Chris Robley – Filament in the Wilderness of What Comes Next
“Robley is indeed the very real deal.” –No Depression
“At the top of his game with his new work.” –KCRW
“America deserves more than ruin porn,” says Chris Robley. “Our pilot light hasn’t gone out yet.”
And though his latest album 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.”
Mending has been on Chris Robley’s mind. The Maine-based songwriter and award-winning poet lost his father to cancer in late 2016. Just a few weeks earlier Donald Trump won the presidency. Ever since, Robley has been surveying the strange border where private loss and public outrage intermingle. His new album (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 ammends — 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.”
Filament is bookended by the longest songs Robley has written, two electronically-tinged 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 Filament 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!’”
Robley, who lives with his family in the small milltown of Lewiston, Maine, conducted his part of the collaboration 3000 miles from where his friends were working. “Google Drive and Dropbox, synced calendars and emails, calls and texts. This was not a cozy Big Pink situation — it was something where the Internet, for all its downsides, served as a surrogate Commons,” he says. “It probably sounds cold and administrative, but I found the whole process really freeing. First, the record wasn’t going to get made any other way. But more importantly, there was a spirit in the songs, something that was coming alive in the strange digital exchange. A lot of bands bring life to a song by nurturing it over the long-haul, growing it from infancy to wherever it ends up. On Filament we went in reverse, we started with a line of communication, some kind of energy that only existed in the wires and wi-fi between us — and we put flesh on that ghost until its heart started beating.”
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.”