Riovaz has always done the opposite of what people expect. It’s a trait he first leaned into while growing up in New Jersey, surprising himself with the sounds he created in his teenage bedroom while drowning out the naysayers who thought his music-making would amount to nothing. His sombre dance track ‘Prom Night’ then blew up in 2020, amassing millions of streams and soundtracking more than 100,000 TikTok clips. The song’s popularity pushed Riovaz reluctantly into the spotlight, something he’d been avoiding since he first started making music at the age of 13 in order to let his music speak for itself.
But ‘Prom Night’ marked “a turning point” for the introverted artist, allowing him to build a deeper relationship with his songwriting and creativity that aided his overall decision to take his music career seriously. Driven by that goal, Riovaz dropped multiple genre-defying releases last year, such as the hypnotic ‘Tell Me All Your Fears’ (which highlighted his penchant for house music) and the bubbling ‘I Feel Fantastic’, where he politely asked a lover to “please cry yourself to sleep”.
Now aged 18, Riovaz is building on his viral success by delving into experimentation and open-hearted songwriting, all while refusing to be boxed in by categorisation, comparison, or anyone’s opinion of his sound. “People want to be others so bad nowadays just for the attention and likes,” he tells NME, dialling in from his New Jersey home. “Why even be an artist if you want to be someone else?”
He’s set to release a new EP later this year that’s stacked with arrangements which merge elements of house music, four-on-the-floor and drum’n’bass into his own distinctive sound. After all, Riovaz has his sights set on “creating a movement” within the dance scene, something he says has “been my goal since I started”. The fruits of his labour are already evident at his live shows, with new fans singing each and every line of his songs back at him (a sold-out US headline tour is also in his 2023 diary). “I just want to create something that’s impacted people in a certain way,” he says. “That’s just wild to see.”
NME: You started making music when you were just 13. How has your relationship with creativity evolved since then?
“When I first started, I did it as a hobby. But then as I kept writing songs and I saw the reception on SoundCloud, I started taking it seriously. My love for it grew, and my love for songwriting developed as I got older. That’s really why I’m here now: I just grew to love [making music] over time. I took my writing seriously during quarantine in 2020, because I was just stuck in my room – I just listened to beats and started writing. That’s when I discovered The Smiths, and they made me want to take my writing more seriously. I’d write about how I was feeling and just take it from there – the words just came out of my head. When I listen to beats they become building blocks, and it all just pieces itself together.”
What was your introduction to The Smiths like?
“[I found them on] YouTube. I saw the ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ video and that had me hooked. It was a recommended video for a year, then I clicked on it during quarantine and it changed my life.”
Prior to the release of ‘Prom Night’ you didn’t show your face online, but then your viral hit pushed you into the limelight. What did that rapid notoriety feel like?
“That was so scary. It happened with the music video, because ‘Prom Night’ was out and it was doing pretty well. But this was a year before it blew up, and the video was a face-reveal to everyone [which] that felt so scary. I’d never done that before, and I was just a 16-year-old kid in glasses with braces. Now I’ve grown more comfortable with myself. When I released ‘I Feel Fantastic’, that’s when I felt like I was coming into myself. Even when I first showed my face, I didn’t feel like I was Riovaz yet. [Now] it feels really good.”
You’ve mentioned before that you felt like you had to push your creativity down when you were growing up because of the people around you. How did you break out of that?
“When you tell your friends you’re making music, especially when you’re 13 or 14, they don’t take it seriously. Even when I was finally taking it seriously they did not fuck with the idea, and that was not motivating at all. I kept making it [though], and I’m where I am now because of all the people I met online. I had a big group of friends in Orlando that also made the type of music I was making, and that pushed me forward to keep going. It’s just the people you meet: the people you know in real life don’t get it until they see something physical.”
In ‘Tantrum’, you sing about your desire for authenticity and your issues with comparisons. Is there a specific experience you’re referring to in those lyrics?
“I talk a lot about my hatred for things, and that’s really what the song is [about]. There’s the line, “I’m tired of comparisons / I’m who I want to be”, because [while] people and a lot of fans have gotten to know me, [they] really don’t know me at the same time. People try to put you in this box and compare you to other artists that you’re hanging out with, or they think they know what sound you are. It’s just not it: they don’t really get it and that’s what I’m talking about.”
Is that why you recently tweeted “stop saying I make hyper-pop”?
“Yeah, I don’t understand that. I don’t think I make hyper-pop. I used to listen to hyper-pop in 2020 when it was first going up, and I don’t think I make that at all. All my stuff has been four-on-the-floor dance or drum’n’bass. I don’t make hyper-pop – I will never understand that. I think it’s because of the people I hang out [and collaborate with], like midwxst and aldn who came up from hyper-pop, so I think people make that comparison. Nothing against [hyper-pop], I was literally a fan of the whole scene. I just want people to understand the world I’m trying to build in the dance scene, because that’s what I’m doing right now.”
You’ve called your sound “RioRave” in the past. How would you define that genre?
“It’s melancholic music, but you can also do backflips to it. It’s like a chaotic beauty; a blend of happy-sad. I feel like it just belongs everywhere, so I wouldn’t say I have a genre: I am forever evolving. You could say I have [a] genre now – I have momentary genres – but it’s forever changing. When people ask what genre I am, I just say my name because it’s forever changing, like my influences. The biggest influences in my life have been The Beatles, Three Days Grace, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins – they were my first entry point into music.”
What was it about those bands that drew you in? Was it their sound or their songwriting?
“Their honesty, like The Smiths – that’s another big influence [of mine], because I love their songwriting. It’s so honest and relatable, and I love to be relatable with [my] music and have my fans feel connected to it.”
How are you feeling about sharing your new EP this year, and what can your fans expect from it?
“I feel really good about it, because I feel like right now is an introduction. [In 2022] I gained a lot of new fans and new faces, and I really want this EP to be the introduction of what my sound is and the sound I’m going to push forward for an album that’s gonna come out. I really want them to get the idea with this EP.”
Riovaz’s new single ‘Tantrum (Pace Yourself)’ is out now