A few bars into the first song of the set and I’m transfixed. Almost confused. The man onstage cannot be that old (He’s not. He’s 25.), yet his voice is steeped in the kind of aching soulfulness that only comes from life experience, and perhaps too much of it. He’s up there alone with his Martin guitar. As the song continues, the audience quiets down, hanging on every word and strum. It reaches a point where a whisper would be too loud. I’ve never seen a room full of people treat a solo acoustic artist with so much attentiveness and respect.
The man behind the voice is Brandon Zahursky, but he performs as RIVVRS. The San Francisco Bay Area native is excited to be playing for a hometown crowd. “You guys are so nice,” he says multiple times throughout the set, as if it surprises him. It’s a display of genuine humility—again, the kind that tends to come from having lived.
Regarding this humility, Zahursky admits it has been a long and winding road. Over the phone, Behind the Setlist caught up with RIVVRS to discuss the unlikely turn of events that led to his career in music, his new single “Don’t Give Up on Me,” and his gratitude for Spotify. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Hearing you play the other night at Bottom of the Hill and then going back through your catalogue, I was struck by your range of styles. I’m guessing you’ve had a lot of different influences over the years.
For sure. Growing up it was mostly classic rock, because my mom wasn’t around much. My dad raised my brother and I alone, and then my uncle moved in, so there was a lot of testosterone. You had to play rock ‘n’ roll [laughs].
Since my dad liked AC/DC, I was obsessed with AC/DC. I bought the guitar and wanted to do all these crazy solos. I never thought of being a singer or a writer. I wanted to be a rock star. Then I did a whole 180 in high school and fell in love with acoustic music. I started listening to more Tom Petty and Paul Simon. I found Cat Stevens and all these other old songwriters.
Naturally, I started to find the current-day equivalents of those guys, and I discovered this little circuit in L.A.—the Hotel Café scene. It was really prevalent back in the late 2000s. That’s where I discovered KT Tunstall and Cary Brothers and Greg Laswell, and all these other indie songwriters. It became this big mesh of influences of really heavy hard rock, indie acoustic music, and blues and soul. It was so eclectic and it all just went into this pot. What came out was RIVVRS.
You grew up just outside San Francisco, right?
San Bruno, a little south of San Francisco. My mother was heavily into drugs, so I never really got the stability of a normal home life. My dad, my brother and I hopped around the Bay Area a bunch, and then San Bruno is where we settled. After I graduated from high school, we all moved up to Napa. My dad has a lot of kidney issues. They were telling him he was going to have to start going on dialysis again and get back onto the transplant list. I think in his head, he started to freak out as a parent. So he reached out to my grandparents and we all moved in with them.
They were pretty strict. They wanted me to either work full time or go to school and figure out my life. I had no clue what I wanted to do. I got a job in the wine industry, because that’s what was going on up there, and I was in school to become a paramedic. Eventually my dad and brother ended up splitting, because they weren’t getting along with my grandfather. I was just 18 at that point, old enough to kind of be on my own, but I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do.
How did music come into the picture?
I’d always played guitar and written songs here and there just for fun. So while I was working and going to school in Napa, I was writing songs fresh off a breakup. They weren’t great, but they weren’t bad either, and I decided to show them to a few people. One of the guys I knew was a recording engineer. He liked them enough to offer me some time in his studio to properly record them.
I had never thought of music as a realistic career before then, but all of a sudden it started to seem possible. My grandparents basically told me I couldn’t continue to live there if I wasn’t working full time and in school. I knew I needed to put time into the music thing, too, and they weren’t cool with that. So I ended up moving out.
So you had some properly recorded demos, but you were still all the way up in Napa. How’d you end up in L.A.?
It was kind of crazy. When I first moved out, I was living out of my car for a little bit, but then the engineer I was working with was nice enough to let me stay with him. I also couch surfed a bunch. Once I recorded enough songs to have an album, I printed CDs, got in my car with a friend, and we just started driving. I set up house concerts with some of the people I’d met through couch surfing, and I did some small gigs in coffee shops, too. Most importantly, I stayed in contact with people so I could always come back. I didn’t make a lot of money, but it was a start.
It feels like everything happened at once. I was doing gigs down in Santa Barbara. A songwriter who was playing the same night suggested that I take some of my songs to a songwriter expo. I was clueless. I had no idea what any of that industry stuff was. I had no idea what a publishing deal was. I didn’t know what a master was. I didn’t know any of that. So I ended up paying $300 to go to this conference where I pitched my music to a bunch of people, and that’s how I met my manager.
