Back in May of 2021, Riley Downing released his debut solo effort Start It Over, a humming, earthy collection of songs as solid and tangy as gold lines tattooed across fresh blacktop. A member of beloved New Orleans country-soul outfit The Deslondes, Downing returned to his home in Missouri while the band pushed pause in 2019, where despite a few outings, the gruff-voiced singer-songwriter was content to hone his barbecue skills and maintain an endless quest for obscure 45s. But the creative call never really ceased, and as the COVID-19 pandemic stranded more and more of his contemporaries, Riley took to the woodshed to pen the songs that would ultimately end his own artistic hiatus. Working remotely with fellow Deslondes compatriot, John James Tourville and longtime friend and producer Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Langhorne Slim, The Deslondes, Melissa Carper), Downing has tapped into a sonic spring that flows with natural gravitas, wry Mid Western humor, and a subtle eclectism that’s bracing and utterly cool.
AI- Start It Over opens with “I’m Not Ready”, and that kinda has been my mantra about the last four or five months. I’m not! I’m not ready for anything that’s goin’ on– and haven’t been ready at all for the things that have happened in the last 18 months!
RD- Yeah, I can agree with you there! It’s all happenin’ pretty quick! When this all started– travelin’ again and playin’ music– COVID was still goin’ on pretty strong, and I was havin’ to get tested before and after and every show. Now at the moment, everything seems alright, but I’m with ya’. I’m just holdin’ on!
I wanna duck back just a little bit before the album, before the pandemic, really. You had changed the speed of your life to a degree. You’d gone home– to Kansas City? Is that what you’re hangin’ your hat these days?
Just around there. All my family’s north of Kansas City and I live south of Kansas City about an hour or two. Yeah, the Deslondes slowed down. A bunch of those guys had some kids that they needed to be around to raise and couldn’t keep ’em on tour forever. We slowed down and I came back to Missouri and started working at an antique mall. And then the pandemic happened, and I started plumbin’ with my little brother– which doesn’t sound like fun, but actually, I really enjoyed diggin’ holes with my little brother!
What was behind that? Just takin’ a break from music? Is it something where you just needed to put some space between it? Or did you just have a reluctance to rely on music exclusively?
Well, I’d been in the band so many years that without the band, I didn’t really know how to go about doin’ a solo thing. I went on a couple little tours where I just played solo acoustic, but there’s nothin’ like playin’ with the band and havin’ a group to play along with ya’. So I just took time and worked on that. Really it was JJ [Tourville], the steel player from Deslondes that gave me the kick in the butt that I needed. During the pandemic and afterwards, he became a session musician in Nashville for the guy that recorded Start It Over, our old friend, Andrija [Tokic]. He was in the studio a lot and he was seein’ a lot more how things get done. He started gettin’ the wheels turnin’ for me and was sayin’, “You know, we oughta just get you down here and do one for you!”
When did it start to creep into your mind that, “Hey, I really can go make my own record?”
It was really once he planted the seed and then I guess me and him and Andrija all watered it and took care of it. I would just make up little demos of stuff and send ’em to him in North Carolina. He’d send ’em to Andrija in Nashville and we’d just bounce ’em back and forth and share ideas and maybe rewrite a little bit here and there. It was a fun way to keep your mind busy during all of that and stay creative when nobody was being creative.
Indeed! Through other conversations that I’ve had with folks that were writing or trying to put together projects during COVID-19, this appears to have been a very fruitful way to do it. The way that you were able to trade ideas, do you think that’s gonna change the way that you collaborate in the future or are you lookin’ forward to doin’ it the old fashioned way?
Hopefully, a little bit of both. But it’s nice to know that as soon as I get somethin’ together, I can send it out and people will chew on it and send somethin’ back to me back and forth. This winter, I’m hopin’ to go spend some time to try to do a little bit the old-fashioned way. I’m gonna go visit JJ for a week or two and just sit and see what we can think of. I’ve always kept writing, even when I wasn’t doin’ music stuff. Whether I had a rhyme or reason to do it, I just enjoy doin’ it. But this gives me a little bit more. It fanned the flames to where I’m a little bit more excited to keep goin’ and see what we can do!
