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Chris Robley – Photo Credit: Lauren Breau
“America deserves more than ruin porn,” says Maine-based award-winning poet and musician Chris Robley. “Our pilot light hasn’t gone out yet.”
And though his latest album, Filament in the Wilderness or What Comes Next, is populated with its fair share of opioid widows, undocumented mothers, unemployed machinists, Sudanese refugees, victims of police violence, stymied teen soccer stars, and his own deceased father, these characters are interwoven as the citizens of a country not yet born. Each inhabits a nation where hope and empathy are still warranted, if hard-won.
“The old saying that America’s a patchwork — it’s true,” says Robley. “And every day that fabric gets torn or mended. Lately there’s been more damage than connection, but this app trolls fascists,” says Robley, pointing to his heart. “And it’s the only thing that’s gonna save us.”
Robley had a rough 2016. The indie folk songwriter’s father was dying during the presidential campaign. It was quite a revelation when he realized that his father, a lovely, respectful, man, supported Trump before his passing.
On Robley’s beautiful new album he reckons not just with his father, but with the state of America, tackling the police murder of Sandra Bland, the brutality of unfettered capitalism, the American evacuation of Saigon in 1975, and immigration.
Robley tackled each song with a degree of specificity learned from Billy Bragg’s keynote speech at Folk Alliance International, advocating for specificity to engender empathy, a feeling that Robley pushes on the new album.
Filament in the Wilderness or What Comes Next (which was created through an anarchical process with a host of long-distance collaborators and a decentralized, leaderless framework) has emerged at once as his most deeply individual and democratic work — one where forms of lyrical repetition and folk-balladry are refreshed through sonic collage and electronic production techniques. Throughout, Robley filters the influence of Mary Gauthier, Jason Isbell, and Tom Joad-era Springsteen through a kind of Internet-age Impressionism.
“I needed to attack music differently in order to untangle things,” explains Robley. “On the surface, those two events — my dad’s death and Trump’s election — don’t have anything to do with each other. But they hit me together and it felt like a sinkhole opened beneath me. My father was a great man. A humble man. A kind man. A man of faith. A man who took responsibility for his actions, who expected fairplay, who helped others selflessly, who served his country as a Green Beret, who brought me up to believe… well… that someone like the current president should be utterly ineligible for office.”
And yet in the months leading up to the election, as his father went through the worst of his 7-year struggle with cancer, Robley realized that his father supported Trump’s bid. “To me, my dad’s political convictions always seemed at odds with his personal ones. But we’re all walking contradictions. And your relationship to a country is a lot like your relationship to your family: it’s complicated. My father in many ways is still my hero. This country is still a place I love, respect, and root for despite its litany of faults. You don’t disown a child or a sibling when they fuck up; you try to help them mend and make amends — and you hope they do the same for you. Same with a country.”
Robley found strength in that realization. “I don’t always succeed, but I’ve been trying my hardest to push through the disagreements, look someone in the eye, and see them as a WHOLE person. It’s very hard to turn a WHOLE person into an enemy. If my father is still my hero despite our differences, there’s hope for this country.”
That idea is at the center of Robley’s new album: that empathy is _“a filament in the wilderness of what comes next.”
“Empathy is a radical act,”_ says Robley. “And for me, in music, whenever I’ve heard a song that really changed me, it’s not because the lyrics went for some universal generality. Empathy springs from specificity. You need detail. And it’s not fair to leave that responsibility exclusively to politically-conscious Hip Hop. There’s been so much vague, dainty, flaccid, ineffectual, naval-gazing Folk and Indie-Pop this Century… shit that just pleasantly fits into someone’s lifestyle brand, coffee playlist, or Abercrombie dressing room.”
“Billy Bragg did something very big for the Folk community,” Robley says of Bragg’s speech at the 2017 Folk Alliance International in Kansas City, given in the wake of the election just months before. “He stood in front of 2500 songwriters who were tired of all the complacency and vanity in the genre they loved, and he reminded us what Folk music is for. It’s our job to wield empathy like a weapon. The more specific, the sharper it is.”
So Robley set about writing songs with a mix of journalistic detail and poetic lyricism, letting them be as long or short as they needed. “There’s all this talk about the Spotify Sound — like cutting out intros, starting with the hook, making things less than two and a half minutes. Fuck that. A song can be a whole life, not just some soundbite on a playlist.”
