Rootsy Fort Collins singer-songwriter Nathaniel Riley can’t help but pour his emotional life into music. To him, songwriting isn’t just art, “storytelling” or entertainment, it’s a way to sort things out and heal old wounds.
“It’s about washing my hands clean,” Riley tells BandWagon. “It’s really an intentional approach to having a good heart. That matters to me.”
Heartbreaking from Front to Back
It’s no surprise, then, Riley’s new album, Bird Songs, is heartbreaking from front to back. The LP will be released on July 14 but two singles, “May” and “Another New Year,” are out now. Riley will also open for Josh Meloy at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins on June 2, and chances are he’ll give the audience a sneak preview.
When Riley came on to the Northern Colorado folk scene a few years ago, he made a habit of playing his sorrowful tunes in the style of Townes Van Zandt at monthly “Folkways” hosted by Wolverine Farms Publick House in Fort Collins. From there, he quickly befriended like-minded artists and musicians. Today, he’s become a beloved fixture of the scene.
A Built House. Unpainted Walls.
As Riley’s community has evolved, so has the sound of his music. Unlike his 2020 bedroom-crafted EP Trio, Bird Songs isn’t a solo effort. It’s full of lush folky arrangements primarily thanks to Elephant Revival drummer Darren Garvey, who produced Bird Songs. In the early days of the pandemic, Riley sat down on Garvey’s porch and played him the songs that would end up on the album. It was a vulnerable moment, but the duo hit it off and immediately began bouncing ideas off each other. Soon, Garvey brought in other players to flesh out the album’s sound.
“When I brought them to him, they were pretty bare bones,” Riley notes. “It was cool, it became this very collaborative thing.”
Eventually, two other Elephant Revival members—fiddle player Bridget Law and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Rose—added parts to the mix. Riley also brought on banjo player Steve Varney, who plays with Gregory Alan Isakov. The result is an album that’s as hooky and expansive as it is mournful. Riley’s voice and lyrics are elevated by a soundscape of grooves and countermelodies. “I built the house and they painted the walls,” he said.
Self Exploration on a Rocky Road
Though the instrumentation brings energy and vibrance to the record, it doesn’t undermine the weight of Riley’s songwriting. Over the course of 11 tracks, Riley revisits some of his most difficult experiences with characteristic vulnerability.
“When I write music, I’m not really thinking about what other people will think about those lyrics,” he says. “It’s really about learning about myself.”
One of these songs has been in Riley’s catalog for some time now. Riley released “By and By” on Trio. Now, it’s been rearranged and reimagined for Bird Songs as “The By and By.” On the track, Riley mulls over one of the hardest times in his life. When he was in his late teens, three of his grandparents got cancer within a year of each other. While his family was still mourning the death of his grandmother, his mother was diagnosed with cancer as well. This came just after Riley had left the small South Dakota town he grew up in to make it on his own.
“I was away when it happened, and when I came back—my first time seeing her—he already had no hair,” he remembers.
Sensitivity through Song
Over a slow shuffle driven by drums and banjo, Riley takes the listener into his emotional experience. “All your hair fell out when you stepped in the sun/I couldn’t see myself,” he sings.
It’s just one of many moments that find Riley reflective and somber on Bird Songs. He can’t help it. It’s who he is as an artist. And, perhaps, who he is as a person, too.
“I’m a super sensitive person,” he admits. “I could see a bird get hit by a car and I’d be like, ‘Shit, they can’t coexist with humans.’ And that’ll bug me. When I’m thinking about that bigger picture perspective and trying to make sense of it, I’ll start to write songs.”