In Conversation: Riverby Confesses the Secrets of their Excellent Debut LP, Smart Mouth

When Sophia Greenberg met Tyler Asay doing door to door sales in Philadelphia, they didn’t know the two of them would end up starting a band together. Sophia was just happy to have a new friend who ran a cool open mic at Dawson Street Pub that they promised they’d attend. Sophia more than kept that promise, often jamming with Tyler and whoever else would stick around till four in the morning, playing a mix of new material they were trying to figure out and drunk covers of old favorites. The two became close friends and collaborators, working with another on their music. During one particularly productive late night session the two looked at one another and asked if they should start a band, almost dumbfounded that the conversation hadn’t been broached before. Sophia was already a big fan of Tyler’s existing band, The Tisburys, and the group agreed that a Sophia fronted, Tisburys backed band made all too much sense, leading to Doug Keller jumping on board at bass. Two basement practice sessions later and the newly minted band Riverby played their first show at none other than Dawson Street Pub, on April 20th, 2018. Soon after Dan Nazario filled in on drums in a pinch after tracking the band and yelled “Hell yeah!” when Riverby asked him to join full time. Just like that, their line-up was cemented.

Two years, a few singles, and one strong EP later and Riverby is now dropping their Take This to Heart Records debut LP, Smart Mouth. The album is a major step forward from last year’s tender but reserved A Guide to Oversharing EP. While the EP was raw and honest lyrically, it was more restrained sonically. On Smart Mouth, Sophia lets their voice face the rigor of the highs and lows that were ever present in their songwriting. A song like “Giving Tree” really shows off the breadth of Sophia’s range. They open the track light and airy with a tinge of remorse, both disappointed in the person who lied to them and in themselves for ever believing their partner in the first place. Sophia then moves into the chorus, roaring out that, “I’m letting someone break my heart who doesn’t deserve it, who doesn’t even want it. Doesn’t he know it’s his?” before closing with a sultry whisper, “Take all that I am, I’ll be your giving tree,” almost exasperated by the admission they just made to themselves. She sings her way through the wide range of emotions that a situation like this might rise up in you, and is even able to use her voice to show how exhausting this process can be. The album’s excellent first two singles, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Nose to Nose,” similarly featured Sophia playing with that “quiet loud quiet” dynamic, the one that the Pixies first utilized to set the world ablaze, as Sophia would work their way to a scream before falling back into a whisper. Part of why this album sounds so well varied is because of how dynamic Sophia can be with their voice within the scope of a single track, and how well the band moves with their lead singer. 

Given the dire state of the world and the band’s steadfast desire to help in any way they could, Riverby decided to dedicate the profits from Smart Mouth to ACT Blue, a national bail fund splitting contributions between bail funds all over the USA. We had the chance to ask Riverby some questions via email about the musicians and authors that inspire the band, where to get the best cheesesteak in Philly, and what gave Smart Mouth its jagged edge.

Thanks to Liam Gordon for these photos

Sophia and Tyler, I know that Riverby was started in the midst of a spur of the moment decision made as you both left an open mic at 4 AM. Could you take us back to that evening? 

Sophia: We originally met because the both of us worked at a door to door sales office back in the day! I met him when he played a show at Kung Fu Necktie and we just hit it off. So I would go to the open mic night that he hosted and we would jam every week until about four in the morning — I think our favorite drunk songs were “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by The Beatles and “Kids” by MGMT. Sometimes it would get late and we would just be bored so we would mess around with songs we were writing and I think we finally just looked at each other one night after he was messing around on the guitar. It was just a big “duh” moment of “Hey, why don’t we just make music?” So we asked for a show at Dawson Pub, practiced like twice in his basement with his roommates, and played our first show 4/20 2018. And we just never stopped playing.

Tyler: Yeah, I’ve been a fan of the songs Sophie writes for as long as we’ve known each other. So when they would get up to play songs at the open mic I host at Dawson Street Pub, I would usually jump up and play guitar and that led to me producing the first Riverby EP, The Guide To Oversharing, in my living room. And of course, once you put out a record, you’ve gotta have a band to play the songs live, so it made sense just to have the rest of The Tisburys fill in as a backing band.

How did bassist Doug Keller and drummer Dan Nazario get in the mix?

Sophia: Doug is also the bassist in The Tisburys! I was introduced to him at one of their gigs because of my friendship with Tyler. Tyler and I honestly schemed to get him to play bass for Riverby for about a month before I met him because he’s so good — I’m so grateful that he agreed to be a part of this. Dan was my sweet angel sent from Heaven itself. We were supposed to go in to record a song called “Maybe” that we put out last year, and last second the guy who was going to drum couldn’t make it. Justin Nazario, the mastermind behind every single Riverby song, offered up his brother’s services on the drums. Dan drummed for ten minutes in the studio before I begged him to be our drummer.

Dan: My brother Justin called me asking If I was able to track a song cause a band’s drummer wasn’t able to make it to the session. When I got there I listened to the demo as I was setting my kit up. We got drums sounds dialed in and I think I got the track done in one or two takes. After I was done Sophie had asked me if I wanted to play shows with them and I said hell yeah! I also may have been told previously that I should play drums with them through some friends so it was already on my mind. One of the best and easiest decisions I’ve made. 

