Justin Robinson: Groove Is In The Heart
Interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
For five years, Justin Robinson toured the world as a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which infused early 20th century string band music with a youthful spirit that made the music their own. Robinson decided to leave the Drops early last year, with an eye towards new projects, and touring less. Those new sounds and ideas have now come together with the debut CD from Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes.
While some listeners may be surprised by the differences between the Drops and the Mary Annettes, Robinson’s new album covers the full range of his own talents, and interests. Classically inclined chamber-pop, hip-hop, Appalachian folk music, new wave and science fiction themes, all seem to dance around the same bonfire together, with Robinson’s vocals taking you through the entire journey. Folkies play dress up and get funky, musical genres get blurred, and Robinson and his crew sound like they have a good time doing so.
Writing in via email, Robinson talks about the genesis of his new sounds and vision.
Coston: This record collects a lot of your interests, both sonically and lyrically, that we've talked about in the past, and more. How did this record come about?
Justin Robinson: This record has been a long time in the making. It really begin in 2008 in Montpelier, France where I was so overstimulated by everything I was experiencing. I had to start writing for fear of exploding. And from there each song started its own little life.
Coston: How about this band come about?
Robinson: Birds or Monsters was the first iteration of this project, and I played with Will Dawson (Squirrel Nut Zippers, Katherine Whalen and her Fascinators). Will was in college and didn't have a lot of time to play, so I wrote an add on Craigslist looking for folks. I wrote a very odd-sounding ad, and wanted to see who responded. Josh [Stohl] responded. Then Kyra [Moore] was a friend of a friend. I've played with, and been friends with Sally [Mullikin] for quite a while, and Sally knew Elizabeth [Marshall] from her former job.
Coston: Talk about the different band members.
Robinson: Wow. I'll keep it legal. Josh is primarily a funk/hip-hop drummer so he is always thinking about beats, which is great, because I really don't. Kyra plays banjo, fiddle, bass and background vocals. She has such an interesting ear for music and writes really strange, beautiful string parts. Sally is a monster shredder on the viola. There's no cello on the record, that's all Sally. Elizabeth is a another monster shredder on cello. Her years of string quartet playing really makes her indispensible and she makes everything sound better.
Coston: When you were writing the songs for this record, where you writing them with this band in mind, or did the band adapt the songs later on?
Robinson: Most of the songs, except “Phil Spectors” and “Neptune”, were written before the Mary Annettes, and later rearranged for the band. The latest songs are written with the band in mind, and its a group effort from nearly the beginning.
Coston: Talk about some of your favorite songs on this record.
Robinson: These songs are like my children, but I do have favorites. “Butcher Bird” is so sweet and terrible, and was written in a few hours, and has probably changed the least from its original conception. “Gypsy Death and You” is also a favorite, I loved the original version (The Kills) and loved what we could do with it.
Coston: A lot of this music defies categorization, jumping across different genres. Was that your goal, or did that just happen?
Robinson: A bit of both. This is like looking into my mind, where all these things happen together and there is no separation by genre. The goal on the album was to have no two songs that sounded alike and while I knew it might come off a bit disjointed, I trusted that my vision would bind them all together. Each song is very different from the next but they all
have a bit of shimmery darkness about them.
Coston: Where was the album recorded, and how long did it take to put the album together?
Robinson: Studio M in Durham, and with Greg Humphreys in his den. It took quite a while to put together, because I was on the road for most of its production and recording, and mixing during the off periods.
Coston: What are your plans for the Mary Annettes?
Robinson: We want to continue to have fun, be creative and create songs that we want to hear, songs that tell stories, songs that make you cock your head a bit...
Coston: How did the phrase "chamber pop frozen swamp music pop-folk urban" come about? You’ve used it to describe this new project.
Robinson: I'm not sure about that exact phrase, but on Myspace and Facebook it asks what your influences are. Well, one cold night I was out hunting with my hound dog, and we came upon this moonlit frozen swamp, and the scene has stuck with me since then. Its one of the most startlingly beautiful things I have ever seen. Some promoters took that "moonlight on a frozen swamp" phrase and ran with it, and I find it hilarious. Those other modifiers, chamber-pop folk urban, all fit us, too.
Coston: What do you hope people get, or take away from this record?
Robinson: A sense of fantasy, of other worlds, unexplored caves, glittering jewels, sharp swords, heartbreak and happiness.