The other piece that came together—it blows me away every time I think about this—a friend I made in Napa while working for a wine company just so happened to work for the Agency for Performing Arts (APA) back in the day and booked shows for Allen Stone and Public Enemy and stuff. He had never told me that, but one day I randomly showed him some music and he was like, “I like this! I’m going to show this to somebody.” He casually sent it to a friend and APA called me a day later, wanting me to join their roster. Then I moved down to L.A.
How did you become RIVVRS?
The name started when I was playing a bunch of gigs in San Francisco with a drummer who went by River Shiver. When I broke away from that project, I kind of held onto the word “rivers,” but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. As I was thinking about all of it, I got a phone call from my manager. He said, “That new song you just finished? There’s a chance it might be in a TV show where they talk about you on the show, and they’d mention your artist name.” I hadn’t officially decided on a name. But it was going to be filmed in three weeks, so I had to come up with something.
The pressure was really on, so I sat with it for a while and thought, “What does ‘rivers’ mean to me?” This is what I thought of: A river connects two larger bodies of water, and the music I want to put out is definitely not just one genre or even two genres. “Rivers” to me is the blend between something larger, and that’s where I fit in the music industry. It’s not exactly Americana. It’s not exactly pop. It’s not exactly soul or blues. But it’s a mingling of all the things I like.
It turned out I couldn’t be “Rivers,” like the body of water, because of copyright issues. There’s a Rivers clothing brand, I think it was. So after talking with my manager and my lawyer about it, we decided to stand out. I like this spelling more anyway, because it’s not expected. It makes it more ambiguous or mysterious, kind of like Bright Eyes. It could be a solo project, it could be a band. You don’t really know anything about it until you listen to it.
And I had always wanted to step away from using my real name, because my last name is Zahursky. I wanted to make it easier for people to find me. But, ironically, I feel like I’ve made it harder. People are like, “Wait, how do you spell that? R-I-V-V?” [laughs]
You said at the show in San Francisco a few weeks ago that you usually play with a full band?
This tour with the National Parks is mostly all solo shows. But yes, I do also play with a full band sometimes. Because I’m on such an indie level right now, it’s hard to travel and make money. And money is a big factor because I do this full time. So when I’m traveling with a band, I want to be able to pay them what they’re worth, which means whenever I do full band tours, I have to really prepare for them.
I’m going to do a full band tour next year with a group of guys that I just put together at our recent show in L.A. I really fell in love with the whole dynamic and the chemistry, and they’re all onboard to go out next year. That’ll be my first headlining tour. I have a new record that’s going to come out in April, so that’s the plan. To release the record in April, hit South by Southwest, and then tour through the summer.
What can you tell me about the new record?
It’s a full-length and what I feel is a correct representation of where I’m at right now. The brand new single “Don’t Give Up on Me” is the first song I’m releasing. It’s the most current in my life, and actually the most recently written song on the record. When I listen back to songs I’ve written, a lot of times I’m like, “I don’t really feel that way anymore,” but this one is so fresh in my life. I feel like I can really get behind it and enjoy playing it live.
Honestly, because I felt so connected to that particular song, that’s what launched my desire to want to compile a full record. I had these 13 or 14 songs written, but I hadn’t decided what to do with them. This song inspired me. I had just gone through a really deep depression and felt like I had drifted away from my philosophies in life. Moving to L.A. can do that to you [laughs]. I’d been there for two years and felt disconnected from the spiritual side of life. I was getting down on myself, and I started to feel like I was losing everyone around me. All these things were piling up and weighing me down.
Once I started working through it and got out of it a little bit, I wrote this tune. It was a mantra to myself, but even more so to the people around me. I might’ve drifted away from who I used to be, but I’m coming back and I promise I can be a better person.
“‘Rivers’ to me is the blend between something larger, and that’s where I fit in the music industry. It’s not exactly Americana. It’s not exactly pop. It’s not exactly soul or blues. But it’s a mingling of all the things I like.”
You’ve had a lot of success with getting TV placements for your songs. How does that come together?
My manager was a music supervisor, so he had a good understanding of how that whole world works. Some TV shows need a certain type of song playing in a store while the main characters are shopping or something. You can barely hear it, and they’re not talking about the artist. Those kinds of placements don’t pay a ton, but they helped me so much when I was starting out.
