Monday, January 16, 2012

Justin Robinson (formerly of Carolina Chocolate Drops) Talks JR and the Mary Annettes' "Bones For Tinder"

Justin Robinson, Grammy-winner and former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, heads a hot new collective of local North Carolina-based multi-instrumentalists, called Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes.

Last year, Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes released an EP called Precious Blood, and they have followed it up this week with the release of their first full-length album, Bones For Tinder.

Last month, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Bones For Tinder and then was fortunate enough to speak with Mr. Robinson about his early musical experiences, life as a Chocolate Drop, and his new work with the Mary Annettes (and more). 

Can you describe your experiences growing up in Gastonia, NC and your early musical experiences?

Justin Robinson: Gastonia is a small town on edge of the western Piedmont that has seen much better days. During the turn of the 20th century it was a cotton mill boom town which brought in a lot of people from the mountains of NC and people from upstate SC. It was a interesting place to grow up in, small town values, woods to run in, family close by.

My first instrument was the violin and I started at 7 or 8. We listened to a wide range of music from classical, country (Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt) to R&B (Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, Tina Turner) to hip-hop (Notorious B.I.G. Method Man, Wu-Tang). My mother insisted that my sister and I were going to play an instrument so we really didn't have a choice in the matter.

It sounds like your family influenced your interest in music.

Justin: We listened to and played a lot of music in our house. Looking back on it now, we had music of some kind going most of the time.

I read that for a while you took a break from music. What inspired you to pick music back up again at college?

Justin: I would say that it was a feeling of incompleteness from not playing. It just felt as though something were missing.

How and when did you connect with Rhiannon Giddens and Don Flemmons, and later form the Carolina Chocolate Drops?

Justin: We all met a conference in Boone, NC in 2005 (Black Banjo Gathering) and about 6 months later we had formed CCD. It was like kismet.

What was your recording process like in CCD?

Justin: Recording can be a harrowing experience. The first record, Dona Got a Rambling Mind, was recorded, mixed, and mastered in 2 days. The latest album, Genuine Negro Jig, was sort of painstakingly made. Rhiannon was pregnant at the time and we were all very worn out from being on the road. Yet, out of a non-ideal situation came a pretty great record.

Can you briefly discuss your decision to leave the CCD?

Justin: I simply realized that the touring life is not for me. It wore me down to the bone and I simply do not have the aptitude to be on the road full-time. Also, being on the road kept me from my family (I'm married, plus we have a dog, a cat, and a horse).

Creatively, I am at my best when I have lots of things going on at once, and being on the road full-time mostly didn't leave much time for anything else. I also wanted to go in a different direction musically: to write and compose, and to not have everything be so high stakes.

How and when did Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes get together?

Justin: Well, JR and the Mary Annettes formed before I left Carolina Chocolate Drops. We were playing a few shows here and there, and then we recorded an EP and an album together while I was off the road. It is an offshoot of an earlier solo project called Birds or Monsters, where I played all the instruments.

I much prefer being in a band and I clearly can't play more than one instrument at a time on stage, so I needed some people and I found them. Some songs carried over from Birds or Monsters to JR and the MA and others were left behind.

Can you describe your songwriting process for the material that would become Bones For Tinder?

I typically write in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way initially, without a song structure in mind, then I'll go noodle on an instrument until I find a good melody. Then I rummage through all of those writings to pull out a phrase or a verse and build the rest of the lyrics on the fly. I have only written one song that came straight from my notebook just the way I had originally written it. I rarely know what the songs even mean until long after they are finished.

How collaborative was the arranging process with the band and how did the other players influence the material?

Justin: I have a great band who I chose specifically for their different points of view. My drummer, Josh, is a hip-hop/funk drummer, and he is always thinking about beats. The strings players, Sally, Kyra, and Elizabeth are all fantastic at writing very beautiful string parts. I loved being in the studio with all that creative juice a-flowin'. Being able to see some idea from your brain come to fruition is quite an amazing thing.

None of the songs are written in the studio because I prefer not to record like that. I prefer to have a really good idea of the song first, and then allow it to be changed during the studio session as necessary.

I really wanted the album to be varied with no two songs being alike. As a listener, that keeps my interest much more than listening to 12 or 13 tracks, which might be fantastic, but mostly sound the same. I wanted all the songs to have a similar quality though, a kind of shimmery darkness.

What were you listing to during this time? Was there anything that really stands out that you found  inspiring while working on the record?

Justin: Wow, all kinds of stuff. I try not to listen to much when I'm recording for me fear of sounding too much like a particular artist but for certain vocal qualities, it is nice to listen to Tina Turner, Allison Mossheart (The Kills), Joanna Newsom, and Bon Iver. I end up listening to a lot of female singers and trying to capture something of what they have, but knowing I can't achieve it for physiological reasons, and then seeing what comes of that.

I was excited to hear that you created the cover artwork for the Precious Blood EP. Did you do the  artwork for Bones of Tinder too?

Justin: I embroidered the cover of the EP "Precious Blood"  which is an anatomically correct representation of a human heart. The artwork for Bones for Tinder is done by Suzanne Sbarge and I loved it when I first saw it. Her artwork looks like the inside of my mind. I would highly recommend checking out more of her work on her website.

In addition to writing, performing, and studying music, you have studied forestry, started Pearl Grey (a culinary venture selling frozen custard), and continue to do embroidery. Can you discuss your artistic philosophy, and how these different artistic interests feed each other, as well as inspire you?

Justin: What binds all these endeavors together is that they are all different and require a different set of skills to make them come out right. I would have to say that writing ties them all together. Each of these elements is represented, however veiled, in the songs that I have written.

There are lots of plant and sewing references and musing about food tucked all throughout the songs. Of course, they will mean something else to other people, but it is all a manifestation of what goes inside my head.

As far a philosophy goes, I love the creative process, seeing something come from nothing and it is thrilling and exciting each and every time that is happens. It never gets old. I tend to like things that are strangely beautiful, things that make you stop and go,"Whose mind created this?"

Will you be touring for Bones for Tinder?

Justin: We will be a some short runs (I am in school now). Then we'll do a bigger run during the summer! Look out!

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