You brought up JJ, John James Tourville, goin’ to work with Andrija Tokic at the Bomb Shelter. I’ve heard so many fantastic records comin’ out of there the last year and a half, two years. I have to say that [Start It Over’s] style has… I don’t want to use the word unique because that feels tired, but it really is! It does have a unique style– the full compliment of vocals, the strings, just so much sound. Tell me about putting that all together. Did you have that idea, that sonic vision when you started, or did it all just evolve?
That was a lot of Andrija and JJ. Andrija’s cultivated all these weird old pieces of gear and ideas with recording, that maybe other people aren’t doing anymore. Or maybe they are! He’s the only one I’ve ever recorded with. I met him when I was about 21 or 22 years old and had just always gone back to him. But JJ, as well, is a multi-instrumentalist and when he shows up for a session, he’s got 20 different instruments with him! So possibilities are all within reach! I’d be lyin’ if I said I had all that figured out myself. All I had was the acoustic guitar in the shed and the demos and in my mind, it exceeded my expectations of what my songs ever could have turned into.
“Start It Over”, I love the video for that one, by the way. “It only took a couple of records just to change my mind.” I know exactly that feeling. I’m myself am a vinyl enthusiast. Recently, I had a conversation with your pal, Esther Rose about recording music and listening to music during the pandemic. She said that she felt like at this moment, it’s actually more about the music that you record than it ever has been. I completely agree with her because, at the time, we were discussing people doin’ streaming shows at home and using that as a means of revenue and a way to connect with fans. Her take on it was, “But I spent all this time and effort to make records that I love and I want people to listen to ’em!” What about you in regards to connecting with fans through streaming, but then also having that body of work like this new album?
Well, this was my first solo album and I’m 33 years old. I’ve been beatin’ on this guitar since I was 15. To any musician, I think it’s just the dream to finally have your own solo record. I’d be lyin’ if I said I did as much streaming as I could’ve. I enjoyed watching other people’s videos, but like I said, I was in rural United States most of the time and streaming didn’t always work out so good for me.
I like to go dig up old 45s and 78s and just find artists that maybe got swept under the rug back in the day. And artists that I just maybe haven’t dug into as much as I would’ve liked or should have. For me, that’s a never-ending well. There’s always something in there you can pull up. That’s just how I do it. I love to go find a big box of 45s and then after work, come home and have a couple beers and just start throwing ’em on. You make different piles of ones that you wanna keep and ones you don’t need to keep. ‘Cause that’s the dangerous part is you really can’t keep ’em all! But that’s the old school YouTube way, I feel like. Even old bands, like Canned Heat and Hot Tuna and those bands that covered old blues songs, they didn’t find those on YouTube. They found the record! That’s how they were introduced to a lot of that stuff. That’s honestly how I’m introduced to a lot of music, but I am tryin’ to catch up now that I’m a modern musician in a modern era. I’m realizing how much is goin’ on that I’ve just not been hip to and that’s just a whole new world for me as well!
One of the cooler things about the 45 and being on the hunt for the 45 is that there were so many small regional acts on small regional labels that never sold anything outside of the zip code that they were in. And when you find those things, sometimes you’re like, “Oh my God, this was better than Elvis! But they sold a hundred copies in a rural county in Georgia in 1957!” I feel like in this digital day and age, there are still local and regional acts releasing small bits of music to small audiences, but it’s more readily accessible on YouTube, or anybody can have a Spotify and get their music up there. So I feel like we have entered or have been in rather, another unique time in music history where that’s a possibility.
I hadn’t thought about it like that, but you’re right. And that’s what I’m actually always looking for is that regional stuff. I love to find a guy and be like, “Who’s this?” And then you find out he’s from the town over next to you, you know? No, you’re right, there is gonna be a lot of music like that still just bubbling up. Like the two guys I’m goin’ on tour with, The Kernal and Cotton Clifton are kind of in that same boat. They’re from Jackson, Tennessee. It’s not Memphis, it’s not Nashville, but they’ve struck their claim there and played music there for years and years. The Kernal, he’s got a record that he’s been waiting to put out. I think vinyl is just so backed up right now. And I know Cotton’s been workin’ on a record as well.
