Five questions with: Singer-songwriter Rochelle Riser

Rochelle Riser

Uptown Bill’s — Saturday, Aug. 24 at 7 p.m.

Rochelle Riser — courtesy of the artist

Iowa native Rochelle Feldkamp, who performs now as Rochelle Riser, didn’t exactly head to Nashville to chase her dreams, as so many have before her. She went right after high school to attend college, but ended up finding her voice.

Now, with one EP under her belt (recorded under her given name), she’s touring, writing and stretching her musical muscles. Her lilting voice invites comparison to some of her strongest predecessors, marrying the playfulness of Nellie McKay with the committed tonality of Fiona Apple. Rochelle Riser performs at Uptown Bill’s in Iowa City this Saturday night at 7 p.m. The show has a suggested donation of $5-10.

What is your songwriting process like? Which comes first for you, words or music? And what part does storytelling play in either?

Most of my songs start from turning off the radio while I’m driving and seeing what I start to sing in the silence. I have over 400 voice memos on my phone, little snippets that sometimes turn into nothing and others turn into my favorite songs. I usually sing the words and the melody at the same time, or I start with some sort of guitar picking pattern I make up. Storytelling is a huge part of my writing. I think a lot of it is very visual — I want to put the listener in my exact headspace or emotion or moment in history when I was writing the song. And I like to be transported there when I’m singing it, too.

What drove you to re-brand yourself so early in your recording career? Is there a difference stylistically or conceptually in your work under the new name?

Taking on a stage name was something I had always considered, but I had never found one that I liked enough. I have a German last name with a lot of consonants that has proven to be difficult for people. I didn’t want anything to be in the way, to stop people from hearing my music, whether that was a last name they could never learn to say or a lack of confidence to put myself out there.

I really got serious with myself toward the end of last year and decided what kind of artist and writer I wanted to be, how I wanted to come across. I wouldn’t say that my new music is so different stylistically, but I do give it much more weight in how it shapes the rest of my life. Riser was my great-grandmother’s maiden name, so even this change comes from a deep back-to-my-roots sort of place.

Several Iowa musicians have made the leap to Nashville to explore music there. What about the city or the people feel like home to you? What differences between the two are most inspiring?

I came to Nashville right after high school to study music education. I had no plans to become a songwriter or an artist. I very simply saw my alma mater (Belmont University) on TV and thought it looked like a great school. I quickly realized I did not want to be a music teacher, and though I continued to study music, it took me several years to get into what I really wanted to do with music. It’s funny — I have actually thought about leaving Nashville and moving back to the Midwest several times, but it has always felt like I would be leaving unfinished business there.

Nashville definitely has a small-town feel. You still always run into someone you know at the grocery store. So many people move to Nashville to make their dreams happen, which can be very inspiring. However, that doesn’t always inspire everyone’s best or most genuine behavior. That’s what I love about coming home to the Midwest. Folks are just genuinely kind, without any ulterior motives. You can sit down and have a conversation with someone and no one is judging your value by how many Spotify listeners or Instagram followers you have.

Do you have any mentors in the industry? Where have you found that guidance is valuable, and where have you forged your own path?

I would say that everyone around me in Nashville is a mentor in a way. I am always trying to learn something from my friends and community, whether that’s a country artist with a few number-ones or an indie musician that’s been doing small tours for a while. I like to take bits from everyone else and see what works for me personally. There’s really no one road to success in this business, so I try hard not do things that I’m supposed to do and just do what feels right for me.

What are the next steps for you, in terms of recording? How hands-on are you in the recording process?

I am super excited to be recording more songs this fall. I feel much more ready for it this time. I’ll be working with two producers, but it will definitely be a collaborative effort. Producers, engineers and musicians all will get to put their own touches on these songs, but ultimately, I make the decisions on what the song becomes.

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