If you could bottle love in a song, it would be “Great Divide,” a song that comes from the heart of Mike Rizzi. When you meet Mike, you quickly learn that he is many things. As a person, he is: a good father, husband, son, and friend; he is funny, warm, and gracious. As a musician, he is: a master of his instrument, a melodic composer, a strong lyricist, a seasoned studio pro. But his love for his son, Kaden, shines above all else.
Mike recently released Appreciate What Remains, an album that was intended as a present for his son, but over the past few months, has become so much more. He filmed a video for “Great Divide”, and it was picked up on CMT and quickly became a fan favorite. Since then, through a PledgeMusic campaign, he released the album. Now that it is out, he is hearing from listeners about the connection they feel with these songs, and people around Mike want to know what he is doing next with this record – one thoroughly driven by his love of music and love for his son and the people closest to him.
This moment starts with Mike as a drummer, and he belongs to an elite club that includes Don Henley, Phil Collins, Fred LeBlanc of Cowboy Mouth, and Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish: the singing drummer.
Mike first picked up the drums at age three and showing a great aptitude, his cousin Ray began giving him lessons. Mike recalls writing his first song at age five “about my older sister’s friend. I sang it while playing along on my Mickey Mouse drum kit.” Asked what is the first song he recalls hearing, “It had to be The Beatles – either ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or ‘A Day In The Life’, which are actually pretty heavy songs for a 4-year-old to connect to!”
Mesmerized by The Beatles, he formed his first band in eighth grade called Uncle Jam, and was both drummer and lead vocalist “By default,” Mike laughs. He and his sixth-grader friend wrote a song called “You’re So Special,” which Mike describes as “Not exactly ‘YYZ’ by Rush, but for middle school it caught on.” Soon, Mike was selling his schoolmates cassette recordings of his songs out of his locker. As a budding five-year-old drummer, he knew music would be important to his life; now at 15, with girls liking him, and boys shrinking from bullying him, he knew absolutely that this was his path. His parents were encouraging; although, they suggested he follow his interests to art school as a back up.
In 1993, Mike made his way to Atlanta with his then-band, The Good Cows. Since then, he has held the drum throne with area favorites across diverse genres such as Five Eight, The Sweet Tea Project, John Driskell Hopkins Band, Sonia Leigh, and others. He has also toured as an opening act for acts as diverse as R.E.M., Zac Brown Band, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Chicago, Cheap Trick, and The Killers, among others.
He channels his drummer inspirations, including Ringo, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Stan Lynch, Max Weinberg, Bun E. Carlos, and Buddy Rich. “I am conscious never to play the same gig twice because if you don’t keep learning, you are a one-trick pony.” Mike jokes that he gets one constant comparison to another drummer, and that is Muppet percussionist Animal. Surely that originates from the way that they both play with joyous abandon, and perhaps an occasional hirsute resemblance.
Given his ability to call up thunderous rock, Mike’s heartfelt, emotional record may be unexpected. “I wanted to do a certain kind of record. It is a personal record, a vulnerable record, but at the time, I had all of these feelings and emotions from which I was not going to walk away. This was the way I was going to deal with them.” His song crafting always originates from within. “I don’t know how people write fiction songs. I do not think we tell personal stories in song as much now as maybe we did in the era of Jim Croce or David Gates of Bread. I do not think we push vulnerable records these days. I may be too emotional, but on this record, I can only be me.” Mike was fortunate to have good friend John Driskell Hopkins – “Hop”- produce this record.
Despite his years writing and playing music, creating a solo record was not a firm career goal. “Friends like Hop would periodically chide me ‘Hey, where is that solo album?’ I just like playing music with others so much that it was never a big milestone.” Thus, Mike felt somewhat awkward being the singular focus during the creation of this record. “One of the early decisions I wrestled with was what name to put on the record. Friends were like ‘It is your solo record. Of course, you put Mike Rizzi on it…’ but that just seems so weird and foreign to me. It is something I never plotted out. I think now I just had something to say.”
