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Saturday, December 17, 2011
Interview/Review: Janet Robbins ‘Song of the Gypsy Tree’: Mesmerizing and Magnificent
By Ray Shasho
In the world of mundane so-called superstars that repetitively get shoved into our subconscious, it’s truly invigorating to be absorbed by an emerging and untainted virtuoso. She’s Janet Robbins. An inventive and enchanting songstress, who composed, produced and performed all the instrumentation on her latest masterpiece, amply titled, Song of the Gypsy Tree. The CD projects an eclectic mix of sounds, imagery, and energy that embraces the mind and spirit.
Janet Robbins grew up in a Nashville household that included legendary dad, Marty Robbins. Robbins was an illustrious country & western music entertainer with numerous hits including several that reached the pop charts. One of Robbins most memorable tunes was “El Paso,” a #1 chart topper on both the country and pop charts. Marty Robbins was respected and emulated by legendary artists such as Elvis Presley, Frankie Laine, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead and The Who.
Marty Robbins was also a multi-instrumentalist performer.
Janet Robbins was told not to follow in her famous father’s footsteps by her dad. According to Janet, Marty Robbins kept his personal life private, not wanting to expose his family to all the glitz of show business. And she admits that she rarely got to see him perform. Janet stayed away from music for the first half of her life and was not a fan of country music. Instead at an early age embraced, The Doors hypnotic single, “Riders on the Storm.”
Janet would soon be captivated by artists such as Yes, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin and ambient music pioneer Brian Eno. Janet was also influenced by classical greats Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart and Dmitry Kabalevsky. Robbins music is categorized somewhere between progressive/ambient/ and experimental. But she has an indefinite talent that could easily embellish any existing genre.
Robbins graceful vocalization and entrancing orchestrations can easily become a motion picture soundtrack. “As In Winter,” a magnificent and complex piece, thrusting the mind into wondrous journeys. “November,” is a haunting superlative blend of piano and vocals. “Sparks,” is a powerful anthem of love for the planet.
Janet Robbins impressive debut album titled, All the Worlds was released in 1998 with delightful similarities to Song of the Gypsy Tree. Robbins followed with Carrying the Bag of Hearts Interpreting the Birth of Stars, a (3) Volume CD instrumental release recorded by Janet using her home studio. This mystifying compilation of ambient sounds will soothe the psyche and stimulate the senses. Robbins never ceases to amaze.
I had the wonderful privilege of speaking with Vocalist/Songwriter/Multi-instrumentalist/ Producer/ Janet Robbins last week from her home in California.
Ray: Janet thanks so much for being on the call today. When I received your CD, I was instantly persuaded by the artistic front cover and your Stevie Nicks-like pose on the back cover. I gave it an immediate listen and then became totally captivated. So I checked out your Facebook page and noticed that you and I were only (2) days apart in birth. (Same month and same year) We’re both an Aquarius. Then I began to feel a connection.
Janet:“How cool is that! Have you ever had your chart read?”
Ray: No, I never have but would really love to.
Janet: “I read that’s why I mentioned it. I had the fortune to study with someone who is gifted and did it for all the right reasons, assisting people and not sort of a fortune telling kind of thing but a strong spiritual grounding in her kind of teaching so I learned and love the stars.”
Ray: And it’s apparent in your music.
Janet: “Yea, it shows on some of the instrumental stuff (Carrying the Bag of Hearts interpreting the birth of Stars, Volumes I, II, III) before this last CD.”
Ray: After listening to Song of the Gypsy Tree, I wanted to listen to your debut CD All the Worlds and could only get bits and pieces from Amazon. What I heard was also truly amazing and similar in ways to your latest release. But I have to say, Song of the Gypsy Tree hit a home run for me. I can easily see it as a soundtrack for a movie.
Janet: “That’s interesting because music to me is so visual and as well as the music before Song of the Gypsy Tree which was the sort of non vocal or non lyric music. It’s very visually evocative and in fact what I’m working on right now is putting together an installation and working on creating visual loops to work with sounds and music. I’m glad you said that because I see the placement of the music really having more of a home with film.”
