Recently one of my favorite artists, Charlotte Martin, made a post on Facebook about her new album, Water Breaks Stone. I left a comment asking whom I should contact about covering the album for Love is Pop. A fellow fan of Martin’s work, Michael Rider, saw my post and commented to ask if I’d like to check out his new EP, Hidden Treasure. As you could probably guess, since you’re reading this right now, I said yes. Initially, I was just going to review the EP, but when I sat down to do so it occurred to me that I didn’t know very much about Michael at all. So, as you could also guess, I contacted him about doing an interview. This was partially because I had so many questions, but also because I’ve always been more likely to check out an artist after reading an interview than after reading a review. I know, I know, it’s probably odd for someone who writes so many reviews to be more motivated by interviews, but I’ve always been something of an interview junkie. And if I have my way, ideally Love is Pop will feature as many interviews as it does reviews. But this isn’t about me, so I digress. My point is that I was highly impressed by Michael’s music, and I want as many people as possible to check it out, hence my interviewing him in lieu of simply doing a review.
How would I describe Hidden Treasure? At its core is always the piano and Michael is adept at conveying the full spectrum of human emotions with it. In all honesty, I would say that he’s as skillful a piano player as Billy Joel and Elton John, the latter of which his music most reminds me of. But it’s not quite in the vein of the songs you probably think of when someone mentions Elton John. It’s more like Elton’s lesser known music than his radio-friendly fare. (It evokes Elton’s latest album, The Diving Board, or even 2010’s The Union, the album he did with Leon Russell.) Michael’s music is what you could call pop music, yes, but it’s pop of the most artistic variety. It’s more like what was on the radio back in the ’70’s than what’s on pop radio today. And I mean that as a compliment. To be sure, if you’re looking for a male version of Katy Perry, Michael is not your guy. But if you’re looking for an artist in the vein of Emm Gryner, Sara Bareilles or Charlotte Martin, then you’ll be blown away. Think of him as a more poetic, offbeat Bruno Mars. The way he weaves his poetic vocals in and out of his piano chords is truly awe-inspiring. He’s so proficient that he could easily be playing jazz or classical music. I always feel like I’m being given a gift when I come across someone of that skill level who’s blessing us with pop music instead of off playing symphonies. So, please, read this interview and, more importantly, check out Michael’s incredible music.
Where were you born?
I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia!
Where do you currently reside? How long have you been there?
I currently reside in Gramercy Park, Manhattan in New York City. I’ve been living here since the summer of last year.
When you were growing up, what sort of kid were you?
I was pretty obnoxious as a kid, but I was also told I was a good kid too. I was always polite. I remember always being the center of attention, but I was always creative and breaking rules. I smiled a lot as a kid (still do) so I was able to get away with a lot.
Did you have a strict upbringing or were your parents lenient?
My parents were and are still very lenient, as people and parents. I am grateful for them. Both supportive and open minded for sure.
What do – or did – your parents do for a living? Are either of them musicians?
My dad was an entrepreneur and now works full time on his farm in upstate New York and my mom is a stay-at-home mom but volunteers as a medical interpreter. They aren’t musicians, but both are very musical. My dad was in band when he was a teenager, and my mom is like a music encyclopedia. She knows so much about all genres of music, she loves to research music she likes then she becomes like an expert. She educates me all the time on music of the past. It always surprises me how much she knows about music.
Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Two older brothers, and two younger sisters, full plate!
If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?
How old were you when you decided that you wanted to be a musician professionally?
Probably a year before Lighthouse was released, so back in 2010.
The songs on your E.P. are very piano-centered. Is that you playing all of the piano/keyboards? If so, how old were you when you learned to play? Was it your choice to learn?
It is all piano on the record. The piano is probably the real voice on the record. I started playing when I was nine, I think. It was completely my choice. I started off in music theatre, and while doing that, I learned to sing and play the ivories!
What was the first song you learned to play on the piano?
Something dumb only using the black keys, which is funny because I use the black keys a lot in my own music.
Did you play a real piano on Hidden Treasure or did you use a keyboard? It sounds like a real piano to my ears.
It is real piano.
Do you play all of the instruments on Hidden Treasure? If not, tell us about the musicians you worked with and what each of them played.
Oh no, I wish I was that talented, I’m totally not even close to that level of expertise. Trey Pollard on lap steel and guitars, John O’Reilly Jr. on drums, Stewart Myers on bass and Trey’s beautiful team of string players. All of them are Richmond’s finest. Trey Pollard tours with the critically acclaimed Matthew E. White, Stewart Myers was in a successful 90’s band called Agents of Good Roots and is acclaimed working with musicians like Rachael Yamagata, Liz Phair, and Jason Mraz. John O’Reilly Jr. is a drumming genius, he has worked with everyone in the industry like Jimmy Eat World, Fun., Schuyler Fisk to name a few. All amazing.
There are a lot of strings in the background of the songs on Hidden Treasure, especially “Hidden Treasure” and “Sister’s Keeper.” Are those live strings or were they done with a synthesizer or something else? (Regardless of how they were done, they sound great!)
Thanks so much! They are all completely real, very expensive, and very real!
Did you write all of the songs on Hidden Treasure entirely yourself or did you have co-writers?
I wrote all of the songs, yes!
Did you produce the EP yourself? If not, who produced it?
