When I last spoke with Thrill Jockey Records recording artist Luke Roberts, we focused on his early musical experiences and development, as well as the writing and recording of his first album, Big Bells and Dime Songs. (You can read that interview here)
For this interview, Luke and I pick up from where we left off from our last conversation, this time beginning with his transitional period following his last album, and working our way through the development of his newly-released record, The Iron Gates At Throop And Newport.
Hi Luke, Thanks for taking the time to talk a little bit about your new record.
Luke: Thanks. I appreciate your interest in my work, and I am prepared to offer you utter transparency.
I read that you moved from Brooklyn to Montana to Nashville. Can you first take us through these transitions? What motivated you to return to Nashville (both artistically and personally)?
Luke: It was mildly traumatic. I was in Brooklyn and I was doing a lot of artwork. I was crammed in there with all the Brooklyn people but I could see myself out there in an environment where nobody was around, so I could scream, or shoot the moon with a gun, or ride a donkey, or build a monument, or whatever without anybody being around to laugh at me.
So I made my way to Montana where my dad lives out in Paradise Valley. He's really into the end of the world coming and he has a shack way in the back of his land for me to escape to. I just wanted to see what it felt like to go out there and stay a while. It wasn't quite like I expected. I got a mobile home and drove around and wandered aimlessly and took in the nature. Then I came back to Nashville where I grew up to get focused on work again.
It's strange, before I went to Brooklyn I was here in Nashville. I was on fire for a little while then. I was homeless. A nice woman let me sleep in a lawn chair by her swimming pool and at night I would wander Nashville and write graffiti, and in the day I would go to the library and read books. I was unemployable but I didn't care about having any money or working. I was so happy being homeless. I thought I had found God. My life was more about laughter than anything else back then and I got really good at laughing at myself back then but I got kind of lonely and then I met an artist and I fell in love, and we were married and we moved to Brooklyn, and then for some reason I stopped being happy. Then I started writing music seriously, the way I do now.
What kind of impact did these moves and relocation have on your writing and what you saw as your next direction?
Luke: You could say that these moves had a tremendous impact on me, and now I'm just trying to catch the wind in my kite.
What were you listening to during this time? What were some of your musical and non-musical influences and sources of inspiration?
Luke: I was listening to Sacred Harp recordings, Antioch Arrow, and Lil' Corb cassettes. I am influenced by non-musical things too, like southern accents, smiles, train whistles, jump rope rhymes, grindstones, rainstorms, and loneliness.
I read that the new songs that are on The Iron Gates At Throop And Newport were written during your time in Brooklyn. Can you describe your writing process for the album and how it all began to develop and come together?
Luke: I don't think I've really developed a "process". I like to sing into the mirror a lot. Spirit inspires me. The empyrean character of a thing will inspire me. A lot of times I will try to catch the feel of a thing with chords and music, and then sing words to the beat, and I try to relay the beauty that lies in my eyes. But then, the songs will start calling for other things and I just do what I feel with that.
Sonically, Big Belles and Dime Songs was a much more minimal and intimate sounding record, whereas The Iron Gates At Throop And Newport has a much more layered feel, bringing in more complex arrangements throughout. What inspired you to take this next step with your songwriting and arrangements?
Luke: I had written the songs while I was working double-time in these kitchens in Brooklyn, and saving up for the studio in Nashville. I was spending 16 hours a day with illegal aliens from south of the border, listening to cumbia all day. Then I flew down there and I had enough money for four and a half days, so it was really just trial by fire as I was putting it all together. I just wanted to hear those arrangements, just because. It was in my blood. I don't know why.
Can you discuss how your ideas for songs come together?
Luke: I was trying to write songs that felt like how kooky neighborhoods look to me, and what a stark difference it is from block to block based on the look of the homes or establishments or trees or whatever. I was also thinking a lot about how the mood changes all day based on what the lighting and the shadows are doing, and how chaotic that all is. I thought about shadows constantly during the writing of that album. Shadows and faces. I kept seeing faces in things everywhere. I would be looking at a street corner and I would see a ghost face and I would just know I was doing what I'm supposed to do.
Can you talk about your lyrically inspiration, thematically speaking?
Luke: Lyrically, I am inspired by leaves, chores, libraries, shadow families, funerals for comedians, Shannon Lucy paintings, etc..There are no separate entities to me. It's all interlocked. The album tells a story and each line tells another story and so on, and so forth.
Can you describe your experiences working with some of the players that joined you on this record?
Luke: The greatest is Paul Booker. He plays the electric guitar on one of the tracks and he has so much talent. I really enjoyed watching him rip it up and make it whine. Ryan Suther came all the way from Portland to play the harmonica and he really lets it bleed too. He's an incredibly talented folk artist.
Billy Contraraz made everyone cry when he started playing. He had a class of three youngsters with him when he arrived. He's very crafty. He's really good at fiddle. He also really understands making it whine and howl. Emily Sundblad also came from New York just to sing on the record. She has such a pretty voice. I was just surrounded by the most incredible talent. I have no idea how it happened. I just reached out and asked and everybody kept saying yes. I don't know why.
These guys are all pros, so you just tell them what you want and they do it on the first try. Things happened pretty much like I expected. They made the record so special, it is opening doors all over the place.
On your last record, you recorded with Kyle Spence (Harvey Milk), whereas this time around you recorded at Beech House in Nashville with Marky Nevers (of Lambchop). Can you discuss your experiences working with Marky? What did it bring to your work?
Luke: Marky lives in his studio behind where my mom used to live in south Nashville. Paul Booker is also a talented wood worker and he built the floor in Marky's studio. Paul would always house sit when Marky would go on tour, and we would go over there and sit on the porch and listen to the soul channel on the a.m. radio all night. So I was already familiar with the porch swing and I had already seen the layout and played his grand piano but we hadn't really met.
We had only seen each other around, but I reached out to him and he gave me some time. He was really nice to me and he encouraged me to use Ben Martin for drums. We did all the songs with drums but then we only used one of the songs from that session and re-did the rest. My wife came on the second day and helped mediate between me and Marky because she has good ears and she knew what I was going for.
After recording with Marky you joined back up with Kyle for the final mixes.
Luke: Kyle made it pop. Cause he's from Athens, Georgia where they make dreams come true.
Can you discuss the album artwork?
Luke: It's a picture my dad took of my mom standing in a creek in Tennessee with a "loveless" t-shirt and pink shorts on and in her yellow backpack is my little sister's head peeking over her shoulder.
Now that the new record is finished, and having some new perspective on these two albums, how would you say you have grown the most artistically from Big Belles and Dime Songs to The Iron Gates At Newport And Throop?
Luke: Well, I actually have another collection of songs I've written, and I want to make a new album with Harvey Milk, but I guess for now, I am going to tour.
In the meantime, I've been doing some field recordings of the hump yard at the Radnor train yard. When they take the trains apart and rearrange them they make these high pitched moans that are haunting and gorgeous. If you walk around east Nashville you always hear train whistles moaning.
It's become a hobby trying to get good recordings of trains. I adore trains. If I thought anyone else would enjoy it as much as me, I would make a record of train sounds called Radnor Yard. I have been doing that and also working on some folk art in the 3-D.
Will you be touring nationally for the record? Any east coast dates on the itinerary?
Luke: It's all in the works, I go to Europe for the first time starting in April. All tour dates are posted on thrilljockey.com