By: Jeremy Candelas
“It was as if someone had cracked open the earth”
For musician Kurt Fritjofson ‘16 – nom de guerre Kurt Riley – music has always been a great subject of his fascination. Having grown up in a very conservative family, Riley explained that growing up he had never really been exposed to any kind of musical stylings outside the range of hymns and classical music.
Then, one day, Riley was exposed to blues music. This experience he described “as if someone had cracked open the earth – I’d never heard anything in the world like it before.”
Riley lists of a handful of names that served as his introduction to the new world of music that he had discovered – Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed to name just a few. Inspired by the works of such artists, Riley took it upon himself to teach himself how to play and write for both the guitar and the harmonica by listening to their music.
“I didn’t stop there though. I was born in the beginning of the information age so I went and I researched, ‘who did they listen to?’ I felt something like a historian, going back and tracing who their inspirations were, then tracing back some more for their inspirations. Ultimately it turned into this kind-of huge family tree of music.”
Little did Riley know that eventually this fascination with music would eventually lead him toward not just listening to music, or playing the songs of the artists he was so enamored by, but that he would eventually release his own music one day – most recently, his album Kismet.
“Someone up there was pulling the strings, putting it all together.”
Coming to Cornell, Riley found that many others shared his passion for music, just as much as he did. Groups such as Electric Buffalo Records gave Riley the opportunity to further his musical endeavors, and record his album, Kismet.
When it came to pulling together such a feat, all the pieces seemed to fall right into place for Riley. “I was in a meeting at JAM, and they mentioned there was this new label that a bunch of students had started, asking if anyone was interested, and I was immediately like “Yes! I want to be a part of this! And so I jumped right into it, and it’s given me a chance to do so many things I never thought I’d be able to do.”
Even when it came to organizing the team of musicians to record the album, Riley describes it as if “Someone up there was pulling the strings, putting it all together.”
Olivia Dawd ‘17, had been friends with Riley already, living on the same floor as him at Becker, and she had previously mentioned to Riley that she played the drums and wanted to play music with him. Riley went on to meet Charlie Fraioli ‘16 through a mutual friend, and the Shore Acres Drive bassist joined Riley and Olivia in their musical ventures as well. And through ILR, he met their guitarist, David. In JAM, Kurt and Olivia met their second guitarist, Sam, and later on down the road, the musical group picked up a piano player – Ruth.
Slowly but surely, the musical group came together, and they got to work on producing an album. While staying in Ithaca over the summer performing research – rather, when not doing research – Riley was hard at work at his home studio writing music day-in and day-out.
In writing the album, Riley hoped to challenge himself, setting out to produce a concept album. “I had this story already in mind, and so I was able to write thinking ‘here’s chapter one, here’s chapter six’ – knowing exactly what kind of song needed to go where on the album.”
From there, Riley and his bandmates went on to record the basic tracks for the album in Lincoln Hall. Afterwards, Riley took the tracks back to overdub them in his dorm room in Becker Hall “much to the annoyance of my neighbors,” he commented.
The end result is Kismet, an album detailing the story of the fictional King Bandele. Throughout the science-fictionesque narrative of Kismet, Bandele is traveling to earth to reach Heaven Snow, his love and his queen. As King Bandele embarks on his journey, so too does the listener, both throughout the story, and through a wide range of ’80s-reminiscent musical stylings.
“I’ve got way too much in the vault, and I’ve got to get it out.”
Unsurprisingly, this won’t be the last album for Riley. Already he has several songs put aside for his next album, dubbed Tabula Rasa – that’s “Blank Slate” for those of you who don’t speak Latin.
“With this next album, I kind of want to wipe it clean and try something a little different. I absolutely adore 70’s glam rock and synth pop, but now I want to put away the synths, put aside the craziness. I want to create something really authentic, raw, and genuine.”
Describing the overall direction of his next album, Riley says that he plans to go in the direction of a gritty, Chicago-blues style, “something updated for the 21st century.” In creating such a record, Riley mention his hopes to record the album to tape. In doing so, he hopes that it will aid in giving it a more authentic tone, ultimately producing a harder-sounding record.
“Even if I end up leaving Ithaca and have to put it out on my own, I’m not going to stop. I’ve got way too much in the vault and I’ve got to get it out.”
And in anticipation of the new album, along with a new sound, Riley says fans can expect for a new look to come along as well. “One thing that’s really important with every record is to have an accompanying aesthetic with it, so this might be the last time I ever wear the whole Egyptian-thing. Next time I want to try something new.”
One thing is for sure, whatever persona Kurt Riley puts together next, it’s bound to be just as enticing as the accompanying record will be. Keep your eyes on Riley, especially in the coming days. Word on the street is, there’s an announcement coming soon.