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Photo by Ashley Beliveau

Interview: Rilan

Rilan Roppolo is a Los Angeles-based singer, dancer, and actor best known for his tenure on season 6 of Glee. Having initially grown in the New Orleans theater scene as early as six years old, Roppolo would eventually take on an eclectic musical identity all his own. He debuted in 2014 under the mononym Rilan, his debut single “Chemical” (off the soon-after-released Chemicals EP) earning over two million hits since its premiere on Popcrush. The multifaceted performer has since been dubbed the “male Lady Gaga,” and encompasses a stylistic range that finds 80s and 90s teen pop on equal footing with glam, new wave, and industrial rock. Rilan’s latest single, “Love or Drugs,” was released back in March.

I caught up with Rilan to discuss how his formative background shaped his musicianship, how he ultimately persevered through the fickle attitudes of Hollywood, as well as what he can glean from his artistic and personal growth.

ME: Let’s start with your theater experience as a kid. How did that environment affect you growing up?

Rilan: Theater was where I found my voice and creativity. I tried the whole sports thing, but that wasn’t where I belonged. Being in theater was a way to really combat my ‘shy kid’ nature. I thoroughly enjoyed performing, and I think my parents were relieved that I could finally get off the coffee table and actually pursue that (laughs). I loved it. It was great. It made me who I am today.

It’s funny, because, while pop music and theater aren’t the same things, there are so many similarities between what I like to do in my music now and musical theater. I like the performance aspect, storylines, being a showman, being a little over the top, and really demonstrating what I can do. Yeah, theater is my bread and butter; it kind of always follows me.

ME: Musically, you have a kind of 80s synthpop feel. What kinds of bands inspired your musicianship?

Rilan: I grew up listening to Britney Spears, as a young kid in the early 2000s. She was the first artist I really enjoyed. When I was even younger, what I grew up on was the stuff my parents listened to – 70s and 80s music. My dad was into 70s rock n’ roll, and my mom was into 80s pop. It was everything from Prince and Bowie to Madonna, Cher, George Michael, Boy George, and Eurythmics. That’s where I began to see – unknowingly, at the time – a parallel between theater and music, with their presentations being over the top, as if they’re putting on a show, but, of course, without being part of an actual show.

As I got older and a little more angsty, if you will, I started discovering some darker music from the 80s, that was a little off-center but still kind of pop. I loved Soft Cell, I loved Tears for Fears, The Cure, Depeche Mode — all of that was darker than, let’s say, “Material Girl.” I also started listening to 90s industrial music, like Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, and they showed me a side that was real and raw, but with a performance aspect.

ME: Speaking of angsty, a big thing that’s mentioned about you is your tenure in high school – which was effectively the emo era (I was there too). When it came to establishing genuine friendships, were they few and far between?

Rilan: Yeah, I’d say a little bit. High school was a mess. I never really fit into one group, you know? I hung out with theater friends, but mainly outside of school. I did fairly well academically, but I valued friendships just as much as academics. As I’d mentioned, I didn’t play sports because I wasn’t an athlete. I did choir, and that was like my home. In fact, the choir room was where I’d eat my lunch pretty much all the time — alone. I had friends, don’t get me wrong, but I felt alone in a sense. Nobody understood my music taste, my fashion sense, or what I really wanted to do with my life.

My school had that idea of “You get good grades in a discipline that you like — the arts, or sciences, or athletics – go to college, get a job, start a family, have a house with a white picket fence,” and the whole nine yards. That was nothing like what I planned to do with my life, and it was difficult finding people who genuinely believed in me.

But I feel that having gone through that experience, and feeling like such an outsider, it’s really made me appreciate what I can do musically, as well as what I can do for other people like myself. I feel like I have combined a lot of different influences both in music and in my image, just because I was never part of a specific group of people. I think that’s what makes music special and interesting. You’re not just one thing; you’re a lot of different things, and you express that uniquely in order to be new. That’s always been my thing, especially being such a weird kid (laughs)!

ME: On the topic of being weird, your move to Hollywood was a lot to overcome as well, since they thought you were way outside the box, according to their standards.

Rilan: Yeah, totally!

ME: What was that like, and how did you get around that?

Rilan: When I first came here trying to play shows, I wanted to have a stage, dancers, pyrotechnics and everything else. But when you come here and want to grow your fanbase, you play these indie singer-songwriter clubs. That’s what I was doing, but I put my pop show on those stages. People were looking at me like I was absolutely insane! They were like, “This stage isn’t big enough for dancers,” and I was like “No, your mind just isn’t big enough to actually experience it, and I’m gonna show it to you.” People initially had a hard time enjoying that, with LA being ‘too cool for school,’ if you will. My thing was since ‘cool’ was what people were doing, I was going to be uncool and really loudly, until they eventually start to like it.

I didn’t really fit in socially either. I’m not much of a partier, and I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about how many followers someone has on the internet; it’s just not my thing. Coming into a world that was all about perception, ego, and narcissism was kind of weird to me, especially when it came to my performances. But then, I realized that trying to be cool, or trying to be what the musical fad of the day represents, wasn’t me. I’d just thought of being totally unique. If you like it, you like it; if you don’t, you don’t. But I’m going to give you a show, rather than stand up on stage and pretend to be swaggy because I ain’t got no swag (laughs).

