Chris Robley is a prolific songwriter and poet currently residing in Portland, Maine, though he hails from the Pacific Northwest which is where he started making music. In recent years he’s been particularly focused on words and the way they work in music, falling in love “again” with Americana and Roots music with narrative elements and “space” in songs to yield room for multiple meanings. His newest album, A Filament in the Wilderness of What Comes Next, is arriving in September, with the single “There Is a Bird” leading the way, and “Love in a Time of Sharp Decline” released on June 25th.
The layered, often quite upbeat and mellow sounds to the new album take you into a deeper consideration of some of the themes Robley embraces, from the limiting patterns of modern life to the ways in which America perplexes and induces longing in him for its better self. The songs were written in the last days of Robley’s father’s struggle with cancer and in the wake of the 2016 election, both of which brought plenty of personal and national feelings to a boil. Robley’s ability to combine multiple perspectives in these songs and his desire to reconcile the American dream to itself make it a powerful album well worth the wait. I spoke with Robley as his first public conversation about the new album while coming out of the “dormant mode” that so many of us have experienced and reaching out to the world again against the “Covid gravity” that’s built up over time.
Americana Highways: What traditions do you feel that you come from in terms of literature and music?
Chris Robley: In terms of the Folk/Americana world, I feel like a bit of a latecomer in some ways. When I started playing guitar in high school, I was really into finger style. In terms of popular Folk music, I was really into Paul Simon, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, and the big Pop Folk people. Then I went through a Brit Pop and 60s British phase, where I think it took me down a different path for a while where I was more concerned with fancy chord changes and strange melodies. That was more the music geekery side of things. When I started putting out solo records, it was an acoustic treatment of that, maybe a little bit Elliott Smith-ish.
I had a band when I lived in Portland, Oregon, which made it easy for me be musically ambitious in that “geekery” way. When I moved to Maine, which coincided with me having a kid, I went back to an acoustic guitar because it was easier to say, “Okay, I’m a singer/songwriter now.” It was partly out of necessity since I couldn’t go to clubs and recruit a band. Something about having a kid also kicked me into a place where I have been thinking about words a lot more. I make the joke that I really like boring music now. Compared to what I used to need to feel intrigued, now I’m all about the space and the words. So I’ve come to Americana again as a form of music that has a lot of breathing space.
AH: That was a comprehensive and yet concise tour of your musical influences!
CR: I guess you also asked about poetry. That also coincided with a time when I was moving away from Portland, Oregon, where I’d been immersed in the world of indie Rock. But around the time I moved the Maine and had a kid, music became harder, so I shifted gears a little towards poetry. It was partly out of necessity and partly being drawn back to words. Music was more on the backburner for a little while. Then I fell back in love with music, especially this spacious Americana, and at the same time I was thinking about words first and foremost, with poetry. I think I emerged from this all as a much better lyric writer than before, or at least putting a lot more emphasis on the words than before.
AH: What’s your opinion on the difference between the experience of writing lyrics versus the experience of writing poetry? Can you tell you’re doing something different?
CR: Yes. They seem like very different things to me. Or at least the end results feel like very different art forms to me. However, there are little moments in each of them that could work in either context. So I have done a little bit of going back through old poems that I wrote that I never did anything with. From a songwriting perspective, 95% of it is unusable, not because it’s bad poetry, but because it’s poetry. But I might find a line or two or an image or two that would work in a song. But the things I’ve submitted to poetry magazines have always been, in my mind, poems. In my mind, a poem is very formal in that you might be able to turn it into something that has a ballad form, but I still feel the flow of lines doesn’t work that well if you just try to put a melody on it and sing it.
AH: Looking at the new songs on this album, it seems like something that you like to do as a songwriter is to look at things from an opposite or different perspective. There are some oppositions that you flip around and look at the other way, also.
CR: I think maybe what I’m trying to do is more that poetry thing about not having to strain after meaning. There’s room in poetry and poetic images that something can make sense and not make sense or contain contradictory meanings. Two things can be true at once. For me, that was always the most exciting thing about poetry, so hopefully I took some of that into songwriting.
AH: That’s definitely when things get interesting. You’ve put out a number of albums over time on a pretty regular schedule. How do you keep yourself motivated to write, record, and release so consistently?
CR: My process is really haphazard and what’s tended to happen is actually that I’ve always got a lot of different stuff that’s half-baked or half-finished. I always have a song fully written before I start recording it, but once I start recording it, it could be something I abandon or leave for years. At one time, it was 8 years. Then, whenever the energy or time arrives for me to take something that’s half-done and finish it, that’s going to be the next thing that comes out. I think it’s the only way that I can work, being busy with family and such, but I’ve actually been like that since before I had a family.
I think it’s possibly driven by insecurity, questioning something that I’ve created. So I leave it, but then when I come back to it again, I think, “Okay, actually that was pretty good.” I never learn that lesson though, because every time I start something, I think, “This will be really quick.” I think I’ll take a day to get something done. With a band, I say, “Let’s book four days in the studio and we’ll have an album done!” That’s not how it works. Years later, we’ll finally have an album. With my previous album, it was entirely done except for the vocals on one song, many years ago. I didn’t like the vocals on one song and thought it sounded mean-spirited. Finally I scrapped it, wrote new words, wrote a new melody, finished it, and sent it to the Producer as ready to go. That sort of thing happens a lot. I wish it didn’t!
