Kenny Riley: the Godfather of Rio Grande Studios, Unveiling New Mexico’s True Sound

Nestled in a renovated adobe building next to the flowing Rio Grande River, Rio Grande Studios stands as a testament to the artistic vision of one of its owners and founder, Kenny Riley. Riley has embarked on a musical odyssey that has taken him from the bustling streets of Los Angeles to the vibrant music scenes of New York, Nashville, and even Tokyo. Today, he has become the guardian of the song, fostering the most genuine expressions of local artists and bringing the unique sounds of New Mexico into the world.

Born and raised in LA, Riley opened his first studio in Orange County. However, fate had other plans, as the studio tragically burned down while he was pursuing musical ventures in the concrete jungle of New York. Undeterred, Riley continued living in New York during the early ’80s before his journey took him to every major music hub in the country, as well as abroad. A chance encounter with the woman he would later marry led him to put down roots in New Mexico.

At Rio Grande Studios, Riley’s mission extends beyond just capturing sound; he strives to discover and amplify the unique sound of New Mexico. Believing that every major city has its own distinct sonic identity, he has embarked on a quest to unveil the spirit of the Land of Enchantment. Seeking inspiration from the rich cultural heritage and natural landscapes, Riley intentionally sought out an old adobe building next to the river. This choice represents his desire to tap into the essence of New Mexico, channeling the true sound that he believes resonates from the ground: rock and blues.

The main building of Rio Grande Studios stands tall with over 300 years of history, imbuing each recording session with a sense of timeless authenticity. Even the building itself holds secrets, as a shotgun and a gold chain were discovered hidden beneath its ancient floorboards. State-of-the-art recording equipment and instruments sit purposefully throughout the space. Every aspect of the studio has been meticulously crafted by Riley and his business partner Andrew Newman, to create an environment conducive to artistic exploration, with custom-made furniture providing a uniquely harmonious backdrop for creativity to flourish.

Kenny Riley’s journey as a studio owner and producer has been greatly influenced by his mentor, the esteemed Grammy award-winning producer and engineer, Bob Rosa. Having worked with musical icons such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Chaka Khan, and Prince, Bob Rosa’s guidance has been invaluable in shaping Riley’s approach to music production and sound engineering.

Under Rosa’s tutelage, Kenny Riley learned the intricacies of capturing the essence of a song, honing his skills in the studio to achieve the highest level of sonic quality. Rosa’s ability to bring out the best in artists and create timeless recordings left an indelible mark on Riley’s methodology. It was through this mentorship that Riley discovered the profound impact that a producer can have on an artist’s journey, serving as a guiding force and catalyst for their artistic expression. During our sit down, Riley passionately described the importance of fostering an environment where artists can explore their truest selves and create music that resonates on a soul level.

Riley’s passion for music extends beyond the studio walls. He views philosophy and music as inseparable, recognizing the profound impact that the intertwining of the two can have on the human experience. “We’re just bees in a hive rubbing wings”, said Riley describing the collaboration between musicians as an organic, transformative process where the collective energy of artists merges to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Riley champions the essence of human touch in the art of recording, valuing honesty of emotion in the process. When artists step into his studio, he implores them to “make him believe” in the authenticity and emotion they convey through their music.

According to Kenny Riley, time and experience are the architects that shape one’s musical ear and foster individuality as an engineer, producer or artist. His wealth of experience, coupled with the unique perspective gained from living through different decades, bestows upon his expertise a remarkable edge and depth.”All the successful guys you see in the industry doing what I do, they’re all old. Because it takes time to really get good at what we do,” he said solemnly. Having witnessed the evolution of music and the ever-changing cultural landscapes, Riley possesses a keen understanding of how time shapes artistic expression. Each era he has lived through has brought its own set of trends, challenges, and breakthroughs, allowing him to adapt and grow alongside the ever-evolving music industry while staying true to his commitment to foster originality and connection to soul through music.

Through his vast experience and the invaluable insights gained from living through different eras, Kenny Riley has cultivated a nuanced expertise that sets him apart. He possesses a profound understanding of the ever-changing industry dynamics and an unwavering commitment to capturing the true essence of an artist’s vision. It is this unique edge and perspective that infuses his work with a timeless quality, making him a trusted guide for musicians seeking to leave an indelible mark on the world of music.

When asked about his advice to aspiring young individuals looking to pursue a career path similar to his own, Kenny Riley offers a refreshing perspective that challenges the traditional route. Instead of advocating for a formal education in music or audio engineering, Riley encourages young talents to take a bold step. His advice is simple yet unconventional: take the money that would have been spent on college tuition, invest in acquiring an electrical certification, purchase essential recording equipment, and dive headfirst into recording artists and bands.

Riley’s guidance stems from his belief in hands-on experience and the power of practical knowledge. He understands that the music industry is driven by passion, creativity, and a relentless work ethic. By bypassing a traditional academic trajectory and embracing a more direct approach, aspiring individuals have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of music production from an early stage. This hands-on experience not only allows for skill development but also facilitates the cultivation of personal connections and a network within the industry. His advice challenges the traditional notion that a formal education is the sole path to success. Instead, he advocates for seizing opportunities, taking risks, and investing resources wisely. By embracing this unconventional advice, aspiring individuals have the potential to carve out their own niche, gaining practical skills, and building a portfolio of work that speaks volumes. In the dynamic and ever-changing landscape of music production, Riley’s advice serves as a testament to the power of pursuing one’s passion and taking a hands-on approach to create the life you desire.

In addition to his musical pursuits, Riley finds solace and excitement in the open road. Riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycles has become a beloved hobby, offering him moments of freedom and introspection that fuel his artistic endeavors. “The desert is just so beautiful,” he exclaimed. Riley is also a collector – with artifacts from dozens of people and places. And guitars – over 100, each with its own story.

Kenny Riley carries forward a legacy of excellence and a passion for music that has touched the hearts of thousands. He spoke of the tragic saying that goes, “When an old man dies, a library of knowledge dies with him.” He said unwaveringly that he would pass down the knowledge and expertise gained through decades of experience to his offspring, which would, in return, enrich the landscape of music production. With a wealth of knowledge and experience and a deep commitment to the local music scene, Kenny Riley remains dedicated to his role as the guardian of the song.