Riabko's Remarkable Reimagination

Kyle Riabko’s new album begins with Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, composed nearly 75 years ago. But the way this 30-year-old singer/guitarist/composer/actor performs the classic from Oklahoma!, it could have been written last Tuesday.

The CD, Richard Rodgers Reimagined, (Ghostlight Records), follows Riabko’s international success with Close to You: Bacharach Reimagined, his reinterpretation of Burt Bacharach’s iconic catalogue, which became a stage show Off Broadway and in London’s West End.

Born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Riabko began performing in Canada at the age of ten, then spent his teen years as an opening act for artists such as BB King, John Mayer, and Jason Mraz. He released his first full album of original music just before graduating from high school.

Riabko expanded his entertainment horizons in 2008 and 2010 by starring on Broadway in Spring Awakening and Hair, along with acting roles in film and on TV.

Now an American citizen living in Los Angeles, Riabko is marking the release of his latest album with shows in New York at Joe’s Pub on November 2, 3 and 4, and in Los Angeles at The Wallis on November 10 and 11.

The engaging, articulate performer took a break from rehearsing his live show to pop into a midtown Manhattan diner and talk about his music, and his life.

SN: It seems to me that you are pretty much the embodiment of the phrase “multi-talented”. Please tell me you don’t do gourmet cooking and brain surgery on the side.

KR: Those are two things I do not do!

SN: OK, good! One does not normally think of Saskatoon as a breeding ground for stars of Broadway and Hollywood. But your parents have said they knew you were destined for something like this from the age of two. What exactly were you doing?

KR: At two, I was just banging on pots and pans and telling stories and singing. I made up a song when I was two or three, and my parents talk about the moment they realized I had come up with that on my own.

SN: What was it about?

KR: It was called The Rainbow Song; it ends with “you know, you never really know what’s at the end of a rainbow”, and I sort of said it like I was on a 1970s telethon! And then I would make cassettes, where I’d be talking to an audience, like a radio broadcast, but I was talking to no one. So I think there was an innate need for me to be in front of people in some way.

SN: By age nine, you were playing guitar, and at 12, you were touring Canada in a band, getting extraordinary reviews for your guitar skills. What do you remember most about that time?

KR: Now that I’m an adult, I realize the incredible amount of support I got from my parents. They called the blues bar where I played “our hockey rink”, because in Saskatoon, everyone’s going to the hockey rink each week. And before we’d go on those tours when I was 12, my Dad would say, “When we get into this van, I’m your friend for this tour. I’m here, I’ll be watching, as your friend. And when we get back home, I’m your dad again”.

That “rope” he gave me was essential to me becoming the performer I became and the person I became. I know many other performers who started young, and the rope wasn’t long enough, and that crushed them.

SN: Your family and friends say you’ve always been, well, to use their word, goofy.

KR: That is true. When I’m comfortable, I’m goofy. If you were recording me at home with my girlfriend, you’d be shocked at the goofiness. The level is off the charts!

SN: Let’s jump - and it’s a big leap - to you getting the lead role in Spring Awakening on Broadway. You’d never seen a Broadway show?

KR: No, never. I didn’t really know what Broadway was. I knew theater, but when I heard the word “Broadway”, I thought of Broadway Avenue in Saskatoon. I hadn’t seen anything on that scale.

An agent said I should come to New York and see Spring Awakening, and when I sat there, I realized, this is the sound I enjoy in my musician life, and I didn’t realize you could sing like that on the Broadway stage. That was a real eye-opener for me. Then Jonathan Groff was leaving the show, so I auditioned.

SN: Some of us - OK, that would be me - grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s with Rodgers and Hammerstein music as the soundtrack of our lives. That was not your experience; you were rocking out to Jimi Hendrix. So how did you approach these songs? And did you like the original versions?

KR: Many of them, I do. I love these melodies so much, and many are a part of my childhood too. My mom would sing Oh, What a Beautiful Morning before school. Much like Bacharach and Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, these Richard Rodgers songs are in our bones, they’re the folk songs of our time.

I particularly like studying the songwriting; it’s so beautifully crafted. As a musician, it’s candy to your ears.

SN: How does one “reimagine” these classics?

I play and sing the songs from a very personal perspective. If I were to make this song my song, what would it sound like? I didn’t grow up with a piano, I grew up with a guitar. So as soon as I look at the sheet music for My Favorite Things, and I pick up the guitar, it instantly sounds more like My Guitar Gently Weeps than The Sound of Music.

I like to feel like a scientist in a lab with these songs. Often I’ll do three or four versions before I land on the one I like.

SN: Is it daunting to “reimagine” the iconic work of legends such as Burt Bacharach and Richard Rodgers? Or is it just fun for you?

KR: I know there are purists, but I don’t really worry about that; it really is just fun. These songs are so well-crafted that you could take a blowtorch to them, and they still stand up. This is my blowtorch, and it shows how brilliant these songs are at their core.

SN: You once said your idols are people like Steve Martin. Why?

KR: He’s a multi-tasker; it’s sort of like how you started this interview. He’s an artist first, and then he has these different prongs that stem out of being an artist. He doesn’t look at himself as being a standup comedian… so much so that when he was at his height, he quit, and decided to start writing movies and collecting art and writing novels.

I love that, the Renaissance man or woman. That speaks to me. I never felt comfortable doing just one thing. I just think there’s so much life to be lived.

(Richard Rodgers Reimagined is available on iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/richard-rodgers-reimagined/id1282660811)

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