Sheldon Riser says he was "tricked" into playing the organ at Parklawn Church in Milwaukee when he was still in grade school. "I didn't want to do it," he says. "I wanted to be outside playing on a Sunday."
His family owned an organ. In his spare time, Riser taught himself how to play. Unwittingly, he was training himself for Sunday performances. "My dad was a DJ, and he had a big collection of soul albums by artists like the Ohio Players," recalls Riser. "I would sit at the organ and play along to those records. After my mom heard me, she insisted that I play at church."
A mother's persistence sometimes pays off. So it has for Riser, who performs as Sonnyboy. Now based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Riser has emerged as an influential alternative soul songwriter. He's also a composer and arranger who's redefining the intersection of electronic music technology, funk and soul.
Sonnyboy has released four independent albums in the past 10 years, including this year's Barfly Theory. He's gained a following playing to audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe. He performs in Madison at R Place on Park next Thursday, Sept. 23.
Music was no longer a chore for Riser by the time he graduated from Milwaukee's High School of the Arts. "Some friends of mine had moved to Minneapolis from Milwaukee," he says. "It was the heyday of Prince and Purple Rain. People were flocking to Minneapolis because it was a vibrant scene."
Riser initially enrolled at the University of Minnesota but soon chose to pursue music full-time. He auditioned to play in the band supporting P-Funk vocalist Mallia Franklin, a significant player in the history of 1970s funk. Franklin is credited with introducing George Clinton to Bootsy Collins, which sparked the formation of P-Funk.
"She was someone who changed my ability as a musician," says Riser. "She was a drill sergeant and whipped me into shape."
In 1995, Riser formed Sonnyboy in Minneapolis. "City Pages [a Twin Cities weekly newspaper] wrote about us and Rolling Stone said we were one of the best unsigned bands in Minneapolis," recalls Riser. "But by that time hip-hop had picked up. Labels would ask us, 'Are you guys willing to be more hip-hop?'"
Riser moved to New York in 1998. He decided to stop waiting for a music deal and to forge ahead with defining his own musical path. "I learned a lot about the industry in New York," he says. The music industry, Riser discovered, didn't want to develop artists anymore. It wanted to discover artists who had already developed a strong following.
"That's when I started putting out my own albums and scheduling my own shows," he says.
Riser has used music production software to compose and arrange much of his music across four albums. He wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered his 2006 release, Psych-Delic-Ghetto-Vibe.
This year's Barfly Theory thrives on steady-beat, mid-tempo funk. The keys, bass and drum work are topped with layers of groovy synth and electric guitar. On "Shake That Thang," Sonnyboy turns up the tempo and rocks.
Riser says he's looking forward to his tour stop in Madison. "I've still got a lot of family in Milwaukee," he says.