Artsick is the new outfit fronted by guitarist and songwriter Christina Riley, the former leader of the Burnt Palms. Their debut album, Fingers Crossed, will be released at the end of this month. “Burnt Palms was my first band,” Riley said. “It was very exciting. My bandmates and I would get together for hours every week and go over new songs and practice. We played SXSW in 2016, which was fun, and did a couple of small tours. We’re still friends, which is nice. I actually met [drummer] Mario [Hernandez] and [bass player and vocalist] Donna [McKean], my partners in Artsick, while playing shows with their bands. Mario was in Kids On A Crime Spree and Donna’s in Lunchbox. The Bay Area has a nice musical community.”
Riley put together Burnt Palms after moving to the Bay Area from Ottawa, Canada. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been coming up with melodies and creating songs. I’ve always been way too ADD to learn music theory, or take serious lessons but, as a kid, I’d figure out songs on the piano and write my own,” she said. “I always felt I could express my moods better through art. I moved to the Bay Area with my partner to live near the ocean. I love watching the waves and weather shift. It can be so dramatic and moving, similar to how music makes me feel. One of my favorite places to write is in my car, overlooking the ocean, at dusk. My partner’s a nurse, so he was able to get a job here. I don’t think Canada figures into my music, but one of my favorite bands of all time is Sloan, so maybe they influence my songs subconsciously.”
“When I started writing songs, in my 20s, they were nothing I would show anyone,” Riley said. “It took a while before they became something I wanted to share. My first real band, Burnt Palms, started in 2012. I was nervous to play live, but after the first few times, I got into it. When I’m on stage now, I feel super excited and high, not shaky and insecure.”
After Burnt Palms fell apart, Riley experienced a short period of writer’s block. When the music started flowing again, she wanted to share the new songs with friends. She played a couple of demos for Hernandez. He suggested making a single. She brought in McKean to play bass. Soon after, they started playing live as Artsick. “We came together quickly, while recording the single,” Riley said. “We’re very collaborative. I enjoy the way the things I write evolve with their contributions. When you have talented and intuitive bandmates, you can always trust them to elevate the songs.”
The trio began playing live, honing the arrangements and thinking about making an album. “Donna’s husband, Tim Brown, offered to record the songs I was working out with Donna and Mario in his eight-track studio, so we started recording one or two at a time. He’s been recording the songs he makes with Donna in Lunchbox, as well as his own music, for years,” she said. “He has a home studio and a lot of experience with songwriting. He’s a great musician himself and he suggested some awesome things, for example, using a 12-string guitar on the song ‘Look Again.’ It was my first time recording with a 12-string and it adds to the mood of the song. He also played a lead guitar bit on ‘Ship Has Sailed’ and helped me achieve the feedback effects on ‘Despise,’ which are a major part of that song.”
Fingers Crossed contains 11 bright, uplifting jolts of energetic pop. The songs are driven by Riley’s sharp guitar hooks and cheerful vocals, McKean’s inventive bass lines and the propulsive drumming of Hernandez. Brown’s production adds a wide-open, spacious element that gives the music a cinematic feel. “Dealing with Tantrums” is a bit retro, with hand-clapping rhythm accents that bring to mind the girl group of the ’60s. Although it was written before the lockdown, the presentient lyric describes a woman being driven crazy by her own thoughts. The interlocking rhythms of McKean’s bass and the drumming of Hernandez give an R&B feel to “Fiction.” Riley’s anxious vocal portrays the tension one feels when a relationship isn’t going as smoothly as planned.
“Personally, I deal with anxiety pretty constantly,” Riley said. “It tends to exist in all of my writing, regardless of the pandemic. I don’t think about it too much, it just comes out. After listening to the tracks we recorded, it occurred to me that the album had a restless, anxious vibe to it—not to mention everything that was going on in the world at the time. That’s why we called it Fingers Crossed. Crossing my fingers often pops into my mind as I hope for the best possible outcome in every situation. It felt like a good fit for the record and for these current times.”