The versatile multi-instrumentalist plays July 8 at Communication behind his latest solo album.
No matter who he performs with—and he plays with quite a cross-section of acts in Madison’s music community—your eye is always drawn to Kyle Rightley on stage. The lanky guitarist hovers above his bandmates like a sky dancer, one of those inflatable waving tube men you see in front of used car lots. Of course it’s not his tall, wide-eyed good looks that get him gigs. It’s versatility and something extra he says he’s always had: musical empathy.
A partial list of band memberships reflects his wide-ranging utility. R&B with the Civil Engineers. Alt-country with The Driveway Thriftdwellers. Straight jazz with Five Points Jazz Collective. Soul music with the Otis Redding tribute band Don’t Mess with Cupid. Marches, waltzes and polkas with Madison’s Capitol City Band (Rightley also plays euphonium, but more on that later).
So it’s no surprise that his latest solo album, The Hum, released in April, draws from all of these musical places—and more. Yet he says the project has a through-line of its own that he worked hard to create.
“To me, The Hum is more cohesive than my other solo albums. Musically, it’s quite eclectic, but every song and style is in there for a reason,” Rightley says.
Styles sometimes vary within the same number. Take the opening track, “Rabbit Hole.” It starts with a guitar riff that recalls the richly layered acoustic work of Leo Kottke, already building as it arrives before quickly taking lift in a timeless, Aaron Copland kind of way. Just when you’re getting comfortable with the track’s innocence, the song plunges the listener into darker, almost prog-rock territory with swells of synth and guitar distortion. As abrupt as that sounds, the day-to-night and back again transitions are seamless and playful.
Rightley says he really took his time making the album, on which he plays all the instruments. He also recorded, mixed, and mastered the project himself. Like for many other musicians, time was a partial gift of the pandemic’s onset. Rightley wrote all the album’s eleven tracks between 2018 and 2021. “The album was really a selfish exercise,” Rightley says. “Any time I felt that I was hurrying or forcing something, I just took a step back and tried another approach. It took a long time, but the payoff is that I’m happy with everything that made it to the record.”
Rightley will be performing songs from The Hum at his Friday, July 8 show at Communication. However he’s far too restless of an artist to be confined to a recent project when playing live. “You have to embrace the unknown,” he says.
In a recent Instagram video, he experiments with a reverse-delay effect on his guitar; fussing with effects is part of Rightley’s M.O. But the melody he used as the subject of his experimentation has its own story, one that reveals the mystic songcatcher who lives beneath the sound technician’s white lab coat.
“The working title of the song in the video is ‘Fire Witch.’ I went camping with my partner Elizabeth a few weeks ago, and I improvised that piece of music on the spot by the campfire under the stars,” says Rightley. “I was just about to move on to the next song when she made me take out my phone and record it. I’m glad she did. When I needed a short clip of music for that teaser video, I opened up my voice memos and relearned the tune.”
Raised in rural Colorado, right next to Mesa Verde National Park, Rightley says he’d probably have become a marine biologist if he hadn’t gone into music. He started as a youth on brass instruments, trombone and euphonium, a specialty that led to a music scholarship at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Though he had begun to teach himself to play guitar in high school and on into college (learning Tool and Rage Against The Machine tunes from tablature) he didn’t advertise the fact that he played guitar or was into rock music and songwriting. In those days, he says, “euphonium was my ticket.”
In 2007 he moved to Madison and he began—and eventually finished—his master’s degree in euphonium performance at UW-Madison. A euphonium, by the way, is a low brass instrument closer in character and tone to a baritone horn than it is to its oft-confused cousin the tuba. But Rightley wound up playing his guitar nearly as much as his euphonium during his time in grad school, even teaching guitar lessons. By the time he finished his master’s, Rightley realized the six-string was his future. “I was teaching some private lessons and playing guitar in a couple bands,” he remembers. “At that point, the guitar wasn’t just this little hobby I did on the side. It was more and more of a breadwinner. As my performing and teaching picked up, I was able to quit my day job and do music full time.”
Still, academia had its long-standing benefits. “I gained a lot of music theory and ear training from college. I also learned how to give and take constructive criticism, which I think is essential for anyone in this business,” Rightley says. “But teaching myself guitar and playing in rock bands gave me skills that I wouldn’t have picked up if I had stayed in academia.”
Luckily, Rightley includes euphonium and other brass touches in The Hum. “Shattering Sky” is a gorgeous ukulele-and-horn ditty with a Sufjan Stevens flavor. It also maximizes Rightley’s voice, which is understated and perfectly suited for the number.
So how does being a sideman prepare Rightley for solo work in the studio and onstage? “I love playing in so many bands,” he says. “I fill a different role in each one, and it helps me find balance in my own life. I’m very empathic, so I pick up on a person’s energy and feed it back to them. If I’m having a rough day, a gig or rehearsal can help me turn it around. I also find value in learning every different band’s working style. Each one is its own little world.”
“Dark Streets” is the most King Crimson cut on the album, drawing on one of Rightley’s greatest influences. The song, even with the Crimson influence, is straightforward in his hands and it inadvertently paved the way for what may be next for him: the man of a thousand bands actually forming his own. “I want to have a band that can play simple, passionate rock music like that,'” he says. “I don’t have set plans yet, but I can feel that idea simmering on the back burner. I wouldn’t be surprised if my next project took a more rock-focused direction.”