The beginning of Riley Moore’s new EP, sweet boy, features a back-and-forth between Moore and a (pre-COVID) audience about how he’s basically clueless when it comes to certain musical technologies.
Like guitar pedals, for instance.
“I’m just an acoustic farmhand,” he says, in a mock yokel accent, before piano notes rush in, building a bridge to the first proper song on the album.
The subtext of that playful banter is perhaps that Moore, a native Nashvillean who turned 30 this month, is a songwriter so focused on self-expression and lyricism that he’s never taken the time to figure out how complex things (like, say, guitar pedals) work. Or even how to play covers, for that matter. “Ever since I’ve been able to play chords, I’ve wanted to write songs,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It felt like a natural process: OK, I can play guitar, so now I’m going to write my own stuff. I was never all that interested in learning how to play other people’s songs.”
Moore, who also goes by the moniker Song Boy, displays his immense songwriting talents on the delicate sweet boy, which was released on all major streaming platforms March 12. The collection of eight tracks is an intimate portrait of a talented lyricist (and graceful vocalist) making a deliberate choice to return to basics. His debut album, Vagrant, released in 2018, undoubtedly had its softer moments, but it also featured typical Nashvillean tropes, such as a playful drinking song (though even this straight forward tune was filtered through Moore’s endearingly quirky perspective) and sleek production that left little room for serendipity. Sweet boy in many ways stands in direct opposition to that album, and mainstream Nashville in general: it’s bare, vulnerable and subtly beautiful.
“When I was touring [for my first album], I was driving around in a Honda Civic by myself, playing tons of house shows and small bars with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica,” he said. “Those shows were so different than the feel of my first album, so my goal [for sweet boy] was to create a sound that would feel similar to being at one of those shows.”
Moore by and large succeeded in this effort, using found sounds and banter from that pre-COVID show to create a relaxed, in-the-room atmosphere. The lyrics on sweet boy are generally more cryptic and impressionistic than those on Vagrant, and the structures are less straightforward. Moore said that he never sits down to write in a particular genre, mainly because “I’m not talented enough to do that,” as his put it in typically self-deprecating terms. Oftentimes he’s not even sure what style of song he’s written until a producer dolls it up in the studio. This loose approach to songcraft gives Moore’s music a transient quality that allows it to exist in several spaces at once. Is he earnest or ironic? Traditional or subversive? Comedic or straight-faced? Perhaps he’s all of these at different times, or everything at once. The intrigue lies in the tension.
Holding it all together are Moore’s undeniable songwriting chops. His lyrics are clever and he knows how to deploy a good earworm. One artist he’s been compared to is the late John Prine, a beloved Americana singer-songwriter who could be funny one second and profound the next, and sometimes both in the same breath. This is a trait that Moore embodies, too, considering he seems just as authentic singing about getting drunk on a “boat named Shitfaced” (from the song “Sitting on a Boat” off Vagrant) as he does crooning a beautiful love ballad like “a hundred and fifty,” which appears on sweet boy and features the lyrics If you ever decide that you want me to stick around/I’ve been gathering stones/I like to live on solid ground. Moore’s voice is breathy and gentle throughout the song, and likewise most of sweet boy. He sounds like someone falling in love with the world all over again.
Many of the tunes the new EP recorded in a 200-year old cabin that one of his friends, a science teacher, discovered behind the drywall of his home during a renovation. “He was literally unearthing a cabin in a corner of his house,” Moore said. So during the day, while his friend was at work, Moore would head over to the cabin and record tracks for what eventually became sweet boy. The unpretentious setting lowered the stakes (“There was no fancy studio stuff. No guitars on the walls, no pictures. Just an empty cabin,” he said ) and allowed Moore to capture the stripped down vibe he was seeking. “It felt timeless, like a blank canvas,” he said. “It was just a couple of guys making music, doing something people have been doing for a long time.” The location also made Moore feel more comfortable calling the shots and controlling the direction of the record, something he said he wasn’t able to do as much on Vagrant, which “was done more conventionally, with my producer friend navigating a lot of it,” as he put it.
The result is a collection of songs that’s perhaps as earnest as anything Moore has put to tape during a career that began professionally with Vagrant, but in reality stretches back much further, into a long and winding past. Moore is very much the wandering man he sings about on his debut album (“I’m a wandering man/everybody knows me/that’s just who I am”), having done a fair share of adventuring during his three decades on Earth, including a walking music tour from Maine to Nashville, living on a sailboat, a stint in Europe as a band manager (for Set Sail) and enrolling in a leadership school in Australia (where he majored in music) immediately after high school. His time in Australia was the most influential “season of my life,” as he put it, because that’s where he met the guys from Set Sail and learned the logistics of how to make a living as a musician.
“Those guys would busk in Sydney and make $900 per night,” he said. “They became my best friends. I moved into their house and slept on a mattress on the floor in a room with six other people. It was a very 19-year old thing to do, but it was such a great experience. I became their manager and booked shows for them all over Europe. That influenced me…not necessarily my sound, but the idea that you can do this. If you have the right attitude, you can write songs and sing them for people.”
It was on that walking tour from Maine to Nashville, which took place five years ago, that his musical career began to blossom. He was living in Nashville at the time, selling real estate and itching for something new. He knew he wanted to pursue music full-time, but “for whatever reason, I just wasn’t doing it,” he said. That’s when one of his friends, Benjamin Butler, a fellow musician and friend, invited Moore to do the tour with him and two other artists. The foursome would go on to call themselves, fittingly, “The Walking Guys.”
It was the kick in the butt that Moore needed. By committing himself to a months-long tour, he had no choice but to play music. During some of the early shows, Moore had such significant stage fright that he could “barely strum the chords because my fingers were shaking so badly.” By the end, however, he was a self-assured performer.
Two years later, he recorded Vagrant, which was featured in Billboard Magazine. One of the songs from that album, “Pancakes and M&Ms,” currently has over a million streams, and Moore himself has over 60,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Three years after Vagrant, sweet boy entered the fold. And here it stands today, a testament to Moore’s rustic worldview and the simplistic existence he currently leads.
“Right now, my life is living on my family’s orchard by myself,” he said. “The other day, I was fertilizing trees. So what I’m doing right now is an extension of my music. It all feels very natural.”
I drummed up a little contest for the two adults in the car. I grabbed a tin of Mr. Planters cocktail peanuts from the passenger seat. Placed a single nut in my mouth.
And all of a sudden my dead grandpa and I were walking side-by-side down a desert highway.
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