It's just something incredibly powerful that I'd never experienced before. It just feels right.
If Xavier Dolan and David Fincher had a lovechild, that child might bare some resemblance to Rilan Roppolo and what he’s bringing to the Dark Pop table. Having flitted between theater, dance, and music since the age of six, the NOLA artist’s aptitude for performance is tempered by unexpectedly cool influences—the occult, mysticism, alchemy—not to mention an ear for sticky hooks that punch way above his infant, yet potent, status as newcomer. Rilan, who admits to being the byproduct of ’70s glam rock and ’80s synthpop, debuted his first single “Chemical” in July. Deliberate pop at its best with broody undertones, the track was produced by Grammy-nominated Damien Lewis in a partnership that officially sparked between the pair last August.
The vast majority of artists out there are forever on the crest of tomorrow, born and enjoyed in the little time they have. Notions of newness are fleeting in an age of unprecedented access to information and, as a result, endless possibilities. For Rilan, despite his newness, it’s more than just an offbeat origin story that makes the on-the-rise 19-year-old polymath a standout with only one single and music video to his name. He’s a force, ushering in a pervasive sense of confidence from the shadows that colors his every move. One thing seems clear: he is determined to dance and float to the top like nobody can gif him. And what of the future? He’s excited about what’s to come—grueling work schedule be damned. Rilan will let us know when he gets there.
What was it like growing up in New Orleans?
It was really cool. It sort of feels like a city outside of America. There’s a ton of culture with a lot of French and Spanish influences. It’s the most haunted city in the continental U.S., which probably explains why I’m dark as fuck. You can go downtown and see buildings that have been there since the 1800s and beyond. It’s the best place for Jazz. The people are very eclectic and “outside the box”. There’s water surrounding us everywhere. There’s also this big sense of pride, especially having had to rebuild from scratch following Hurricane Katrina.
In what ways did it impact your sense of style, taste in music, and general outlook on life?
I’m really inspired by mysticism, the occult, ghosts, vampires, witches, and all that stuff. I think growing up in New Orleans took its toll on me. You go downtown and there are five new ghost stories that everyone’s talking about. As you might know, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire came out of there. There’s this looming sense of mystery and I really respond to that. I actually went to this uppity private school for 14 years from pre-kindergarten all the way up to the 12th grade. Everyone was super preppy as you might expect and that was never my style. I rebelled against that. The khaki shorts, polo shirts, navy blazers, and all other shenanigans never spoke to me. I was an interesting, weird kid. I did my own thing and I was happy to do it.
You wound up in Los Angeles. “Hollyweird” as some like to call it.
[Laughs] I first made it out to L.A. two years ago to work on music. Since then, it’s been a mellow back-and-forth. I started this current project in August with my producer Damien Lewis. It took a while to develop a sound that felt personal and genuine, but also commercial and “pop”. At the end of the day that’s what I do, I make pop music. I haven’t left since January and it’s been this crazy dream. It’s a lot of work in a relatively short amount of time, but I’m enjoying all of it.
What’s your perception of the city itself?
It’s one big ass, lonely city… You kind of weed through the fake L.A. people they always talk about. Honestly, it’s been good so far, it really has. There’s just been a lot of exploring, lots of hard work in the studio and rehearsals, and we’ve shot two videos now. I really can’t complain. Everything I’ve ever wanted to do in life is right here and there was really nowhere else I could’ve gone to accomplish what I have in this short amount of time, and whatever else comes my way.
Pop music is often stigmatized, so it’s great that you embrace it wholeheartedly.
What have been some of the great musical influences in your life?
I grew up listening to ’70s glam rock and ’80s synthpop. My mom was a huge Madonna fan, so that’s where I started. My dad was a big fan of classic rock. I gravitated towards artists like David Bowie, Queen, and Boy George. All the artists I was into had two things in common: They had stage presence and put on fucking awesome shows. They also had this quirky, left of center sense of style and aesthetic that bled into everything they did. Bowie has Ziggy Stardust, his alter ego with crazy make-up, gigantic live shows, and ridiculous onesies. They were so much about showing people something they’d never seen before, slapping them in the face as if to say, “Look at me!” Madonna put on insane shows and she totally redefined what it means to be a popstar.
You also have a theater and dance background. You were just six years old when you started acting, is that right?
Yeah, I did my first play when I was six. Theater is where I discovered my creativity. I was involved in the community theater, high school theater, and regional theater forever. When it was time to decide what I would do with the rest of my life, I knew I wanted to be creative, but didn’t want to play a role for the rest of my life. I’m really bad at being anyone but myself. I always wrote music and played the piano, so that seemed like the right direction to take. But I really appreciate having a theater background because you just become totally comfortable onstage once you’ve had the experience. It’s all about Jazz hands and you go balls deep in it. As for dance, that came early on as well. I took ballet and I’m classically trained. I definitely try and incorporate that into my project.
So what was that thing, the pivotal moment, that put things into motion for Rilan?
Getting into this business isn’t easy, you know? You have to find someone who believes in you enough, someone who will take the time to develop your creativity with you. When I was recording my college auditions for music school last summer, the videographer offered to put me in touch with a producer in Los Angeles, and that turned out to be Damien Lewis. My parents, being extremely supportive as they are, flew him out to New Orleans so we could meet. I played him my original stuff, acoustic on the piano, and he responded to it. That’s when we decided to get in with some other songwriters and go full force with this project. When I flew out to L.A. in August, we started writing at the Sunset Marquis. As I mentioned before, it took a while to find the sound, but we wrote this one song called “Voodoo” and it totally lined up with what I’m about. It’s electronic with a dark vibe to it, and it’s about tainted, twisted relationships. That was a launching point because we found an interesting concept that’s still commercial and pop. Since writing “Chemical” in December, we’ve been skyrocketing towards this one vision.
