‘It goes up in smoke but I know it's coming back around/Every 28 years/Saturn comes back to town." Orlando singer-songwriter Holly Riggs is less than a minute into her first song at the 2008 ELLA Music Fest, one of her first live performances since leaving town a couple of years ago, and already she's made her declaration, aided by two of her friends in black unitards leaping in unison behind her and cooing like birds: Riggs' music has returned to her.
The song by this artist at the cusp of 30 years old is called "Saturn," and it's the first track on her just-released new CD Saturn Returns, so it's not difficult to pin down exactly what it is she hopes to convey. In fact, a basic Google search of the album's title unlocks a piece of factual trivia that gets to the heart of Riggs' entire attitude: The planet Saturn revolves around the sun every 29 and a half years, so when you turn 28 or 29, according to astrologists, Saturn is in approximately the same place as when you were born, and that influences your sense of self. The "Saturn return" is the impetus to leave adolescence behind.
The fact that Gwen Stefani was struck by the same factoid when writing No Doubt's album Return of Saturn only slightly dampens the discovery.
"Things in my life were definitely up in the air, but it wasn't that intense," recalls Riggs. "It wasn't like I was breaking down or anything, it was just intense emotion. And then things in my life started taking turns, where I was just like, ‘Ohhh,' and all these patterns of my past were becoming really apparent to me. So I was like, ‘What's going on?' Then somebody said something about the Saturn return and I had no idea what it was. I've been studying astrology since I was 10. Everything occult, I've always loved it. I was like, ‘Oh damn! That's what's happening!'"
Riggs, on a break from her managerial position at a salon, seems much closer in spirit — at least on the outside — to her current full-time gig than her performance-art-chanteuse alter ego. Her bright red hair, in a layered bob that matches the saleswoman's perma-smile, and her comforting-yet-direct mannerisms beckon outsiders to come along for whatever she has in mind.
She likens the Saturn Returns recording experience to the chaos of theater, how it always seems to work out in the end somehow. It's no surprise that she takes to the stage for the metaphor.
Theater has always been one of her loves, and it was a major factor in her decision to leave Orlando for Boston, however temporary that move turned out to be. The idea to take off occurred to her when she performed in the Christopher Durang play Laughing Wild. She had always wanted to do the play and when that was done, she wondered what else she hadn't done yet.
"I always wanted to go to Emerson `College`," says Riggs. "Emerson's in Boston. `So I thought` maybe I'll just go to Boston, not even worry about Emerson, just go. I did a lot of writing, a lot of introspection. It was a lot of me looking at everything from a subjective standpoint. Also `I was` going through a breakup that was really intense. When I decided to come back, it was almost more powerful than the move."
She came back after about nine months and teamed up with Justin Beckler, guitarist for Thomas Wynn & the Believers and a growing production presence for local talent. Together they tapped into what Riggs describes as her newfound "power" and crafted an album just as playful and coy as Riggs herself. Everything from handclaps to a dog's barking-turned-backbeat illuminates a lyrical maze of femininity and self-awareness that sees Riggs embodying a new-age Rosemary Clooney on songs like the grinning "Saturn" and the hammering "Oh Half Moon," and other times a kind of Blue Note version of Joan Baez with tracks like the gorgeous "Don't I Know You."
But where Saturn Returns really shines are the places Riggs employs her inherent theatricality. Her songs often bob and weave around confessionals, misdirecting the listener into a detour of distractingly lovely prose, as if she's channeling Harold Pinter by way of David Mamet. "Warm eyes/Don't I know you/Don't I know you" she begins softly, and it seems for a moment that finally, at the midpoint of the album, the spoken-word dressing of Riggs' stories will reveal itself more simply. But then the first verse kicks in: "She spins lavender realities with the help of three kindred/The planets bounce and bobble at her whim/So when she pokes a stick at me/I become a silly snake in a big oak tree."
Riggs admits she delights at taking her fans along the scenic route of her emotions.
"It's fun! I like that. Fiona Apple is a good example of someone who goes ‘full confessional' and also does a lot of visual stuff. I like her a lot. But Bob Dylan does it for me. Who can listen to a Dylan song one time through and know what the fuck he's talking about? But you listen to it long enough and you can feel your own textures within it. I want to create something that's true and authentic, but I don't want to tell you everything because I want you to have your own place in it. It's our music, it's not just mine."[email protected]