Like one of the ghosts in the video for her latest release Mansion of Broken Hearts, musician SJ Riley seems to have materialized into the forefront of my cultural radar out of seemingly nowhere. Perhaps it was the continuous lockdowns, or maybe over a year without live music, but six months ago I wasn’t aware of who SJ was. Now she is suddenly all over my social media when her first single, Whoever This Was Written To started to receive attention. In fact, SJ Riley is getting lots of attention now, and it’s well deserved.
Ironically, SJ just lives around the corner and down the street from my home in a small pretty apartment, tastefully decorated in band posters and musical instruments. Within minutes of meeting her she’s already performing a brand-new song that nobody’s heard yet. Although her performance gives me goosebumps she simply says “I wrote it in a few hours. It just came out of me. I was just up one night playing around with some chords.”
A singer and actress, at the heart of her talent is a gifted songwriter. “I’ve always written little songs, but I started writing real songs when I picked up the guitar, because it’s hard to write if you don’t have an instrument,” SJ tells me “My parents bought me my first guitar when I was fourteen and I’ve been doing music ever since. There was a little bit of a hiatus when I was in this relationship, but when I left, I started writing again.”
Over a serving of Twisted Tea, and lots of interruptions to talk about our mutual love of classic rock, SJ tells that her journey to get to this moment has been a long one, but when I ask her where she was hiding all this time, it comes back to that past relationship again.
“I was in a twelve-year relationship, and during it I didn’t pursue what I wanted to pursue,” SJ reveals. “I just really never had an avenue or an opportunity to pursue music in a way I wanted. Sometimes you wait and wait, but why are you waiting around? It was like this weird perfect storm.”
“You have to be a chameleon in relationships, especially when you have someone who is a little bit more dominant,” she continues. “You just get into a routine, and then you wake up one morning and go ‘What am I doing?’ Getting smothered creatively is like losing a part of yourself. I suffered from depression for two years because I had lost that musical part of myself. But now that I’ve gotten out of it, I’ve rediscovered who I am.”
Ironically, it was via acting which led her to the opportunity to get back into music. Having been in several local theatrical productions (SJ points out that in my previous life as a theatre critic I reviewed at least two shows she was in), SJ had become frustrated with the some of the politics of small-town theatre. But during the first COVID lockdown she answered a casting call via the Kawartha Lakes Film Collective which led her to a brand-new circle of people to collaborate with, and exciting new opportunities.
“I was bored during COVID, and I didn’t want to do local theatre anymore,” SJ tells. “I was frustrated with how I would try out for something, and you’d get overlooked. So, I joined the Kawartha Lakes Film Collective and I found my people.”
It was there that she met David Joyce, who owns Treblecock Studio, a recording studio located in Peterborough. “Someone had approached David with a script that they wanted to do as a short film,” SJ tells. “So, he posted to the Film Collective’s Facebook group and said he was looking for some actors and I said I’d love to do something. So, from meeting David, and from doing that film, it has taken me down this path.”
Collaborating with David on the film led to work in the studio, but even then a solo music career wasn’t initially the plan, but a happy accident. “David was working with another artist on an album, and I was writing songs and going to sing some back up for that album. Well, I had played David Whoever This Was Written To, and when the album that David was working on fell through, he asked me if I wanted to pursue something. Well, I’m not one to give up an opportunity and I said, ‘Yeah I want to pursue something!’ From there we started recording, and I have my marketing degree. I have a business degree and am creative. I act, so I love doing music videos. So, I think all these little pieces of my life have come together.”
“I’m always a big believer in being prepared,” SJ continues. “I’ve always been writing songs. I’ve always kept my voice up. I’ve always played guitar. But for a long time I was in my own little world. I’d play for some people, but I never pursued it in a professional manner. So, when you’re prepared when your lucky moments come, that’s exciting. There’s been a lot of people who have those moments, and its kind of like luck. It’s a weird fate. It’s bizarre. But I’m going with that.”
Her first single, Whoever This Was Written To, has received airplay in markets in Ontario and Quebec, but she surprises me when she reveals that she’s been sitting on the song for a long while. “I wrote Whoever This was Written To when I was seventeen,” she says. “I’ve always loved the song, and I think it’s really cool how it goes in and out of major chords. I’ve always been able to be transcending feelings into song. I can still relate to it now. That song is about not having any regrets. One of the things I believe is that all roads lead to this moment. So, I can’t regret anything in my life because I am really happy. If anything different happened, like a butterfly effect, I wouldn’t be right here right now, and I love being here right now. I even felt that way when I was younger so I’ve always had a no regrets attitude.”
In June 2021 SJ released her second single, a rockabilly flavoured number written by David called Mansion of Broken Hearts. Working again with filmmaker Jamie Oxenham, who directed the video for Whoever This Was Written To, the video features SJ in a gothic mansion accompanied by ghostly musicians. SJ tells that the location for the shoot was appropriate for the concept as it had a few spooks of its own. “The video for Mansion of Broken Hearts was filmed in a haunted mansion in Lakefield,” tells SJ. “The owners of the house have kept everything in it true to the time period, so it was phenomenal. There is a lady who haunts the house, and you can totally feel it. The owners are ghost hunters themselves and are very into the house. We literally took over their house for twelve hours – from 5 pm until 5 in the morning. It was insane. It was so cool.”
With two singles out, and more on the way, SJ’s rising success has come during an era without live concerts. But in July she’ll be taking the stage in a big way as the supporting act for country singer Chad Brownlee when he stops in Peterborough for an outdoor drive-in concert at the Memorial Center. While most musicians start at coffee houses, bars and small stages, SJ will be taking the big stage for her first public performance as a musician. “It’s my band’s first show,” she says. “The biggest show. I’m jumping two feet in. That’s how I’m doing things and that’s how I’m going to continue doing things.”
With a big personality, positive energy and an infectious laugh, we talked lively for what seemed like hours during our interview. Although we’d never met before, SJ is so friendly and relatable that I felt that I had reunited with a long-lost friend, or at least one that I didn’t know I had. If I had never noticed her before, there is no forgetting SJ Riley now. She has truly arrived both as a musician and as an individual.
“I love being social,” she says. “I love being myself. I love performing and talking to people. Being stifled creativity feeds into a negative way of being. You want to be yourself. That should be everybody’s goal in life is to be themselves. I like to celebrate everybody’s individual because my perspective is that there are seven billion realities in this world. We might be sitting in the same room, but we might percieve things completely different. That’s why music is cool too, because if you play something for someone, and have this energy transfer. The energy transfers. There is nothing like it. So suddenly I have this music project, and I’m connecting with other musicians and its just so much fun.”
For more on SJ Riley visit her website at https://sjrileymusic.com/, follow her on social media and check out her music at Spotify.
PHOTO GALLERY BY SAMANTHA MOSS