Some of my favorite albums that were released this year came from do it yourself indie artists. There is something special about hearing music from an artist who has worked hard at creating something themselves, completely self-funded, all the while doing the day to day routine of work, school, family, or other aspects of life that non-celebrity people do. Along with that every-man aspect, there is the intimacy of expression that fuels songs and performance of these artists. Some may not take the music business serious enough to pursue an actual career, while others are pouring their heart and soul into every single note as if it were the first and last chance of catching a break that will get their music heard outside of their household. Regardless of how dire their situation is or how serious they take the music industry, there is nothing that compares to the sound of unsaturated artistry in it’s natural environment.
Sometime this summer a friend of mine recommended that I listen to Riverhorse, an alt-country/Americana band from the Chicago area who had recently released the album Opal independently through their bandcamp page. I gave the album a listen and was instantly drawn in with it’s simplicity and vulnerability. To my surprise, I found out that this band is only one person! 23 year old Brian Motyll recorded Opal in his bedroom with instruments and recording gear he wasn’t even sure how to use. The result is one of my favorite records of the year, an album that sounds like you are hearing an artist in an empty coffee house one minute, to sounding like you are witnessing the subject of the song unfold before your eyes in a soundscape of acoustic and electric guitar, layered vocals, and floor stomping percussion that could go against any folk-rock on the mainstream radio at this very moment.
I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Motyll ahead of the vinyl release of Opal through Fonoflo Records, and we talked about what Opal means, what Riverhorse means, and what being a one-man-band means. He’s an interesting guy who’s humility is a refreshing pace in the pretentious singer/songwriter scene.
When I was thirteen I got my first instrument, a bass guitar. Going back a few years before that, my dad sat me down and made me watch Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same on DVD. I think that was the exact moment that I wanted to be a musician. So, I tried growing my hair out like Robert Plant, joined a band and played bass throughout most of high school. We played a lot of Rush and Metallica covers along with some original songs. At some point in the latter half of high school I discovered the folky / Indie music scene and started playing around with the cheap guitar I had bought along the way.
I think every kid who watched The Song Remains The Same wanted to be a musician at some point! What are some of your biggest influences as an artist?
The first memories I have of music (and probably some of my first memories at all) are driving with my dad listening to Johnny Horton, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Marley. Middle school and high school was all classic rock like I previously stated. But, I also got really into Against Me! at that time. That is important because the acoustic shit that Laura Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) did was my reason for purchasing that cheap guitar. Then came Devendra Banhart and that was it for me. I wanted to be a singer / songwriter. I got really into that, I loved that one guy could be so captivating. I started listening to Iron & Wine, Tallest Man On Earth, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and people like that. Eventually that evolved into the full band folk stuff and then the Indie music and that’s where I am today.
When you play live, you do it mostly alone and I really love that minimal aspect of that. Seeing you sing, playing guitar, drums, and tambourine AT THE SAME time, is not only a sight to behold, but it makes everything seem so much more personal. Is that something you set out to do, or is it just easier to be a one-man-band?
Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. I used to always sing in a soft deep voice with some subtle fingerpicking until one night I gained some confidence and tried out an open mic near my home. I was horrified when I started playing and couldn’t hear myself at all. But, I returned every Wednesday and had the support of many other wonderful musicians. I started singing louder and more aggressively and developed more of a style with my guitar. I realized people were interested in the tranquil guitar melodies mixed with my loud and raspy voice over the mic. With the help of the people I had met there, I started playing real gigs around the area. I decided to add a little something else to it so I bought the stomp drum and threw a tambourine around my ankle. Next, I decided some clean electric guitar would be fitting as well.
Beer, a friendly environment, more beer, and me being totally awkward between songs. You may even see my grandma rocking out in the audience. But really, the venues I’ve played at have all been super great. Tons of support from everyone that comes out every time. Lots of laughs. And depending on my set length, I occasionally play with Scott Ahlgrim on drums, those are fun sets. I always try to throw a cover into the set and twist it up and make it totally different than it was originally done. People like that. It’s always a great time.
In a lot of ways, it seems like the minimalist singer/songwriter thing is sort of coming back. It’s becoming more and more common to see bands with only single musicians like yourself.
It does seem like the singer / songwriter genre is coming back, and I’m happy about that. Radio is getting more tolerable these days. Passion really stands out in music, or anything really. I think if you have the passion and put your entire heart into something people will immediately recognize that. Singer / Songwriter music is the most genuine and bare style of music, and it’s crazy to me that you can heal someone or provoke such intense emotions using just a guitar and a voice. It all with one person’s idea. Sometimes you hear a lyric you connect with so much that you can’t even explain. You just want to shout it at the world. I think that’s why singer / songwriter fans are the most dedicated. They have reason to listen to the music other than it being catchy.
Congratulations on the vinyl release! I just got mine a few days ago and it is just as beautiful to look at the packaging and record as it is to listen to! In fact, It looks like it should be in a frame instead of on my turntable! What was it like working with Fonoflo Records, and how did it come about?
