Pic by Anna O’Sullivan
Hi Chris, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Great. Exhilarated. Exhausted. I just got back home to Maine after playing a seven-night residency in Portland, Oregon. More than two hours of singing a night, every night for a week, and I tried to do something different every show, so I learned or re-learned about 80-something songs. During the days I was working, doing radio shows, getting my teeth cleaned (yes, I now live 3000 miles away from my dentist).
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Eden”?
I was thinking about Adam and Eve, and how that whole ‘original sin’ story was the first catch-22. God tells them not to eat the fruit, but they don’t fully understand what it means to disobey, because they haven’t yet tasted the very thing that will give them the knowledge to differentiate between right and wrong. It’s a hell of a setup. Anyway, I was thinking about that, and also about the stubbornness of beginning a new relationship while feeling like the whole world was saying, “Oh, that’ll never work out.”
It’s definitely one of the most normal songs I’ve written. Just a few chords. Straightforward lyrics. And a lot of space in the arrangement for the vocal to come through. That was a new priority for me on this whole album, to leave enough room for the emotion of the songs to… breath.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
Well, yes. I was ending one relationship and beginning another, with lots of pain and muddiness and confusion in the overlap. I hurt people I deeply love in the process. That regret is all over this record, but on “Eden” I’m addressing a different audience, really. It’s not so much about expressing guilt to those people as it’s an attempt to steel myself entering this new relationship, while all the mutual friends and casual acquaintances place bets on how quickly we’ll crash and burn.
The single comes off your new album The Great Make Believer – why taking so long?
Well, a lot has happened in my life in the past 5 years. A divorce. A remarriage. Having a baby. Figuring out how to be a good father. And then helping my parents out as my father deals with cancer treatments. Amidst all that I moved from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine too. I still wrote songs, but releasing a new album took a backseat to the rest of my life.
What’s the story behind the title?
The Great Make Believer: I think it’s about delusion, and building a whole sense of self around something that’s not quite true. Eventually the structure collapses, and you’re not always alone under the rubble.
How was the recording and writing process?
The songs took their usual amount of time to arrive. But the recording was fast. 3 days. We recorded the album live in a makeshift studio at a friend’s beach house on the Oregon coast. We arranged the tunes together from scratch, and from there to the final take was usually about 2 or 3 hours per song. That’s very different from me. In the past I’d labor over everything, layering part after part, and playing or arranging lots of the stuff myself. For this record I wanted to give up control and let the band work like… a band.
What was it like to work with Rob Stroup and how did that relationship develop?
Always great. He and I have known each other for a long time, and he’s actually produced tracks on two of my previous records. We’ve made a lot of music together outside the studio too. Rob is a great editor of ideas. He can pretty quickly assess what’s interesting or superfluous about some particular musical direction, and he can focus your creativity in the direction it needs to go. It’s nice to have someone like that guiding the recording sessions when you only have 3 hours to learn, arrange, and record a song.
How much did he get to influence the album?
Quite a bit, but in kind of macro way. The whole “let’s all go to the beach for a long weekend and live together and make a record live” idea was his, or rather, it’s a process that he’s favored for a while now — and I saw the benefit of it after playing keyboards on a session for a friend who tracked his album in a similar way. Then of course there’s the fact that the band on my new album is essentially Rob Stroup & the Blame. But really the whole band got to influence the album. Every player contributed something really important to the songs, and I didn’t have to do much “producing” at all. I don’t think Rob did either, besides what I was talking about earlier, his ability to help people focus their ideas pretty quickly.
How did the chaos of the past influence the songs and lyrics in this album?
This is definitely my most raw and personal album. That being said, the songs aren’t autobiographical. They’re not definitive in an emotional sense. It’s just that the chaos, heartache, guilt, and all that other stuff, it flowed into the songs in a way that felt more authentic than on previous albums. But feelings are erratic when you’re going through tough times. So I wouldn’t want someone to hear one of these songs and walk away thinking they know exactly how I felt about my own life or relationships, but rather that they got a glimpse of one or two of maybe dozens of ways I felt about a painful experience.
What role does Maine plays on this record and your music overall?
When I moved to Maine, I was a whole continent away from what had been my musical home. So I ended up playing, infrequently, as a solo singer-songwriter, whereas in Oregon I normally had a full band with me. Stripping things down like that did make me explore some new ways to keep my live set dynamic, since essentially I’m just another guy-with-guitar. That meant using my voice in some new ways: whistling, mouth trumpet, lots of ooos and ahhs. Then when I was back in Oregon recording the album, I’d intended to replace that vocal stuff with guitar solos, or pedal steel, or whatever. But the band talked me out of it. They thought that since the songs felt more open and vulnerable, I should just keep all that vocal stuff in the tracks. I guess the logic was that the voice — and my voice, in this case — is going to feel more intimate and connected to the heart of the song than some overdubbed guitar solo.
Any plans to hit the road?
YouTube! I miss my family when I’m away from home for more than a few days, so touring isn’t really my priority at this point. Maybe some shows in the Northeast and Northwest here and there, but besides that, I’m planning on doing lots of videos for this record.
What else is happening next in Chris Robley’s world?
Well, waiting 5 years to put out a record actually means I’ve got a second album that’ll be out close on the heels of The Great Make Believer. It still needs to be mixed and all that, but I’m excited to get those songs out there too. I mean, I’m going to concentrate on promoting The Great Make Believer for now, but it’s nice to know that the follow-up won’t take half a decade.