Ray: There are many novels that come to life and make a lot more sense once they become movies. Some stories need that visual to explain the characters and the plot.
Janet: “Yea, well Blade Runner. I’ve been watching Blade Runner again a lot lately. And all the commentary that came from Philip Dick’s book.”
Ray: Your bewitching composition “November” had hints to the soundtrack of one of my favorite movies, The Mothman Prophecies. The music remarkably blended into the suspense of that motion picture.
Janet: “I’ll have to check it out, I’m on a big film kick right now renting and watching films. Yea, I’m visually inspired anyway. I just made this move from North Carolina back in the spring and I was on the road in my RV for four months and just with the transition of being here it feels right for me to combine visuals and audio, and being inspired by great film right now. Listening to some of the commentary and how did they shoot it and what did they do with the lighting here. I tend to have a lot of analogue and Blade Runner was like all people and analogue and just some of the things they employ to create their effects were so amazing and such a draw forcing people into true creativity and desperate attempts to get what they needed to do… genius reveals itself and I love that, I love seeing that and am very inspired by that.”
Ray: Janet, what inspired you to create the Song of the Gypsy Tree album?
Janet: “I don’t know of a particular inspiration except for my affinity with nature and my respect and awe of what we’ve been given as a planet and some of the things we do to it. But I wanted to be more in love with the things I’ve been writing about as opposed to say what was wrong with something.”
Ray: Do you try to convey a certain message in your music to your audience?
Janet: “For me, I come around the back door, things surprise me, and I usually screw up when I try to do something with my head, when I try to go at it from the front door and try to create as a result of an idea about how something might be or sound. Although that’s always there to some extent, if I can be in a little more receptive space then I think I get to a truer voice. And then whatever that message is, if I can get myself over to the music and if there’s a message there then I think it’s probably a truer message. If I try to relay a message specifically I would get preachy and I can do that, but I try not to. (Laughing)”
Ray: Something has to spark that creative energy before writing those beautiful songs. Mark Lindsay (Paul Revere & the Raiders) told me that he does most of his writing while he takes his long walks in the morning.
Janet: “I’ve always lived near nature. I have to be in the trees and live near the trees and I go out and talk to the trees, I hang with them, I write with them. And it isn’t just trees, a great rock, a good view of the water, lake, or the river. But trees I think especially. I have been on the east coast since 2000, but a couple of places that I’ve lived, in New York and then in Asheville, I was fortunate to have lots of trees and I had acreage up in Woodstock and had these amazing old trees and in Asheville as well. So I was able to go out and spend some time and hang with them and just felt the need to write at that point.”
Ray: I’ve talked with many artists who seem to live life according to the lyrics of their music. One artist who comes to mind is Jon Anderson of Yes. No matter what trials and tribulations life brings to him he remains positive and seems to have a grip on life. Your music is very positive like Jon’s; do you feel that you have a grip on life?
Janet: “I hope so. I have to have a loose grip on life. I’ve been fortunate in ways in finding instruction, or people who I felt were helpful in some sort of discovery around life. I’ve always been more interested in the more mystical side of things. Being here, being on the planet, and developing a relationship with nature as well as having my head in the stars are important to find footing. I’ve had some great teachers and have a pretty good relationship with myself and life and trying to cultivate what I think is possible. I don’t think we were meant to live miserable lives here but I think a lot of humanities stuff has created a pretty miserable place for a lot of people. And I don’t think that’s how it has to be. I think some pretty horrible things might continue to happen but at the same time that’s not what we have to create, it’s pretty much up to us.”
Ray: You played most of the instruments on Song of the Gypsy Tree, shades of Todd Rundgren, and you recorded the album at home. River Guerguerian and Chris Armstrong also made contributions on percussions.
