It goes without saying that an artist’s first full-length album is a big deal. Not only does it serve as their first impression on a new world of listeners, but in many respects, it marks their first big statement on who they are and the way they see things. Even so, it often takes several years and multiple releases for artists to grow comfortable in their own skin and find their footing when it comes to giving away something as personal as their own songs. In short, a debut album is a major milestone, cemented in time, never to be replicated.
Alexandra Riorden was made for that moment. From her impactful upbringing in San Francisco to the exploratory years of her young adulthood, every step of Riorden’s life helped set the foundation for LP number one. That record is Angel City Radio, a lavish and cinematic art-rock opus that’s filled to the brim with dusty garage anthems, glitzy piano ballads, and lurching mid tempo rockers that evoke a wide scope of emotions and lucid sensations. It’s a collection of songs rooted in a myriad of styles, both classic and modern: ’70s folk-rock, vintage new wave, and more contemporary indie stylings than one can count. It’s an album that spans many moods and sounds, each musical terrain it crosses tinted by the entrancing glow of Los Angeles.
Recorded and arranged with producer Max Goldenstein, Angel City Radio is both a sonic and personal milestone that represents a flourishing period of self-reflection, personal growth, and unbridled creativity. While the record is steeped in atmospheric studio sounds, there is a raw and raucous undercurrent running through many of the songs, an element that especially shines in the live setting, where Riorden and her band unabashedly transform her album’s shimmering pop exterior into more of a loud, heartfelt, thrashing onslaught. From the ominous intro track “Animals” to the soul-stirring lament “Day by Day” to the crunchy angst of “Tenderness,” each track here flaunts its flair for the dramatic while also placing great value on restraint and melodic detail.
A multi-faceted creator, Riorden is a songwriter, poet, and provocateur all in one. Her first album is a statement of empowerment, punctuated by bold production and the ethereal chamber of her hushed and ghostly vocal register. Though her art is a deeply personal endeavor, there is an undeniable universal quality to her songs. Angel City Radio serves as a testament to all of that.
Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Alexandra Riorden to chat about her new record, her love for Patti Smith, and the healing power of music. Check out their full conversation below.
It’s been a little over a month since the release of Angel City Radio. I imagine this album has checked off a lot of firsts for you.
Alexandra: Totally. I always wanted to make an album and print vinyl. It’s beyond the music for me. I love the visual element and I love writing, so the lyrics are a big part of it and putting that in a little booklet to go with the vinyl, just the whole presentation, that’s been kind of a milestone for me too. We’ve got some really good shows locked in up at Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco and then we’re also playing at Henry Miller Library, which I’m super excited about. So yeah, it’s a lot of bucket list things.
Most recently, you’ve been playing with your band all around Santa Barbara. Did you grow up here?
Alexandra: I actually grew up in San Francisco and came to Santa Barbara for school, so I most identify my upbringing with that. Most of the friends I still have from back then are from the city and a lot of my formative experiences, especially with music and art, were definitely S.F.
Could you tell me about your upbringing and when you decided to pursue your art more intently?
Alexandra: I feel like the music scene is just so alive in San Francisco. I don’t know how else to describe it besides ‘rootsy.’ I feel like people are very authentically creating there. There’s a lot of punk music and rock and roll. That was all really influential to me. It’s a very organic and interconnected scene and it doesn’t feel transactional. It’s more like a friendship based thing. At least that was my experience. Living in L.A., I guess that’s where I started to actually understand the nature of the scene up north and what that meant to me. Not to put it down in any way, but in L.A., there’s a lot more of this foundational understanding of the transactional nature of collaboration. I had really authentic connections with people there that did not feel that way but just overall.
How old were you when you played in your first bands or started writing your first songs?
Alexandra: I didn’t really play in any bands until I was in college, but I started playing music pretty young. I always was singing; I was in musical theater as a little kid. My mom put me in when I was like six and I started getting voice lessons around then too. I did a classical program at SF Conservatory of Music. I got a guitar around 12 or 13 from a family friend who heard me singing and was like, ‘Ah, you should have something to accompany yourself.’ So I started playing and always wrote little songs and sang covers and things like that. It wasn’t really until after college, when I was traveling in Asia that I actually started writing serious material. I don’t think I was ready before that. I hadn’t written anything that felt super cohesive and timeless to me. I think I was just experimenting.
