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A rocker turns to writing, her roots, and the stage

In the early 1990s, singer Gabrielle Travis fronted one of Boston rock’s best bands — the Atom Said, a powerhouse quartet who, like so many fine groups, never got their due. The Atom Said included drummer Clark Goodpastor, bassist Matt Gruenberg, and guitarist Reeves Gabrels, who was already playing with David Bowie in Tin Machine. But Gabrielle was the band’s secret weapon — a charismatic singer who could hold not only any audience’s attention from center stage, but also her highest notes with infallible intonation during the group’s most blazing musical firestorms. She was the perfect vocalist for the group’s mix of melody and improvisation, possessed of an instrument as flexible and wide-ranging as the dynamics of Gabrels’s guitar.

Part of that was her jazz training. Before joining the local rock scene, she’d played with a wide variety of combos in New York and toured Europe with the inventive saxophonist Steve Lacy. The rest was the pure gift of her voice and her raw determination to do whatever she pleased with it. After the Atom Said broke up, Travis performed in an early production of Boston Rock Opera’s Jesus Christ Superstar and slowly slipped from the scene. Now she’s resurfaced — remarried and renamed Gabrielle W. Riley — as an author with a debut novel titled Bloodlines & Egun: We Hear the Ancestors Call and her own imprint, Sankofa Publications.

The novel, available through and some independent bookstores, is an epic that spans generations in an African-American family, as well as the gap that slavery left in African culture. With the help of a grant from Temple University, the book was written over roughly two years in Lancaster, Massachusetts, the small town Riley headed to when she left the rock scene behind. " I moved way out into the country and wound up working a straight job, just socking away money so we could buy a nice house, and not really doing anything with music for years, " she explains. But the death of her father gave Riley a creative jolt that sparked her to write Bloodlines & Egun. " My father and I had a very complex relationship, " she says. " And my family is just a mishmash of people. My mother is half-Cherokee and half-African-American. My father was African. And we had a lot of radical people in my family. There were a lot of divisions, but as my father was getting ready to leave this life, doors started to open, and I began to get to know some of the people in my family again — people that I hadn’t known a lot about for 20 years. "

The notion of a family divided and then reunited by the death of one of its patriarchs resonated with Riley, who has a deep love of African culture and lore. And that lore plays a major role in Bloodlines & Egun. The novel involves the efforts of a young woman named Suzanne who, with her gift of spiritual magic, attempts to turn back time and prevent the uprooting of Africans from their homelands. By the end, Suzanne’s efforts may be on their way to success.

Apparently, writing the novel opened Riley’s creative floodgates. She’s already started a sequel, and as she worked on Bloodlines & Egun, she also began writing songs again. Last week she even ventured back onto a local stage, singing as a special guest for a pair of reunion shows by the funk-rock band Crown Electric at Cambridge’s Lizard Lounge. This fall, Riley expects to be back in Boston-area clubs performing her own music, too. She’s part of a new band called the Lodge with ex–’Til Tuesday guitarist Joey Pesce and her former bandmate Goodpastor. But Riley might not sound quite like she did during the Atom Said’s heyday.

" I finally gave up smoking after 28 years, " she says. " I’m able to hit notes in my upper range without having to push so hard. It’s such a joy, and it’s curious to hear what my voice is really like. "


Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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