On my last record, I had the producer hat on. This time, it was a real start over for me, the music was completely different so I decided to have Stewart Myers produce the EP. He is more sensitive to creating a pop sounding record, so I decided it was best for him to take control. I wanted to change gears for sure.
Who are your favorite music producers?
I have way too many. Right now, Ken Andrews, Guy Sigsworth, and John Congleton.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
I have WAY too many. Right now, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Charlotte Martin, Fiona Apple, to be obscure, I could say the basics too like Dylan, Lennon, Billy Joel, etc, but you already know them.
Which artists in general are your biggest source of inspiration?
This is a hard one. I’d keep you up forever reading! Imogen Heap, Tegan & Sara, St. Vincent, The Cure all the way to Rihanna, M.I.A., Britney Spears all the way to Grimes, Metric, Sucre.
Your lyrics are very poetic. Do you also write poetry? If so, did any of the songs on the EP start off as poems?
I am not a poet, I am an awful writer, I hate writing actually. I love writing lyrics, but I can’t write poetry to save my life. The music is always written first, then the words come out unconsciously. It’s kind of crazy how my lyrics escape my head, they really just come out, I never really sit down with a dictionary and push them out, it’s really just a stream of unconscious. I explain it as if I am possessed, and I’m a scribe something greater. As weird and full of shit as that sounds, that’s kind of how it is.
I saw on Bandcamp that you released an album called Lighthouse in 2011 – how does Hidden Treasure differ from Lighthouse?
I was still trying to find my voice as a writer and a singer on Lighthouse, really as a singer. I was coming out of singing classically and singing show tunes and opera and then I wrote this dark monstrous album, Lighthouse. I didn’t know how to write a song or sing a pop song, I just kind of just did it. These new songs are different. They were constructed more meticulously and they are pop songs at heart. I had more experience writing obviously and playing. I understood my voice more clearly and wrote around it instead of making music that clashed against it. Lighthouse is fairly awkward to listen to because I was still really learning. This one is much more mature. The musicianship on these new songs are a lot stronger and polished. Those two records are like night and day, they are very different. Lighthouse is predominately electronic, there is barely a real instrument on it, most of it is programs and loops and some strange, out-of-this-world lyrics. This record is a lot more down to earth, there is nothing electronic, everything you hear was recorded in reality.
Have you performed live yet? If so, where was the first place you played a concert? Do you have any upcoming shows you’d like to tell us about?
Yes! I have performed lots of shows. I couldn’t put a finger on my first show, but the first time I headlined was in Richmond in 2010, a few months before Lighthouse was released. I headlined a little club called Canal Club. Currently I am planning a small east coast tour during the summer, but I am preparing to play an album release show on March 12th in New York City at a place called SideWalk Cafe.
I know you’re on Bandcamp, but I think more people buy music from iTunes and Amazon. Do you have plans to make Hidden Treasure available on either of those?
Yes, Hidden Treasure will hit digital outlets on March 11th, its official release date, including Itunes and Amazon. Physical copies will be released the same day through Bandcamp and Amazon and a few indie stores.
If you could write your own Wikipedia page, what would the first three sentences be?
It would be: Michael Rider is a singer/songwriter/artist. He likes to eat carbs. He likes to sleep and run in front of cars on the street.
What are your thoughts on “piracy”? Do you mind if people download your EP without paying for it? A lot of artists don’t seem to mind illegal downloading because they realize that the more people hear their music, the more people will buy tickets to their shows and buy their t-shirts and such.
It’s a grey area. There’s no money in the industry due to piracy, that’s a given. I don’t say I disagree, but many say it’s a positive thing for “small” artists like me because more people hear the music, like you said. But to counter that, it is a lot harder for the “small” artists, like me, to get signed these days due to it, or at that pin down a good record deal. Record companies and music executives have limited budgets and instead of having endless financial support to sign all these great underground acts, like back in the 90-80’s, they can’t, because there simply isn’t enough money to pay them. It comes back to someone buying a record. My philosophy is, pirating a Britney Spears song every now and again isn’t the end of the world at all, [but] the musicians that you love and support and want to see continue to be able to do what they love, try and spend that extra dollar. But in reality, if people continue to not pay for records completely, we are going to lose the worth in a record, a body of work, the sense of entirety, the collection. For me, that is sad, because it has valid worth. For me, the embodiment of a record is everything. But, I understand people just want the art and sometimes just can’t afford it, so I don’t disagree with pirating entirely. Just make sure you come to the shows!
What do you think about streaming services like Spotify? Seems like a lot of artists are warming up to the idea but I know there are still plenty who feel like they don’t pay the artists nearly enough money.
They don’t pay artists nearly enough. But I do think it’s a great promotional tool.
Is your music on Spotify or any other streaming service?
It should be! I think it is.
Name three of your all-time favorite albums.
Today, Joni Mitchell – “Blue”, Charlotte Martin – “On Your Shore”, Tegan & Sara – “The Con”
What was the last song you listened to?
The new Kina Grannis song, “The Fire”. But I’m listening to “Man On A Mission” by Siobhan Donaghy right now.
What is your favorite book?
“To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, inspired a lot of the imagery on my debut album.
Finally, how popular would you ideally like to be? For example, there’s massive popularity like Adele and then there’s moderate popularity like Ben Folds.
I’d like to be as popular as my music is supposed to be. Adele’s success would be very nice, but so would Ben Fold’s success – it all depends. Whatever makes me happy and sane. I just want to write good music, that’s all.
Connect with Michael Rider online: