River Hooks on Leveling Up From Soundcloud Covers to Her Self-Produced Debut

River Hooks has been living and making music in New York City since 2013, but now, with the dawn of the new decade, she’s starting to feel a shift in momentum. At the end of August 2020, the singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and self-taught producer put out a pair of singles showing the fruits of those years of work. The first was a chill electronic collaboration with producer Lucian, titled “Real or Fake.” The second was “MOUNTAINS,” the first single from her upcoming debut solo EP, 11:11.

“MOUNTAINS” introduces the project in soaring, piano-driven pop. With sound painting and nature recordings, it unwinds into a story about taking time for yourself–production-wise, it’s a landmark for Hooks, who’s been honing her skills on Soundcloud covers since she was in high school. That’s what led her to develop her own style over the years, something she started to showcase on her 2018 debut single, “Worth It” and her team-ups with other producers like Villain and Kate Brunotts.

11:11 will be released October 16 on Internet & Weed, a New York City label Hooks first connected with as part of her work as a full-time music publicist (another thing that gives her a unique perspective on music and the workings of the industry). But don’t think she’s forgotten her roots–she’s planning another cover release for this December, this time making its way to other streaming services outside the Soundcloud platform.

Ahead of the EP release, Hooks corresponded with The All Scene Eye via email to unpack her musical origin story, her unplanned foray into the world of PR, and the trip to Colorado that inspired her to write “MOUNTAINS.”

When did you first start making music, and what was your first instrument?

I started making my own music when I was 15 in high school. Music has always been a huge part of my life, so I feel like I’ve been making music since I could talk, haha–I just won’t count those years.

I wrote a lot of songs in my teens, but I never really got into the production side. When I got to college was when I really started taking music seriously. I started uploading acoustic songs on Soundcloud prior to me moving up to NYC for school. Once I finally had my own laptop entering college, I started messing around with Garageband. I fell in love with learning how to produce songs on there. It wasn’t until after releasing my first self-produced single “Worth It” in 2018 that I felt the need to level up to Logic X Pro. That’s been my main DAW ever since, and I created my entire debut EP within it.

I started playing piano when I was nine, but then at 11 gravitated to playing guitar. As much as I loved playing piano–and still do–I never got the same feeling when I held my first guitar. I’m self-taught in both instruments. I’ve always been able to hear or see music being played and just pick it up. I think since there are only six strings compared to 61 keys, I’ve been able to grow more as a guitarist by ear. I still play both instruments and incorporate them into my sound, but my guitar is everything to me.

What prompted the move from the DMV area to New York?

My aunt had moved to NYC right before I headed off to high school, so my family and I were going into the city pretty often to visit her each month. It felt like another home, but it wasn’t mine–yet. She’s also not that much older than me, and we grew up more like sisters, so everything she did I thought was so cool, haha. We also have similar career paths, so I got to see the ins and outs of New York’s fashion and music industry firsthand. Seeing her in that world I believe impacted me in some way or another.

I think me moving was just a strong gut feeling I had. I loved the rides up to the city and the moment of entering and seeing the city from afar. It was like I was entering into a snowglobe. I felt so small, but there was always magic surrounding me. I also grew up down the street from the heart of D.C., so I was also used to being in a city. And I’ve always dreamt of being a musician or doing something with music, so New York was my perfect escape. When it came to applying for colleges, I applied to a bunch of city schools, a few in my hometown and some in other states.

However, I only got accepted into one other college that was not in New York and accepted to every college in New York that I had applied to, so I truly think New York was where I was supposed to be at. 

You’ve said that you started learning to produce by releasing covers on Soundcloud–how did you get into that, and how have you seen yourself grow as a producer through it?

As a self-taught artist, I was learning how to play music by listening to a lot of my favorite artists and teaching myself how to play the chords to my favorite songs. That process stemmed into fully producing what I was hearing in those songs. Not just the piano or guitar parts, but everything.

I started off just releasing acoustic covers. It would just be me singing with my guitar or piano. When I finally invested in a mic, audio interface, and MIDI, that’s when I really started to see a growth in finding my sound and being the producer, audio engineer, and mixer that I am today. 

