Pop-Culturalist Chats with Kyle Riabko
Kyle Riabko’s passion for music began at a young age. He began playing guitar in his hometown of Saskatoon in Canada at the age of ten, quickly proving that this would be a life-long career. His subsequent resume of great musicians that he toured with during his teenage years is staggering: John Mayer, BB King, Jason Mraz, and Buddy Guy, to name a few. His talent doesn’t stop there, though. He has also acted on both television and on Broadway (he was in both Spring Awakening and Hair). He even developed his own theater show, Close To You: Bacharach Reimagined, based on his album of reimagined Bacharach songs. The piece went from the New York Theatre Workshop all the way to the West End in London.
Currently, Kyle Riabko has taken on another mammoth and legendary composer. Riabko’s newest album is Richard Rodgers Reimagined. Peppered with classics alongside lesser-known songs, Riabko’s reinterpretations are enthralling. We were happy to chat with him about the album, making music, and his favorite Richard Rodgers’ song.
P-C: What drew you to music growing up?
Kyle: My parents are very musical people. They’re not musicians, but they love music. My mom was always singing in the house. In fact, she was often singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” to wake me up—not that I knew it was a Richard Rogers song back then. The house was filled with music at all times. From the genetics standpoint, my grandpa was a jazz musician on the weekends, but he passed away before I really got to see him play. Then when I was ten, I discovered a bar in Saskatoon through friends and their dad. [It was a] place that let kids in on Saturdays called Buds on Broadway. [You could] watch musicians get up on stage to jam in the afternoons. I was just starting to learn how to play guitar so I went by there with my guitar and started jumping up on stage. That’s where I really started digging into music and fell in love with it.
P-C: Who do you consider your biggest musical influences?
Kyle: I would say growing up it was all Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin. Guitar-based rock and blues. BB King, James Brown, Buddy Guy. I love blues music, and that’s where I built my core.
P-C: What made you branch out and try acting as well?
Kyle: In high school, I used to act a little bit in theater. I was into it and enjoyed it because I loved the feeling of being in front of an audience and presenting something, but I really was a musician all throughout my teens. Then, there was a television show in Canada called Instant Star, and there were auditions for it. There was a part for a musician entering the world of the show so I auditioned and got that. When I was on set for that television show, I got the acting bug a little bit. The main thing, though, is when I was nineteen or so there was a show on Broadway called Spring Awakening. I had never really considered Broadway. I didn’t even really know what Broadway was, but I got a call form my agent in New York who said, “This is a show you should see. It doesn’t sound like a Broadway musical. It’s a new sound, and they’re looking for new people. Perhaps you could audition for it.” So I went down to New York, saw it, and was like “Oh, wow. Theater can be cool.” I auditioned and got it.
P-C: How did you choose what songs you wanted to cover out of Richard Roger’s library?
Kyle: What I did was, I talked over the whole catalog with my manager, David Seltzer. He really did grow up with these songs whereas I was growing up with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. So he had a first-hand knowledge of it. We would go through the hundreds of songs together, and I would take the information, go home, and listen to different versions of the tunes and figure out which ones clicked with me personally. There were some I listened to and thought, “That’s an obviously great song, but it doesn’t make me feel anything personally,” so I would move on. It was a process of constant listening and figuring out which songs meant something to me; songs that I felt like I could add to in a way. The weird thing about this catalog is that these songs have been covered and done by so many artists so you can find an Ella Fitzgerald version of it that you really like or you’re not into, but [then] you stumble on a Frank Sinatra version that you just love. This is what I like about the age of streaming: you can sit at your desk and go on a one thousand song journey.
P-C: Do you have a favorite from the album?
Kyle: That’s a tough one. Maybe “Where or When” because that was one of the first songs that I recorded (speaking of Sinarta, I really loved the Sinatra version). I thought it would be really interesting if someone like Paul Simon or Simon & Garfunkel got this and, instead of an orchestra or piano, it was played on guitar. So it’s just simple. It’s small; it’s quiet. I like that kind of thing.