What were your musical backgrounds before Riverby?

Sophia: This is my first real band! Everything I did earlier had just been my own acoustic songs or playing at a coffee shop with another friend. This is the first time I’ve ever truly collaborated with others and had the chance to bring these songs to life.

Tyler: I’ve played in a couple different bands in high school and college (Pineapple Party Picnic, Calico), and my other band, The Tisburys, has been around for about five years. I love playing in Riverby though because it lets me flex that punk energy I don’t usually get to exercise in my other musical outlets.

Dan: I went to the School of Rock in Downingtown, PA for ten years which was a performance based music program. I learned songs and then we would put on seasonal shows. They also had a house band and Allstars program which allowed me to play gigs around the East Coast and country.  After I “graduated” from the program I was in a couple punk bands in the West Chester area, put out EPs and some albums. Having a brother as a recording engineer also has helped tremendously with getting session work which seems to be something I am doing more of.

Doug: I’ve been playing pretty regularly in the Philly scene since 2013. Previously I was in a Folk/Americana band, The Band or Rivals, and a sarcasta-rock/punkish band, Duke Maroon. In August of 2017, Tyler recruited me as a last minute replacement as the bassist in The Tisburys and Andrew Huston’s band for his album release show, and I’ve been playing with those acts ever since.

Pats or Genos? Or who else?

Sophia: Steve’s Prince of Steaks. Or Jim’s. I’ll get Pat’s if I have to, but it’s never my first choice.

Tyler: If I have to choose between those options, it’s Pat’s. But I’ll always go to Dalessandro’s over either of them.

Doug: Jim’s is the bee’s knees. 

While this album is as confessional as your last releases there is a definite edge to the music that was not there previously. What made you want to dial it up in that regard? 

Sophia: I think the clear difference is that with the EP, I was just creating music to put out into the world to be heard. There wasn’t a true direction or concept behind it all, it was just a collection of songs I had at the time that I thought would be fun to play. Smart Mouth was created very purposefully with every song having a very distinct design in my head, as well as very strong intentions from every single person involved in them. These songs weren’t haphazardly recorded and mixed on a whim — I had a very specific vision for every song and for the record as a whole. I wanted Smart Mouth to be seen as my own evolution and how I grew into my confidence and self assuredness. I hope that’s seen.

Tyler: It also helped to work with Justin Nazario, who really knows what he’s doing when it comes to recording and producing. We made The Guide To Oversharing in a couple weeks and put it out so Riverby could just book shows. It made sense to work with someone who could actually recreate the band’s live sound, and even better to work with a good friend who we’ve known for years (Justin).

Sophia, I know that you recently came out as non-binary, and congratulations for that, I am sure it was not easy. What has that process been like for you? Has music been a useful outlet to understand yourself better? 

Sophia: I did! I came out as bisexual when I was only thirteen, but my journey with gender and identity has been something entirely different. I always knew something was different within me, something I didn’t understand — Coming from a small town, I didn’t exactly have the necessary tools or outlets to be able to even know how to start the conversation involving who I thought I could be. It was hard and quite an emotional roller coaster. There were days I tried to deny who I was, where I begged to be what I thought was “normal” or just cisgendered. I was scared that by becoming who I knew I was, I would lose people and opportunities. But I found myself in the center of such a warm and loving community that after coming out, I was given nothing but support. Music has given me an opportunity to write about these worries and fears and express them in ways I didn’t think were possible before. Music has always been my own diary, it’s always given me a better understanding of my mind’s inner workings.

The “Tell Tale Heart” is a song that took two attempts. Sophia, I believe you wrote the first verse at nineteen only to complete the track six years later. How much did the song change over those six years? Did you come at it with a completely new perspective or did it feel like you had just found a long missing puzzle piece?

Sophia: The first verse I wrote was I was nineteen has absolutely been revised since — it wasn’t at all as poetic as it is now. I wrote a bastardized version of the chorus too at that age. The song changed because I changed — It became less of a “woe is me, I’ll be hurt for the rest of my life” track and more of a reclamation of that pain. I knew I needed to revisit it when a few years back, I found myself falling back into the same patterns of my younger self — I was writing in the same notebook I had when I was nineteen and looked the song over again and realized I was writing the same words for the same problem, just with a different person. Honestly, it felt like I had finally put the pieces of a map together to figure out how to find my destination. With “The Tell Tale Heart”, I was finally getting answers to questions I didn’t even know that I had. It was nice to heal, and it was even nicer to let myself heal and let go of pain.

The song is inspired by and in reference to the Edgar Allen Poe short story of the same name. “Giving Tree” was also named for the Shel Silverstein book. What did you find particularly inspiring about the work of Poe and Silverstein? Are there any other authors whose work you’d consider inspirational?