It sounds like you were drawn to songwriting and lyrics as a form of personal expression more than a social thing to do with other people.
Alexandra: To this day, I’ve never really been in a room writing lyrics with someone. It’s a very self-reflective and healing, therapeutic thing to me. Working with a band now is so cool though. That just takes it to the next level because I’ve always wanted to be doing rock and roll and a little bit of punk and it’s nice to have that energy behind me, while still being able to have the lyrical component. That’s what I like about my music. It can be something you can really get down to but the lyrics are always deep-feeling because that’s how I started doing it.
You released your first EP in 2019. A lot has changed in the world since then. How have you grown, personally and artistically, over that time period?
Alexandra: That was kind of my first foray into recording a collection of my work. I liked the whole vision of an album: the visuals and the writing and the art and the videos and how it all forms a narrative. Not necessarily a concept album, but it’s a snapshot of your life, you know? It was also my first serious recording experience. We were in a studio every day and it was so fun. I learned a lot about production. That was a really big thing for me because I’m so into cinematic music and creating a whole atmosphere and world with the production. It was the first time I stepped up to be more assertive and vocal about what I want my music to sound like. I was like, ‘I don’t want to just do solo singer-songwriter stuff. I want to make rock and roll.’ I feel like I can be even more bold, because now I’ve formed the foundation of my work. Also just loosening up and being more fearless. There were times on the first EP where I didn’t go full out with my performance because I still felt a little bit timid. I didn’t want to shock other people around me too much based on what they had heard from me. You know, like if I wanted to start screaming instead of singing in a more melodic folk tone or something.
Can you take me through the timeline for Angel City Radio?
Alexandra: I started working on Angel City Radio around the release of Weirdflower. I wrote “Animals,” which ended up being the first song on the album, around that time. I reached out to Max because he said he’d been wanting to start his own little production studio and record some people. I went in and we recorded “Day By Day,” a song he wrote that ended up being on the record. Our styles were completely cohesive and worked together so well. When I heard that song back, I was like, ‘Wow. I feel like I wrote that.’ From there, I knew I wanted to record an EP or an album together. Then it was just like going with the flow. I would write something and bring it in and then we’d record it in the studio that day. Or he would have some instrumental thing and say, ‘I’m not going to use this. Maybe it would be good for your style.’ It was very on the spot, never really doing more than a few takes for all the parts.
When did the musical direction of the album start to take shape?
Alexandra: Recording “Animals” really gave me an indication of where things were going. It’s kind of an eerie song, but then we started playing it together and adding different guitar tones and talking more about what it sounded like to both of us. That gave me some guideposts. He [Max] was like, ‘This reminds me of James Bond.’ And other people were like, ‘This reminds me of Portishead. It’s loungey and dark but also grungy.’ Hearing all those terms made me understand a little bit more of my writing style too. I feel like a lot of my songs have a sort of 007 sound to them. I wanted to bring that all together and have that be the backbone of the album. But then some of my songs are a little more classic folk sounding as well and a little bit country influenced. I think it was just both of our disparate influences. They really matched up, down to the nuances. It wasn’t pre-formulated at all.
One of my favorite songs on the record is “Mojo Mountain.” I wanted to use that as a jumping point to talk about Patti Smith, as that particular track reminds me of her. It’s punk in every facet; it’s performative, theatrical, and has an anthemic quality to it. It also sounds great live. Did you come to Patti through her music or her writing? What are some qualities about her that you aspire to in your own work?
Alexandra: I came to her writing first. I think I was in college. A friend of mine gave me Just Kids. That’s probably how a lot of people in my generation came to Patti Smith. The whole idea of ‘do it yourself’ – the resourceful and ambitious energy behind the New York scene was so deeply inspiring to me. Just how she was really into writing, reading books, and all the classic authors and classic poets before that. I think it’s so cool how she brought those things together. Continuing to know her now, especially at the age she’s at, I love that she’s this grungy, rock and roll, punk icon but she also seems to have such good-hearted values. She’s all about unifying and healing people. That’s why I love her so much. Like, yeah, I love rock and roll and punk, but for me, that’s not about being too cool and above people. Also, she’s not at all a perfectionist, I feel like she just goes for it and doesn’t care about being ‘good.’ She cares more about expressing herself and that’s how I feel too. We create those barriers for ourselves and we’re our own gatekeepers. It’s kind of a shame that there’s probably so many incredible hidden artists because out there they feel like they’re not quite there yet. We all are vessels for whatever our purpose is. I’m not going to shut that down because I don’t feel I’m good enough or I’m not ready. I want to express as a means of connecting with others through our humanity.
