George Riley on Raves, the South London Scene, and the Power of Delusional Self-Belief

George Riley on Raves, the South London Scene, and the Power of Delusional Self-Belief
Photo by Tom Furse

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Big fan of George Riley's latest EP Un/limited Love, I was already into what she was doing previously but, armed with an array of impressive left-field dance music collaborators, her sound became richer and even more club-focused in the best way. We hopped on a call as her most recent tour was winding down to talk about how she pulled it off, as well as a host of other topics.

How was tour?
It was so much fun. I loved it. I think I probably peaked. [Laughs] It was the best possible people I could've been with. I was touring with Yaeji, and she's amazing, the show's so good, and her team is so nice. I got to sing my songs every night, which I loved. It was really fun. Honestly, I'd say it was one of my best music experiences.

This new EP is really good. I liked the last few records too! It's cool to hear the progression in your sound, and this feels like the biggest leap you've made yet towards proper club music.
As you can probably tell, everything I've done sounds quite different. I'm not quite good at just sticking to one sound. "You gotta build your audience!" [Laughs] I have blatant disregard for my audience—or, at least, I don't know who they are, so it doesn't really mean anything to me. I definitely just do what I want to do. My last project, I was just quite sad writing it. When it came to releasing and playing it, people really liked it, but it was quite difficult for me, because I'd moved on. I didn't even want to perform it, I had no interest in anything to do with it.

At that time I was already playing more club environments and later slots—playing lots of footwork, singing over lots of DJ Rashad and Larry Heard, Detroit music, Drexicya, Underground Resistance. That was really fun, and I'm a fun person. The Anz song that was really popular was a bit complicated for me also. It wasn't really what I set out to make. But, obviously, most people knew me from that song, so I came to love it, because I played it and people love it.

What's the point of my job? I want to make people happy. I want to share space with people. I want to connect with people. I want to feel like we're part of the same thing. I get a lot from that. I wanted to make something that spoke to that—some sort of middle ground between all the different things that I've been touching on. This was also an opportunity to do whatever I wanted with loads of people, which was a challenge in itself but gave me a lot of creative freedom, too. The point of an EP, in my head, is to experiment, try out some new things, have fun, and see what happens. I wanted it to sound cohesive to some degree, but my main intention was to experiment.

You worked with Loraine James on this one as well as her record—I interviewed her for the newsletter earlier this year, too.
My fave!

Your approach together works really well. Talk to me more about collaborating with her, and with others in general.
My main thing is that I like to enjoy myself. Doing things alone is one thing, but getting to show what talented people can do together is another kettle of fish. The song I worked on with Loraine for this project, I had pretty much the song already there, but I knew that she would add an extra emotional layer of mystery that I wanted. She just came and did the thing. I'm a big advocate for delegation—I'm not the best at everything. No one is. I think it's a good thing, especially with this project, to find the people I'm inspired by and get the best people for the job and see what happens.

I got to work with so many great people for this. John FM, I actually wasn't familiar with his music until we met at the studio in London, and we just hit it off. He's such fun, great energy and hilarious. You have to relate to people on a personal level. Sometimes you don't, and that can make the creative process really dry and sad. It adds something when you're becoming friends with someone, and Loraine and John have become real friends—which is rare in music, where everyone is insane. [Laughs] They just want to make what they want to make, they're quite uncompromising in that sense, and they care little about the wider industry. Obviously, everyone wants to have a career and make a living like the next person, but there's less of a hustle mentality, which I need. Just being a songwriter, you can often feel pushed into a weird headspace, so it's good to be around people who are grounded and just care about making great music.

With Actress, he's a really interesting person to collaborate with. We've been working together for a few years now, and we've made so much weird music no one will ever hear. [Laughs] He cannot be confined or defined. I'm so interested and inspired by that. And, yes, that means that a lot of the time we end up making things no one will ever hear, but it's really just about making something to see what happens. The difficult part, for me, is releasing the work, because I love to sing and create and perform. Doing the promotional stuff—ugh! [Laughs] It's pretty dark.

I'm curious to hear about your formative years clubbing—being out at raves. Hearing dance music in the wild is such an essential part of experiencing it.
I'm a party girl. I'm from the city, so that helps. Growing up in London, from when you're a teenager there's a lot of opportunity to get up to no good. You don't even need a fake ID really. There were so many raves happening when I was 15 or 16—I'm not even sure how often those things happen anymore, but I'm sure they still do. You get on a bus to God knows where, and in a lot of ways the music was secondary, because the objective is to go and do something different. Lose your mind! Dance! You feel liberated, free, and away from any of your teenage problems.

