Raquel Quiñones Rivera officially started her music journey in high school, but she’s always had an instinct for the melodic expressionism that is apparent in her vast repertoire. It’s been a journey of self-discovery that began in her early years in Puerto Rico. “Music was a big part of the culture, so it was almost an automatic familiarity with it,” she shares, now reminiscing and reflecting on her past in the midst of a bustling Williamsburg winery. Her “internal passion” and rhythm is driven by Caribbean music and influences, something she attributes to her seamless grasp of the musical language. As we discuss her birthplace, I can almost hear the coquis echo in the background as they did on my starry nights in Guaynabo. Her background diversified when, at age six, her family moved to New Jersey, followed by time in California, and later to Boston to pursue her craft at Berklee College of Music.
I soon learned that Raquel’s inspirations are countless, and her emotions are almost best described as musical themselves. From the tropics to the gritty city, Rivera has dipped her toes into every genre she could touch: choral arrangements, Balkan (yes, Balkan) folk music, Flamenco, and other varieties of world music, eventually landing her in the jazz-rich atmosphere of Berklee. Although consolidating these many interests has presented a challenge in more traditionalist environments, exciting things loom in the horizon for Rivera as she encounters new areas to express herself, exploring complex emotions, memories and goals.
I was born in Puerto Rico where music was a big part of my culture, so it was almost an automatic familiarity
On this snowy Wednesday night, we find ourselves delving into the emotional expressionism of music and “vibes” that make the musical experience feel right for performers and audiences--something, I had never before unpacked. Her new album (shh it’s a secret), which will reflect upon different periods of her life, channels a recent move from the university jazz scene in Boston to the more demanding, bustling goings-on of New York City. Of the difference, she says that the New England city, which initially attracted the network of student musicians she quickly grew fond of, couldn’t get them to stay post-graduation. Most of her close collaborators have since moved elsewhere. I couldn't help but be surprised that a city with such esteemed music universities “doesn’t have nearly as many performance opportunities as New York” in fact, the Boston jazz scene, in Raquel’s words is “dwindling.” In New York, however, “everyone wants to play but you’re faced with different parameters, such as more extensive time commitments, and it’s harder to land gigs with the growing competition; it takes longer for [performing] to become a consistent workflow.” The new musical influences of being outside an isolated university environment, such as pop and electro, have also added to her exploration and sound. She clearly welcomes the new challenges, inspirations and changes, as she sips on her zinfandel, planning many things, among which is her upcoming EP release in mid-March.
A recent conversation with her older sister helped Rivera uncover her unique relationship with emotions in her music, especially in one of her first singles, Daniel. She originally wrote Daniel, for a (fictitious) man almost five years ago. As many of us search to unpack our emotions through conversation or use alternate methods to better distract ourselves, Raquel says she didn't truly realize music was her emotional language until Daniel was conceived. She leans over to tell me, “I wanted to write a song about someone’s name and it turned into a song about someone who’s teasing and tricking you, not loving you fully.” Like John Mayer’s Stop this Train, certain memories get songs like these stuck in her head until she realizes they echo her current emotion. I asked her more about this, “I don’t always know what I’m experiencing or what memories I’m pulling from. Sometimes I write a song which reveals emotional memories without knowing before where the memory comes from… I could be feeling something and think of the song I had stuck in my head when I was feeling it at another time. It’s really crazy.” Music, she says, “always starts from the feeling and you usually have some sort of subconscious link to your life even if you don’t acknowledge it.”
Music always starts from the feeling
Chemistry has and always will line the notes of her music. From her best show to her worst, all results have something to do with human chemistry. Raquel fondly remembers times with a college best friend where music flowed just as seamlessly as conversation does for those of us who are not musically inclined. She describes the time spent as (platonically) “magical.” Their “musical chemistry” and collaborations remain, to this day, unimpacted by personal and musical changes. But, she’s quick to warn that “you never know who you’re going to vibe with” as has been her experience with “one-off gigs.” For the risk-taker, general requirements such as the expected jazz standards at quick, one-night gigs can be almost boring and clunky and made even more unbearable with limited rehearsal time and the “wrong” group of supporting musicians. For all other gigs, “even if it’s just improvisational, it’s really good to get a feel of the people around you.”
As such, the emotions are varied and arrive unpacked in her new cover of “He Needs Me,” recorded acoustically in a West Village church. “He Needs Me,” made famous by Nina Simone brings out the silver lining of truly meaningful standards. Her recording reveals the unique chemistry that is so integral to successful music and the darkness found in musical emotion. This vein of dark acoustic jazz both speaks for itself and is elevated by Raquel’s careful decision-making; a simple, elegant-sounding setting of a historic church (whose “beauty and ‘organicness’” she broods to me about), a microphone, a piano and bass guitar. It’s “short and sweet” she tells me, trying to casually disguise her pride in her finished product.
Even if it’s just improvisational, it’s really good to get a feel of the people around you
The Brooklyn Winery presents the perfect backdrop for Raquel to revel in her most recent venture into events-planning. We discover, almost simultaneously, the overlap between the two realms she holds so dear. What lured her in? She admits, “I really enjoy parties,” and the “great moments in life” that place us outside of the day to day grind, into blissful emotions of happiness and companionship. Her excitement to show people a good time shines through the dark bar, as she goes on to describe her second favorite aspect. Both an “addiction to production” and organization push Rivera to create a spectacular experience for attendees. She envisions how people feel, almost better than her own introspection.
Events, like shows, require acute attention to the needs of attendees in order to make a moment memorable. At both, we expect something special to distance ourselves from monotony. Unlike performance, however events-planning is where Raquel learns to better embody the needs and requirements of others. Performance, with its “flexibility for inspiration is a packaged deal,” where audience members are usually present to experience the artist’s persona. Whether corporate or social (Raquel does it all) events-planning finds Rivera yielding a greater responsibility to ensure guests enjoy themselves within a very curated series of events.
Although her two axes (music and events) remain fairly independent for the time being, Rivera’s ultimate goal lies in a seamless marriage of the two. She envisions a community in which unique musicians perform for a captive audience that is simultaneously enjoying the best food New York has to offer. Working 14-hour days at the Outside the Box Boston Festival inspired this dream, where she saw the fruits of her labor culminate into a “huge performance [on the last day] where everyone loses their minds with excitement.” The best part? “It’s exposure for artists too.” It almost sounds like a small-scale Coachella, but planned by a boricua jazz-aficionada (so mofongo is a must). For Raquel, it’s all about making a special impact that’s within reach.
People are going to talk about your event forever, and however you can make it special will work in your favor
Currently, Harlem hangout Silvana lands as her top choice for more frequent performances, especially later in the week when audiences look to “enjoy themselves, pay attention to the music and order food from a really good menu.” Alcohol is a strict no-no before shows (as she conceded, “for me personally, alcohol makes me forgetful...I don’t drink before singing”), so no pre-show drinks invitations, guys, but if you’re lucky, you can invite her to a pasta dish and maybe even a beer after to celebrate a job well done.
The future? Settling further into her cozy, Washington Heights apartment, an EP release (out now on her website!), a highly anticipated Fall album and festival-themed parties lie on the horizon for Raquel. Catch her at the Brooklyn Winery on weekdays and follow her on social media to keep track of her next gigs. See if you feel the Rivera Impact!