Aaron Gonsher spends some time with the hugely talented 2016 Red Bull Music Academy Montreal participant
Before making sumptuous vocal R&B as River Tiber, Tommy Paxton-Beesley had never aspired to be a singer. The 25-year-old Canadian mastered guitar, cello and trombone prior to leaving high school, and had always been drawn to the lyrical abstractions of singers like Thom Yorke and Marvin Gaye, but it wasn’t until he heard Jeff Buckley’s Grace that Beesley’s vocal talents began to blossom in parallel with his instrumental capabilities. “It was by trying to sing along to that record that I really started singing,” says Beesley. “Playing instruments is deeply satisfying, but when you find your own voice, the instrument you’ve been carrying around your whole life, it’s the deepest thing.”
After earning a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music, Beesley returned to his native Toronto and started to release a steady stream of melancholy productions, quickly becoming an in-demand guest vocalist despite his relative lack of experience. “I think of vocals in the sense that I think of arranging a chordal instrument,” relates Beesley, sounding sleepy but focused in a Skype call from his basement studio. “I listen to my favorite vocalists and am striving for that sound, but maybe the fact that I end up in a completely different place is what’s appealing.”
Since the 2013 release of The Star Falls, his debut EP as River Tiber, Beesley’s revelatory experience of his own voice has been co-signed by a growing list of high-profile collaborators and an increasingly large fanbase. Toronto is an emerging mecca of hip hop and R&B – due in no small part to October’s Very Own (OVO), the label co-owned by Drake and Noah “40” Shebib – and Beesley is becoming a rising star of this scene via his half-lidded, blissful productions, which fall somewhere between The Weeknd’s turbulent slow jams (minus the self-destructive tendencies) and How To Dress Well’s earliest confessionals. On The Star Falls and his latest EP When the Time Is Right, deconstructed electronic elements and ghostly layered vocals make for a welcoming maelstrom, anchored by Beesley’s falsetto and a lovesickness that shades every lyric.
Though he’s worked with rising Toronto talent Sean Leon, sung on Travi$ Scott’s Rodeo and made extensive contributions to Ghostface Killah and BADBADNOTGOOD’s 2015 LP Sour Soul (he is credited on cello, violin, trombone, guitar and organ), the best evidence of Beesley’s vocal power can be heard on “No Talk,” a single sampled by Drake for “No Tellin’.” Drake encountered River Tiber through Beesley’s friend and occasional collaborator Frank Dukes, who he met while working on Sour Soul.
A shimmering, paranoid original, “No Talk” became the perfect backdrop for Drake’s contemplative boasts, and the sample flip brought River Tiber to a much wider audience when If You’re Reading This You’re Too Late, the mixtape on which it appears, debuted at #1 in the U.S.
“I hadn’t heard the record, so I didn’t know if it made the cut. I didn’t even know what it sounded like, but when I listened to it, it was mind-blowing,” says Beesley excitedly. “I don’t know if he is aware of my music or whatever, but his whole camp is unbelievable to me. Especially being from Toronto, they command a lot of respect.”
Though River Tiber’s music would be just as interesting without the vocals, Beesley’s knack for transportive yet opaque lyrics separates him from many other singers, who are so literal as to remove listeners from the fantasy. “I’m not the type of writer to talk about Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree. I still like to have a certain malleability of meaning. I wouldn’t say that it’s a complete alternate persona, but when I write lyrics I’m writing in a stream of consciousness style,” he explains. “When I first started writing lyrics I really focused on the aesthetic of the lyrics, but now I focus equally on evoking imagery.”
The resulting songs don’t seem to have a typical beginning, middle, or end, their narratives unfolding in abstract chunks of emotion. And while some corners of contemporary R&B prefer a thermostat set to frostier temperatures, Beesley eschews the cool detachment of The Weeknd or FKA twigs. His music drips with angst and frustration, but he’s not an emotionally omniscient narrator – both his voice and instrumentation convey a rare intimacy and ineffable relatability.
I guess I’m just trying to make my own favorite music.
When the Time Is Right also represents a technical breakthrough for Beesley. He’s graduated from using just live guitars and live drums, and the EP is done entirely on hardware with no soft synths, making it another outlier in contemporary R&B. Apparently, there’s more to come in that vein, especially as he prepares to release a full-length debut in early 2016. “I’m sitting on a lot of music, and a lot of really lush instrumentation,” says Beesley, who admits that he’s still trying to come to terms with the project while juggling increased demand for vocal collaborations.
“Being a part of orchestras or ensembles, you are one voice in a choir,” he explains. “Once I discovered my own voice, it was so satisfying to be able to be upfront and craft melodies and just be a little bit more prominent in the music I was making. You can’t place River Tiber into one genre,” he continues. “I guess I’m just trying to make my own favorite music.”
Header photo: Sarah Bastin