Rio Romeo is unapologetic. Whether they’re candidly singing about their own experiences as a non-binary butch lesbian or defending their distinct sound to online critics, Rio is all heart.
They’ve built a dedicated following from their own style of alt pop and cabaret punk music that features catchy layered vocals and a uniquely tuned piano which has quickly become Rio’s calling card. Now, they’re currently wrapping up their first US tour and in the works of releasing their debut album, Everyday is the Best Day of My Life! In the midst of their last shows, Rio and I talked about love, performing post recovery and living authentically.
What’s the story behind the golden hammer?
The golden hammer was a christmas present from my partner. When I was first learning about resources and lifestyle tips about chronic pain, I came across the spoon theory. It instantly made sense to me, and I felt so much better knowing that others had already figured out a way to express the limitations that I was facing. But, with this, I felt that it could have been more badass, since it does revolve around being in constant excruciating pain. I suggested hammers, offhandedly, and it became a sort of disability roll call on my social media accounts for a while.
Your Valentine EP, song Butch 4 Butch, and even your name Rio Romeo are all inspired by love. What role does love play in your music?
Love has a major role in my music, but I feel that this is just a consequence of my environment. Being outed as gay was the most major turning point I have experienced in my life —everything was drastically different immediately. I found that the best way to cope with this upheaval was being able to own my feelings and my story. The most accurate way to do this was through music at the time, and I just never stopped since.
At what moment do you think you fell in love with creating music?
I fell in love with creating music when I was making DYLTGIR? In 2020. I made this song with absolutely no idea of what I was doing – I had over 100 tracks in GarageBand, half of which were voice memos from other people, the other half were recorded on a USB mic in my mom’s minivan.
This was the first time that I got to experience the music creation process as a sort of playground —something that has more potential than just what I can sing and play live in the moment. Learning how to produce my own music made my finite possibilities endless and widened my potential of expression exponentially.
You’re currently on your first US tour after a pretty serious skateboarding accident. How does it feel to be back on stage performing?
There actually is no back on stage, because this is my first time ever really being on stage. The only time I have ever performed music is post-pandemic and post-accident recovery, which is a wild experience in and of itself.
Being on tour feels absolutely unreal for a slew of reasons, but the big ones are that I never imagined that I would ever be afforded this opportunity as an artist and also physically be able to accomplish traveling in such an intense manner. There were times during recovery from my skateboarding accident that no one was sure I was ever going to walk unassisted again. I still deal with some chronic pain issues, but it is extremely minor in comparison to how I was in the two years following my accident.
Did the accident affect the way you viewed, or wrote your music?
Yes. I was incredibly isolated while I was recovering from my brain injury, and was unable to regularly leave my house, listen to music, go on the internet or even see my friends for an entire year.
Luckily, since I play acoustic pianos and the thing that bothered me about listening to music was the electronic aspect of it, I was able to really get to know my piano in a way that I would have never done otherwise. I have such a close relationship with the ins and outs of what my piano is capable of as well as how to accentuate tones, moods and stories due to my dependency on the instrument during my recovery. The isolation and devastating circumstances also required an extreme level of self reflection, which led to some of my most introspective and creative writing. What else am I supposed to do for a year?
You mentioned on your TikTok that people have told you you sing wrong and have been criticized for playing your piano out of tune. Did you always have a carefree attitude toward your music?
I’ve never given a fuck about what people criticizing have to say. Most of the time, they don’t sing or play the piano. I’d like to see them do better with the tools that they have at hand! In my mind, people either criticize or create, and unless you are actively creating as well, it is hard to find it constructive or important. Plus, I love my out of tune piano. I’m not the most technically skilled pianist, but because of its distinct sound and unique tuning I can post a very generic piano instrumental clip, have the audio downloaded and reuploaded to the internet with no credit and still have people be able to recognize that it’s my piano. I am extremely passionate that it does not matter what tools you have, only what you do with them!
What was the first song you wrote? How has your music (including vocals, lyrics and instrumentals) evolved since then?
I have been writing songs off the top of my head ever since I was a child. I used to write them on post it notes and hide them in a box so my brother wouldn’t read them out loud, but it would never work. I first started writing with an instrument in my freshman year of high school when I picked up my first guitar, and had a song book called “GLSB” or Good Luck Song Book that still has a bunch of my old material in it. I grew up very religious, so a lot of the songs are kind of mega-church core, which is embarrassing and I tend not to share hahaha.
You also mentioned in a TikTok that journals are private to you and your songs are very personal to you. How do you decide what moments of your life you want to share?
I have learned what to share and keep to myself through trial and tribulation. Ideally, I would like to share everything from A-Z, but things can easily be misconstrued or weaponized without context.
Writing in journals and writing music comes from me constantly and there isn’t much I can do but let it flow, but I have been trying to be more intentional about what I share in order to maintain a sense of privacy towards my personal life. I, Rio, am an open book in all the sense, but it gets more complicated when topics of my writing impact others in my life.
Can we talk about how people wanted to change the pronouns in your song “Butch 4 Butch?” How damaging is it to the art and the artist when people decide to change the pronouns explicitly queer songs?
I hate when people change the pronouns in my songs, and I have been a hard ass about it online in the past. I have sacrificed everything in my life to be able to live authentically to who I am and what I believe, and to take my art and either sanitize it or make it apply to a completely different life experience is very frustrating for me. I’m sure that the butches reading can agree —no one can truly understand what being a butch is like and trying to relate your experience to it may draw community, but it will not draw accuracy.
Someone in your Instagram comments said your singing sounds like you have a big smile on your face. What is your favorite part of creating music?
I actually do sing with a big smile on my face. I love singing, I love writing music, I love playing the piano, and I love my partner even more. It’s hard not to be thrilled to smile when I get to share all of these things at once. My favorite part about creating music is being able to communicate my story with nuance. So many people have heard my experience and thought of only tragedy and loss, but it is so much deeper than that.
For example, with my recovery from my accident —it was one of the most fun years of my life because I was with my partner whom I love very much, and I was able to create art unapologetically and expand my creativity in an unprecedented way. And even though it was undoubtedly the hardest, most painful and devastating year of my life, I will look back at it fondly. The only way that I feel I could concisely and accurately represent this duality, would be through music.
Last question! Are there still termites in your piano? Will you ever retire the out of tune termite piano?
I don’t think so? Every once in a while there will be a few bugs that fly out, but there’s termites everywhere in California so I don’t really care that much. I may retire [the piano] from recording, but I will always keep it to play when I’m feeling sentimental. This piano single handedly kept me afloat during my accident and helped me find my community. I will lug this piano from house to house until the day that I die!