A proper artist struggles to influence life’s signal to noise ratio. Under the right kind of concentration, the static grows quiet. The extraneous and the superficial are pared away. And precious human qualities are held still, carefully turned over and inspected for illuminating details. In Robby Hecht’s case, this effort emerges as music that invites and even induces the listener to a similar place of serenity, clarity and patience.
“When I’m writing by myself something can take three years until I get past my own self-editing phase,” says Hecht about his meticulous approach. “Everything I write I’m trying to capture some kind of truth that I haven’t heard anyone say in that way before.”
And that’s what we hear on Hecht’s third album, a self-titled collection of twelve lovely and insightful songs. Those who give it time will be seduced by a quality that fellow songwriter Steve Poltz once compared to “a warm blanket that wraps itself around you.” And Poltz is but one of many peers in the folk music community who’ve testified to the magnitude of Hecht’s talents. Catie Curtis, Anais Mitchell, Julie Lee and others have gushed about the “natural beauty” of Hecht’s tone, the “honey in his voice” and his “authentic gifts” as a lyricist. Prizes from songwriting contests at Kerrville and Telluride have further confirmed Hecht’s stature as a musician’s musician. Now, with several circuits of the nation under his belt and a widening base of support in the songwriter world, Hecht is worthy of wider recognition by fans of observant, immersive music.
Raised by Midwestern Jewish parents in the conservative South, he became accustomed to – but never comfortable with – frequent questions about which (Christian) church he attended. His tastes in music in his teens ran the gamut from Def Leppard to The Grateful Dead. More songwriter-centric material took root a little later, and at age 18 he made a “strangely confident and final” decision to commit to music as his calling and career. At college in Madison, Wisconsin his class notebooks became scratch pads as he poured out his first wave of ideas. As he approached performing though, there were doubts. As fascinated as he was by a life in music, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being a stranger and an outsider – even to himself.
It was not until the mid 2000s – after travels in Europe, a time in San Francisco where he formed the duo AllDay Radio, a move back to his hometown of Knoxville and a final shift to Nashville – that he made the most significant discovery of his life as a person and an artist. Thanks to insights from the woman who was on her way to becoming his wife, he learned he’d been suffering for years from bipolar disorder. Besides a large measure of personal contentment, dealing with that head on had truly practical implications for an aspiring performer.
“My condition made it hard to really commit to anything,” Hecht says. “It made it hard to want to record a record. It made it hard to tour or to co-write with somebody. Because at some subconscious level, I didn’t know what version of myself I was going to be when I showed up.”
Robby’s newfound consistency and stability were rewarded with a rush of opportunities and victories. He placed second at the prestigious Telluride Troubadour Contest, a contest he would later win. He took a title at Kerrville New Folk Competition, a national nerve-center of contemporary songwriting. These and other contests were, Hecht says, “an entry point to the world of performing. They put me in front of people on a bigger stage than I had been able to book by myself. And they made me feel like I could perform in front of a lot of people and it would be okay.”
It was more than okay. Hecht’s debut album Late Last Night, made with notable Nashville friends and colleagues such as singers Mindy Smith and Jill Andrews plus producer Lex Price, was flagged by numerous critics and colleagues as a top release in its genre. Maverick magazine called it “gorgeous” and one blogger flagged it as one of his five favorite discs of all time. The album’s lovelorn tone gave way to a brighter mood on its follow-up, Last Of The Long Days in 2011, which was tapped by CMT as a “mellow and beautiful effort.” The buzz around Hecht was substantial, but the world, as we established earlier, is a noisy place and the path to the top in contemporary folk music is long and steep.
Now comes a third album, self-titled as if to announce a true arrival. Again Hecht turned to Nashville’s Lex Price, a low-key sonic master who’s worked with with k.d. lang, Mindy Smith and others, as producer. The honestly recorded, elegantly mixed record is well positioned to stir the hearts that have been stirred before and more besides.
Some songs here feel chiefly the product of craft, while others the product of heart. Among the former is the allegorical song of impossible love called “The Sea & The Shore,” a co-write with Nashville writer Amy Speace. Working under self-imposed rules about symbolism and rhetoric to maintain a consistent voice, they worked over several sessions and many weeks to compose this finely honed masterpiece. Another craft song is “Soon I Was Sleeping” which has the shape and cunning of Hank Thompson or Harlan Howard and the melancholy honesty of Townes Van Zandt. Steel guitar comes out from the background here to give the record a country ease and sway.
The heart songs include “Feeling It Now,” a deceptively simple profile of that evanescent mood when you’re heading out for a night among friends and all is clicking. It’s a celebration of life and more personally a retrospective of the manic experience. And then there’s “Cars And Bars,” a bittersweet postcard from an encounter that promised romance but which became a mere one-off memory.
There are many moments like that on Robby Hecht – moments that provoke recognition and memories of our own. It’s not a debut album per se, and yet for many, it will introduce an important artist