Some years ago, Mike wrote a song with Sonia Leigh while they were touring together. On a rare day off, they were taking in the Grand Canyon. Looking at the vastness, Sonia said, ”The only thing between us is this great divide.” Mike recalls, “Hearing that, I grabbed a guitar, strummed my best E chord, and sang those words. We worked on it together and performed it two days later in front of 18,000 people in Spartanburg, South Carolina.” The imagery of the vast expanse of the canyon reflected his own separation from his 13-year old son, Kaden, who lives in the Netherlands. That song ended up being the catalyst for Appreciate What Remains and its central purpose – a testament of love and fatherly advice for Kaden. The vision for the project came together quickly, using some song demos that he had written as far back as 2005 and new songs that emerged from an intense spate of creativity and collaboration with musician friends.
The record works on many levels. There are some songs more easily discerned as direct messages to Kaden such as “Great Divide” or the album’s opener “Sound Of A Broken Heart,” which begins with a recording of Kaden’s prenatal heartbeat from a sonogram and then his voice. Mike recalls a moment when Kaden asked him “’What is the sound of a broker heart?’ I remember driving on I-285 when he asked it.” Mike knew he needed to hold onto that and respond to it.
Not all songs are as directly about Kaden, but they are tied to him through their inclusion on the album. “Here’s To All The Years” is a tribute to Mike’s parents written on the eve of their 50th wedding anniversary. “Originally, I titled it ’50 Years’, but as I sought out additional anniversary songs to play at their event, I surprisingly found very few. I decided to broaden the title and lyrics to widen its use and appeal. It will be important to Kaden because it is about his grandparents.” Already the song could be to wedding anniversaries what Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” is to wedding receptions. “All To Myself” sweetly recalls the moment Mike proposed to his wife, Jolie, which happened to be on stage in the middle of a Zac Brown Band concert at the Hollywood Bowl! A professional photographer, Jolie was taking pictures of the performance when Mike called her to the stage. After her surprise and her “yes,” they shared a dance on stage while the band played. You can find fan videos of it on YouTube [Mike Rizzi’s Proposal To Jolie].
Even some songs with less obvious connections are included for Kaden’s benefit. “I tried to inject a little levity with ‘Take Me Back To London’ which is about Keith Moon. I was working with film and TV director Davis Guggenheim and he asked me if I were to die and go to heaven, which drum kit would I take? That was a great question, and I thought ‘Maybe the ’66 Slingerland, maybe a favorite Ludwig……nah, I am going to bring the 10-piece kit because Keith Moon is probably bored in heaven.’” Thus, the start of lyrics of Keith’s beseeching he has got to get back to London, with clever uses of the words ‘the who’. “I wanted to include this for Kaden because it is an idea that stretches the imagination a bit. Maybe when I am long gone, he listens to it and says, ‘My dad had an imagination and a sense of humor.’”
Mike included a couple of songs with lyrics written to himself. “In ‘Unsaid’, there are lines like ‘shut off the lights / lessons learned’ or ‘oh foolish me.’ Those are me, talking to me, reminding me of how circumstances or people can go sideways and turn on you. They can also be about the difficulties of this music business. Even so, I want Kaden to hear them and understand that one has to keep his eyes open – forgive but do not forget lest you leave yourself open for the same thing to happen again.”
“I wanted to leave Kaden many kinds of songs with different thoughts and messages – songs of imagination, songs of warning, and obviously upfront and foremost, songs that let him know I love him. How do I do this? The best way I can – through music. Some of these will be apparent now; some he may take in later. With this record, these messages remain, even past my own time.”
Mike has added many more layers and thoughts – even some sonic Easter eggs –into the songs. “My dear friend, guitarist Barry Thrasher, passed away. Since he has been gone, I have felt his presence and even guidance along the way in this project. ‘The Calm Sky’ is for him. I had an old voice mail message from Barry. I was able to take from it Barry’s laughter and mix into the front of the song. At the end you can hear him say ‘Love you, bye.’ I could do 17 ‘storyteller‘ interviews and still not unwrap all the little personal touches we embedded into these songs.”
Despite the diligence and care Mike and Hop put into this record, Mike kept humble ambitions for it. “I have put literally everything I am – certainly all of me emotionally – into this record, and in a way, I feel like I have waited my whole career for people to hear this side of me. Kaden calls this ‘his record’ and it is his record. And if this was only a record for him, that would be fine. But, if you have the ability to speak, you speak. If you have the ability to feel certain emotions, you speak those emotions. That is what I have done.”
