Folksinger Nathaniel Riley lost his job as a vegan chef and manager at a Fort Collins restaurant in early March, yet another economic victim of the coronavirus outbreak.
So he decided to stay at home and add to his oeuvre of sad folk songs.
“I’m a very introverted person,” Riley says. “I’ve struggled with a lot of different things, and without having to get into that, it’s just that I don’t really choose intentionally to write depressing music. But thankfully, folk music kind of revolves around that, so it worked really well.”
Riley played a show at Mutiny Information Cafe in Denver about a month ago, and the 23-year-old Fort Collins singer gave off a profoundly Inside Llewyn Davis kind of vibe with his mournful ballads. Of course, Riley seems like a nice fellow in person, not the jerky misanthrope of his fictional movie counterpart.
He says sad-master Townes Van Zandt has been a big influence on his music, and he’s also been diving into Depression-era darling the Carter Family. He’s a huge history nerd and perhaps addicted to sentimental things and nostalgia, and those two artists speak to him. As far as modern singer-songwriters are concerned, he likes the work of Seattle artist Damien Jurado.
He’s lived in Fort Collins the past few years, but he’s originally from Custer, South Dakota, a town with about 2,000 people as of the 2010 census. Fort Collins can feel really big to him sometimes.
“I thought I hated it,” he says. “Then I moved here, and I feel like I’m living in a big city, just being in Fort Collins. I kind of miss being back in the woods up there. It’s sort of give-and-take. There’s a lot of good stuff down here.”
Riley’s journey into music began when he was a young child who would swipe Nirvana and Jewel albums from his mom’s CD collection. He counts a high school friend whose father was a musician and into classic rock as influential, and he also learned about music digging for old vinyl records with a friend.
“We would buy big record crates from his parents' friends' houses. They're moving out or whatever, you know. We would just find giant crates of records for free or for like five bucks,” he says. “We’d take them all and listen to them in his room for like eight hours and write little notes inside about which ones were our favorites.”
As a way to get closer to music, Riley later started playing in what he calls “a very heavy rock band” that opened up for death-metal acts.
“I think a lot of people start there,” he says. “It was a lot of fun, but I didn’t start playing folk music actually until about a year and a half ago.”
He says that he appreciates folk music because it reminds him of his rural roots, and his writing comes from a longing to be back on the farm and in the woods, living a peaceful, isolated lifestyle the city doesn't offer.
“Folk music nurtured that because it starts with acoustic instruments,” he says. “It’s really simple, and you can tell a story through those few chords and the acoustic guitar.”
He recorded a three-track EP, Trio, in his bedroom over the summer using a microphone, a guitar and not much else. It is a lo-fi effort, and he appreciated the stress- and pressure-free approach to recording. He released it in February.
“I wasn’t searching for perfection,” he says. “I was more so searching for relief and getting that sound out there.”
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Riley is currently tinkering with the songs he’s written and narrowing them down so he can go into the recording studio, hopefully later this year. He says he wants to bring in some backing musicians to fatten up the sound of his music.
“It’ll bring a lot more dynamic range to it,” he says. “That’s what I'm most excited about, having the songs blossom even more.”
Listen to Nathaniel Riley and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.