Riley Pearce: Reaching the Treasured State

Riley Pearce, 24, reflects on lyrics and meaning of the song 'Brave,' his perspective changing semester in Montana, and past relationships. The Australian singer-songwriter began playing guitar and singing for people on street corners. Not until 18 years old did he start to hone his skills in the studio. 

photo: Claire Borrello

photo: Claire Borrello

“My music isn’t for everyone. Not everybody is going to stop,” says Pearce. “You have to appreciate the people who do.” Riley Pearce, 24 year old Australian singer-songwriter, started playing guitar in the streets. Busking as a teen, he strummed chords and sang melodies in his hometown city of Perth and local farmer’s markets. Many walked by, but those who stopped heard raw, heartfelt vocals rooted in reflection.

At times, public performances did not flow smoothly. “It’s a good way to practice and get your skills up, but it’s also intimidating,” admits Pearce. One afternoon, a drunk man stumbled next to Pearce and whipped out a harmonica. The man played along for a song, then thinking he deserved his fair share, reached into Pearce’s guitar case and swiped the cash. “Other times people leave fresh fruit in my case,” jokes Pearce.

Wanting a hard copy to hand out to passersby on the street, Pearce began recording demos in the studio at 18. “I was unsure of the whole process,” he says. Learning the studio dynamics, Pearce slowly harnessed his sound. He soon printed CD’s to hand out to captivated listeners. While recording, he also jumped into the open mic circuit, building up confidence in front of larger audiences.

photo: Charlie Hill

photo: Charlie Hill

Before Pearce ever played in the public eye, he picked up the guitar left-handed. Born in Melbourne, he moved to Holland at three years old where he mimicked the guitar playing on television. Pearce religiously watched Don Spencer, an Australian children’s TV personality, play guitar at home. “I think I started left handed because when I watched guitar on tv it was a mirror image,” says Pearce. Not until he moved back to Australia at age five did Pearce flip to right-handed. “My guitar teacher thought that I should switch,” he says. “I did everything else righty.”

Inspired by his family early on, Pearce watched his Dad and Uncle play guitar in cover bands. “Music has always been around the house,” he says. On Sunday afternoons, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged and Norah Jones would echo through the home. The passion forged by those close to him kept Pearce playing throughout high school into university.

Attending University of Western Australia (UWA), Pearce graduated with a degree in commerce. Understanding the foundations of business gives the singer-songwriter a more professional approach to music. “My degree comes through subtly,” says Pearce. “I manage myself and know the business side of being an artist.”

photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Finishing his degree abroad, Pearce spent the last semester in Montana. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he says. This American getaway inspired his most recent EP Outside The Lines. As part of the EP, Pearce wrote the song ‘Brave’ before trekking to America. “It’s about the relationship with my younger brother Bailey,” he says. Bailey had just gone on a school field trip for three nights, the first time he had been away from home. “He was pretty scared about the field trip leading up to it,” says Pearce. “I started to reflect on how I’d be away from home for six months.” Pearce knew he needed to leave Australia to spark new inspiration, but harbored guilt for leaving his brother behind. “I wrote the song in way that people could relate to in any type of relationship, not just between brothers,” he says. Also on the EP, the song ‘406' [area code of Montana] is an instrumental embodying the diverse winter landscape of the Treasure State. ‘Roskie,’ the name of the building where he stayed, recounts the swap of “sand for snow” by the “third floor window.” In the track ‘Outside The Lines,’ Pearce sings about day drinking with a woman he met abroad. The EP dives into all types of relationships, some long some short, some romantic and some friendly. “That’s the beauty of life,” says Pearce. “Some things are long term and end badly. Other people are in your life briefly and you learn to appreciate them.”

Returning from Montana, Pearce dove into music full time. Embarking as a professional musician, he constantly experiments with the creative process. “I’ll start with the guitar line and play with the melody around it,” says Pearce. “Then I’ll add dummy words before I put in actual lyrics.” He carries a little book to jot town turns of phrase inspired by everyday life. For jolts of lyrical ideas, Pearce sings voice memos into his phone. “One time I was in the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] and an idea came to me,” he says. “I went into a quiet corner to record on my phone and felt like a weirdo.”

When Pearce sits down to blend the lyrics with guitar, he doesn’t always strum the chords traditionally. Turning the guitar on its side with the bridge facing up, he taps the strings with his knuckles and slaps the body. “I started playing around with different percussive slaps,” he says. “I identified a few songs that might sound better that way, so I tried it.” He first observed this percussive acoustic technique used by Australian singer-songwriter Daniel Champagne. “He slaps it so hard that sometimes he breaks the guitar,” says Pearce.

Whether switching up guitar techniques or humming melodies in the moment, Pearce soaks up inspiration from the ordinary. When a simple melody meets honest words, the result takes the listener on a nostalgic journey laced with haunting vocals and inner reflection. “My music is like breakup songs for couples on a date,” says Pearce. “It can be sad, but I want people to think.”

Riley Pearce Brave

His most recent release, ‘Misplaced,’ reflects on the beginning of his current relationship. “I don’t enter into relationships lightly,” says Pearce. “It’s about the apprehension of wondering whether something’s going to work out.”

She is a breeze I cannot hold,

Why am I trying to control her,

Just let her be and she will come back,

And lay a kiss upon my shoulder

In this verse from 'Misplaced,' Pearce realizes he and his girlfriend are not the same person. “We are two very different people and that’s okay,” he says. “Early on I didn’t recognize that, but now I embrace it.” He chose to film the music video for ‘Misplaced’ from the dash of his own car. Wanting to capture the subtle emotions between two people, Pearce knew the front seat would tell all. “Good times, fights, early morning, late nights, all these feelings come through in the car,” he says. “I wanted to portray that.”

Outside of the songwriting, Pearce does not shy away the realities of the music industry. Touring lacks the glamour most fans associate with the musician lifestyle . “I setup, play, pack down, say hi to a few people, and lug everything out,” he says. “A lot of times I’ll get back to the hotel at 1:30am and wake up three hours later for a flight.” In a cutthroat industry with fleeting victories, brief breakthroughs keep an artist alive. “It’s a lot of action for small moments,” says Pearce. “Often the effort doesn’t match the return.” Many musicians struggle under the pressure of public acceptance. Pearce never lets rejection cloud the reason he started. “I make music I enjoy,” he says. “I don’t see it as a dark ‘yes’ or ‘no’ tied to my worth.”

Over the next few months, Pearce will headline venues around Perth before heading off to Europe. He plans to rent a van to roam the continent, play shows, and hopefully stumble into fresh inspiration. “I’ll definitely write a lot,” he says. “There are so many places I want to see.”

With much of the world unseen at the onset of a rising career, Pearce hopes to carve a legacy marked by memory. “I want people to hear my music and associate it with a time in their life, good or bad,” he says. To Pearce, writing is therapy. Making listeners feel connected drives him to play his own memories into existence. “I want my words to get people through something,” he says, “like the end of a relationship or the start of something new.”

Check out the Brave music video and Riley Pearce's latest EP here:

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