Keeping expectations to those personal ones kept the project less pressured in the studio. “Hop and I would joke ‘Should we go back to work on this record no one is going to hear?’” To help bring his songs to life on tape, Mike called on dear friends with whom he has played. “I did not necessarily seek out big name players, but rather those with big hearts, those who got what this record was about and for whom these songs were meant. Brian Bisky from The Sweet Tea Project is so talented on bass, piano, and organ. I told him I would have him on any record I did. Then I knew we needed Will Harrison on guitars and mandolin. Peter Searcy offered to lay down cello parts, which turned out to be perfect in three songs, as were the parts by many others named on the record, and of course, Hop, with whom I have been friends for almost 25 years, even if we have only been playing together four or five years. Nothing is better than playing with people like him – great musicians, great fathers, great friends, all so loyal for so many years. These folks got it.”
Control over the making and distribution of the record was also important to Mike, “I also enjoyed the opportunity we have today to put out our own records rather than be told how I am going to do it – not just the songs or the players, but even the chance to release this on Father’s Day, because that just felt right.”
Since putting out the record, he is getting great feedback, which has been somewhat unexpected for Mike. “It is very cool to know that these songs – which were written somewhat selfishly, to help me make sense of missing the daily minutes with Kaden, or to move past some personal disappointments and losses and not to dwell on what I don’t have but celebrate what I do have – that not only are they healing me but healing others who have experienced some of the same situations.”
Mike has received many letters from people who share in experiences that are echoed in this record – fathers and mothers separated from their children, military personnel missing family, and others who have been through difficult times. Each of these letters have given him more insight. “These other perspectives helped me see beyond my initial message as a father, and I find myself focusing on becoming a better human, as we are in a time that seems to be drifting away from the kindness of humanity first.” Then he adds, “Equality is more important now than ever as we see our world becoming divided more and more each day.”
Mike says, “The longer I go through life, the more sense the journey seems to make. I don’t necessarily schedule time to write music. Like Keith Richards said, ‘I don’t write songs. Songs find me.’ These songs found me at the time they needed to. Even the album cover photograph came to me in a dream that I had Jolie take when I woke up.”
He is philosophical about the future. “I understand this is a gift. Lately I have had so much writing happen, and I am co-writing more with other people. I had some songs that I did not choose to finish for the album. There is a song called “The Song That Writes Itself,” which basically says don’t mess with a good day, let the journey unfold. I am willing to let this journey just play out, let more songs find me, and see what happens.”
Appreciate What Remains, a lasting gift for Kaden, fueled my Mike’s abiding love for music, turns out to be a gift of positivity for listeners, too, who can surely look forward to his next steps in his journey.
Mike is playing songs from Appreciate What Remains at a special show at Smith’s Olde Bar, Monday August 6, featuring the same talented musicians on the record and billed as The Strong Personalities. Expect to see Mike both in front of and behind the drums, where he is most at home.
|Grapevine Profile: Mike Rizzi|
|5 Desert Island Discs||1. The Who - Who's Next
2. U2 - The Unforgettable Fire
3. The Beatles - Rubber Soul
4. Led Zeppelin -1st album
5. The Kinks - Give The People What They Want
|First concert||By myself: Loverboy and Zebra at the Broome County Arena (Binghamton, NY)|
|Favorite concert in Atlanta||SO MANY!
* U2 at Philips Arena (11/30/01)
* Paul McCartney (5/13/02)
* Springsteen - The River tour (2/18/16)
* Mudcrutch at Tabernacle (6/2/16)
|Favorite area restaurants/hangouts||Smith's Olde Bar, Atkins Park, Smyrna, Brighter Shade Studios! Any place with good energy!|
|Memorable gigs around town||Many through the years!
* Five Eight - Summerfest Virginia Highlands 6/5/04
* Phillips Arena on New Year's Eve 2010 (Sonia Leigh opening for Zac Brown Band)
* Turner Field: The Sweet Tea Project singing the national anthem 7/7/15
|Where to buy music||iTunes, Amazon Music|
|Favorite Atlanta music blog||Atlanta Music Grapevine!|
photo by Kaden Rizzi