The Willamette Week has be quite kind to me on my visit to Portland, Oregon, covering my weeklong residency at Al’s Den (to celebrate the upcoming release of The Great Make-Believer) twice in two weeks.
The first was this show preview:
Up until five years ago, a new album of Chris Robley tunes was a Portland music lover’s reliable annual perk—dense, Beatlesy goodness featuring deft wordplay delivered through McCartneyish melodies with a Lennonesque rasp. But that well ran dry. First, Robley switched Portlands on us, moving to Maine, and then turned his verse writing to the page rather than the stage, ultimately earning awards and publication in the prestigious journal Poetry. But Robley returned to Oregon last year to cut a comeback album, and is back again this week for a residency to share new tunes amidst a brace of special guests and a batch of Nilsson covers. The new The Great Make Believer sets aside Robley’s baroque-pop past for more rustic Rob Stroup production. Maybe it’s just what that soundscape subtly signifies, maybe it’s a half-decade’s earned maturity, but the emotions on Robley’s new songs seem more sincere and unguarded than in his past work—not that he ever sounded like he was posturing. What a welcome return.
Then they followed up with this artist profile:
Chris Robley Fakes It So Real on The Great Make-Believer
When looking back at the things that have been written about Chris Robley over the years, a certain word pops up with some frequency: posturing.
“It’s all posturing, to some extent,” Robley says. Mind you, both times I’ve used that word in relation to his music, I was saying Robley was not guilty of posturing. But if he isn’t faking it now, and this new music seems somehow more authentic than what came before, does that mean he was somehow being inauthentic back then?
“It’s like finding the right amount of the craft, or artifice, to hold something that’s hopefully a real emotion,” he says. “I don’t think it’s even necessarily important that the emotion be factually true.”
But Robley does hold that his new album, The Great Make Believer, the first he’s released in the five years since leaving this Portland, where he lived and made music for a decade, and moving to Portland, Maine, is more emotionally honest than his prior work. Personal upheaval—what he calls “the ending of one relationship and the beginning of a new one, all mixed up” and the fraying of “other crucial friendships, kind of swirling around that same circumstance”—gave him a rich vein to mine.
Having penned more personal songs, he wanted to adopt a fresh approach to recording them, departing from the layered, effects-laden production of his previous albums. “My real life is filtering into these songs in a way that it never had,” he says, “so I guess I’m more confident with just letting them live, without covering them up with a bunch of strings and horns and swirly noises and stuff, because I know—not to say that they’re better or worse, but just that for me they’re more real.”
The approach Robley took to the new songs, aided by gifted roots producer Rob Stroup, was to develop arrangements organically with a group of five players gathered in a room at a friend’s house on the Oregon Coast. They tracked 11 songs over three days, taking about three hours per song to find the right groove (drummer Anders Bergström being key to that process, Robley says), add parts and get the right take. Robley’s vocals were recorded at Stroup’s home studio on a later Portland visit.
But Robley says there’s a risk to sharing songs drawn so directly from real life.
“When you’re going through a really difficult time, you feel every emotion, and you’re erratic, and changing your mind and changing your heart constantly,” he says. “In a song, I might have picked one particular shade on that spectrum to focus on, so I worry that someone might hear that song and think, ‘Oh, that’s how you felt about this situation,’ kind of definitively, when really it’s like, that’s one of many ways that I felt, and I just happened to write a song about that.”
It’s tricky, indeed, finding the right balance between authenticity and artifice—practicing, one might say, good posture.
Thanks, WW (and Jeff Rosenberg, who wrote both pieces).