Art from pain: Janesville band explores life, death

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Ann Fiore
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

JANESVILLE—As a father, Evan Riley was deeply moved by the stories of two friends whose young children had died.

As a musician, Riley had to put that pain to music. He penned the song “Promise,” about a man who marries and becomes a father, only to lose the child.

More than a year later, the Evan Riley Band has nearly finished a multimedia project called “Bookends,” which examines life and death through an original music CD, a music video and two books by Wisconsin authors.

The band has planned a CD release party Saturday, June 7, at the Armory in Janesville.

Riley said the CD is set up as a concept album. It follows a man's life from childhood through his sunset years, touching on teen angst, marriage, children and death.

“We have different chapters of our lives … like our life is a volume of books,” said Riley, 32, whose day job is teaching music at Jefferson and Kennedy elementary schools in Janesville.

“I think of these songs as stories that are snapshots of a life,” he said. “'Bookends' seemed like an appropriate title as they hold up these songs and stories in a set: life and death, beginning and end.”

The “Bookends” theme extends to the books by Milton teacher Tim Hall and Michael Mood, who plays bass in the band with Riley, Marie Pauls, Jamie Sercombe and Todd Thompson.

Both books explore life and death, but in different ways.

Mood called his book a novelette that's set in the future, “where technology meets magic.” The story starts with the deaths of the two main characters, Regina Tripper and Caldon Dawkins, and works backward.

Hall said his novel follows the album, with each song as a chapter.

“'Bookends' is the quintessential struggle of American families who have lost their identities to poor prioritization,” Hall said in an email. “Like so many, my main character, Trey Holiday, wants the American Dream for his family. He's willing to work hard for it, and in doing so, he's lost sight of what really matters.

“By the time he realizes what's best, tragedy strikes and it may be too late.”

Another component is the music video that features “Life Dance,” a song about childhood innocence at the album's beginning.

For Riley, that song captures the project's essence.

“Everybody has different life experiences,” he said. “Life is not easy all the time, but no matter what, you're here on this Earth, and you should enjoy it as much as you can.”

Midway through the CD, the song “Promise” is where the main character—now a man—reaches a turning point. His child dies, and the remaining songs focus on his attempts to work through his grief.

Riley said the album is not religious, but it does address the average person's search for a higher power.

“To me, the approach to God is a very love-hate relationship,” he said. “It's something the main character is struggling with, finding his place with spirituality and religion. I think a lot of people have these normal struggles with their faith.”

In the song “Sunset”—second to last on the album—the man reflects on his life and wonders whether he should have worried so much:

“Time doesn't wait for you to see the beauty in life / So why waste time in a hateful state of mind / Over and over, we fail to see the light / Should we ask why or just be happy to be alive?”

Being part of the project has had a similar cathartic effect for Hall.

“Writing 'Bookends' has been a reminder that my time is best spent with my loved ones,” he said. “No amount of work, money or achievement will ever become more important than my wife and children.” 

Money for the project was raised through a Kickstarter campaign. The album is dedicated to the two children who died, as well as Riley's late grandfather Ernie White.

Had they lived, both children would have been the same age as Riley's 5-year-old daughter, Keira.

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