Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Luke Roberts Talks "Big Bells and Dime Songs"

Last fall, Luke Roberts released his first solo album, Big Bells and Dime Songs, and his first for Thrill Jockey Records (it was originally released Ecstatic Peace, Thurston Moore's label, in the spring of 2010). Dime Songs and Dime Songs seemed to arrive quietly, and has been drifting around for a bit, building it's momentum slowly, gradually attracting more and more attention.

Rooted in country blues, Big Bells and Dime Songs is a simplistic affair, by a very talented Nashville-Brooklyn songwriter. The album was crafted with little accompaniment and editing, and it's a loose and casual album that I have really enjoyed, so much so that I included it in Uprooted Music Revue's Favorite Audio Releases of 2011.

Mr. Roberts is someone that I've been really excited to learn more about, so I pursued the opportunity to interview him for Uprooted Music Revue. Much to my surprise, I learned that Mr. Roberts will be releasing his second album on March 3rd, called The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport.

So as luck would have it, I've managed to put together a two-part interview with Luke Roberts. This first feature covers Mr. Roberts' experiences leading up to, and including his work writing and recording Big Bells and Dime Songs, while the second installment will cover his next record.

Here is part one of our conversation:

Hi Luke. For this first segment,  I would like to discuss your early musical experiences, and then dig into your work composing Big Bells and Dime Songs, as well as your experiences recording it with Kyle Spence (of Harvey Milk).

Luke Roberts: Thanks Chris. My pleasure. 

Can you discuss your early musical experiences?

Luke: Well, we had a piano in the house. I can remember banging on that and studying the sounds at a young age. I wasn't allowed to watch T.V., and we didn't have a T.V., so I would end up beating up on the piano keys out of boredom a lot but I lost interest in the piano as soon as my mom got me a piano teacher.

I can also remember at a young age, my dad would come to town and bring me with him to go visit his pals who played bluegrass, and I remember wanting to play with all the instruments but I was not allowed to touch them, but I would sneak and mess with them anyway. I remember watching those guys play so fast and how complicated and hard it looked, and I remember thinking "I will never be able to do that" and when they would try to show me things I would not want to try to learn them.

I started violin lessons in the second grade but I was never teachable. I got bored of lesson plans easily and switched instruments a lot actually. In Nashville, there used to be this music school for low income families called W.O. Smith where the teachers were all volunteers and they would work on sliding scales with the student's families. My sisters were in the choir and I flip flopped all over the place. I did saxophone, piano, drums, upright bass, etc., but I never wanted to master anything and I would quit on a whim.

I somehow had myself convinced that I had a knack for music though. My teachers would tell me I "play by ear" and I would take that to mean "I already know all I need to know". A guy at church gave me a guitar and a chord book and I liked teaching myself chords and finding chord progressions, but I had no intention of sticking with acoustic guitar or trying to master it or anything.

What inspired you to seriously pursue music?

Luke: Jesus, everything inspired me to pursue music. Just loving music, mostly. It is the artistic medium that goes the deepest the fastest. It seems to me like music is the most important thing in life because life is so extremely musical and rhythmic. If you pay close attention, music is so absurd and beautiful and whimsical. Where does it come from?

When people are babies, our parents wait for us to walk and to hear us say our first word, but it's just a given that long before we say any words, we sing and find melodies. We know how to find and enjoy rhythms, it's just so deeply ingrained that it's no big deal at all. Somewhere I heard a poem that went "When plants are dying, they wilt. When horses are dying, they wane. When moons are dying, they wax. When people are dying, they sing songs." I like that poem because, to me, that's how music is, it's real. I like it a lot.

I spent a long time not knowing what to pursue in life, I wanted to be other things, a painter, a sculptor, a dancer, a writer etc., and I still want to do those things. But when I got engaged to a painter named Shannon Lucy, a long time ago, she convinced me to focus all my energy into one thing because I was so scattered trying to be everything at once, that I wasn't being anything at all. She told me "Jack of all trades, master of none". I took it as a challenge, and naturally picked music.

What kinds of music did you gravitate towards?

Luke: I had been really getting into southern folk music and appalachian music and blues. Maybe because my family is all from the western Carolinas, on both sides, all the way down, and I got to spend a lot of time up in those mountains growing up, I really feel connected to that music. I started to think of myself as someone who had something to contribute to American culture.

I read an article where some folk historian was talking about the Carter Family changing American music, and even "world music". I really loved that. The idea that I'm making world music, simply because I'm in the world, is a driving inspiration, in and of itself.

When did you begin writing your own music?