Big Takeover is pleased to host the premiere of the socio-politcally and deeply personal album in its entirety today. Poignant, heartfelt, storytelling – and also bursting at the seams with expansive arrangements that take indie folk into new dimensions through the melding of different styles and instrumentation (electronic, ambient, gospel, symphonic, piano pop, jazz).
Filament in the Wilderness or What Comes Next is bookended by the longest songs Robley has written, two electronically-tinged, ambient-vibed tunes that each stretch for more than 9-minutes in Dylanesque fashion over shifting landscapes. Both songs explore the clash of voices in America, switching characters with each verse until the songs accrue a kind of cumulative meaning.
The music on the LP was created in a similar pluralistic fashion. Not only did the arrangements and productions find their shape without Robley’s direct guidance, but this is the first album where he let other singers take the driver’s seat. Several songs feature lead vocals from Anna Tivel and Margaret Gibson Wehr (Y La Bamba, Moorea Masa, EL VY). “It’s fitting,” explains Robley. “The lyrics are a tapestry of voices sharing space, so we made the music that way too. I gave up on the idea of controlling things. I Dropboxed some demos to my friends in Oregon and let them chop them up and carve out the arrangements without my input — just my veto. My only instructions were ‘these sound like folk songs; please fuck them up!’”
Despite the intended creative distance, Robley did go out to Oregon a few times throughout the recording process to add his parts and give his blessing — and he was thrilled to find how songs he’d only heard strummed on an acoustic guitar could be turned sideways when treated with synth arpeggios, layers of saturated keyboards, or baritone saxophones. “In every case but one, the way they’d collectively produced the songs felt exciting and correct. For the one song that wasn’t working, we quickly shifted gears during one of my trips out there, found a better groove, and it literally clicked in ONE take. I’m super thankful for this band.”
That “band” — really just a collective of Robley’s friends and frequent collaborators (since his touring days, even before COVID, were on hold while he raises his daughter) — consists of Arthur Parker (The NowHere Band) on bass and synths; Anders Bergstrom (Pacific Mean Time) on drums and percussion; Daniel Adlaf (Little Professor) on synths and piano; Edwin Paroissien (Pacific Mean Time) on guitars, synths, and engineering; Bennie Morrison (March Fourth Marching Band) on woodwinds; Anna Tivel on vocals and violin; Margaret Gibson Wehr also on vocals and violin; Bob Dunham (The Resolectrics) engineering; and Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Lowland Hum, The Suitcase Junket, Los Lobos, EL VY) doing the final sampling, producing, engineering, and mixing.
Everyone involved in the project did things differently than Robley would have, adding their own tones, rhythms, and approaches, and the results according to the songwriter are all the better for it. “This is my best album because in part the work isn’t mine anymore. I even cried one time hearing what they’d done without me, thousands of miles away.”
One summer night Robley sat on his porch with his wife and played a new rough mix he’d just received, listening on an iPhone speaker to Anna and Margaret’s voices. “It’s really a moving experience the first time you hear other singers taking your words somewhere you couldn’t,” he says. “And there’s a spot in one of the songs after we’ve all sung separately where Anna, Margaret, and I join up to sing a harmony together. That’s when the tears really started.”
The moment reflected everything he’d wanted to untangle — about mending, about empathy, about what we might still make of democracy’s dimming light. “This album is a collage and a mirror, a triptych and a microscope. It’s about the best and worst of America. It’s about discord and — occasionally — harmony. It’s such a true and beautiful cliché, harmony. It’s only harmony when it’s comprised of differences.”
Robley sums up his album with the following statement:
“At the moment, it’s difficult to appreciate the clash of voices in America. It seems to be one loud patchwork quilt, with a hundred holes, keeping few people warm. But the songs on filament are about trying to hold onto the beauty of what America could mean, if we allowed divergent stories to live in the same space without asking them to cohere.”
“Ya know, something like the ray of hope in any Ken Burns documentary. That’s still my idea of America. I wanted to explore characters through that lens, but also record the music in a kind of pluralistic, anarchical fashion. It was a lot of fun.”
“I let my friends on the other side of the country take the driver’s seat, producing the songs on their own without my direct guidance. Anna Tivel and Margaret Gibson Wehr even sang lead vocals on a couple songs, which was super-freeing for me and seemed in keeping with the purpose of the album.”
“Less unison. More harmony. Less dear leader. More room at the table.”