Having all those experiences as a young person, discovering yourself and boys, dancing...I've always been a cheeky person, quite confident. I've never been afraid to try something, which a lot of times can lead you into some bad and scary situations. A lot of us probably thought it was a miracle we stayed alive from 16 to 20. [Laughs] There's so many opportunities for things to go horribly wrong. But luckily they didn't go too badly, and we were able to have that fun and freedom—and we had it away from social media. I'm 26 now, so it wasn't really a thing then. It wasn't about being seen at that time, you were just going to experience and see what it was like.

As I got older, I started going to clubs. I don't think I've ever been to a club with bottle service that you dress up for—you're going to hear a DJ, it's a bit grimy, there's drugs, and you get home at whatever time. The bottle service-y stuff never appealed to me. It's horrible. I just love dancing, and feeling the bass near a speaker. I'm also half-Jamaican, so that was a big part of my upbringing. What else can I say about clubbing? I went to Leeds for uni, which was one of the biggest party unis in the UK. Every kind of club you can think of. It was a bit different there—a lot of drum'n'bass, which wasn't really my thing. That's when I had started listening to a lot more house and jungle. I loved garage, and Janet Jackson. The Velvet Rope, classic. There's a song called "Empty" that sounds like it was written today, it's got a footwork-y thing.

I can relate to your feelings on drum'n'bass. I like the foundation of that sound, but if you're gonna give me breakbeats, I'd rather be listening to jungle.
Yeah, and the culture around that music is, like, taking pills. [Laughs] Which is fine, but, it's like, "I need to be so high for this."

One thing that does reach across your music is the use of breakbeats, which seem to activate something in listeners' pleasure centers of their brain. Tell me about why breakbeats are special to you.
There's something that does sound very city-ish about them. When you're driving through a cold city, it makes sense. There's a darkness and grittiness to them. When I went to Detroit, I was like, "Ooh, there's something in the water here that would bring out that underground energy." I guess it's nostalgic too. I wasn't alive when it was first happening, but part of me always feels like I was born in the wrong time. "This isn't my time!" [Laughs]

There's been something of a new scene forming in London over the last few years—I'm thinking about some of your past collaborators in that scene too, like Joe Armon-Jones and Lex Amor. Tell me about the London scene as you see it right now.
Honestly, I think it's in a bit of a weird spot right now. When I was working with those guys, I was spending a lot of time in South London, and there was quite a cool thing happening. There were a lot of new-gen jazz artists in that scene, and I was kind of part of it. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz, and obviously I'm a singer, so I think all of that is amazing. Joe is just so talented, it's crazy. I'm getting a bit older now, but I'm always the baby of the group, so I was just soaking it up.

It was a really cool time, but I do think that in some ways it has kind of shifted. The thing with London is that there's this sense of desperation, because it's really an unaffordable city to do music in. It's kind of impossible for a lot of people. There is this desperation to want to do well, but also a little bit of, "If you do do well, you've sold out in some way." It is definitely competitive. But it needn't be...there's definitely space for everyone to be successful in their own right. The sense of community that I did once feel, for me personally...everyone's so busy. They're grinding all the time. Either you're working, or you're exhausted, or you're with your friends and family. It's a big city so it's hard to get around, all the events are quite exclusive.

My life has become seeing the same faces everywhere. Everything feels like work, and I feel more reluctant to go out socially than I ever have. If I sought out the scene more, I'd probably like it more, but in the last year or so, I've honed in on some of my closest musical friends, which has been very grounding. The scene, the's cool, it's definitely cool, but it's kind of intense, too, and I kind of want to leave. [Laughs]

The music industry is a really fucked up thing to navigate. It's abusive, it's nasty, and it sucks.
It does! It's nuts. Everyone's fucking nuts. [Laughs]

You're someone who's creative—you're not looking to create with the main aim of being in business with people. How do you take care of your creative mind while navigating the box-ticking, punch-in punch-out aspects of the industry?
The box-ticking part is social media. Everyone hates that. I'm no good at it, it's a ravenous beast. But, creatively, up until now, I've never really had a problem. I only do it if it's fun or it feels good. That way, it never feels like a job, and I always love it. If something's not working, I just stop. "Should we get us some lunch?" Then we come back the next day.

When it comes to using your business mind, it's about organizing the ideas into something you can ultimately package, and that part is more complicated and something I need help with. I'm figuring that as I go, I don't really know what I'm doing—and, honestly, I don't think anyone else does. I think, in a lot of ways, we're in a time where people are more than ever confused about how to connect and what will do well. There's so much fucking music. Everyone's making music, there's more music than ever. It's complicated to figure out how to stand out. I get bogged down sometimes, thinking about numbers, but ultimately I'm just doing what I want to do.

Any time I get a bit sad about it, I think, "George, you get to sing every day and do what you want to do. That's amazing." What else can you do, really? To some degree, you also have to some sort of delusional self-belief. You go, "That person's done really well, and they're crap, so I should try it." [Laughs]

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Jamie Larson