Luke: When I realized how much music had touched me, I wanted to give back. I had a lot of original poems and solid ideas of what music meant to me in my head, so I figured I had what it takes to reach people. In 2003 or 2004, I formed a chaotic hardcore band where I played guitar and sang. When that ended, I finally became solo, after a period of waiting. Long before that, in my youth, I wrote R & B songs on the piano with a friend of mine for a group called Bad Attitude, or BA for short. I must have been 10 years old.

Who were your biggest influences in both playing and your approach to writing?

Luke: I'd have to say Kim Gordan (Sonic Youth), Bob Dylan, Mike Jones, Kurt Cobain, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Willie Nelson

How has the music communities of Brooklyn and Nashville influenced your musical direction?

Luke: That's a great question, but I have no idea. Maybe I'm contributing to the culture of those places because I'm getting distribution now, but I feel like an outsider. I think my direction might be more influenced by the communities outside the arts communities, like the work force communities, or the welfare communities. Either way I'm influenced, like any artist, mostly by how to use them as my muse.

Can you discuss your writing process of the songs that would become Big Bells and Dime Songs?

Luke: Sure. I fished for ideas. I reflected on the ideas I loved. Then I honed them and I got to know them. I memorized my lines, I practiced my licks. Finally I made some recordings on a tape recorder.

What we you listening to while you were writing the material, and before you began recording, what kind of record did you think you wanted to make?

Luke: Southern Rap, Delta Blues, and the Carter Family. I got really into collecting field recordings of pygmy tribes of Africa, online. I didn't know what kind of record I wanted to make, I just wanted it to be true to me, if that makes sense.

Kyle asked me the same questions in the studio and I just said "You just do you, and I will do me" and it just came out the way it did. We never compared it to anybody. We just figured it out on the spot.

How did you connect with Kyle Spence (of Harvey Milk) for the recording of the record?

We met through the bass player of Harvey Milk, Stephen Tanner. Stephen and I met in the food service industry in New York.

Can you describe your recording processes and your experiences working together?

Luke: Yeah, I was 9 hours late to Athens to record for 5 days because I had missed my transfer and had been sitting in Atlanta at the Greyhound station working out the songs. Kyle picked me up and we went to his house and sat on his porch and smoked cigarettes and told stories. Then he let me sleep on the floor of the gear room.

In the morning we got up and sat on the porch some more,  smoked a few more cigarettes, and then we had coffee and hit the studio. First, we looked at the Athens news paper on his gigantic computer screen. Then he showed me this booth he'd made for me to play in. It was a small hut made out of blankets and microphone stands.

I had asked him to play some drums on my songs and he had asked how and I said "sludge" because I figured that's what he does, but he said it would sound strange if he hit too hard over acoustic guitar, so we just went from there. We wore headphones and I would go inside my hut, and we would play the songs together, but only record the drums. Then we would build the songs off the drum tracks. It took two days to get them all recorded and two days to mix them. We worked out the sound together. I had no idea what it should sound like so Kyle would say "Do you like reverb?" and I would say "Yes".

How was working with Kyle Spence? Can you describe how the studio processes influenced the direction of the album?

Luke: The whole thing was unexpected because I didn't know what to expect. I could never have expected anyone to work as hard as he did those four days. It's safe to say that his work ethic had a huge impact on the shape and direction of the session(s), and on the songs, as well as on me, and my music and my life.

He put in 15 hour days letting me experiment, helping me learn bass, talking to me about sound, giving me ideas, getting involved, taking it as far as it could go. For all I knew, I was going to come out with the songs sounding the same as my tape recordings, only recorded with better mics and some strange drums on some, all depending on how much time and luck I had for what little money I had.

What was most rewarding aspect of the recording process for you?

Luke: It was having come up with a sound that was unique to me, but universal in a lot of ways.

How has the completion of the record and your live performances since its release prepared you for your next project?

Luke: That's another great question, and again I don't know. I like not knowing because I like being new to things. It's an act of faith for me, I just like being a lyricist, and I just want to keep going in with a student's attitude so I can keep growing.

What have you been listening to lately?

Luke: Well, back in New York, I was DJing a little, and I played all antique rap from Memphis, pre Hustle-n-flow, early nineties stuff like Lil Corb. Then I went to Montana and listened to nothing. Now, in Nashville, honestly I'm still not listening to much, but I'm playing a lot.

Some Sundays I go to 17th street Missionary Gospel Church to hear the choir. It's great. The band is typically a little boy on the drums, a teenage girl on piano and a choir of really powerful singers and everybody wears black and gold except me. I'm always the only white person.

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