Riley Downing Invites Us To Take A “Deep Breath”

Riley Downing’s solo debut album, Start It Over, arrives May 14 via New West Records on streaming platforms, CD and “Sea Glass and Turquoise” colored vinyl. 

Downing, best known for his work with The Deslondes, had first intended to make a single while his band was on hiatus. But his muses had a different idea and a wealth of songs and inspiration resulted in the 12 tunes heard across the album. 

Co-produced by Andrijia Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff) and John James Tourville of the Deslondes, the record features a wide range of musicians who, together, create a potent, formidable sound. Joining Downing are Lawrence of the Raconteurs on electric bass, Dennis Crouch (Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, co-founder of Nashville’s acclaimed The Time Jumpers Mellotron, Meg Coleman (Yola) and Jimmy Lester (Los Straightjackets, Blaze Foley) on drums, Jeff Taylor (George Strait, Elvis Costello, The Time Jumpers) on keys, Derry Deborja (John Prine, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit) on Farfisa and Kyshona Armstrong, among others. 

The first single, “Deep Breath,” exemplifies the album’s loose, roots-driven feel. At times reminiscent of the laid-back, rhythm-heavy sounds of ‘70s Tulsa, with expected doses of New Orleans and fuzzed out guitar that is otherworldly, it’s easy to imagine that the tune is some long-lost single from a bygone era. Of course, it doesn’t fully matter when the song comes from so much as that it stands as a bit of quiet (or not-so-quiet as the case may be) comfort in a time of trouble. “Deep Breath” exudes warmth and finds Downing pausing to take his own advice, giving the listener a second to join him in that all-important action. 

Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

“I wrote it to talk to the audience and maybe get somebody to take a deep breath with you,” he says, speaking from his home in Missouri. “I’m not the best at playing leads so that was kind of a way to get a break in the song. In the studio, they made me pick up my pace.” 

As for the humor-laden video, Downing adds, “It’s been a while since I’ve done that kind of acting.” 

Downing spoke with American Songwriter about the recording of Start It Over as well as his love of record collecting and the realities of recording an album in the age of COVID-19. 

American Songwriter: You were going to make a single and wound up with an album.

Riley Downing: John James had been doing some more session work with Andrijia. There was talk of each Deslondes member doing a solo record but time was getting away from everybody. John said, ‘Well, maybe if it’s just one song, just to tip that hat and say you’re still here, that might be a fun, affordable thing to do.’ We started sending songs back and forth and realized we had quite a few. John and Dre said, ‘When you come down, let’s try to do maybe five songs.’ Once we successfully did that over a three-day period we said, ‘OK, I think we can make a record.’ We just kept going from there. 

AS: The initial sessions were pre-pandemic? 

RD: Everything was being discussed and sent back and forth before. Then the pandemic happened and we put it down for a while because everybody had other things going on. Everything changed for everybody in one way or another. Andrea wasn’t going to be recording anything for a few months. I didn’t even know if the session that we were going to do was going to keep getting pushed and pushed. We waited, pushed it off. And [it turns out] we waited long enough that everybody felt OK about getting back into the studio. 

I think my session was the first one booked in that studio. I had everybody back, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We did our best to do it safely, wearing masks and keeping it pretty low key. It was different to go to Nashville and kind of sit on my hands. I couldn’t go do all the things I would normally do there. 

AS: So, everyone was in the same place and, basically, at the same time. 

RD: I was in a separate room because I had to take my mask off. Everybody is really good at what they would do. They would have a good take within in two or three takes. It was fun for me. With all the pre-production, you’re sitting at home, trying to get a vision for how it’s gonna go down. Once you’re actually making music with these people, it kind of comes to life and it’s kind of new all over again.

AS: Were there things that you felt you could try out that maybe you wouldn’t bring to a Deslondes album? 

RD: Yes, definitely. Having a string section on a song was one. I’ve never had that experience, so it was mind-blowing to go from being hunched over an acoustic guitar in a shed to being in a studio with an amazing band and having a string section added to the song. 

AS: Tell me about assembling the players on the record. Were these people you’d known for a while and you’d say, “Man, I can’t wait until I have a reason to have Kyshona on a track?” 

RD: That was all Andrijia. He has built a relationship with different musicians in Nashville over the years and he was the one that handpicked who would do what. It was the first I met pretty much all of these guys and girls. It was fun to just meet them and see them do their thing. I have a whole new respect for session musicians now. That’s for sure. 

AS: These players all have amazing experiences and I know that sometimes the fun of a session can be the hang. Obviously, you’re making this record during a time when it’s a little tougher to hang out and swap stories. 

RD: There were times where we’d have to step out and wait. We were still all masked up. If they wanted to tell stories, share some history, I was all ears. Dennis Crouch went on a kick about Starday Records. I love old 45s and 78s, just the history of those old labels. When he started talking about Starday, I said, ‘Man, I hope he hangs out and talks about this all day long.’ 

AS: [Laughs.] Tell me about your interest in 45s. There’s a certain art to them and, a lot of times, those singles were the only thing some people put out. 

RD: That’s where you can find some of the most obscure, regional oddball stuff. I really do love the regional stuff. If I find anything from the Kansas City area, I have to have it eventually. I pulled reins on myself. I had to decide how much of a collector I wanted to be and how much of a reseller. I just love it. I used to make compilations for people on tape or CD and give them to people. I think that’s kind of what got me into collecting stuff. 

AS: Yeah, I had a stack of 45s as a kind that I would riffle through all the time, playing them in different combinations and at some point you start searching for more obscure things.  

RD: The first record I ever found that was of historical significance was at an antique mall in Liberty, Missouri. I recognized the name, Rufus Thomas. It was an acetate. I paid a dollar, threw it in my car, took it home and didn’t think about it for a while. Then I rediscovered it and listened to it. It ended up being a goofy commercial that he had done in 1953 for WDIA Records. WDIA was the biggest African American radio station in the south at the time, out of Memphis. 

The significance of that record was that 1953 was the only year that Rufus Thomas recorded for Sun Records. That’s when he did ‘Bear Cat,’ which sounded like ‘Hound Dog.’ He got sued for that. I didn’t know what to do with that record. I put it up on the Memphis Craigslist, thinking someone would be interested in it. Finally, I emailed Sun Records and four months later, somebody wrote back and said, ‘We’ll give you $1000.’ I had never made that much money selling a record and I definitely didn’t know how to mail one that fragile. 

I said, ‘Well, you know what? I’m coming through Memphis on tour with my band in five or six months. I’ll just hand deliver it.’ That’s what I did. I hand delivered it. They gave me 1000 bucks. That, in turn, probably took care of some debt. That’s when I got hooked. When you do that with a record, you’re just hooked. You’ll be chasing the rainbow for the rest of your life. 

AS: Isn’t it amazing when you stumble on something that seems out of place. Like, I came across a Czechoslovakian jazz record from the ‘70s one time in Wichita and I thought, “How in the world did this get here? What circumstances allowed it to travel from, say, Prague to Wichita and then into my hands?” 

RD: It does make you scratch your head. Recently, I bought 800 78s and they were all Bing Crosby. But, in the middle of that, I found one really rare one from a pre-World War II Mississippi blues guitarist who only made one record. How did that one get mixed up in there and end up down the road from me? It’s a mystery.

Main image by Tamara Grayson

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