What I love about producing covers is that I can put my own shine on the track. Giving it more of a “How would I make this song?” vibe. When I first started uploading covers, I had intended it to sound close to its original. Now, I’m making covers that totally have my sound plastered in the production and mix.

I think being able to fake your favorite artists’ production is a really great way to learn how to produce on your own, as long as you have your own style. Once I could nail someone else’s production down, that’s when I began to feel more confident in myself as a producer. I’ve made learning how to produce more enjoyable, instead of focusing on the challenges. I never want music to EVER feel like work.

I’ve definitely grown so much through my days of covering tracks. I have no method to my madness, but I love the fact that music is limitless, which inspires me to make more. I’m actually releasing a Beabadoobee cover song in December on Spotify. It’s my favorite cover I’ve done so far, and I’m so pumped for its release!

I think a lot of people, like you, feel that gravitational pull toward New York City for the creative industries and the music scene; what has it been like for you living there as an artist?

I totally agree. I definitely chose New York because of the music scene. If I put my mind into something that I care about, I know I’ll eventually reach my goal, so that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since moving up here. I’ve lived in the city for seven years now, my lucky number, and all my hard work is definitely starting to pay off now. Literally, as of this year! 

My hustle really started after I graduated college. I finally had time to breathe and create. I was like, “This is my time to really start taking music seriously and networking.” I was offered a full time job as a music publicist weeks before graduating, and that has opened so many doors for me as an artist. It’s really been a perk working inside the music industry while also trying to become an artist. It was not my hidden agenda, as becoming a music publicist really came out of nowhere. 

I actually had zero clue what I wanted to do after college, but it landed in front of me. I took the opportunity, and I can thank my boss for that. He really has been a key to how I’ve gotten to where I am at today as an artist, just by existing in his world and the knowledge he has given me. Perry Serpa is his name. He’s such a cool dude! He’s hung out with Kurt Cobain, worked with the Beastie Boys, Ozzy–and I’m always geeked listening to his stories. And if it wasn’t for a studio hang listening party that I was invited to because of my job, I wouldn’t have met the producers and Internet & Weed (their label) who’ve allowed me to create/mix at their studio. They also recently added me to their roster. It’s been almost a year since meeting those guys and my life as an artist has really changed a lot!

I’ve also met a lot of talented musicians who are now really good friends during my years of living here. I’m just constantly being inspired. It’s been great being an artist in the city and it was a smart move. NYC has really taught me how to work hard and not to give up on my dreams. I just have to remember that we are all on different paths and I just need to be patient. 

How did your collaboration with Lucian come about, and what was it like featuring on “Real or Fake”?

When I dropped my first single “Worth It” in 2018, I had done my own PR campaign for it. I got a couple of reviews and one of them landed onto HypeMachine, which is a huge blogosphere that people find music on. Lucian found me on there and DM’ed me on Soundcloud not long after it was released. I had no idea who he was–so I thought–until I asked him to send me his socials. I wanted to check out his music and see if his vibe was something I could hop on. I totally freaked when I saw that he was the producer who remixed “Trndsttr,” which blew up on Vine when I was in high school! I remember seeing Liza Koshy dance to the song and being like, “Whose song is this?” Never found out until he hit me up! Even today, I’m still completely in shock just because it was such a big thing back in the day.

The collaboration was super chill. The first song I wrote, he passed on. A couple days later I sent him “Real or Fake,” and he loved it. Two years later, he dropped our single. He was still messing around with the concept for the production, but the final cut was so worth the wait. He’s an incredibly talented producer, is also super supportive of my work, and has been sharing “MOUNTAINS” around on his playlist and socials. I’m very thankful for him reaching out to me and being a part of this experience. It’s my biggest collaboration, so I am definitely seeing a lot more listeners and a rise in following since our release. He almost has a million monthly listeners, so that has really helped me get my name out to a larger audience.

And oddly enough, the timing for “Real or Fake” and “MOUNTAINS” coming out in the same week was never discussed. Many think it was planned, but I only found out it was being released because I got an email from Spotify telling me “Real or Fake” is on it’s way! I guess everything happens for a reason, but the timing is mental.

