Personal Journalist: Exploring the Peculiar Perspective of Prolific Raleigh Singer-Songwriter Al Riggs | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Personal Journalist: Exploring the Peculiar Perspective of Prolific Raleigh Singer-Songwriter Al Riggs 

Alone in a crowd: musician Al Riggs

Photo by Alex Boerner

Alone in a crowd: musician Al Riggs

We're idling at the end of a cul-de-sac, and we couldn't be more obvious.

We're outside of a big house at the end of a little neighborhood in Fuquay-Varina. The three-story brick home with the pond and the dock has been well kept, its paint bright and shrubs trimmed. Two cars are in the drive, and the owners are probably home.

From the driver's seat, though, the songwriter Al Riggs stares inscrutably at the suburban palace for several minutes. At last, he speaks.

"Every dream I ever have that takes place in a house has taken place in that one," says Riggs, his shaggy hair so blond it seems white. "I don't know why."

Riggs puts the car in drive. The uncomfortable stop is finally over, and one of his childhood homes is in the rearview. Riggs swears he didn't plan to show me where he grew up; he was just drawn to the street during our ride together. He seems sincere, too, just another twenty-three-year-old former suburbanite, parsing his childhood for deeper meaning.

When Riggs looks at life, he comes away with stories to tell—lots of them. He's a prolific songwriter, a musical storyteller who combines real-life narratives and elegant earworms at a staggering rate. Since recording his first album at nineteen, Riggs has released sixteen more, or four each year. His latest, Blue Mornings, may be his best, as Riggs deviates from the pent-up art rock of his past toward Leonard Cohen-meets-Magnetic Fields folk minimalism.

These songs stem from a highly specific political and personal outlook. He sings about the last weeks of Rock Hudson. He nods to artist and activist Keith Haring in "Reagan Slain by Hero Cop." He draws titles from local headlines.

And though he seems an easy, gentle talker, he tells me before we meet that conversation is harder for him in person if he hasn't already interacted with someone through Twitter or Facebook. Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in 2012, he's a stalwart defender of social media. It helps him socialize.

He writes directly from this distinct vantage—a young, queer, progressive North Carolinian who won't surrender his home to conservatives. It's important to tell these stories from this perspective.

"I usually start with one song and then I try to find the universe that song belongs to," Riggs says.

Riggs's universe is multifaceted, and he never seems to stop moving. Today he woke up and ate one of the biggest breakfasts on the Waffle House menu. We ducked into Raleigh's Schoolkids Records for music gossip before driving aimlessly through Wake County in his Nissan Versa. It's an external and internal trip to nowhere, as Riggs regards familiar thoughts and county roads with no set destination. The more circles he drives, though, the more details he sees. The more details he sees, the stronger his songs are.

At one point during our drive, he effectively summarizes his personal ethos with a traffic decision: "I guess I'm going to stay on this road."

Riggs grew up in Cary and Fuquay-Varina. His childhood lacks interesting stories, he says, just a typical suburban upbringing with two parents working for IBM.

When he was midway through high school, the economy tanked. Mom lost her job. His grandfather died. The family moved to Apex.

"It was just without warning," Riggs says. "One morning she got the email."

But she pivoted, reoriented, and followed her dream to a new job. He identifies with that, though he sees himself in his dad, who remains in motion until everything he set out to accomplish in a day is done. He is constantly building and tinkering with things around the house. Both Riggs and his father are uncommonly focused—one on housework, one on music.

Riggs sounds content when talking about his mom and dad, but he wasn't always this happy. As a kid, Riggs had no idea how to relate to anyone. He was always anxious and depressed.

"Growing up, I was very loudly awkward," he says as we pass by the North Carolina State Fairgrounds and Carter-Finley Stadium, known for crushes of people. "I was awkward in a way that my want to fit in would supersede my ability to fit in."

When he was twenty, he read David Byrne's How Music Works. Byrne had diagnosed himself with Asperger's syndrome, and Riggs wondered if he himself might be on the autism spectrum, too. He did some research and saw a doctor, who confirmed the suspicion.

"It was out of blind curiosity that I decided to figure that out," Riggs says.

It was good to have an answer, a reason underlying the awkwardness, anxiety, and sad-for-the-sake-of-sadness feeling that defined his adolescence. It also helped explain how he looks at the world, particularly his acute awareness of his surroundings. As much as it freaks him out, he now seeks out shopping malls and other places with crowds to people watch. He can't tune out the little details, the very things that drive his songs.

Yet when it comes to making music, he's not some minutiae-minded perfectionist. He actually prefers cheap gear and homemade sounds, which help him sidestep the gatekeepers of the music industry and open the frontier to sidelined groups.

"There was an article on Pitchfork about GarageBand, and it was the case for and against GarageBand," he tells me. Very little argument against the low-cost recording platform was given, except for the choice to spend much more money for some increase in quality. "All the pro-GarageBand stuff was from people of color and women and queer people. The audiophile types, from what I remember, were white men. You can kind of see where I'm going with this."

Riggs has used GarageBand extensively, even recording most of Blue Mornings on his iPhone. That populist approach suits the album's pointed themes. Riggs had no idea he was making a political album until House Bill 2 passed the state's legislature. Riggs doesn't want to make a big deal out of his sexuality—he's queer, so what?—but silence suddenly seemed unethical. Riggs was also working on Blue Mornings when Nancy Reagan died. He thought a lot about her silence while she was First Lady and her old friend Rock Hudson was dying very publicly of AIDS.

The sidelines were no longer an option, and neither was abandoning North Carolina. Riggs had no desire to be like Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart, who loudly and melodramatically left the state in 2012 and continues to bash it from a safe distance. As a young, queer kid seeking role models and guidance at home, Riggs had identified with the former Durham songwriter. He felt betrayed.

"No hero gives up and moves somewhere else where they'll be more comfortable," Riggs says. "No hero does that."

He knew he had to look elsewhere for his role models, or behave the way he wished Stewart had. Riggs wants to tell the story of marginalized North Carolinians like himself from within his increasingly embattled home state. Rather than leave, he's tightening his focus.

"Everything is everything. Culture as a whole, especially local pride, has become as important to a lot of people as the person they're going to vote for for president," Riggs says.

His song "Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain," for instance, refers to the racially insensitive name proposed for a Durham restaurant that incited an area outcry.

"Why would you let that part of history die—this little blip where for just a second we were all united against this bizarre name?" Riggs asks.

Hyper-specific local lore like this, he says, becomes a part of the people who experienced it, part of a region's identity. Why would you ignore it and write songs trashing, say, cell phones or Instagram instead?

Rather, you should write what, and where, you live.

As Riggs is about to leave the Fuquay-Varina neighborhood where he grew up, he stops again. This time, we're sitting beside the front yard of a brick ranch house. He stares with slack-jawed wonder.

A lightbulb-studded, diamond-shaped frame on the grassy lawn surrounds a cross. The Christian totem baffles Riggs. What does it mean? What is its purpose? I suggest that it looks like a Stargate, but either my joke falls flat or he's zeroed in, shut off from every stimulus except the strange thing the universe has put in our path.

He turns left out of his childhood neighborhood and makes it maybe a quarter of a mile before circling back. He stops and takes a picture of the yard structure—for a song idea, for album art, for something.

He leaves again, headed nowhere and seeing everything.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Personal Journalist"

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