As we come to an end of another week, we are kicking off with an exciting track by Chris Robley titled “Fisher King” off his new album.
About the song, he comments “Like most things in Arthurian legend, there are dozens of different versions of the Fisher King story. I probably have some amalgamation of them in my mind, mixed up with vague memories of that 80’s film Excalibur. But basically the Fisher King is the wounded keeper of the grail, and it’s often told that his wound was inflicted as punishment for philandering. As the king’s health worsens, his kingdom becomes a wasteland too until, of course, he’s saved by some knight or other. Anyway, I was thinking about how hard it is to start healing when you’ve broken someone else’s heart. Sometimes the wound you suffer is the wound you inflict upon another, so you’re helpless to heal yourself until that person is well on their way. In the meantime you just keep staring at your reflection in that giant cup of guilt. Drink up!”
Previously described as the “Stephen King of indie-pop,” Maine-based singer-songwriter Chris Robley’s fifth full-length, The Great Make Believer (Cutthroat Pop), his first in five years, sheds the lush orchestration of previous releases to deliver a raw, country-tinged collection of ten pop-folk songs that detail his quest for redemption.
“Around the time I put out my last album [Ghosts’ Menagerie], my life was kinda exploding,” admits Robley. “Much of that was chaos of my own making, but it was far from self-contained. I guess a simpler way to say it is I hurt people I cared about – and the pain of causing other people pain is a tricky thing to work through.
“If you took a snapshot of the emotional landscape of this album, it could be summed up as ‘the heartbreaker is broken too.’ Even when all these endings are of your own making, the failure of a marriage, the loss of important friendships, the hole that it leaves in your life (which you just can’t help but keep staring into), it’s still really painful, and made all the more painful, for myself and others, by how I went about it. Even though the album isn’t autobiographical per se, a lot of the debris of those fragmented relationships found their way into these songs – regret, guilt, anger, longing, hope, love. So for me, the music has a very raw feeling. Lots of exposed nerves.”
Whereas his previous releases – 2005’s This Is The, 2007’s The Drunken Dance of Modern Man In Love, 2009’s Movie Theatre Haiku, and 2010’s Ghosts’ Menagerie (all on Cutthroat Pop Records) – went for bigger production, lush soundscapes, and plenty of instrumentation, with The Great Make Believer, Robley let go of creative control and embraced collaboration, helping to ensure the album’s raw feel.
Robley and friends – Arthur Parker (bass), Rob Stroup (engineer/producer), Naomi Hooley (vocals), Anders Bergstrom (drums), Bob Dunham (electric guitar), and Paul Brainard (pedal steel) – went to their friend Nick Peets’ beach house on the coast of Seaside, Oregon. They turned the place into a makeshift recording studio, spent a few fun days holed up together, and tracked everything live.
Once the instrumental tracks were done, they broke down the studio. There was no going back for fixes. The music was done – and Robley returned to Maine.
A few months later, he flew back to Oregon to re-record the vocals at Rob Stroup’s 8 Ball Studios because, as he puts it, “the rough mixes were full of my voice stopping midstream in the middle of a lyric to give little verbal queues like, ‘okay, the bridge is coming up… 1, 2, 3, 4,… ‘ or ‘let’s do a solo after this verse. Paul, take it!’ But, in keeping with the live spirit of the album, we recut the vocals quickly over one weekend.” And, again, they were done. No fixes. No touch-ups.
But, that weekend was bittersweet for Robley. At night he’d be recording vocals for the album, and during the day he was packing up the house he’d owned with his now ex-wife in Portland, Oregon, a house he’d recently sold. As Robley explained earlier, his life was exploding around the release of Ghosts’ Menagerie, including his divorce, moving to the East Coast from Oregon, as well as his father being diagnosed – and subsequently battling – with cancer.
“It was one of those experiences where there’s a weird mixture of sadness and relief, and all the melancholy and confusion was very present during the recording of the vocals,” admits Robley. “I think you can hear some of that weariness and vulnerability in there. I finished the vocals around 2am on a Sunday morning, drove back to the house, slept in my old bed for the last time, woke up the next morning, packed the moving van, and then took a cab to the airport to fly back East. The new owners moved in the next day.”
For Robley, the road leading to The Great Make Believer wasn’t an easy one. As he puts it, the creative process in recording and producing the music was simple; get a bunch of good players in a room, show them the songs, press record, and BAM! The record is made. But the time between writing, recording, and releasing the record was more troubled.
“After the aforementioned life-bomb explosion, songwriting became a way for me to heal from what had happened, but actually recording and then releasing the music took a backseat to some bigger things going on that were far more important than me putting out another album: starting a new relationship, becoming a father, moving back east so I could be closer to my parents while my dad deals with ongoing treatments for his cancer. Just life, trumping art.”
The result is a more vulnerable, introspective Robley. “The songs on The Great Make Believer are more stripped down. They’re more country, folk, and even a little swing. Less ’60s pop, less Beatles. And maybe more of that soupy Americana thing Daniel Lanois is known for, on a handful of tracks at least,” comments Robley. “There’s no orchestration. No production tricks. Just a band in a room, doing what they can.”
For Robley, The Great Make Believer is a cathartic record. He’s cleared his emotional slate and, in letting it out into the world, hopes only that “the songs reach the people they need to, which so far seems to be folks in the midst of complicated breakups. Poor souls. I’ll try to write some sexy dance tracks for them next time around.”