Thanks! Everyone that worked on this release did such an incredible job. Really. I’ve never seen anything like it and I can’t believe it’s mine. Nicholas from Fonoflo is certainly a man with a vision and an outstanding artist. Shit, I’d buy this album myself just for the packaging and artwork. I found Nicholas (or he found me?) when I made an Instagram account and uploaded 15 second audio clips of all my songs. I started following the followers of musicians I like and thankfully Nicholas just happened to be one of them. He contacted me saying he had heard the clips and wanted to start something.
I downloaded the album through your Bandcamp page and listened to it throughout the later part of the summer, but hearing it on vinyl just makes the songs pop even more. The visuals of the physical product go well with the stories within the songs. How important is the story element to your songs?
Nicholas handled the artwork for this and did a beautiful job. He made sure to keep some elements and color schemes of the original cover I had made. Then, took inspiration from the songs and made some absolutely stunning pieces. There’s postcards he made that come with each album that are really neat. They’re quite inspiring themselves. As far as the story element, I don’t personally think that the actual storyline is the most important part of the songs. A lot of my lyrical content is more about emotions at the time of an event rather than how it began or ends. Though they work hand in hand.
What’s Opal about?
The album is all emotions. All kinds of emotions. Love, depression, wonder, hope. Some personal, some I’ve seen in other people, and some in stories of people I made up. I have been recording my own music in my bedroom for about 5 or 6 years. It took a long time to teach myself how to make decent recordings and I finally felt like I was good enough to do a full album, so some of the songs (“I Think It’s Time,” “County Fair,” “Morning Train,” “Opal”) are a few years old and some are more recent. It was something I was just throwing together and trying out for the first time. I uploaded it to Bandcamp and sent it to some friends from a hospital bed. When I awoke from surgery it had been shared around Facebook and people liked it so I started to really make something out of it.
What do you think would be your favorite song on the album?
I’d have to say maybe “Morning Train”? I wrote it wanting a traditional folky sound. It’s a simple song, I like simple songs. It’s heavily influenced by the lives of Ernest Hemingway and Charles Bukowski. With that being said, it’s about a depressed writer at end times. I also like “Raven’s Cry.” Another simple one. It was one of those songs that was written very quickly and decided it was shit. A few weeks later I was jamming with drummer Scott and remembered the song. He started playing along and convinced me that it was a keeper. It’s loosely based on European invasion of the Native Americans.
I’m from the south side of Chicago too! It’s so good to see and hear a local artist out there making it on his own terms. That paired with the overall theme from the record, is really inspiring. How does the community effect your songwriting?
Oh, man. If not for those people I met from playing open mics I would probably still be sitting in my room playing to my mirror. They’ve all been around quite a bit longer than me and know the scene well, so I really look up to them. I always ask for feedback, negative or positive, and people always deliver. It’s nice to have honest people in your life. Scott has also had a huge influence on the music. I’ll approach him with a vision for these new songs I’ve written, next thing you know the song sounds completely different. In a good way of course. He has a unique ear for the drums. You’ll see that more on some upcoming releases.
What is your mission statement as an artist and what do you hope the listener gets out of hearing Opal?
What I am most proud of with Opal is that it’s been a long journey and I really did it all alone. I’ve never been taught anything. I collected instruments and recording equipment, practiced with them every day and eventually made a whole album that is now being pressed to vinyl. I don’t have a beautiful voice, I’m not particularly great at guitar and I don’t know shit about the technicalities behind recording or playing music. It doesn’t matter. Anyone can figure out a way to make it work if you want it bad enough. I think that’s the best part of Opal. To me it is.
What are you currently listening to?
Aside from the artists I mentioned earlier, I must give a shout out to Bombadil from North Carolina. They’re one of my favorite bands and in my opinion, they should be huge by now. Also Dan Reeder, I don’t know much about him as a person, but he’s an old man with some interesting lyrics. I believe he does his own recordings on handmade instruments? Don’t quote me on that but I think that’s true. Anyways, He’s released three albums that are all golden. I’m a big fan of Shakey Graves, Modest Mouse, Elvis, Foxy Shazam, Dean Martin.. I could go on for a long while here.
Scott and I are finishing up an EP at the moment. I have learned a ton about recording and producing an album from Opal and I’m very pleased with what we have so far. We’re excited to release that in the near future. I also have a ton of demos and unreleased songs I would love for people to hear. I’m thinking I will release those at some point as well. There is also some talk with Fonoflo about releasing a split EP with another artist, but who knows what could happen! As far as gigging, I take ‘em as they come. I will certainly be sharing the stage as often as possible with many of my favorite locals!
Any words of advice for any indie artists out there who are thinking about putting their music out there for the world to hear?
Yeah. Do it. Don’t put it off any longer. Someone once told me “You’re always going to write a song better than the last one, so if you don’t start sharing, nobody will ever know.” You will only get better, so don’t stop. Although I think if somebody is truly passionate about something, they will not stop no matter what. I wrote awful tunes for years, and it does take years to develop a style of your own.
No BS, Opal is hands down, one of my favorite releases of the year and I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with us here at B.G.M. It’s a beautiful record from start to finish!
I appreciate that more than you know. Thank for this and all the support you’ve shown!
Opal will be available on limited edition vinyl on October 24th, at www.Fonoflo.com
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.