Artists already have a lot to prove when they release their first album, but when it comes to those with already-impressive resumes like Amber Riley, the bar is even higher. Riley showed off her vocal chops for six seasons on the FOX dramedy-musical series Glee, and in 2017, won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Dreamgirls. For Riley, the "proof" is in the pudding, and the question becomes, "Why hasn't she released an album yet?!" Well, she did just that on Oct. 3 with Amber Riley's self-titled EP, Riley. While dropping a project right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic may not seem like good timing, Riley knew it was the right time for her. Even with the odds stacked against her, she wouldn't let doubters or the pandemic stop her debut album.
Speaking to Riley, it's immediately clear she's a glass-half-full type of gal. "Honestly, my project was finished before the pandemic hit, so it was already in motion," she tells Elite Daily. "There was no stopping it at that point. It kind of is a catch 22 because people turned to the arts when this happened. Album sales went up, and people were doing so many new creative things online, so that part of it was great because people were at home and looking for something new to listen to."
Although Riley says releasing her EP during the pandemic wasn't necessarily negative, she admits there was one drawback. "The hard part of it is that personal connection you don't get with listeners," she says. "You can't go in to a concert. I can't go out on tour. That actually is the hardest part."
It's been five years since Riley appeared on Glee, but she's kept busy since. She appeared as a guest judge on the British reality show Let It Shine in 2017, and she dazzled on stage in Dreamgirls that same year. And while fans could always count on musical moments from the powerhouse singer on her Instagram over the past three years, she was noticeably quiet as far as official music releases. The lull didn't do much to diminish her nerves surrounding her first major release.
"Of course, I was very nervous putting out my very first project," she says. "I had really only ever done covers, I just had a couple songs out, but this was my first time introducing myself to the public and being very open about it."
With Riley so adamant about keeping her music momentum going during the pandemic, she certainly wasn't going to let anything, or anyone, slow her down. Like many celebs, she faces her fair share of criticism on the internet, which she says she lets slip in one ear and out the other. "Criticism is not something I necessarily think about," she says. "I've grown and gotten much older and have really understood that I have to keep my head down and my focus on what it is that I'm doing. I'm not worried about anybody else's plate. I'm not worried about anyone else's journey."
One thing she is focusing on? Keeping in touch with friends and family during the pandemic. Riley recently teamed up with Straight Talk Wireless, a fitting partnership, since she's been keen on picking up the phone to connect with loved ones she can't see in person. "The way I'm connecting with family and friends through quarantine is over the phone, calling, texting, sometimes hopping on video chat with family. I'm just trying to keep that connection with everyone," she shares.
Riley even whipped up her own little holiday jingle for the company's holiday campaign.
The holiday season is also a time for reflection, and Riley took a moment to do so when remembering her friend and former Glee co-star Naya Rivera, who tragically died in a boating accident on July 8.
Rivera's memory is still front of mind for Riley this holiday season. "She was so great at hosting," Riley says, remembering her friend's holiday parties. "It was always such a presentation. That was a part of her love language. That was how she showed she cared." That's why, ahead of the holidays, Riley teamed up with her former Glee castmates to raise funds for Alexandria House in Los Angeles, a charity Rivera cared deeply about. "We just wanted to continue on her legacy because we know that's what she would have wanted," she says. "She donated her time and her money to Alexandria House a lot."
With so much on her plate, one might wonder how Riley manages to find balance. But she's seemingly perfected the art of blending her love of music and acting, which is certainly made evident through her newly-minted lead role in NBC's upcoming musical comedy series, Dream.
"I don't really have a main focus. My loves are my loves. It's like having multiple children," SHE SAYS. "You don't just focus on one and ignore the others. Whatever comes my way, and whatever it is that I'm feeling, that's where I go."