AH: Because so much time can pass before an album is ready and the songs are released, does it give you a greater sense of them having their own identity and existence separate from you?
CR: I think you’re right. Because of the time passing and abandoning things for a long time, when I come back to it, it’s no longer attached to me in the moment. For a lot of artists, they put out their most recent work, and it feels like a snapshot of where they are then or at least where they’ve been the last few months. I just haven’t been able to do that. But when an album is done, I have a strange feeling like it’s a friend I knew a long time ago. And now that friend deserves to have other friends besides me, so it’s time to put the album out. I’m still proud of the music and I still want people to like it but maybe I feel that a little less because I have an identity distance.
AH: This album must have been a little quicker in terms of process, because a lot of songs relate to events that are fairly recent.
CR: I wrote all of this album, basically, since Fall of 2016 onwards. A lot of it was precipitated by my father, who had been battling cancer for years, entering the last phase of the fight. And that was also during the Trump campaign. Those things were swirling around and led to a lot of music. Because I was in Maine and my band was in Oregon, I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to produce the album the way I usually did in person, because it would be too rushed. So I decided to let them steer the ship for a while and the benefit would be that I’d be surprised by what they did.
That process of them working without me for the first half of the creative phase made it exciting. Literally, with every one of their decisions except on one song, I said, “That’s great.” On the one song that wasn’t working, I went out there on a trip, we went into a friend’s studio, and took it in a different direction, which worked. That all took time and mixing over Zoom is strange, but it got done. I actually didn’t put my name on the front of the album because I wanted to give a nod to the band’s completely crucial time investment and creativity.
AH: I have a really ignorant question about “There’s a Bird.” Is this a metaphor or a reality that there are birds who fish with ropes around their necks?
CR: It’s not a metaphor. It’s true. I think this is a practice that’s happened a lot in ancient traditions with cormorants, but in China and Japan, the fisherman tie the bird’s throat and make it do a bunch of fishing. They can’t swallow the fish, so they spit it out. When they’ve caught enough fish, the fisherman loosens the rope for them to eat.
AH: How did you come across this idea?
CR: That actually is a good example of a song that started out as a poem when I came across “Cormorant Fishing.” I probably found a Wikipedia page for it. I ended up writing a poem that was very literally descriptive of the bird’s experience and what the mountains looked like along the riverbanks in China. The poem wasn’t making any metaphorical jumps at that point, but it got abandoned. Then as I was writing this song, and telling the story of a father, and imagining him living in Maine. Along the Maine coast, there are a lot of beautiful houses that are empty most of the year. I imagined this father working along the coastline, but living a few miles inland where things are harder.
Then that poem came back to me, and I pulled a few lines from it, but switched them around so I could sing them. There’s a Paul Simon song, “Train in The Distance,” where the verses are very literal and descriptive, but the chorus is just, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance.” And that has nothing to do with the story, but the juxtaposition of those things makes so much sense even though they have nothing to do with each other. It just feels right. So I let myself do that with the bird thing, even though it’s ancient China where it’s happening on the one hand, and modern Maine on the other.
AH: I found the song really impactful. Like a lot of people, suburbia and 9 to 5 scares me a lot. That kind of constriction and regimentation of modern life is a real weight that people carry. Is this also meant to talk about capitalism?
CR: Completely. Though I’m always worried about preachy political songs. I’m hoping that the circumstances of this family are seen as the result of that.
AH: I wouldn’t say it’s preachy. It’s just the texture of modern life in many places in America. But you can look at it more universally, at the patterns we choose to follow in living our lives.
CR: Something that always stuck with me about the bird is that there’s a time when the bird’s rope is looser. Why doesn’t it fly away? The limits of its horizon is so bound by its own habit of captivity, and that frustrates me. I feel like that’s probably everyone, to some extent, not just the person struggling with the effects of capitalism. I’m sure that rich people and middle-class people are also trapped by the things they need to feel secure. I hoped to deal with that frustration in the last line. I don’t know what the solution would be, but it seems like if we could change one little thing, that would change things on the whole.
AH: That phrase, “preferred certainty to hope” is really powerful. I appreciate you including some kind of explanation for it in the song. I know that you want to avoid being preachy, but there are at least two songs on the album that directly address America, “American Dreams” and “Filament.” What made you feel it was necessary there to speak more directly?
CR: I think I speak directly to America in “American Dreams.” The feelings, and the memories, and the experience of losing my Dad, and America, were these amorphous but very powerful things I was wrestling with. I guess I felt like this album is about America, so at the end, I thought, “I’m just going to talk to America and say, ‘You’re like a brother that I really love, but man, you need to get your shit together. But don’t despair too much, because every nation has its problems.’” Because there are still things about the American myth that I still lean towards, and yearn for, and want to believe in.
Some people find that in love or family, and there are all kinds of ways that you can tap into idealism and hope. But for me, as clear-eyed as I’d like to be about our problems, I also want to believe that this is a place that can change and can be worth something in terms of what it does when it interacts with the rest of the world. And perhaps more importantly than that, what it does when it interacts with its own people that comprise it. I wanted to end the album that way, too, because so much of the record pinpoints little narrative details of how messed up everything can be. But there’s a kind of beauty in the collective. When you put it all together, I think America should still be seen as a force of good where it can be. https://www.chrisrobley.com