You performed at Hotel Café not long ago. That wasn’t the first time you sang “Chemical” live, was it?
It was! That was actually my first-ever live performance in Los Angeles.
I had no idea! How did that go over?
It was a really great. I’ve been working with Nick Rosen, the music director at the Sayers Club here in L.A., and he’s been MDing all of the music with me. Then I have a guitarist, a drummer, a key player for synths… So far it’s been great. We’ve been rehearsing for about a month and a half now. Everyone in the band is good people and understand the whole nine yards, including the image, the aesthetic, and the sound. It’s just a matter of finessing everything. Doing run-throughs for the past two weeks has been cool because I get to move around, dance, and look absolutely insane. [Laughs] Being onstage outside the world of theater, I can just be me and present myself in the way that I want to be presented, fully believing in what I’m writing, singing, and saying. It’s just something incredibly powerful that I’d never experienced before. It just feels right.
What have been some other recent behind-the-scenes developments?
When I filmed the “Chemical” video with director Ethan Lader—he’s such a cool guy—we actually piggybacked another music video the day after, which is for the second single that’s coming up. It’s just a matter of exploring the territory and seeing what people respond to at this point. We also have some other finished products to release.
Are you going to tell me the title of your next single?
[Laughs] No, I can’t right now. It’s under lock and key at the moment.
So you seem to have a good handle on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook. Does social media come naturally to you?
To be completely honest with you, I totally didn’t respond to it when social media came about in middle school and throughout my high school years. I didn’t understand the purpose of having such an impersonal contact with people. But it’s imperative if you’re in the business. You’re proving your worth to major labels, executives, the public, and the world at large through social media. It’s a really powerful tool that you have to use, so it’s a necessary evil. So far, it’s been pretty positive. I’m just trying to be myself and see how people respond to it. I think I gravitate towards Instagram because I can actually witness what people are doing with pictures. It’s certainly my favorite of the seven deadly sins in social media. It doesn’t come naturally, but I’m working on it.
You’re 19 years old. Do you feel 19?
Um… [Laughs] I don’t really know what being a true 19-year-old should feel like. Age is a matter of the soul more than a number. I don’t really believe that people should act their “age” because there’s no real concept of what a 19-year-old does or what a 39-year-old does. At the end of the day, I classify myself as a recording artist, that’s what I do and will always do. I just want to use the experiences I have and the things I witness to write and musically present myself.
Does anything scare you as you move forward on this journey? There’s undoubtedly a lot riding on the choices you make in this phase of your career.
It’s certainly a scary journey because there’s no right or wrong in this business. It’s about presenting yourself in a way that’s comfortable to you, but also keeping in mind what the market needs. I would say that I’m not fearful, and more excited. I’m offering an authentic me the best way I know how. Since I’ve gotten a positive reception so far, that’s been reassuring. I’m excited to continue working on this project and show everyone what’s been a-cookin’.
Let’s lighten this up a bit. Let’s say, hypothetically, you met someone, somewhere, who’s never before heard music in their lifetime. What do you put on their mixtape?
Ooh! They don’t know what music is?
They have no concept of music.
I would certainly put “Starman” by David Bowie on there. We have to add some “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Which Madonna song do we put on there… “Vogue” because that’s pretty iconic. I would put “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” on there. I would also add “Physical” by Adam and the Ants. I’m a big Adam and the Ants fan.
You actually reference Adam and the Ants in your online bio, don’t you?
Yes, I did! “Adam’s Ants.” He’s one of those people that the fans hold onto. You see his image kind of reoccurring via some large pop acts. So yeah, I guess I would keep this list short and simple. It has some ’70s glam and ’80s synthpop in there.
It’s an epic list, but I fear for this hypothetical person.
[Laughs] “What the hell?!”
Can you recall the last three movies you saw? It doesn’t matter if they were good or not.
The last movie I saw was Deliver Us From Evil, which was like Seven meets The Exorcist. I freakin’ love any type of horror movie. That is my life. I’m not a huge movie snob, so I don’t excessively critique things. You have some blood and guts, a really powerful exorcism, and it was also a crime drama that gave me my CSI fix. I saw Tammy in theaters and that was hysterical. I also recently saw Carnival of Souls. Did you ever see that movie?
Is that by Wes Craven?
He might’ve remade it, it’s super old. It’s in black-and-white.
I remember it being in color. I think I watched the crappy remake.
Well, someone I work with told me I had to watch it and it was so creepy. I’m usually not creeped out by horror because that’s my genre, but this one is nuts! There’s no music and it has these deadpan-faced people following this little girl who got into a tragic accident. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, but it was awesome.
We could technically just talk about horror movies and take this interview to Fangoria or something. Is that magazine still around?
What’s the scariest movie of all time?
Halloween. It’s probably my favorite movie—the original. That Michael Myers mask was actually a William Shatner Star Trek mask they covered in white paint and spiked the hair. It’s terrifying. There’s nothing that scares me more than Michael Myers.
Did you ever have a paranormal experience growing up in New Orleans?
I was at a friend’s place once, late at night, and she lived in this large, really old, uptown Garden District home. It looked like the Coven mansion from American Horror Story. We were upstairs chillin’ and the piano starts playing. We were like, “Who in this house plays the piano?” So we walk downstairs and the minute we walk into that room, the piano stops. We were both calling for her mom and she wasn’t there. It turns out she was at the grocery store and there was no one else in the house. Anyways, her house is totally haunted.
That is frightening.
It is, but that’s the kind of stuff I love! For my birthday one year, I want to spend the night at a haunted house or an abandoned insane asylum. I belong in one.