That kind of led into a steady stream of them, some big and some smaller. Here’s the thing, though. You can be an artist, and you can get a lot of placements, but it doesn’t translate to much recognition. If I didn’t tour and just wanted to focus on placements, I probably wouldn’t even be an artist. I would write songs and have somebody pitch them. But I love traveling and recording albums. That’s why I do it.
I had to learn the hard way. A lot of songwriters think when you get a big TV slot, it’s going to change your career. But it really doesn’t. It’s helpful along the way, but what really helps a career is touring and streaming. The placement world has been helpful, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. It’s helped my career, but I don’t think it’s made it.
Do you think that’s changed over time? I feel like there was a time, maybe in the early-to-mid 2000s, when bands would get a lot of publicity off of getting a song in a popular show. Grey’s Anatomy is always the one that jumps to my mind first.
Yeah, I totally remember that. I’ve learned about artists from hearing their music on TV. Like, I think I discovered Joshua Radin on Scrubs. And yeah, if there was a singer-songwriter who was on Grey’s Anatomy, that person could sell out a theater that year. It was crazy. That was cool.
MySpace helped a lot, too. I don’t think we have the social media stuff now that we had back then. Facebook is so inundated with ads and you have to pay for targeting boosts. It’s just changed. It’s a little harder, but it’s not so hard that it’s unachievable. It’s a different way and you adjust to the times. Now, it’s Spotify.
Tell me more about that because—full disclosure—I first learned about you on Spotify. One of your songs came across my Discover Weekly playlist and I started following you. And yet I know there are also a lot of artists who are frustrated by it and don’t think their pay structure is fair. What has your experience been like?
I’m so grateful to Spotify because I feel like I’ve heard what you’ve said, almost the same sentence, probably 10 times on the last couple tours. You never really know what Spotify is going to do in connecting you to other artists, but they do a good job of categorizing me correctly. I’m very grateful.
There is a lot of unfairness, in terms of payments and the amounts of money that are made by writers and stuff, yeah. But if you own your masters, you can make a decent living off streaming and album sales. So it’s not worth complaining about. What you don’t gain on Spotify monetarily, you gain in stuff like this interview. I wouldn’t be able to do this without Spotify, because I wouldn’t have the following I have. It doesn’t have to have a monetized value. The value to me is connecting with people and being able to get out to a larger audience.
So for your fans and for the people who end up finding you on Spotify, what’s the best way for them to support you and keep your career going?
Come to the shows, definitely. Come out to a live show. It’s hard, because a lot of the shows are 21 and up, and I do have a lot of listeners that are 18 to 21. I understand if people do want to support me and they can’t in that way. So then, it’s just listening. Listen to the songs. It’s very helpful and I’m very grateful. I never thought I’d be able to do this, honestly. And up until two years ago, I didn’t.
Even when I started doing it full time, in the back of my head I always had this fear of having a couple cool moments and that’d be it, because there’d be no way to keep it going. But Spotify has proven that people listen and people share. And it helps promote the shows, too. If you come out to a show and say hello, that’s my favorite thing. Meeting the people that listen. Putting a face to the computer screen.
What would you say to an 18-year-old kid like you were? Someone who’s sitting in his bedroom with a guitar and can’t stop writing songs, but has no idea what to do with them.
It’s different for everyone. First, if you think you might want to pursue music, you have to have a really thick skin. I don’t. Luckily, I’ve built it up to be a little thicker, but I have a lot of help and good people around me. I’m sheltered from it in a sense, because I have my manager and my agent and my lawyer. I don’t really want a record label, so I don’t have to worry about getting screwed over in that way. But my biggest advice is never sign something unless you have a lawyer look at it. The record industry is dying. If somebody’s shining a record deal in front of you, chances are it’s too good to be true. I wouldn’t sign a record deal at the level I’m at.
So I would say to someone who’s writing to keep making your music and release it independently. Use Spotify to your advantage. Use Facebook, and if you can afford to promote the ads, do it. Use SoundCloud. Play shows. Don’t be discouraged, because it takes years and years to make an impact. I was 15 years old at my first open mic and didn’t sound anything like I sound today. It took me a long time to progress.
There’s never a moment when you’ve made it. As an artist, you’re always searching for more, so find fulfillment in yourself. If you’re making music and it fulfills you, then who cares who listens to it? Put it out how you want, and if someone responds to it, that’s what you want. If you love what you’re doing, be happy in every moment and at every level you’re doing it.
Photos by David Cano.