There are three sides to every story, as the saying goes, but what that phrase can also refer to is how well a skilled songwriter conveys a story from multiple points of view. In essence, that’s the blueprint Riley Etheridge Jr. mapped out for Secrets, Hope & Waiting, an eight-song travelogue that gives good geometry while taking its listeners on an intimate, acoustic-oriented character journey that spans the course of three decades.
“Some people might listen to the record and think it’s mellow — that we have the same mood throughout and the songs are all minimalistic and sparse,” Etheridge says. “And my point would be, ‘Well, that’s the concept. That’s what we were trying to do.’ As the record progresses, the arc of the story gets progressively simpler.”
The sonic template for Secrets is quite an intimate one. You’ll hear Etheridge’s chair move at the outset of the attempted soothing of “Hush,” how the delicate four-part harmonies mesh on the pleading of “Hoping & Waiting,” Simon Lott’s subtle toms and mallet work on the optimistic charge of “Everything You Wanted,” and the wistful wishfulness of the lead track “Like a Fool.” Overall, the very nature of the high-resolution recording itself, co-produced by Etheridge with longtime bandmate Larry Sieberth, makes you feel like you’re right there in the studio alongside Etheridge and his fellow musicians.
Secrets was recorded, mixed, and mastered at Esplanade Studios, located in a refurbished 1910 church in New Orleans owned by the album’s engineer, Misha Kachkachishvili. “Misha really set out to restore that church to keep the wonderful, natural room sound, the open spaces, the line of sight, and the visibility all intact,” marvels Etheridge. “Then he upgraded it to be a modern recording facility, with the best digital equipment and best vintage microphones. He understood exactly what we were trying to do in that live room.”
The album’s dimensionality directly stems from the highly personal Esplanade studio setting, reflected in the musicians’ collective interpretations of the Secrets song cycle. “We experimented in a couple of different studios with how we wanted to record, but I knew I wanted something live,” Etheridge reports. “I also knew I wanted something we’d record in complete takes, with minimal isolation and full visibility. We were all in a room playing together, and that natural room sound needed to be part of the listening experience. I wanted us to capture the beauty of creating face to face.”
The heightened level of direct in-studio interaction was absolutely key for the New York-based singer/songwriter. “That was really important to me,” says Etheridge. “It was the number one thing in terms of the mood I wanted. In the recording, I wanted the openness of spontaneity and interpretation in the moment. For a while, I thought about calling the record Life Unrehearsed, but I didn’t want to be that literal and call the record one of the song titles.”
The multi-tiered viewpoints on display throughout Secrets are also mirrored in the album’s artwork, thanks to Derek Weisberg’s visceral, abstract sculptures as photographed by Shaun Roberts. “It was an intimate process of two different people’s perspectives of the underlying sculpture that started it,” explains Etheridge. “Now imagine going to see them at an art installation in a museum where you’d put on headphones and have a narrator discuss the images. But in this case, you’d have a high-definition listening experience with one specific song synced to that particular piece of art.”
Secrets’ songs needed time to gestate in an organic fashion. “This was a group of songs where I wasn’t writing them a week before we went into the studio,” Etheridge observes. “I took my time. I had a chance to live with them for almost three years, giving me time to change tempos and change arrangements as needed. I got to live with them personally for a long time before I played them for anybody, and I think they benefited from that. My comfort with them, and my confidence of them as a group, helped tell the story I wanted to tell.”
Before going into the studio to lay down the tracks, Etheridge performed the songs live with Kenji Shinagawa, Melissa Tong, and Gary Frazier (who also played on the album). Getting that just-right live feel in the studio emerged from those onstage song tryouts. “One of the things about this process that I liked was performing these songs live before we tracked them,” Etheridge says. “Some of that growth happens only when you play a song in front of an audience and are willing to take chances. Some of my favorite moments have come from live onstage improvisation or when we’re backstage warming up.”
Ultimately, Etheridge prefers listeners will respect the arc of Secrets by giving it repeat listens in sequence. “There’s definitely some cross-referencing in the songs, so I hope people will listen to it from start to finish,” he notes. “I’d like them to hear the narrative, because even things like the transition from ‘Hope & Waiting’ to ‘Hush’ was something I was very conscious about. My wish for that outro was that it sounded hopeful.”
Hope is but one of the underlying messages to be discovered on Secrets — or, to borrow a line from “Everything You Wanted”: “I hope you find a better version of truth.” With Secrets, Hope & Waiting, Etheridge delivers a multi-angled view of the truth that’s deeper than any recorded treatise you may have heard in quite some time.