"I’m not a lover; I’m just a whore," Alex Riddle sings on the opener of his three-track EP Happy Daggers. "I’m not a liar, at least I wasn’t before."
These provocative lyrics, which trail a building guitar riff and a haunting falsetto chant, set the stage for the Houston native’s debut solo album, which is a compelling introduction to an artist who combines a robust musical background with an appreciation for literature.
Riddle, who grew up in the Memorial area and attended Memorial High School, departed the Bayou City for Atlanta's Emory University in the late 2000s. There, he double-majored in math and linguistics before returning to his hometown in 2013 with a job in the energy industry and the intention of pursuing music again.
"I definitely missed Texas and Houston, but more than anything — to be totally honest — I didn't know where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do," he says. "So I came home."
Back at his old stomping grounds, Riddle reunited with a few high-school friends and formed a band, only to see the group dissolve, at which point he decided to pursue a solo gig. With Happy Daggers, he hopes to present a cohesive story to accompany his musicianship. A reference to the final words spoken by Juliet in Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," Happy Daggers made for an appropriate title given the tragically romantic subject matter of Riddle's EP.
"In the play, the human impulses that seem relatively harmless in everyday life — pettiness, sentimentality, infatuation — end up destroying lives," Riddle says. "But anything that takes up our attention and time has a power over us, from the earth-shattering to the mind-numbingly mundane."
But being attentive, having interests and relationships are fundamental aspects of life, he says, unless one wishes to be a hermit. And this attempt to balance the give and take is what determines whether our "happy daggers" lift us up and empower us or lead us to our downfall.
"What's necessary is to remain engaged, to constantly reclaim ourselves in the world, reestablishing jurisdiction over ourselves, even as we repeatedly give over territory to this thing or that person," Riddle says. "So my plan was to move through moods and ideas from darkness to light, sort of picking up where Romeo and Juliet left off, as well as reversing the story, by beginning with tragedy, backtracking through solipsism, and ending up with something akin to joy and freedom — a beginning."
"Truth Fairy," the first track on the EP, tells a story similar to that of Romeo and Juliet. It’s about the unknowns of relationships and the devastating results of botched, unrequited love.
"It's an articulation of some uncertainty principle that says you can't know what's going on, you can't know yourself, and you can't know someone else precisely because you're so wrapped up in figuring out what's going on," Riddle says. "The song doesn't assign blame or accept blame—it just spreads it around. It's both accusatory and confessional."
His songwriting methods include the incorporation of personal anecdotes, but Riddle doesn't want to be pigeonholed into scripting stories solely from private recollections.
"When I write a song, I'm always speaking from experience, but I'm not simply recounting an experience or dramatizing it," he says. "I don't confine myself to writing about my own life. My life is not nearly interesting enough to write a bunch of songs about. I'm always pulling in other things, stretching and shrinking and warping 'what really happened,' exaggerating or minimizing as a song necessitates.
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"You could say, if it makes sense, I'm not really speaking as myself, but I am speaking from myself—thoughts, feelings - that sort of thing. To some degree, I identify or empathize with every character or perspective in my songs, whether it's the narrator or the person he's addressing, etc. You kind of have to do that, or you'll end up with flat characters and perspectives that lack nuance."
Despite its 15-minute runtime, Happy Daggers is an eclectic EP. Riddle wasn’t aiming for a specific sound; instead, he strove for immediacy and emotional depth and released three tracks that encompass heavier rock, acoustic balladry and atmospheric prog-rock.
"I want the listener to feel that something dramatic is happening, that something is at stake," Riddle says. "I’m not interested in easy listening."
Alex Riddle performs at Satellite Bar (6922 Harrisburg) on Saturday, August 20, with The Eastern Sea and Dollie Barnes.