Mic Check: Mike Rizzi, a drummer with the heart of a songwriter

Drummer Mike Rizzi, who has played with everyone from John Driskell Hopkins to Ed Roland to Sonia Leigh, is working on another solo album called "Departures and Arrivals."
Drummer Mike Rizzi, who has played with everyone from John Driskell Hopkins to Ed Roland to Sonia Leigh, is working on another solo album called "Departures and Arrivals."

Credit: Jolie Loren

Credit: Jolie Loren

Editor’s note: With live music and concert reviews on hold due to COVID-19, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is focusing on how Georgia musicians are spending their time in our feature, Mic Check.

From Ed Roland to Sonia Leigh, John Driskell Hopkins to the late Tony Lewis of The Outfield, Mike Rizzi has enjoyed a from-back-of-stage view behind his drum kit.

But along with being a seasoned session and touring player, the Atlanta musician — he’s originally from upstate New York, moved to Athens in 1993 and Atlanta in 1995 — Rizzi is also a songwriter with one solo album on his resume and a second in the works.

“I have a love for writing songs, so that’s how I keep from cracking right now,” he said.

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Last summer, Rizzi landed on CMT with videos for “Great Divide” and “Here’s to All the Years,” a touching tribute to his parents, from his debut release “Appreciate What Remains,” co-produced by Hopkins and released in 2018.

In a recent chat, the vivacious musician talked about the 20 songs written for his next release, his love of The Kinks and how much he misses the energy of performing live.

Q: For people unfamiliar with your background, where have we heard you?

A: I moved to Athens in ’93 and played there with the Nathan Sheppard Band and started to get to know some of the guys from R.E.M. We were touring frats and sororities, and I thought, I’ve got to move toward older people with kids! So, I came to Atlanta in 1995 and have been here since, except for Los Angeles from 2007 to 2010 for an opportunity with Ghost Hounds. When I came back to Atlanta in 2010, Sonia Leigh came into my world, and we toured for two years. I played with Five Eight (in Athens) for nine years. They’re in the process of doing an edit on a new documentary that will blow you away. And a lot of session work. I always get these random calls from people I don’t even know!

Q: What’s the status of your next album?

A: I’ve got 20 songs I’m really excited about. Hop (John Driskell Hopkins) co-produced my last album, and he said you have a vision, and I agree with your vision, and let’s move forward with it. I didn’t want to make an album that’s, “Hey look what I can do on the drums.” I want to be a little different with this album. I write songs that move me and hope they can move other people. The name of the album, which has become conceptual, is “Departures and Arrivals.” I really feel when we’re born, there’s a journey already put in place. It sounds spiritual and hippie-dippie, but don’t fight it; just kind of go with it. I expect to have it out this year. I’ve done (both albums) independently, but I’m always open to opportunities. I say I’m going to lose $10,000 putting this record out, but it means something to me. I want people to think when they hear my songs that I’m doing it for people to hear my message. It’s an expensive way to do that. (Laughs).

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Q: What’s the story behind the title?

A: I either go to airports to be excited about going on tour or my son (Kaden, 16, who lives in Holland) coming to visit or with dread. What a bookend — it’s like births and deaths.

Q: Do you think you’ll get to play any of these songs live soon?

A: I feel like an empty shell not being able to play live, to get on a drum set without that energy, without your bandmates and to play like I normally do. You have to reinvent. It’s like a person with a leg injury starting to heal — how do you get back on that treadmill? I try to take that energy and think about other musicians who are having issues. It’s so completely sad. I hear from so many musicians, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this anymore.” It’s such a steep hill to climb. The physical aspects I really miss, especially as a drummer. For me now, how do I stay active physically? I walk the dog and play drums and try to say OK, what’s our new norm?

Q: Who have you been listening to lately?

A: I’m always about singer-songwriters. I’ve really watched a lot of videos to see what people are doing because I don’t want to do what other people are doing. A lot of my time is engrossed in the projects I’m working on. But my standbys are The Kinks — they have an endless catalog. And I’m a big fan of Neil Finn. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries, probably 90% of them music-related. I’m always looking to inspire myself.

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