ME: I’d imagine you’d told yourself, “Well, if Hollywood’s not gonna come to me, screw it. I’ll be my own Hollywood!”

Rilan: Exactly! And what I had to realize was that all of the people I’ve admired and have been inspired by were like that; no one understood what they were about before. In the case of Bowie, when he was doing Ziggy Stardust, people were like, “What the hell is this? There’s no way this is gonna work.” No one got it, no one wanted to promote it, and he just had to get up there and do the damn thing. Eventually, even though people haven’t seen it before, they started saying, “Wow, this is cool!”

With people like us, in the age of Facebook and Instagram, people mainly want to see things they can understand, if that makes sense. They want to be entertained and brought to a world that they don’t live in, but can still grasp. I figure that if I have to use these platforms to get what I’m about across, I’d want to give them something to that effect.

ME: Eventually, you starred on the final season of Glee. Did you enjoy being in that atmosphere?

Rilan: I actually loved it, because all of the actors on there were the misfits. They were theater kids who were actors, or musicians who stumbled into acting, because of the opportunity to sing on national television. They were dancers, they played in bands, they were artists — just a big melting pot full of different disciplines. To me, it felt so much more like being in theater than in television, and that’s what I loved. There were 16-hour shoot days, and before that, we’d rehearse for eight hours, for three days each, just to make sure we had it all down. It was great, I mean, I’ve met some of my best friends from that show and I still hang out with them.

ME: That’s really cool, man.

Rilan: It is, totally!

ME: Your new single, “Love or Drugs,” has been out now. When I first heard that song, my reaction was similar. I was just like, “What the hell is this?”

Rilan: (Laughs), yup!

ME: How did that song come about?

Rilan: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started thinking along the lines of, not “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” but, “If you can’t beat ‘em, make fun of ‘em and pretend you’re joining ‘em.” That’s essentially what “Love or Drugs” is about — not fitting in when I first came here, and the crowd being all about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, while I was just rock n’ roll, since all I have to offer is rock n’ roll! I wanted to make fun of that influencer-dominant culture which has become the norm in LA, and just throw it back in their face. I felt that they’ll have a much better time enjoying that approach, rather than being part of a party scene and pretending that’s all there is.

ME: The video was directed by Nicole Alexander and Collier Landry. What was it like working with them?

Rilan: It was great! I’ve actually worked with Collier for the past three years, from when I used to do dance video content on YouTube, trying to find a market for what I do. Collier was on top of a lot of that, and he’s been a huge help bringing my vision to life. He’s a great director, videographer, and cinematographer.

Nicole is his girlfriend. She’s a great director from Australia. He introduced me to her while I was vomiting up my ideas on what I wanted to do, and once she came in, she totally got it. Usually, I have to explain to people, “Yeah, we’re gonna have pillows everywhere, have people making out with mannequins while I’m underwater, drowning…” and they’d be like, “What the hell are you talking about?” But these guys really understood me. They came in, put their fuel on the fire, and made my idea come to life. I love them and appreciate them, and I think we’re going to work together again on some new music.

ME: Coming off the Chemicals EP, and now this new single, what have you learned about yourself, both as a musician, and as a person?

Rilan: What I learned was how to stand up for myself and be as authentic as possible. I grew up in theater, and that’s what I’ve known more so than the pop realm. When working with people who’ve had experience in the music industry, I would be really receptive and tend to closely follow their advice. But I think as I’ve gotten older, I realize that if I don’t agree with how they do something, I’ll tell them what’s on my mind.

All you have as an artist is your authenticity. The public can see through you trying to be something that you’re not. It’s happened with so many artists that I’ve liked, especially pop artists, where they’d be themselves in the beginning, but then over time, they start representing a trend that the public craves. I’ve tried following trends to appeal to a bigger margin, but they don’t want me, and I don’t really want that market. I want the weird crowd — the people who I can talk to, and who understand me, so I will always be just that. I feel that as a person, I’m much stronger. I wake up striving to be a little bit weirder than I was before, and so far, it’s been working (laughs)!

ME: Will we see these ideas expanded upon in the future?

Rilan: Yeah! In fact, when I do music, I don’t think of it in terms of a single song. I think of it as a piece of the world I’ve created. Right now, it’s looking like an EP. I have another single coming out in the summer, and then following that will be an EP, with more songs about how unpopular I am, and how I don’t fit in socially (laughs).

ME: You’re very matter-of-fact about it, based on how everything came together.

Rilan: Yeah, I mean, I’m very unapologetic socially. With the shows I have coming up, I want people I’m around to feel comfortable and help them have a good time. But this isn’t a social put-on for the sake of my career; it’s exactly who I am, which is important. I just want to be as authentic as possible, and give people hope that they can do that, too. It sounds simple, but it’s not, especially when you don’t fit into a standard group. Since I’m completely different in that sense, I want to project that uniqueness with my music. We all may look and sound different, but we’re our own group, where our hearts are whole.

ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?

Rilan: The only thing I’d like to say is I get it. I get how hard it is to be yourself, and to go through life feeling like you don’t belong anywhere. But don’t worry about it. I’m here for you, and we’re going to make our own little party where all the weird kids are invited.

Rilan Socials:

Official Website|Twitter|Instagram|YouTube

About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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