Following our always exciting series of premieres, March has been full with some of the best songs we have been honored to have the exclusive of bring you first. Today we are teaming up with VENTS alumni Chris Robley for the premiere of his whole new album.
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.
“I’m not a bad guy, but in the world of The Great Make Believer, I’m the bad guy,” says Robley, discussing the album’s lyrical content.
“Around the time I put out my last album [Ghosts’ Menagerie], my life was kinda exploding,” he continues. “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.
“As collaborative as some of my previous albums have been, I’ve always kept a close eye, and at least a gentle hand, on every aspect of the creative process, and on a few albums I ended up playing the majority of the instruments myself. But this time around, I really just needed to relax into a situation where I could trust the players to sort of free me from that control and make the music their own, in a way – because control gets old after a while. You tire of your own tricks and limitations,” says Robley. “So, after a series of big events (of both the painful and beautiful variety), I knew I needed to find a musical method that mirrored some of the chaos and – on the better days – surrender that was happening in my life.
“Not to sound too ‘self-help’ about it, but what I really needed was a musical ‘trust-fall’ of sorts, a totally new process; so I wrote myself a kind of musical manifesto. What I needed was:
1) to arrange and record an album quickly, as a true collaboration, in an environment where we could all eat, sleep, work, play, and laugh together; 2) to work with amazing players who would nurture my songs, while somehow also making the music their own; 3) to track the music live, the way people used to make records; 4) and to be entirely uncertain of the outcome.”
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.”
Settled into his new life in Maine, Robley, now re-married, spent a few years watching his daughter grow. Now that she’s become more independent (“ya know, like, I’m not worried she’ll get injured any time I leave the room for more than a minute,” he says), he finally has the space to break his long silence.
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.”
This method lends an easiness and an urgency to the music, like you’re hearing something natural happening for the first time.
“There’s dirt and humanity in this. It’s the least layered, the least glossy, the least labored, and probably the most earnest record I’ve made,” he says with pride. “All of that was important to me in an age where pop producers can work on a kick drum sound for a whole day. Fuck that. This was quick and imperfect – fidelity be damned! It was about the songs first, and then the spontaneity and surprise of learning the tunes together in a short amount of time – about 3 hours per song, from showing it to the group through to the final take, over the course of three days.”
The music was arranged right there in the beach house with the tape rolling. This meant that they were capturing a fresh musical conversation as it happened, allowing Robley for the first time in his career to have no preconceived notions of what the song would sound like when it was done. He came in with the basics – chords and the melody – sometimes not even with a definitive groove, allowing the band to have fun with the songs, do as they felt it in the moment, and not over think anything.
“We didn’t let it get stale. We just got it down,” he recalls.
Now, with the record done and ready for release, Robley is battling another emotional conflict.
“The terror of releasing new music is setting in,” he reveals. “I always feel it with every album, but I’m out of practice dealing with the dread. And this record had the added complication of being loosely informed by my actual life, and so another kind of paralysis set in, mostly out of concern, again, for those I’d already hurt. Not wanting to open old wounds, and such.”
Though proud of the album, Robley will also admit he’s unsure where this record sits in his catalog.
“It’s still so close that I’ve lost all perspective. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect musicians to always feel whatever magic might be in their own music, especially when you’ve been sitting with the songs for a while. I think a little creative doubt and fear is healthy.
“Though,” he continues, “Other people say it’s their favorite. Rob Stroup, who’s engineered and produced a lot of my music, says this is his favorite record of mine so far.”
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.”