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Alexandra Riorden Embraces the “Duality of Life”

Musical artist Alexandra Riorden interlaced salt water between her fingers as she lay on her back, drifting in the Pacific Ocean. Underneath her relaxed facade, she wondered what unknown creatures lurked beneath her. “There’s a whole other world down there,” she said. “… I was just praying in my head that I don’t get snapped up by a shark.”

Riorden, dressed in a men’s suit, felt scared but dedicated to achieving the perfect shot for the music video of her song “Ocean,” directed by Paige Strabala, with cinematography by Jenny Baumert.

This song is one of many on her forthcoming album New Heaven, a collection of tracks steeped in Santa Barbara imagery and themes of self-discovery. While her entire album centers on “inner peace,” she hopes to illuminate the “duality of life,” singing about both the highs and lows.

Partially influenced by the beloved Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the title track “Ocean” explores life’s complexities — highlighting universal experiences that define our lives but often defy easy explanations. She shared that the song transitions from a darker tone to “mentioning all the things in life that are beautiful, like phosphorescence in the ocean and shooting stars and being in love.”

She laughs as she recites the chorus to “Ocean,” worried that without music, it might sound “so Hallmark.” It goes, “It isn’t always easy, but it’s beautiful; everyone could use a bit of help. It gets a little crazy, but it’s magical; you have to understand it for yourself.” After our phone call, I pulled up the track, wanting to hear the lyrics in their intended form. Riorden’s voice, ethereal and haunting, entranced me — I ended up listening to the track multiple times while writing this piece.

The 30-year-old grew up in San Francisco. Music fell onto her radar when her mother enrolled her in a musical theater program when she was around 6. She did choir and acapella in high school and dedicated herself to becoming a triple threat: actor, singer, and dancer. One student-run production of “Music Through The Decades,” where students celebrated and sang music from different ages, gave her a sense of belonging. “I felt something on stage that I didn’t feel before when I had lines to say,” she shared. For her, singing evoked the emotions that acting lacked. “I feel like that was foreshadowing for the rest of my life.”

Without knowing much about the town, she traded the city for the sea and moved to Santa Barbara to attend UCSB in 2012. Riorden studied Film and Media in college but recognized early on that the conventional career path didn’t excite her. Music did.

She remembers riding her bike in Isla Vista with a friend who asked her a question that most twenty-somethings I know dread, but one she didn’t mind answering: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I really want to be a musician,” Riorden responded. “I declared who I was and what I wanted.”

After graduating in 2016, she embarked on an eight-month journey across Asia. She fondly recalled performing at a night market in Cambodia and the overwhelming contentment she felt singing. “I remember I wrote my first song, and…really started singing consistently,” she said. Traveling connected her to music, allowing her to express herself in the way that felt most natural.

After her travels, she moved to Los Angeles and recorded, wrote, and produced music. In 2019, she released her first EP, Weirdflower, produced by Avi Durchfort and Dalton Ricks. Though she didn’t stay in L.A. long, she felt an irresistible pull to return to Santa Barbara. “I just missed it,” she confided. “The environment here is so relaxing and magical.” In 2019, she heeded the call. “It’s as if I started to unwind; my nervous system relaxed, and I felt more centered,” she said of her return.

“Santa Barbara feels like home to me,” said Riorden. The theme of “feeling at home” resurfaced throughout our discussion, illustrating how this sentiment weaves through various aspects of our lives — the connections we form with people, the places we inhabit, and the things we hold dear each elicit a sense of home. We both agreed that this is a feeling of unwavering comfort, a theme she channeled while writing the songs on her new album.

When asked what genre of music she listens to, Riorden sighed for a moment and then laughed, admitting that her taste is all over the map. She particularly loves rock ‘n’ roll, but any good musical storytelling grabs her attention. She used Patti Smith as an example. “She’s more about raw expression,” said Riorden. “I just love her so much. I love her writing and just everything she represents.” She also mentioned South African singer Alice Phoebe Lou and American singer Kurt Vile.

As an experimental artist, Rirodin struggles to assign herself to one genre — especially with her onstage persona. Her performances teter from rock ‘n’roll to “lullaby-esque.” She mentions American singer Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders as influences and shared that when she’s on stage, she “feels a kinship” with those women rockers.

“I want to put out music that actually comforts people,” she shared. One of her friends even likened her music to an “RX pill,” a notion she embraces. She said her last album,, co-produced with Max Collier, had a “heaviness to it. I used to think I wanted to shock people and create something very experimental,” she reflected. But she doesn’t feel that way anymore. At least, not right now.

Her new album feels like “a breath of fresh air.” Omar Velasco helped her produce it, with Justin Flint on drums and Gabe Noel on strings. She hopes to release the whole album this year and plans to release tracks — all recorded in Santa Barbara — intermittently.

Riorden often performs multiple times a week at various venues in Santa Barbara while working a day job. Yet, the musician finds moments between the chaos to enjoy Santa Barbara’s beauty. “I’ll go to the beach. I’ll jump in the ocean to rinse off the day sometimes when I feel overwhelmed or stressed,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

Catch Alexandra Riorden performing on May 11 at Fox Wine Co. (120 Santa Barbara St.) with and Serafima.