As you said, in the process of covering other artists, you started becoming more confident in yourself as a producer–when did you first start work on your solo, self-produced EP?

I started working on my EP 11:11, which will be out on October 16th, last August. I had just come back from a trip to Colorado. I really needed that trip for many reasons. It was an escape from the city, but also I just wasn’t feeling creative anymore. I hadn’t taken a trip where I wasn’t also working in years. I felt like I was losing myself in other things and I just needed to be surrounded by good people and nature.

I got super inspired after leaving Colorado and wrote “MOUNTAINS.” It was very therapeutic for me. Every time I make a song, it’s like a part of me sheds off, and once it’s out in the world, I just want to shed off more layers of myself. I knew then, once I got back the desire to create again, that I wanted to self-produce my debut EP.

The songs came very naturally after that. It’s a look inside my mind. An open diary. I feel so good knowing that I created these seven tracks by myself, as that was a huge goal of mine for many years. It took a lot out of me–many sleep deprived days and long studio sessions–but I wouldn’t change anything about the process. I really got to know myself better and what I’m capable of as a producer, writer, singer, mixer, audio engineer, and multi-instrumentalist. 

I want people to know that females need to be taken more seriously in the industry just as much as any guy with a studio. I used maybe two online samples in the entire project, so you’re really getting to hear me and my sound. I’ve been calling my sound genre fluid, haha. I have so much more growing to do and I’m already working on my second EP. It’s in this moment of my life when I envision myself looking back on my youth, as I’m old and grey, being like, “Look at what you accomplished!” This project will forever be something special to me, and I’m so thrilled to finally share it with everyone.

Tell me more about the making of “MOUNTAINS.” Where did that track start, musically, and how did the production take shape?

I started working on “MOUNTAINS” a few days after my trip. I knew that I wanted this track to be the first single that I’d release. I tend to start writing a song and its melody on my acoustic guitar. I then will translate into digital music while combining my live recorded electric guitar and piano parts.

I never know what a song will turn out to be until I start to play around with it. I usually have a concept in my head and then try to write it into the production. I was listening to a lot of chill, lo-fi, and indie pop music at the time, so I was playing off of those sounds. I enjoy using sounds that have ear candy and are airy, which can fill the track in a bit more, but in a subtle way. When I’m producing, I tend to see music rather than hear it, but how I’m feeling in the moment really shapes the production.

The production really took shape when I started to think back on my trip and the plane ride to Colorado. When I listen to the song, the intro is my excitement of getting out of the city, the soaring instruments that enter is the turbulence from the plane taking off, and then the break leading into the guitar outro is entering paradise.

Where did you source the nature sounds that play in the end of the song?

I believe it was just recorded audio, but it may have been a foley I found in Logic. Haha, I tried checking in my project and it didn’t say, but I tend to record audio from my iPhone a lot and then place the audio file into my production. I’ll just sit somewhere and record three minutes of natural sound and cut it into how I want it. I was captivated by how I altered the vocals in the end, so I thought adding some natural sounds of what I was hearing in Colorado would make it more euphoric.

Sound-wise, how does “MOUNTAINS” fit into the larger EP project?

That’s a great question! Honestly, I’m not sure if any of my tracks fit together sonically. I did, however, arrange the track list to flow with each other and their vibes. I really like that all of my tracks sound very different. My sounds gravitate toward my mood, observations, or what I’m listening to at the moment. I’m sure many will place 11:11 into indie pop/alternative, but who knows. 

When I was in the process of finalizing my mixes, I realized that I had seven tracks and didn’t even conceptualize them all together. The only track I knew in its order was the opener for the EP. “MOUNTAINS” was placed after the intro, as it made the most sense sonically and it was the first track I had written for this project. The listeners will then enter different chapters of my open diary. 

I feel like I was subconsciously writing these tracks to fit together, but I didn’t know until the week I finalized the masters of the EP. I’m actually more interested in hearing how others view the entire project together. I think the project is for whatever the listener makes of it in the end, but I hope that they’ll love it!

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