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 before speaking.
“Every dream I ever have that takes place in a house has taken place in that one,” says Riggs, their 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 their childhood homes is in the rearview. They swear they didn’t plan to show me where they grew up; they were just drawn to the street during our ride together. Riggs seems sincere, too, just another twenty-three-year-old former suburbanite, parsing their childhood for deeper meaning.
When Riggs looks at life, they come away with stories to tell–lots of them. They’re a prolific songwriter, a musical storyteller who combines real-life narratives and elegant earworms at a staggering rate. Since recording their first album at nineteen, Riggs has released sixteen more, or four each year. Their latest, Blue Mornings, may be their best, as Riggs deviates from the pent-up art rock of their past toward Leonard Cohen-meets-Magnetic Fields folk minimalism.
These songs stem from a highly specific political and personal outlook. Riggs sings about the last weeks of Rock Hudson and nods to artist and activist Keith Haring in “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop.” Riggs draws titles from local headlines.
And though they seem an easy, gentle talker, they tell me before we meet that conversation is harder for them in person if they haven’t already interacted with someone through Twitter or Facebook. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 2012, Riggs is a stalwart defender of social media. It helps them socialize.
They write directly from this distinct vantage–a young, queer, progressive North Carolinian who won’t surrender their 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 they never seem to stop moving. Today they 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 Riggs’s 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 they drive in, though, the more details they see. The more details they see, the stronger the songs are.
At one point during our drive, Riggs effectively summarizes their personal ethos with a traffic decision: “I guess I’m going to stay on this road.”
Riggs grew up in Cary and Fuquay-Varina. Their childhood lacks interesting stories, they say, just a typical suburban upbringing with two parents working for IBM.
When Riggs was midway through high school, the economy tanked. Mom lost her job. Riggs’s 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. Riggs identifies with that, and with their 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 their father are uncommonly focused, one on housework, one on music.
Riggs sounds content when talking about their mom and dad, but they weren’t always this happy. As a kid, Riggs had no idea how to relate to anyone. They were always anxious and depressed.
“Growing up, I was very loudly awkward,” they say 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 Riggs was twenty, they read David Byrne’s How Music Works. Byrne had diagnosed himself with Asperger’s syndrome, and Riggs wondered if they might be on the autism spectrum, too. They 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 Riggs’s adolescence. It also helped explain how Riggs looks at the world, with an acute awareness of their surroundings. As much as it freaks Riggs out, they now seek out shopping malls and other places with crowds to people watch. Riggs can’t tune out the little details, the very things that drive their songs.
Yet when it comes to making music, Riggs isn’t some minutiae-minded perfectionist. They actually prefer cheap gear and homemade sounds, which help 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,” Riggs says. 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 their iPhone. That populist approach suits the album’s pointed themes. Riggs had no idea they were making a political album until House Bill 2 passed the state’s legislature. Riggs doesn’t want to make a big deal out of their sexuality–they’re queer, so what?–but silence suddenly seemed unethical. Riggs was also working on Blue Mornings when Nancy Reagan died, and 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, and felt betrayed.
“No hero gives up and moves somewhere else where they’ll be more comfortable,” Riggs says. “No hero does that.”
They knew they had to look elsewhere for role models, or behave the way they wished Stewart had. Riggs wants to tell the story of marginalized North Carolinians from within their increasingly embattled home state. Rather than leave, Riggs is tightening their 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.
Their 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, Riggs 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 they grew up, they stop again. This time, we’re sitting beside the front yard of a brick ranch house. Riggs 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 Riggs is just zeroed in, shut off from every stimulus except the strange thing the universe has put in our path.
Riggs turns left out of the neighborhood and makes it maybe a quarter of a mile before circling back. They stop and take a picture of the yard structure–for a song idea, for album art, for something. Then Riggs leaves again, headed nowhere and seeing everything.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Personal Journalist”