Sophia: I’ve found a lot of my songs are inspired by written works or films. “Nose to Nose” was actually inspired by the scene in the 2005 film Pride & Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennett is standing on the edge of a cliff in her own dream. I’ve written a few songs about other works, like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and a few based on Greek myths. I love reinvention. Poe and Silverstein in particular I found inspiring because they’re both authors of stories I was reading when I was very young and they were able to translate so easily whilst still being so artistic and poetic. They’re so incredibly deep whilst being accessible, and I’ve held onto those stories for twenty years or so — The impression they’ve made on me kind of made me want to pay tribute to them in the only way that I know how.

You close with the extremely strong “In My Dreams.” It is a gut punch of a song that you said, “felt like I was entering the eye of a hurricane and I could see clearly even though everything around me was falling into chaos.” How did this track come about? Did it ultimately give you clarity on your situation or did it just make you fall into more chaos?

Sophia: Initially, I wrote this song about a person I had very strong feelings for and sang it with that emotion. I’ve been playing this song for over a year now. But one of my very close friends passed away last November and it rocked my world in ways I still can’t describe — When we recorded the song and were finishing this up, the emotion changed. I sing it for him now. And it gave me clarity that intentions can change, people can change, and the songs we sing can change depending on why we’re singing. A song about a person I loved turned into a song about a person I will never stop missing, so if the song punches anyone in the gut that’s because it punches me in the gut too. 

What musicians inspired you on this record?

Sophia: Mannequin Pussy, Hop Along, Alanis Morrisette, The 1975, Garbage, Modest Mouse… I had an entire playlist of songs that were inspiring Smart Mouth.

Tyler: When we were cutting guitars for Smart Mouth, I just kept asking myself WWJRD (what would Joe Reinhart do?) Haha but yeah, Hop Along was a big one. And “Smart Mouth” the song originally sounded completely different until we decided we wanted it to sound like The Get Up Kids.

Dan: Hop Along, Mannequin Pussy, Alanis Morrissette, PJ Harvey

Who are your favorite contemporaries in and out of the Philly DIY scene? Other than Riverby who should we be on the lookout for?

Sophia: I’m so lucky to be in such an amazing and vibrant community here in Philly. A few off the top of my head are Chub Rub, Kelsey Cork & The Swigs, Secret Nudist Friends, Tubey Frank, Rose Meat, The Band Ivory, and Littlun.

Tyler: Dweller, The Lunar Year, Jamie & The Guarded Heart, Archpalatine, Hootsie, Emily Drinker, & The Describers.

Dan: Dweller, Kinda Alright.

Doug: Full Bush, Bandit, Slomo Sapians, Kerry Hallett, Local Smokes, Mat Burke and Church Girls.

Is there a track from this album that stands out as an early favorite for you guys? Any that you really think will sound killer live once you have the chance?

Sophia: I think the first time we played “Nose to Nose” in a practice room, we knew that one was about to be really special. Honestly, I can’t wait to play “Smart Mouth” at a show. It’s gonna go nuts.

Tyler: I was practicing “In My Dreams” about a half hour ago and holy crap, what a massive song. Yeah, I miss playing live [laughs].

Dan: “Nose To Nose” really sticks out. I remember in the studio focusing a lot on that song to make sure the energy was the right fit for the song.  I think Smart Mouth is one that I’m really excited to play live. That song is one of those that can bring the same experience to a basement that it can to a stage. 

Doug: I think “Giving Tree” has a lot of depth and I can’t wait to play “Tell Tale Heart” live again.

Before COVID hit, where were your favorite places to play around Philly? What is your favorite place that you’ve played outside Philly?

Sophia: I love playing Dawson Street Pub haha. It’s home base for us honestly, where we get to try new stuff and party with all of our friends. I love The Grape Room, but for the most part I’m really fond of the DIY scene. Hush House puts on a great show, so does the Sin Bucket. I think the energy and community there is so welcoming and inspiring.

Tyler: Grape Room & Dawson are our home bases since Soph & I both live in Manayunk. When it comes to seeing a show, Johnny Brenda’s or Union Transfer are the best.

Doug: Milkboy is always a great time. When you’re playing a show with Sophia or Tyler in Manayunk it feels like you’re on the home team because of all the local support.

You’ve decided to dedicate the proceeds from this project to community bail funds. Why did you feel it was so important to make a financial stand in this regard? Who are the funds that you will be donating the proceeds to?
Sophia: I feel very strongly about the movement happening in our country and all over the world right now. I’m white. I have a privilege and a voice that I can use for the better and if I’m not speaking up and doing the best I can for everyone, quite frankly I don’t think I should be here. I want to defund the police. I want to abolish the prison system — To do that, I need to help get people out of prisons. So we’re putting proceeds to ACT Blue, which is a national bail fund and takes contributions and splits them up between bail funds all over the USA. There are people using their voices and protesting, using their first amendment rights, and being arrested for it. We need to free them. We need to free everyone who has been imprisoned for petty drug charges, for “resisting arrest”, for traffic stops, for all of the crazy reasons people get put into the prison system. It’s incredible. If people, ESPECIALLY white people, aren’t using their power, abilities, and privilege to make the world a better place for every single marginalized person — what are they using their abilities for?

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