Fingernails tapping on computer keyboards could be considered the unofficial soundtrack of Matthew Riley’s day-to-day life. After the nine-to-five grind of programming, Riley commutes from his day job in Somerville to his apartment in the South End to spend up to six more hours illuminated by the cold glow of a computer screen.
Riley works as a web engineer during the day and, formerly under the moniker of “Olivia,” produces what he describes as “singer-songwriter electronica” music at night.
Riley is a middler at Northeastern University, where he studies computer science and digital media, and has worked as a Fundamentals of Computer Science II tutor for the College of Computer and Information Science. Through Northeastern’s co-op program, Riley is currently working as a web engineer at Clypd, a software company based in Somerville.
Growing up in what Riley called the “tiny town” of Cresskill, N.J. with his parents, younger brother and Boston terrier, Riley said there was little to do during the bitter winters. The combination of his small hometown and desire to escape the unbearable weather led to many hours spent surfing the web, eventually contributing to the discovery of his passions for music and fashion.
“I started [making music] when I was in high school because I didn’t play sports,” said Riley, who taught himself how to play the guitar and drums.
“His Mom [plays the] drums,” said Riley’s childhood friend Austin Johnson, a film student at Pratt Institute, N.Y.. “He had a drum kit when we were kids, and I remember one of the first times I went over to his house he played the drums for literally 45 seconds and I was blown away.”
Johnson and Riley have collaborated a number of times and have been part of each other’s support systems through the development of their musical careers. “I think Matt’s career is on a great path that can only go up as more and more people realize the kind of talent and the amount of work he puts into each piece,” said Johnson.
As he grew older, Riley developed more of an interest in electronic music and lyrical songwriting, leading him to start singing lessons and trying his hand at music production. Riley initially started making remixes during his time in high school, but began producing music featuring his own vocals under the pseudonym “Hana,” derived from the anime series “Anohana,” which later inspired his first tattoo.
Riley primarily posted his music on Soundcloud, sometimes collaborating with other artists he connected through the online community. His first EP “As Long As Your Feet Touch The Ground, So Shall Mine” was released on Spotify as Olivia in mid-2015.
The internet community has served as a platform for Riley to showcase the music he produced in his bedroom. Through social networks such as Twitter and Soundcloud, self-created musicians are able to share and listen to music created by others, and give and receive feedback from people in the same situation.
“I’m really inspired by him,” said Rebecka Rafferty, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, N.Y., and Riley’s girlfriend of over a year. “It seems as though every hobby he picks up comes so naturally to him and he automatically masters it, especially if it’s something creative.”
Riley’s taste in music varies, but his favourite artists include James Blake, Bon Iver, The 1975, Travis Scott and Shigeto. The song “Olivia” by Shigeto was the namesake of his previous moniker. Listening to music with powerful vocals and lyrics inspired Riley to take up singing lessons. “I like lots of different things. Creative use of electronics in music. Really great songwriting, catchy hooks and choruses. I’m a sucker for all that stuff,” he said.
Riley played his first live show in October of 2015, at a bar in Brooklyn, N.Y., and made his Boston debut at Wonder Bar on April 9. In March, Riley played in an online concert with 21 other artists, where musicians streamed their sets online in real time. Riley’s passion for his music comes through with his stage presence, his mop of bleach blonde hair dancing almost independently to the rest of his small frame.
Riley dreams of someday touring nationally. He said he is constantly motivated by “seeing what I’m capable of as far as writing music and making art that sends messages that are important and meaningful to me and seeing what the result of that is.”
Outside of music, Riley has long held an interest in fashion, often scouring the web for bargain deals on luxury items. His bedroom is bursting with hangers of clothing in monochromatic colors, and an array of shoes lined up against the exposed brick walls. “I like clothes, a lot,” said Riley. “It’s another way to non-verbally communicate a mood. I like the concept of being able to express something through an outfit, in the sense that your style and what you wear can convey an emotion or even a place and that’s really fascinating to me.”
“Matt is someone who cannot separate his art and music from who he is, which is very admirable,” said Ava Skinner, a Northeastern English major who attended Cresskill High School with Riley. “He has this great, blunt sense of humor. When he talks, for better or for worse, people listen to him and respect what he has to say, because he’s passionate and incredibly smart and it’s very apparent,” said Skinner.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have be able to watch his progression as a musician and artist starting in high school and it’s honestly been so exciting,” said Skinner. “He’s developed so much lyrically and consistently impresses me with how edgy and dark but still playful his music is and it’s awesome.”
Riley is currently undergoing a re-branding stage in his career, aiming to break out of Soundcloud culture and the idea of being an “internet artist.” He recently released a new track – Years – in celebration of his 21st birthday.