Baltimore actor Kyle Riley on Sam McCready and making music for young listeners
Ahead of an appearance at this month's CS Lewis Festival, Jenny Lee chats to American actor-musician Kyle Riley on how Belfast theatre great Sam McCready and becoming a father have influenced his career
WITH a name like his, you could be forgiven for assuming that performer Kyle Riley is Irish born and bred. However, born in Baltimore, the actor, turned children's songwriter, traces his Irish roots back to his adopted grandfather on his dad's side.
"It's complicated. My dad was left on a box of a covenant in Missouri as a baby. He was adopted by Micheal Riley Jr. Ironically I did trace the roots in recent years and found one clan of Riley registered in Co Cavan in the 1798 census – two miles from where I live now in Oldcastle," explains the 41-year-old.
It was another Irishman whom Riley credits with both his career choice and in choosing to relocate to Ireland. First mesmerised by the words of Belfast actor, director and writer Sam McCready during a workshop at high school, he went on to receive a scholarship to study drama at the University of Maryland, where McCready taught from the mid-1980s.
"Sam and his wife Joan Carslake are the most significant reason I studied acting and contemplated making a life and career in Ireland. I'm still very close to the McCreadys and I most recently worked with Sam on his Percy French show, Melodies of Unforgotten Years, in 2016."
Riley first performed in Ireland in 1998, when McCready invited him to perform at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, while his first professional show in Northern Ireland was in the 2009 co-production between Belfast's Lyric and Letterkenny's An Grianan theatres of Brian Friel's The Homeplace.
He also starred as Stan Turner in Channel 5’s Heroes Of The Skies and played the role of Norman Petty in the 2011 UK tour of The Buddy Holly Story, heading on tour the day after his baby son, Eoin, was born.
"I was away from home for the first six months of my son Eoin’s life. I told my wife I didn’t want to miss my children growing up, I would figure it out," he recalls.
Located in London at the time, when his wife Brigid returned to work, Riley's work-life balance took the form of becoming a stay-at-home dad and taking children's music classes.
"I used to go along to a [pre-school music] class with Eoin and offered the owner I’m A Little Monkey, which I’d written as a legacy song for Eoin. She asked me to cover a class and pretty soon I’d joined her and we were working together.
"I'm a big believer in the power of music. It can be nurturing, comforting and empowering and help develop children's confidence, focus, motor skills and listening."
When their family expanded with the birth of Aisling, now five, Riley took the opportunity to fulfil his dream of moving to Ireland. Inspired by both the punk rock influence of his youth and the Irish traditional and folk music he was surrounded with, Riley penned more original songs for children, culminating in his 2018 album Sing To Me.
Recorded using professional instrumentalists, playing piano, fiddle, banjo and mandolin, the 22-track album includes the garage vibes of Astronaut and the repetitive, folky refrain of Down To The Riverside. His tracks have already been a firm hit in Australia and have been recorded for Qantas airlines, as well as for RTÉ Jr radio station.
This weekend Riley will be performing an interactive gig for young audiences as part of the CS Lewis Festival. Aimed in particular at two-to-eight-year-olds, don't be expecting your usual Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Wheel's on the Bus rhyme time.
Yes, there will be some traditional children's favourites, but as well as his originals, Riley likes to throw in some Bob Marley, Taylor Swift, Van Morrison, Johnny Cash and The Clash, "if parents are up for it".
"It's a full hour and I'm down on the floor with the children jumping around, playing and having craic. I'll also bring along percussion instruments, scarves and bubbles to chill out to."
He will return to the north in the spring with family stage concerts with his five piece band, aptly named Kyle Riley and the Temper Tantrums, with dates already confirmed for Armagh, Newry and Newtownards.
:: Kyle Riley presents his Out of this World Musical Adventure on November 3 at Strand Presbyterian Church, east Belfast. The CS Lewis Festival runs from November 3-7. For full programme and booking see Eastsidearts.net