P-C: How does your process of creating the songs/getting inspired work?
Kyle: Once I know I’m going to interpret a song, I listen to a few different versions of it, and I think about it. I look at the chord structure, and I try to find something in it that is a unique thing that stands out to me that maybe hasn’t been exploited before. For example, in “My Favorite Things” everyone always thinks about “raindrops on roses” and Julie Andrews singing it, but I was looking at the lyrics, and I saw the line, “Then I won’t feel so bad” at the end of the first stanza. I thought, “Oh that’s so interesting. That’s a very interesting and odd line. And a sad line.” I took that line and created an arrangement around it. I tried to find the anguish in that song and bring a darker element to it. I also just think in term of opposites; so if it’s a song’s fast—and this is really simple—then what would it be like as a slow song [and vice versa]? If it’s piano-based, maybe it should be guitar-based. I just sit in my home studio and play. Sometimes it takes a couple versions before I find one that I like.
P-C: You also had the Bacharach album. Is there another composer/musician you would re-interpret in the future?
Kyle: We have some ideas that are too early to talk about, but I’m really excited [to have] Richard Rodgers for a while because Bacharah has been such a big part of my life. It’s going to be cool this year to expand on that and have a Richard Rodgers set. It’s, again, like Spring Awakening; it is something I fell into—the notion of re-interpreting old songs. I didn’t expect it to be a big part of my career, but it is now, and I enjoy it. So I think I will do this kind of thing again.
P-C: When you were creating the show around Bacharach, what was the biggest challenge for you?
Kyle: The biggest challenge was the process of getting a theater show developed. When I started it, I thought it would be an album and collection of songs done in a unique way, but when we decided it was good enough to be a show, I naively thought, “Oh that’s cool. We’ll get a couple people involved and next year we’ll get it on stage.” I’m used to music which is pretty fast, but theater takes a long time. There were hundreds of meetings…some people getting the idea and a lot of people not getting the idea. It was people telling us that we should have a story, like with actors acting out a story with the music, and us saying, “No. This is all about the music.” It required a lot of resistance and pushing back against the elements. The whole journey was many years long. That was the hardest part. The process of getting a theater show mounted. I could write a book about it! It was an adventure.
P-C: What was the biggest takeaway that you’ll carry on through what you do?
Kyle: Persistence really does pay off. My first instinct a lot of the time was, “Oh God. This didn’t work out. This fell through so maybe it’s not good enough.” My instinct was to throw my hands up, but my manager David Seltzer had been through this kind of thing before. He was persistent and that absolutely paid off. It’s kind of a lesson learned: if you really believe in your idea, there’s no guarantees it will work out, but it definitely won’t if you don’t try.
P-C: As you take this Rodgers album on the road, what is the thing you most look forward to about sharing it with people?
Kyle: With these types of reimagined shows, [I love] the look on the audiences faces when they realize how many classic songs these composers have written—like with Bacharach when I get to “Always Something There to Remind Me.” Their eyes just bug out. I’m excited to see that with Richard Rodgers. It’s the same kind of catalog; you can’t believe he wrote it all. And, with the Richard Rodgers show, I’m going to be with a really cool band that I love to play with so I’m excited just to jam.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
Guilty Pleasure TV Show or Movie
The entire James Bond series.
No Country for Old Men
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom
Favorite Play or Musical
A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington
Someone You Would like to Meet Someday
I kind of use them in front of people….I love writing. I write short stories, and I don’t show them to anybody.
Music library surprised to find
Beck. Beck was one of my biggest influences when I was growing up. His album Midnight Vultures is one I love.
If you were on a desert island, what would you bring?
Guitar, pad of paper and a pen (an unlimited one, hopefully), and, she’s not a thing, but I’d bring my girlfriend!