I’m glad you brought them up. They are two of my favorite cats out there right now. Very excited about the show comin’ through, and yeah, man, we’ve been highly anticipatin’ Kern’s new record! And as soon as Cotton dropped that new single a couple months back, we were all over it! He’s havin’ a lot of fun with what he’s doin’! Tell me about this series of shows that’ll stop off in Macon on August the 12th. Is this gonna be full band for the three of you? I know Kern and Cotton’ll be playin’ together, but is it gonna be a full band thing for you? Or is it gonna be more like in the round or just an individual singer-songwriter kind of deal?
We’re goin’ to all share a band pretty much is what we’re gonna do– and be in each other’s band. ‘Cause that’s just kinda what made sense to travel right now. We’re all old buddies and have traveled together in different bands over the years, but we’re bringin’ a drummer and a bass player and we’re just gonna all take turns. Hopefully, we’ll work out some nice harmonies and just have fun with it!
That sounds awesome! You and I share another passion and hobby, as I understand it, you’re a big barbecue fan. I too am a barbecue enthusiast!
Yes, sir! That’s all we do around here! I just had a friend visiting for the last week and I don’t think we cooked anything inside the whole time she was here.
That was my whole weekend– everything outside!
I know! I got a little ahead of myself. I’m gonna have a week’s worth of leftovers to be pickin’ at! But I wanted to pull out all the stops and just show her a little bit of everything. In Kansas City, we’re all about charcoal and smokin’. I’m not the biggest propane fan, but I’ll make it work if I have to!
Tell me, what’s your go-to? Pulled pork is my favorite. It’s my go-to thing that I probably do the most and that I think that I have become the best at, although I’m still workin’ and tweakin’ at it. What about you?
Well, I do love pulled pork and I love the process. That’s a good one, like on a Sunday or something, you know, you get to sit there and spend some hours. It’s really not as fun to just grill something that’s over really quick unless it’s like a ribeye steak or somethin’. But if I had to say I had a specialty, it’s probably the ribs. I do my own little way just depending on how much time I have. I picked up this way just by maybe not having as much time. It’s like a faux smoke thing where I’ll cut up each rib individually and dry rub season it and let it sit for a day or two. Spare ribs, I’ll just cut up all that extra meat and do the same. I pretty much sear it on a grill that has half charcoal, like you would steak or anything, and then I move it to the side of the grill without the charcoal, throw in some woodchips, and then let it cook for however long it needs. That way, you get just the nice, crisp all the way around the rib. It’s kinda like chicken wing ribs or something! But we are spoiled in Kansas City! Our barbecue aisle is pretty amazing. Even the hardware stores have barbecue seasonin’ sections! My go-to affordable rub is called Head Country out of Oklahoma. I do love the Q outta Kansas City, but my favorite sauce is probably the Tennessee Red. Blues Hog makes that. I love that red sauce, but that’s just me. I know everybody’s got their own different way of doin’ it– and I like it all!
Well, I want to bring this up, and you can comment or not, you won’t hurt my feelings. The word hiatus gets brought up a lot in terms of the Deslondes. You just mentioned that you and JJ were plannin’ on gettin’ together this winter to work on something. Will that be another Riley Downing project or will it be something for just you and JJ? Or are you currently expecting to do something in the realm of the Deslondes soon?
To be honest, we just got done doin’ another Deslondes record.
Just about a month ago. We got together, I want to say it was around April in New Orleans. We lived together for about two weeks and went over all these new songs. Obviously, COVID was still goin’ on and it was really hard to be in New Orleans and not able to go do all the fun things and see all the people you wanted. But at the same time, that was good for us too, to sit still. We all just lived together, got some new songs together, and we went into the studio a month ago for two weeks and we made a record. It probably won’t be out ’til next spring at some point. We’ve been a band so long and just the whole story and the history that we all have, it’d be a shame to just call it quits. I hope to be able to hit those guys with my cane someday– and still be playin’ music!