A Conversation with Rilan: On Pop, Glee, and the transition from NOLA to LA

PHOTO: Ashley Beliveau

PHOTO: Ashley Beliveau

“You know, I always imagined Los Angeles to be filled with romanticism, full of bright lights and glamor and culture, but it’s not. It’s superficial and shallow and riddled with stupidity, high school all over again,” Rilan Rippolo reflects. As a pop newcomer ala actor on a coveted TV time slot, Rilan’s seek for balance balance within Los Angeles’s juxtaposition of expectations and grim realism has led to creating a “sarcastic and satirical” alternate reality in his music, all welcome except the too-cool characters who damper the fantasy. “I’ve found my own way of surviving here, just like I did growing up,” Rilan says, stepping back and centering instead of molding to trends, vying for followers and likes, knowing that “cool is vastly overrated”.

His newest, “Love or Drugs”, is a commentary on the compulsive lifestyle of LA’s club underground. Past songs like the uplifting “Chemical” to club banger “Blindfolds” with Naz Tokio range between varied styles yet remains true to Rilan’s vibe (though Gaga-esqe jingles melding with New Wave panache in “Money Talk” are no surprise). Appropriately giving runway performances during LA’s Style Week, Rilan’s extraction of fantasy through music, visuals and even fashion choices began with a simple spark:  his parents’ record collection of 70’s glam rock and 80’s synth pop.

“I wanted to be Prince, Bowie, Boy George, and Madonna all in one. Their songs were huge, their performances were otherworldly, and they themselves were larger than life on and off stage. They were my superheroes,” Rilan remembers, instilling his dreams of electronic compositions and a fantastical persona. “As I got older, I discovered Soft Cell, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson and I fell in love with music all over again. They were the other side of the pop artists - dark, depressed, and at times dismal - but they were always honest and always incredible performers.” Like every musical theater gay worth his salt, Rilan is for real when he says “normal is boring”, though without pretension, stating “I don’t think of myself as special or above anyone by any means. I’ve just always been attracted to the unusual, the strange, and sometimes the disturbing.”

With an admirable but delicious dark sense of humour, which he part attributes to his upbringing, his hometown was also another point of reference that sparked his sensibilities. “I never realized it until I moved away, but I think growing up in a city as unique as New Orleans helped shape me into the oddball I am today. It’s a bit of a contradiction, an artists’ haven filled with mysticism and magic and debauchery in the deepest part of one of the most conservative States in the South,” Rilan considers. From voodoo shops to costume stores, live jazz and cemeteries, spending every childhood weekend in the French Quarter was his “normal”.

PHOTO: Ashley Beliveau

PHOTO: Ashley Beliveau

Regardless of attending a small traditional private school with a rigid focus on academia and athletics, sharing Spanish class with football’s famed Odell Beckham Jr and quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning among the accolades, Rilan was himself at any cost, misunderstood and often alone, regardless of hurtful kids. He’s barely understood the idea of coming out of the closet because he’s never really been in one, joking, “Why would I ever be in a closet unless I’m changing into a better outfit?” Taking to the stage also facilitated true self-expression through the ironic process of acting, stating “I saw such a parallel between musicals and my favorite artists’ music that it made me realize I didn’t have to play a part for the rest of my life. I could sing what I wanted to sing how I wanted to sing it and succeed on my own.”

The West Coast, however, was a huge change from smaller stages. “Everyone in Hollywood has an opinion and everyone is quick to tell you what they think. In the past I’ve listened and I’ve regretted it,” he rumminates. “Everyone has an idea of who you should be, but no one wants to know who you really are. Now I just don’t give people the option of telling me who I am.” Acceptance and support without manipulation is a standard to which he holds all friends and colleagues. Hard work and good judgement alone have not been the only milestone-makers in Rilan’s life, appreciating “the help of people I admire and trust the most”, especially being chosen to play Warbler on the last season of a very beloved popular Fox series.

Glee was an incredible experience. The cast was kind, the crew was wonderful, and the work was full of heart and soul. I loved it. Not to mention, I got to play the antithesis of myself:  a small-minded, snooty prep with a stick up his ass, not far off from the kids who always made fun of me growing up. Ironic, isn’t it?” Rilan laughs. “Meeting ‘Gleeks’ was the best part of the experience. They were misfits and outsiders and weirdos and I related to everything they would tell me on social media and in person. They really gave me the confidence to continue being myself not only in life but in my music, which is really the driving force behind everything I do.”

Rilan’s “Love or Drugs” is available on iTunes, Amazon and more, as well as for streaming through Spotify and Pandora. Follow Rilan on Instagram and Facebook for updates and upcoming video releases.

Sunni Johnson is the Arts Editor of WUSSY and a writer, zinester, and musician based in Atlanta, GA.