Riverby | photo by Liam Gordon | courtesy of the artist
Judgement-Free Zone: Philly rockers Riverby delve deep with Smart Mouth
The title track of Smart Mouth is a ripper, a four-minute espresso shot of bulldozing drums, foundation-cutting riffs, and hinge-busting vocals. It’s a song that will tear a hole through a room full of people when it is finally played live but, for now, will have to settle for piercing through headphones and speakers all over Philly and beyond. The rest of Riverby’s excellent debut album (out now via Take This To Heart Records) takes the baton with ease, circling each track with confidence shouted and hummed, a declaration of an artist with intention and chops to match.
But it’s not a record frontperson Sophia Greenberg could not have written a few years ago and certainly not one they could have begun to imagine half a decade ago, when a future of open mics was all they could envision.
“I really thought it would be me and a guitar on a Monday night for the rest of my life,” Greenberg tells me recently at a eclectic coffee shop over a pair of steaming lattes (just kidding, we did this over the phone, but what would a good music profile be without a food reference). For Greenberg, this reticence had nothing to do with a lack of vision — they’ve been writing songs since as far back as age 11 — but more a comfort zone they’d spent years lounging snugly within. For Greenberg, open mics were the answer, a way to scratch the itch without truly putting themselves out there. Serendipitously, it was just these open mics that led them to the people who would guide them toward Riverby.
Like all good punk rock stories, it all started at a sales job. It was there Greenberg first met Tyler Asay, frontperson of local rockers The Tisburys (and an occasional contributor to The Key). It didn’t take long for them to bond over music, eventually linking up again at The Grape Room’s open mic, which Asay hosted. What started as late-night, boozy Beatles covers soon turned to collaboration. “I was in awe of Sophia’s songwriting from the beginning,” says Asay. “They have such a unique voice and I wanted to help share that voice.” It took some convincing, but before long Riverby was born.
What Greenberg once looked at an insular hobby was becoming something more, much to the credit of the supportive group around them. Then came 2019’s The Guide to Oversharing, a bit of DIY magic that marked the first time Greenberg ever properly recorded anything they’d written. “I always thought I could never record things, that was just something everybody else does,” they admit. Though the EP, recorded at Asay’s house, was little more than a “glorified demo”, it gave Greenberg a newfound sense of purpose, shifting songwriting from a “nerve-wracking” process of self-exposure to something intentional and therapeutic.
Which brings us to “Nose to Nose,” Smart Mouth’s slinking, snarled opener. It’s a song that sets a tone for just how comfortable they have become delving as deep as any inspiration requires. “I realized I was the only person holding myself back,” Greenberg explains. “Nose To Nose” is a headstrong attack on such destructive thinking, a look inward after too much time blaming everything on the outside. Greenberg takes themself to task for all the mental hurdles they’ve created, determined to get over to the other side. “How do I get out of my own head,” explodes the final chorus, a question which answers itself with its own palpable release, a simmering energy finally expelled.
Despite it’s cutting directness, “Nose To Nose” didn’t arrive with such clarity. Like much of their songwriting, the song is a result of notebooks upon notebooks of writing, a steady stream of anxiety, hope, sadness and everything in between. This collage starts at coffee shops and diners throughout the city, where Greenberg’s judgement-free scribbles come splattering from their busy mind, and continues until the moment it’s put to tape. “These songs have so much potential when Sophia writes them acoustically but then we throw them into the studio and they speak so much louder than expected,” says drummer Dan Nazario. “It’s like opening the door of the bedroom and walking out.”
This kind of natural alchemy gives songs the time and space they need to take their given shape. Smart Mouth highlight “The Tell Tale Heart” could have easily been consigned to a life within one of Greenberg’s weathered journals, but instead uses the scope of time as a way to grapple with growth. “The thing you need to know is / you’re not sad he broke your heart / you’re devastated that you let him,” Greenberg sings at the song’s opening. The third person perspective is important here, not only as a way to frame advice to oneself, a precious yet impossible task, but as a window into how the song came together in the first place.
The chorus, with its images of death and Poe-inspired heartbreak, abandons an advisory tone not out of songwriting convenience but specifically because it is the younger Sophia the verses are trying to reach. They were written when Greenberg was 19 and every break-up was a world crumbling to pieces. It’s only with hindsight these moments can lose their finality and everything isn’t life and death. When I ask Greenberg about what might have changed if the conceit of the song would have been possible, they can’t quite say. It may have changed everything, setting them on a healthier path leading far from where they are today. But then again, they laugh, maybe they would have been the same “stubborn person” they know they are and ignored even their own advice.
This kind of wry self-deprecation pops up throughout our conversation, an attempt, it seems, not to take themselves too seriously. What it can’t quite hide, though, is a person who has clearly worked hard to become more comfortable in their own skin. “In the grand scheme of things, at the end of it all, who’s gonna be there to care besides you,” Greenberg says. They didn’t always feel that way, though. There was a time, not too long ago, where things weren’t so secure, their opinions easily influenced and constantly questioned, where compulsive apologies highlighted their on-stage persona and inhibition ran rampant.
Lucky for us, things changed dramatically. The fact is an apologetic, diffident artist doesn’t write Smart Mouth and only a confident, fearless one writes “Smart Mouth: “Tomorrow I wanna see / Where your hands were around my throat / Oh I wanna be reminded / What it felt like to let go,” Greenberg sings with a braided twist of shameless delicacy, a kind of riling fervor matched by Asay’s power-punk riffs and Nazario’s propulsive percussion. There’s no way around it, “Smart Mouth” is about kinky sex, the kind that engulfs you, where control and submission go hand in hand. It’s a song you wouldn’t dare apologize for writing, but that doesn’t mean it came easy.
“I don’t think I would have been able to put that song out before July of last year,” Greenberg says. The idea of getting out of one’s own head comes up again and again in our conversation, as does the idea of community. It makes sense these things would go hand in hand. It’s difficult to escape your own self-destructive internal tendencies when there isn’t a supportive system in which to escape into. Since moving to Philly Greenberg has found that support system, to the point where they scan and room to find only affirmation, where no one — from their straight, cis white male bandmates to their closest friends — give a damn about their faults or insecurities.
Greenberg explains how their decision to write so frankly about sex is directly tied to their troubled history of sexual assault. What’s different about “Smart Mouth” than previous efforts to grapple these issues, though, is it’s decidedly forward-looking tone. This isn’t trauma but reclamation, a way to slash ties to the past and eradicate anything that inhibits growth. For Greenberg, what used to paralyze now liberates. Smart Mouth is the result of all this hard work, and marks the true beginning of an artist entering their moment.