Janet: “Yes. I used Logic in my studio and a lot of different samples and loops that I’ve made and manipulating sounds and changing sounds and recording live instruments but usually out of character, you would never recognize the guitar that’s on there or the autoharp that’s on there. And Kevin Bartlett was great fun to work with in regards to that. I wanted someone to help me out with the vocals, to record my vocals, because I was going to be way too close to it. We had fun in recording some things, like I have an old Vox electric guitar from the 60’s and we used an Ebow on it and mixed that with an autoharp on “Egypt” and things like that. So that was a lot of fun to create sounds that way and most of it was me using the keyboards. I’d send templates up to Kevin, he was in New York, and he’d send some audio files back and we’d work that way.”
Ray: I noticed at the end of the title track, “Song of the Gypsy Tree” you did sort of a backwards track or reverse tape effect like George Martin used with The Beatles.
Janet: “(Laughing) I know what that was, yea. It was a great sound I just stumbled on that. I was playing some manipulated sound and then I slowed it down and I’m not sure if I actually reversed it though. I mean it was a great sound but it was just kind of there and it was like wait a minute this should go here. It was assembling in a collage sort of way. It was just one of those blissful little sounds, very satisfying, and it sounds like a tree. That little sound has soul and that could be in my head and that sounds like a tree… in my world.”
Ray: Didn’t your dad create a sound accidentally, I think it was during the recording of “Don’t Worry” the sound was created by a faulty preamplifier and he decided to keep it in the recording.
Janet: “Yea, it was the original fuzztone. I believe a tube went out and he said keep playing because he liked the sound. They wanted to record over it and he said no we’re keeping it, he liked it. And that was credited for being the first fuzztone. He was a real pioneer and did a lot of things like that in his life.”
Ray: Janet, you took a completely different direction than your famous father didn’t you?
Janet: “That wasn’t my world and he kept it very separate growing up and I never cared for being in Tennessee, it wasn’t my world and it wasn’t my music although I didn’t know what my music was, that came much later, but I think just that sense of pioneering and discovery is strong.”
Ray: I’m going to read a lyric for you now. “We make up songs about Tesla’s ray gun building rocket ships for frogs in astronaut suits.” Talk about this lyric in your song “Egypt.”
Janet: “Well, I’m a big fan of Tesla and his ray gun and when I was little we use to pretend to have ray guns. But that was actually a pretty literal reference because I would catch frogs and try to dress them up. (All laughing)”
Ray: You actually grew up listening to mostly progressive rock music right?
Janet: “YES, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, and that’s what got me through high school. When I was around 11 or 12, I carried around The Doors “Riders on the Storm” 45 record.”
Ray: Who were some of the women vocalist that you admired growing up?
Janet: “Bobbie Gentry. Wow I haven’t thought about her for a long time until recently, a couple months ago when I went online and played a You Tube video and I said, “Oh my God these were such fabulous songs!” Bobbie Gentry, “Ode To Billie Joe” and I think for the soul, Aretha Franklin.”
Ray: I would have thought at one time in your life that someone would have approached you to record a country album.
Janet: “Not really, I’ve been away from that world for so long and never was in that world. The truth is I wasn’t. Again, he(Marty Robbins) kept it separate. And I left early, I left Tennessee when I was 18. I was kind of out of there and then my dad died. He was only 57 and I was like 23 at the time. And I never lived back in Tennessee again. My brother is ten years older and he was in the business, he still lives there and is much more of a southern boy and that’s more his world. So in a way it kind of created a little bit more of a buffer because I was pretty much out of the scene.”
Ray: I’ve got to ask, being brought up by a famous dad, did he ever bring to your home any of his famous friends when you were little?
Janet:“I see pictures of before I was born and he may have brought band members over to the house but whatever happened after I was born, like nobody came, it was very separate. I was born in 1959 and “El Paso” was written in 1959 and it was right after that he kind of shot into a bigger audience. I think that shifted things and also his private life, he was a notoriously private person. And I have that too, I don’t have his public persona. He had a public persona and he had a private life and he didn’t want the two to mix. My mother was an evangelical and a very different character and so it was a strange mix. And I think got stranger as the years progressed. But they stayed married, it was just that his world was a different world. But he in that world was also known as a loner. He wasn’t a drinker, smoker, he didn’t live that country life. He was more the outsider cowboy loner guy. So he had that reputation within the community as a very private individual, fun to have around but private, and didn’t bring anybody home. It’s interesting because a lot of what I know is by stories from other people. And I know Johnny Cash or Roseanne use to say that they had one of my dad’s albums on their record player at all times and yet I never meet these people. And so it was odd. I didn’t see my dad perform till I was 19 and that was in Florida."
