In her four years at Binghamton University, alumna Monica Riskey, ‘19, took her breezy bedroom pop from residence hall jam session to New York City stage.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Riskey started playing piano at age 4, picking up the electric bass and the ukulele before arriving at the acoustic guitar at age 16. In her adolescence, she also started to rap, leasing out beats from YouTube. As she learned to sing and mix in high school, she started posting covers and originals to SoundCloud, slowly but steadily amassing a following which continued to grow once she came to BU.
During her junior year at BU, she received a message from a representative at Suther Kane Films asking her to record a song in Paris.
“I’m here trying to cram organic [chemistry] at the time,” she said. “I was very upset about my breakup, [and] I didn’t tell my friends because I thought this was a scam.”
Once she realized it wasn’t, she and her dad took a trip to Paris that winter break to record the song “Blue.”
The following year, Riskey’s song, “In Uh Breeze,” was randomly added on a playlist by Spotify, which opened her up to a larger audience. She has since signed with TMWRK Management, which also represents Diplo, A-Trak and Dillon Francis. She also opened for Gus Dapperton at Webster Hall in New York City and had a song featured in a Glossier advertisement.
Riskey sat down with Pipe Dream to talk about the highlights of her journey so far and how BU has contributed to her success.
You’ve recently opened for some pretty high-profile artists, so in terms of your own musical taste, have you found yourself in circles with artists you were a fan of just a few years ago?
Monica Riskey (MR): Yes! It’s crazy because Gus Dapperton was on tour with Spencer., and I was a really big fan of Spencer., even though he didn’t have too much content out. I came across his stuff around March or April of that year, and I was like ‘I love this stuff,’ him and Orion Sun. I [direct-messaged] Spencer. after we’d met when I was opening for him — cool dude, good vibes — and the last direct message I’d sent to him was when I had [direct-messaged] him to tell him I really liked his work, and it was so cute. I was like, “Oh my god, that’s crazy.” I honestly don’t even know where to put myself, because I know I made the “Bedroom Pop” playlist, but every song has its own personality. I like rapping, I like singing, I like hip-hop, R&B or grungier stuff, so people will be like what’s your genre and I’m like “I don’t know.”
Your influences must be pretty varied then. What are some of your biggest influences?
MR: From the rap sphere, I grew up really loving Eminem and then moved on to really like Mac Miller, and him just being Jewish and young and [having] this really chill vibe with good lyrics, and Hopsin, if people know him, is a crazy lyricist. From the other genres, I really liked Justin Bieber growing up and I really looked up to how he came off the internet, just as a young person … Rex Orange County — I caught him before he blew up, I caught him sophomore year at [BU]! I listened to his first lyrics and sent them to my friends and I was like, “This guy’s so good and different.” Also Amy Winehouse, with that jazzy flavor she has to her … I don’t know, also if you listen to something, does that mean you’re influenced by it? Like I listen to Kreayshawn, does that mean I’m influenced by her?
So you write in different genres, and at BU you were doing the open mics for a long time but also learning to produce and mix, so take me through writing a song: does the music come first, does a vision for the sound come first…?
MR: It can start with a vision, and I’ve definitely had moments when I’m without any instruments and I’m like, “This would sound great,” and I could pitch it to someone and they could recreate it. But I haven’t always been able to recreate something that was in my head, so in the beginning I started at the beginning with the guitar or the piano … sometimes it’s influenced by emotion, like this is exactly what I want to convey. Sometimes you let the melody kind of lead your brain and your story. When it comes to instrumentals, I now follow a good amount of producers, and I look to new producers. I love minor chord progressions, I came to realize — I never knew this because I never had formal teaching in music theory, I never knew how to describe it — a lot of jazzy chords, jazzy sounds … I’ve been using and still use GarageBand, so all the people who think you can’t use GarageBand — that’s wrong, you can use it, you’ve just gotta know how to work with it, change the frequencies of certain sounds, use your voice.
You also have two videos out, one for “In Uh Breeze” and one for “1969dime.” How much creative input have you had in these, and what’s that process been like?
MR: [“1969dime”] was shot in [BU], it was like 40 degrees … my friend Ollie, who was also going to [BU] at the time, was starting out his videography career … He edited it, but I had a lot of control in that we went to Walmart, I organized a lot of it, I had the idea, but Ollie was really good in absorbing that and adding his own vision. On top of that, I went to Fiverr, which is a really good website for freelance. It’s insane, you can do anything. I found Fiverr years ago — everything used to be five bucks, now it’s a little bit more — I paid this lady five bucks to take pictures with my name written on her forehead. And she did that, and I was like, ‘This is great for marketing,’ so the clips in “1969dime” are just random people I paid to dance to “1969dime.” And for “In Uh Breeze” I had the idea of the sex doll, we rented out a studio, it was again with Ollie. For “FU-CORONA,” we also had a ton of people I don’t know to dance to the song.
Within BU, you mention being in a dorm and playing a lot. What spaces at BU and in Binghamton helped you grow the most as an artist?
MR: I had this one week, like a seven-day period, and I performed five times in different open mics, just trying to get my face out. The open mics were such a wonderful experience, to be around creative individuals … I did Greek life and there are pros and cons to everything and as much as I love Greek life, I wanted to be in a creative atmosphere as well, so I loved the open mics … and open mics, no one goes there to show off, it’s all about good vibes … also my friends from the band POOL, like Eric [Sabshon], Joe [Gallo] and Rob [Castriota], there are ways you can take things from people and it’s not direct. Like, Eric just performed with me at Webster Hall. Me and Eric [go back to the] first week of college — he lived on the floor above me and he completely freestyled to my song “Purple,” and I was like, “This guy’s so good”… I guess being around other musicians was really inspirational.
Which moments have been most validating in the past few years as your career takes off?
MR: The trip I took to France did a lot for the way I thought about music and my relationship to music, because I’m not really a believer in “things happen for reasons, blah blah blah,” but you can make something of a particular emotion at the time. At the time, I was upset and I made a song, and that song got some result. Sometimes anger can also be turned in such a way where you can be productive and better yourself. And it was really that trip, because I was in such a low point and I’ve been kinda leaning on music ever since. Something goes wrong, no problem, I’m just going to sing about it, rap about it … and seeing my dad so surprised was a big thing for me, too.
At BU, you were a pre-med neuroscience major. Are you still planning on going to medical school?
MR: No — right now. Never say never, you know. Right now my plan is, I’m signing with TMWRK, that contract is for two EPs, I’m giving 100 [percent]. Before last summer, I was supposed to take [PHYS 122: General Physics II]. I had already taken [PHYS 121: General Physics I] and had to take [PHYS 122: General Physics II] for med school, and I just didn’t want to go — and l killed [PHYS 121: General Physics I], but no part of me wanted to go. I sat down with my dad — and he’s a doctor, so he pushed me, I guess he’d like for me to do these things, as any adult would — but he was like, ‘With you splitting yourself, you’re not gonna succeed in anything, you’re not gonna do well in school and you’re not gonna do well in music, you’ve got to give 100 to something”… So the goal right now is to do music … I never thought I’d be in this position — I wanted to be a doctor all my life, but never say never.