There is a common thread that ties together a lot of your big inspirations: Patti Smith, David Bowie, Kate Bush – all artists who dared to be bold and on the cutting edge. Why are you drawn to those types of performers so much?
Alexandra: I love the eccentricity of those people. I love the theatricality of their performance. Something I’m realizing as I’m getting out there more and performing with my band is that’s just a big marker of what I do. I’m just a theatrical person. I love the makeup and the costumes and the facial expressions and the body movements. Also just the fearlessness. To me, the bigger, the better.
Speaking of songs in your live set, “Tenderness” seems to be a favorite among your fans and the band.
Alexandra: That’s my favorite song to play live because I can just feel the energy of it and it feels amazing to go crazy at the end every time. I think people really feel it because it’s kind of a juxtaposition. It sounds aggressive but it’s a song about self-love. It’s kind of like me yelling at myself, like, ‘Why am I still experiencing self-loathing when I’ve done so much work to heal?’ The nature of being a human is that you don’t always love yourself because you’re with yourself all the time and sometimes it can feel really uncomfortable. The song is like a release in that sense.
You experienced a scary home break-in while living in L.A., something you allude to explicitly on “Animals.” How did that song factor into your healing process?
Alexandra: The past few years of my life, that’s been a big journey for me. Processing that event, it took time to reestablish my trust in the world and to get my feet back on the ground. I had been so free spirited and open before that. With something that scary, you don’t really like to talk about it too much. At first I wanted to get back to who I was before it happened but I realized that was no more. Being able to write a song about it and speak about it was a really good sign to me about my healing. I met myself in a new way.
The rest of the record deviates from that particular event but revisits the tropes of trauma and healing in different ways. In what ways did those themes manifest throughout the rest of the album?
Alexandra: I was thinking about “Living In A World Away” recently. I wrote that when there were a lot of fires going on in Southern California and it felt so surreal to me seeing it all over social media and on the news, knowing that it was so close to me but wasn’t quite reaching my doorstep. Just reflecting on how fearful and scary the world can feel when you just look through the lens of the media. That song feels comforting to me. It feels like, ‘Okay, the world has gone totally mad, but I’m still going to commit to my dream and my life purpose and just blindly go for it because I feel like I can help people and bring them back to their center, even through all this darkness.’ With the world reaching this boiling point, it can be really scary and make people want to shut down. It makes me feel that way sometimes too. But I just remind myself that this is my purpose. And maybe the world being in this dark place is even more reason to go for it.
Your band has a great groove going right now heading into tour. It seems like you guys play louder at every show. Can that be chalked up to not having performed in several months?
Alexandra: I don’t know. The last time we performed, my ears were ringing so hard after. I think I have pent up energy from the past 27 years of my life, because I’ve just been ready to go onstage and shred and be a rockstar, I just wasn’t quite there yet. So now that I’m there and have my band supporting me, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m going all out tonight.’
The studio production on the record plays a large role in the overall atmosphere. How do you approach the live setting compared to recording?
Alexandra: As far as the album, every song actually has so many different layers. We really had to pare things down because the band is only three other people and I’m not even playing guitar on a lot of the songs. I feel like we’ve been able to carry that sound well, which is awesome. It’s inspired me a lot. For the next project, I want to record some really stripped down versions of songs, just because it’s nice to hear things in their essence. It’s also really cool to hear how much power you can carry when it’s just one guitar, bass, and drums. We’ve had to do a little choosing parts and arranging for the live setting, but overall, it actually sounds pretty similar to the record.
Buy and stream Alexandra Riorden’s debut album Angel City Radio out everywhere via Weirdflower Records.