"But he and I were a lot alike in funny ways, we mirrored each other, and I think it bothered him in some ways. Because he saw the Gypsy in me and I think it scared him a little bit. He had very few talks with me about life, or a career, or anything, but one of the things he said was, “Whatever you do… do whatever you want to do, I don’t care what you do, but don’t go into the music business.”” (All laughing)
Ray: And it stuck… until now. It sounds like he was a pretty cool dad though.
Janet: “He was a character, sometimes he didn’t know about fathering, I think that confused him, but he was a good person. And he was a good provider. He wanted to provide for his family and I think he had all good intentions.”
Ray: I did some surfing around the internet looking for additional music by Janet Robbins and heard a great progressive piece that sort of rocked from your debut album, All the Worlds called, “To see You Again.”
Janet: “I love that song, I haven’t heard it in years. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and it was certainly reflective of that time period in LA. Even though it wasn’t a rock album it went more in that direction and the guitar player that I worked with who helped me put that album together and produced that album, he was just a phenomenal player and still is but Gregg Montante is his name, and we got such a great sound.”
Ray: I can see you collaborating with so many great artists… perhaps Tony Levin, Billy Sherwood of Circa who is also an awesome producer and of course the great Brian Eno. I can see you on a David Gilmour or Ian Anderson album as well. Have you considered collaborating with other artists?
Janet: “It is something that I’m open to right now. Yea, there’s a force behind it, some kind of kinetic energy. And because I’ve worked so much on my own, I know what I can do on my own, but when you’re around other people you have a great creative connection, it’s pretty miserable if you don’t and you’re trying to put something together, but if you have a really strong connection with somebody, that’s a completely satisfying experience in a whole different way than working on your own. And so…I’m into it.”
Ray: So what’s the next project that you’ll be working on Janet?
Janet: “The one that I’m working on right now is moving to this audio/visual direction and I’m looking to have an installation in San Rafael for the month of May and what the finished product would be is… I do think I will have a DVD of this that would probably be more towards the end of next year.”
Ray: I’m looking forward to it. Janet thank you so much for chatting with me today, it’s been a real pleasure. I’ll close by saying that your music is charming, inspiring and radiant. Please stay in touch because you are a great talent and I’m a big fan.
Janet: “That’s fabulous… I’ll take it, so appreciated. Take care dear.”
**Kevin Bartlett is credited for his production work and percussion credits on 'Song of the Gypsy Tree.' Additional percussion on "Sparks" credited to River Guerguerian.
I want to thank the incredible Billy James of Glass Onyon Publicity for this interview.
CD Releases by Janet Robbins
All the Worlds
Carrying the Bag of Hearts Interpreting the Birth of Stars Volume I
Carrying the Bag of Hearts Interpreting the Birth of Stars Volume II
Carrying the Bag of Hearts Interpreting the Birth of Stars Volume III
Song of the Gypsy Tree
Purchase all of Janet Robbins CD’s at
CD Baby http://www.cdbaby.com/
Janet Robbins on ReverbNation
Janet Robbins on MySpace
Marty Robbins official website
Order author/columnist Ray Shasho’s great new book ‘Check the Gs’ - The True Story of an Eclectic American Family and Their Wacky Family Business
-Get your copy now for the holidays at amazon.com,iuniverse.com,barnesandnoble.com or borders.com.
Pacific Book Review says… Ray Shasho has quite a memory, especially when it comes to what songs played on the radio during important times throughout his youth. Combining his nostalgic recant of Billboard’s Top 100, like some infomercial for a Time-Life Oldies CD collector’s set, along with his detailed whimsical recollections while growing up, and you have the “soundtrack ” for a truly enjoyable story called Check the Gs: The True Story of an Eclectic American Family and Their Wacky Family Business.
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