocalists. I love the chugging rhythm and other all tone of that song. It’s an early single of his, may be his first. I just wanted to pay tribute to one my musical heroes.

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

Probably moving to New Orleans over a decade ago. It’s like I've been searching for “my home” my whole life and it just fit so right. Highlights in my career are playing with some of best players in town and learning from them each time. Touring Europe and Australia are up there as well.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

To surround yourself with people you admire and listen with your whole heart to the music around you. I Feel very lucky to be able to play my music with amazing musicians and have people enjoy the experience. Keep the party going!

What's the balance in music between technique and soul? Why is it important to we preserve and spread the blues?

I think technique is important but not everything. Practice your craft, gig as much as possible to keep your chops up, but always play with soul, with FEEL!. Honestly who cares how fast you can play or if you have the best gear - especially with blues music - I feel it’s necessary to preserve the honor this music. We must all be in touch with where it comes from and who it comes from - It’s black music. It’s American music. But it belongs to everyone. No one has a right to gatekeeper it. Just do you as best as possible.

"Music has allowed me a chance to travel, and visit places outside my comfort zone. The best feeling is an audience from another country, speaking another language, enjoying with the music you made or the songs you’re playing that come from you hometown or country. Playing New Orleans music helps because its beloved around the world."

(Sean Riley / Photo by Bridgette Charbonneau)

Do you think there is an audience for New Orleans music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

As long as people came come visit New Orleans and take part in the culture and witness some of our best culture bearers you will have the audience.

The current state of music here is becoming more broad but it’s central theme is the city and its people. The good times and the bad, a celebration of life and of death.

Sean Riley & The Water - Home

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