“I hope every musician has this, but, I’m so angry I didn’t choose guitar as my instrument. I sort of hold this secret close to my heart.”
Not normally the sort of blunt, impassioned words you’d expect to hear from the accomplished, unflappably cool songwriter and composer Felix Riebl, but, then again, what creativity worthy of expression has come without some kind of struggle?
His friendship with fellow The Cat Empire founder Ollie McGill provided his really formative musical experiences.
As teens they used to spend every weekend together sneaking into clubs when they could to hear bands or at each other’s houses listening to and trying to play the music they loved. It ranged from Rage Against The Machine to Dave Brubeck.
But when he heard ‘Ala Walee’ from Ernest Ranglin’s album In Search Of The Lost Riddim, the effect on him was instant and multifaceted. In his home, there was no shortage of classical, opera and rock, but this discovery was something he could say was uniquely his own.
“Firstly the bass line is great, the harmonies are amazing, and the person who sings it could be an old man, an old woman, a young kid. It has an otherworldly feeling to it, but really human. It’s sung in a dialect of Senegal, I think. So I couldn’t understand what the song was about yet I was very moved by its story nonetheless.”
Listening to these mysterious and evocative words stirred his imagination, but the mechanics of the song has also influenced the way Felix has developed as a songwriter and composer.
“The bass line is the driving force of that song,” he says. “Then the vocal melody, how it moves around that, it’s in a harmonic range and feeling that I think I’ve spent a lot of time in since then. The melody just moves and dances so well.”
The Jamaican jazz legend’s beautifully languid, purposeful guitar chops light the way through this song too.
“He plays phrases in a way that you remember,” Riebl says. “A lot of jazz to me becomes just about the moment and you forget the phrases as quickly as they came, which is not a criticism, it’s just an atmosphere.
“Someone like Ernest Ranglin, I feel like he plays a phrase and it’s like that phrase was always meant to have been played. It sort of always existed but he just revealed it at that point. So, to me, it’s a much more solid idea of a composition. And similarly with his longtime pianist Monty Alexander; they play very, very deliberate phrases that stay with you.”
Felix has had his own unforgettable guitar performance, one that’s stayed with him but for very different reasons.
On a break during a tour, Felix and his girlfriend went to Syracuse, Italy to visit Norwegian musician Erlend Oye, someone they’d befriended previously. After dinner, a guitar was passed around with fellow dinner guests taking turns to play.
It came around to Felix and he “hacked out a version of ‘Rising with the Sun’ or a version of ‘Steal The Light’ – the simplest chords I could find – and tried to sing along”.
When the performance came to an end his Norwegian host plainly deemed that Felix’s guitar playing was “incredibly rudimentary.”
Even with countless world tours and successful releases out the front of one of the country’s most revered bands, Riebl feels as though he’s only just now coming to terms with certain unique aspects of his craft.
Whether it’s his easing doubts over the qualities of his singing voice, or awkwardly busting out a song on guitar, he continues to feel assured and inspired by the mystery and the elegant mechanics of Ernest Ranglin’s ‘Ala Walee’. The song led him to find his own path and artistic identity.
“I’m eternally grateful to music for its own greater language and for the ability that you can be part of that sometimes despite yourself, despite an idea of yourself.”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Felix Riebl on Don't Look Back.