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George Riley is taking British pop to decadent new extremes

To celebrate the release of her hypnotic new EP Un/Limited Love, the London artist talks about the many experiences that inspired it – from heartbreak and YouTube tarot, to star-gazing and late-night hedonism

When George Riley was asked to open for Kelela’s sole concert date in mainland UK this year, she says it felt manifested. Like the art-pop visionary’s latest album Raven, Riley’s new EP Un/Limited Love uses club music to signify rebirth and personal growth. But where Raven is a more ambient comedown, Un/Limited Love still glows under club lighting.

It’s the third artistic pivot for the 26-year-old London artist in three years. From book-smart jazz-jungle concoctions on interest rates, a tape to inward-looking soul on Running In Waves, she’s now creating pop music that’s well-acquainted with Detroit house and the experimental outskirts of British electronic music.

The record centres on a romance that grows from questions about her potential partner’s validity to sexual exhortations (“Every time you look into my eyes / I want you to drop and surrender,” she gasps on “Star”), only interrupted by “S e x”, a biting moment where she shows what might happen should her partner be sexually threatening. Stamping her authority down is a central theme to the creation of the record as well as the content within it. Where her previous projects have been a product of Riley’s songwriting and a single producer, here, she steps in a director role, piecing together production from Loraine James, John FM, Hudson Mohawke and Actress into a hedonistic whole.

As well as going to Detroit to meet John FM, a grounding trip to Jamaica was formative to Un/Limited Love’s statement. It’s the home soil of one of Riley’s biggest influences: “I’m a huge Grace Jones fan,” she tells Dazed. “She’s someone who’s quite a big influence for me not just on the musical side but the art side. She’s such a character and is well-known for being a diva, but she’s so particular about what she wanted and never compromised.” Now, Riley feels like she’s finally ready to follow suit. “I’ve compromised quite a bit in terms of people who I’ve worked with in the past, so for this project, I asked myself, ‘what does my music sound like when I’m in control?’”

Hi George! How’s the last year been for you?

George Riley: This year has been pretty good. It’s been a lot of coming to terms and finding peace with myself. I’ve struggled with depression in the past, and feeling lost and unmotivated. I’ve been in a bad relationship that took a lot out of me and warped my sense of self. It took some experimenting and some craziness, but also a lot of stillness and groundedness to bring me back to who I was. I fell in love with someone really amazing, as well as myself, and that really beautifully coincided. I have more of a fire in my belly now, to tell myself that I’m not a wallowing person.

On ‘Satisfy You’, you sing, ‘Until I met you I was going round in circles / Just couldn’t get it together / I was accepting less and less / Until I lost myself’. How has it been evolving from your last EP, Running In Waves, over the past year?

George Riley: I felt that with Running In Waves, I hated to be defined or perceived as that version of myself. It was difficult for me to perform it because it was reminding me and putting me in this position where I felt pretty depressed. It’s still a part of who I am and I’m proud of it, but it was in a way that I wanted to obliterate it to pieces and start again. I’ve been playing more club environments, and doing a version of Running In Waves over a Machine Woman beat, and singing versions of my songs over DJ Rashad and Larry Heard beats. I wanted to share music that made me empowered and happy, and I wanted to share that sentiment with other people. Running In Waves is another way of saying, ‘I’m battling this, I gotta get through this, I’m not even treading water’. I feel like I’ve come out the other side of that now.

Stars always feature prominently in your visuals. What’s the significance?

George Riley: It’s more something I’ve had chosen and I’ve leant into it. I’ve always loved stars. I watch YouTube tarot and I’m a bit astrology-pilled. I love thinking about the universe and I love the idea that we are so small and insignificant. In a way, that’s what drives me. I like to think about life being so meaningless that you have to make something of it because we’re so small. I love the idea of being in this huge and infinite reality and thinking about what can be out there. I love thinking about the moon, I’m a big daydreamer. I love to think about what might be happening up there.

“I love the idea that we are so small and insignificant. In a way, that’s what drives me. I like to think about life being so meaningless that you have to make something of it” – George Riley

How was your time spent with Kelela on tour?

George Riley: She’s amazing, so kind. In a way, it felt manifested because I’ve been a huge fan for so long. We partied together one time. She had a show in London at The Standard and we went back to her room and continued the party and she was great. We didn’t get to do that much partying because she was travelling to the next place soon after. But she’s a lot of fun.

The side of George we get on this project is quite hedonistic. How much does that reflect who you really are?

George Riley: I’m someone who experiences things deeply. I want to experience the fullness of life and sometimes that can get me in trouble and be self-destructive, but also make me experience the wonder of being alive and being human. In a sadistic way, I want to experience the fullness of emotion, whether that means feeling really sad or really happy. There’s no middle ground.

Saying that, this past year, I have been entering a period of stillness and stability and settling. This project expresses those hedonistic tendencies, but I’m also reaching a point where I’ve had my fill of some of those extreme tendencies and desires. Let’s ride it out and just be.

What do you do when you’re not making music?

George Riley: I’m always running around because I’m always late! I love food and reading books. I’m reading The List by Yomi Adegoke [at the moment].

What’s your favourite book?

George Riley: Maybe Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. There’s also a compilation of short stories she did called Bloodchild and Other Stories.

Would you say summer is your time of year?

George Riley: Definitely. I love summer, this [points out the window] is awful.

Is there a music scene that you feel people should be checking out right now?

George Riley: There’s a lot of great women producers out there and I want to get more recognition. Lauren Duffus, Anysia Kym, Loraine [James], Klein, Jlin… I hope they have their time and have their shine.

Say you had to curate your own club night. What would it look like? Who’s playing? What’s the dress code?

George Riley: I equally want somewhere which is a sweaty and small space, but with the allure of Studio 54 without the coke and pretentiousness. I love the idea of people showing up and showing out, but with much cheaper drinks and a more relaxed attitude that’s much more about being in the music. I’d have some of my favourite DJs: the New York guys (DJ Swisha, Ace Mo, Moma Ready, Kush Jones), Shy One, OK Williams, Cakedog for some great footwork. There’s an afterparty with the chill side of Kelela, Teena Marie, ‘Hanging On a String’ by Loose Ends, and something from The Velvet Rope playing.

Un/Limited Love is out now

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