After years as a beloved sideman, Jeff Symonds is stepping out of the shadows and unleashing his own music on the world. When he headed into the studio to record his own music, he planned a few tracks and left with Riverrun. The old-school double album is filled with great hits that you will get lost in. We sat down with Jeff Symonds to talk about the album, working on his own music, musical challenges and much more!
OSR: You have played in bands, worked as a session musician and a touring musician over the years. What made you decide to head into the studio on your own to record your new album?
Symonds: There were a bunch of factors. You’re right that I had spent the last several decades helping other people bring their music to life. In the autumn of 2019, the bands I play for were all in hibernation at the same time, so I was a little restless. I was determined to make some art in 2020 and I just happened to write a few songs that I got really excited about, so I spread out all the songs I’ve written over the years out on a table, picked ones that went together, put them together with some new ones and realized I had a record I wanted to make. Everything just kind of came together and I leaned into it.
OSR: Is there a concept or theme to your album Riverrun?
Symonds: There is, it’s an old-school double album in my mind. Four sides, each about 15 minutes long. Blonde On Blonde, London Calling, that kind of vibe. There is a theme, it basically tries to cover life from childhood to adulthood. It doesn’t really tell a story as much as it tells a series of stories that hold together and speak to one another. The first four songs are about my childhood in Florida, then there’s a series of songs about adolescence, then early adulthood, and then growing up and hopefully figuring a few things out. So the kid in song 1 is and isn’t the same person in song 13. They definitely know each other, though.
OSR: Were the tracks for the album sitting on the shelf or did you write them after decided to record the album?
Symonds: About half of the songs are brand new and the other half vary in age. Some are a few years old and some are from the early 90s. I usually write 5 to 10 songs a year, and so after not playing them for anyone for decades, I had a big pile to choose from. I don’t think I would have made the album without the new batch, but I’m really glad I went back and rescued some of the old ones. I’m really happy with how they fit together.
OSR: How different was working on your own music compared to working with others?
Symonds: The main difference was not having to explain what I was going to do, I could just hit record and go. The music just lived in my head for the whole process. I would wake up in the middle of the night and scribble down a note about a part or a chord progression and go back to sleep. I also didn’t have to make sure that I was making choices that fit the artists’ vision because I was the artist this time. So I was free to make all the bad decisions I wanted.
OSR: While you play almost all the instruments on Riverrun, can you tell us a little more about the artists you collaborated with throughout the album?
Symonds: I was lucky to have lots of friends on the album to help me, especially on vocals, but a few folks really went above and beyond. James DePrato plays almost all the lead guitar on Riverrun and he’s a brilliant guitarist and friend. I seriously like every note he plays and I wrote several songs for the record with his playing in mind. Gawain Matthews engineered the record and he’s a brilliant collaborator. Megan Slankard and Rich Price, both of whom were nice enough to have me in their bands for a long time, sang beautifully all over it, and Rich co-wrote the single with me.
OSR: Riverrun is a true classic rock album. Was this what you wanted when you first started recording or did it evolve as you went along?
Symonds: I really wanted to make an album that was a blend of the sounds that were the soundtrack of my life, since it was roughly about my life, but that also sounded like me, that was the goal. I wanted people to be able to hear the inspirations but also feel like they were hearing “me”. I think I pulled it off, it sounds like what I was hoping it would sound like when I started, so I’m pretty happy. You’re right that in the end that turns out to sound like a god old-fashioned rock record. I’m actually doing a podcast called “Ghosts of Riverrun” that tries to answer this question in way more depth.
OSR: If people could take only one thing away from listening to the album, what would you like that to be and why?
Symonds: Well first, I’m hoping that people will listen to it! That’s my great hope, that the album will find an audience. It’s a lot to ask people to take the time to interact with your art. If they do, then I hope it brings them joy. We’re in short supply of joy right now and I hope the record can deliver some. I hope they hear something that feels committed, I gave it my best shot.
OSR: If people could listen to only one track from the album, which would you recommend and why?
Symonds: Oof… that’s too hard. I think ‘Breathe It Out Again’ is my current fave and it probably has a little of everything I can do in it. I’ll go with that one.
OSR: What was the biggest challenge you faced creating the album?
Symonds: I’m not sure. Probably the fact that I hadn’t recorded under my own name in forever. I had to remember that I was the artist and that I had to like it enough to put my name on it at the end. So the biggest challenge was my own critical filter. I wasn’t willing to make a bad album just to say I made one. It had to be good for me to bother to release it. Other than that, it was fantastic.
OSR: What else can we expect from you this year?
Symonds: 2021 is about getting Riverrun out there for me.
I have some singles with some cool b-sides coming and I’ll play live the second we’re allowed to, but right now I’m all about the album and doing whatever I can to give it some life.