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In his 2013 review of "Searching For Diamonds," Worcester Telegram critic, Victor D. Infante, said about "Jesus in my Amplifier": "It's in...the deep-country 'Jesus in My Amplifier' that Robert really tips his hand....There's a strange, subtle sort of salvation in Robert's music....Robert's painting a picture as old as the blues itself ... probably older. It's a picture of playing music as a way of saving one's self from despair."
In many ways, Infante hit close to what I think the song says, too, though I fully meant it to be tongue in cheek.
The song's central idea came to me from a very real experience involving a common electrical problem (a bad cable, or faulty grounding of my pickups) that resulted in radio being transmitted through my amp. It wasn't just any radio station, but a Christian talk station! Being a Catholic-raised Atheist among fairly devout siblings, I found it pretty ironic.
I shot for a good-old American religious song with a little modern alt-country irony. (Think: John Prine or the Rolling Stones.)
The song went through a couple of permutations, but came together pretty quickly, and the lyrics gestated over a month or so, as it began to occur to me that there was a story of - as Infante says - salvation. So, most of the lyrics carry some autobiographical elements. I've never been in a diamond mine (though I have played A LOT of empty bars!).
We had a lot of fun recording it at Riverview Studios, where the album was made. I brought in my cheapest acoustic and tuned it to open D for a little wayward slide work. I played a dual harmonica lead for the solo break, crunching it up nicely, at Sam margolis' suggestion, with a Green Bullet mic. And Sam, Andrew Kramer, and I cobbled together a basic drum track, which was a lot of fun.
Lastly I recorded some snippets of the actual voice that came through my amplifier, which you can hear fading in and out at the end of the track.
I enjoy playing the song, and it gets decent response from audiences - Christians and those with a taste for irony alike!
"Take Me There" is a tribute to a friend of mine who passed away nearly six years ago. I began the song almost immediately after I learned of his death, but it took a while - probably a year - to complete. A few phrases jumped right to mind amid the initial feelings when he passed. His death, though not entirely unexpected, was nevertheless shocking and tragic. He was an artist, a painter, and at the reception to his funeral, I walked past a loose arrangement of many of his canvasas. Several really struck me in ways that the bits and pieces of his work that I had seen over the years - a little in high school, a little in college, a little after - never had. Some of the pieces were really startling in color and composition. One, a self portrait of mixed media, was embedded with the tragic story that, I can now see, led right to his death. I can't tell you how blown away I was. In fact, I've carried a facsimile of the painting on my acoustic guitar ever since, as a reminder of his dedication to art - on and off the canvas. Eventually I got the verses together, and then I settled on a simple repetitive picking pattern that was an attempt at sort of a Josh Ritter "Potters Wheel" style. The idea of the song is that, while I knew this guy my entire life and spent a lot of time with him, and really got on with him great, in death I learned that I barely knew him, and that his art revealed a tremendous inner self that I only glimpsed. The lyrics describe the painting, narrate some of the crushing blows to his life laid bare by the painting, and make some blind stabs and assumptions at what he might have been feeling at times. Hat on, Drinking Wine, my band at the time, performed the song a couple of times, as well as another tribute, written mostly by Ed Whalen (I contributed a line or two), a beautiful tune called "Broken," which appears on the 2010 Plastic Flowers CD. In the studio, we began with acoustic guitar, over which I layered mandolin, harmony vocals, and a xylophone. Then, my friend J. Stu Esty came out to the studio and added accordion, organ, and piano. Friend and Riverview Studios engineer, Andrew Kramer, added a lush acoustic bass, and, finally, my old friend John Jordan came by and added some breathtaking, subtle and orchestral-like drums. I still think of my friend Chris whenever I play it, and I hope that he would like it. http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/mattrobert/TakeMeThere
"The Ballad of Hortense and Clyde" is track six on the new CD and the last song recorded. I have been messing with old-style music for most of my career, and have an interest in quirky old stuff (check out "Gonna Go out Tonight," track 4!). I started writing more narrative based stuff about a decade ago, which felt like a better platform for me to talk about my world view without simply being political. Recently, I had been messing with ideas for old-style ballads, especially murder ballads. I was midway through Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel "American Tragedy," a thinly veiled fictional account of the 1906 upstate New York murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette. In the novel, the murderer is Clyde Griffiths and his first girlfriend (though not the one he kills) is Hortense Briggs. I suddenly felt like the text would make a perfect and believable murder ballad, especially if I reported the details, co-opted some of the period language and references, and worked in a few ballad conventions. I wrote most of the song on New Year's Eve afternoon, 2012, cut a demo the same day, and reworked and completed the lyrics within a week or two. The demo was played in open E tuning, but, for some reason, I soon switched it to standard tuning. The recording session took place on Patriot's Day, 2013, and the day of the tragic Marathon bombing. While I wasn't in the city at the time, driving to Riverview Studios, in Waltham, MA (right outside Boston, on the Charles River), and listening to the news, was chaotic and a little harrowing. State troopers were everywhere. When I arrived, engineer Andrew Kramer was engrossed in media coverage and we sat in relative silence, wondering what to do, and whether we should work. Sam Margolis arrived from Boston a while later and we couldn't help rehashing our versions. Meanwhile, we set up in the attic studio and worked on "Hortense and Clyde," which we had decided to record with a single vintage ribbon microphone, cut live with no overdubs, to capture the old-time feeling the song evokes, and which inspired it. I had vacilated between adding accompanying instruments and a stripped-down approach, and decided, finally, that stripped down would be better. I love the blemishes on old records, and, of course, with each subsequent listen, the mistakes become more a part of the performance. I had been suggesting at earlier sessions that we record it on the front porch or something and let the sounds of cars and stuff bleed right in, but we decided that that would be impractical and, instead, Andrew ran a supercardioid mic out the back window and made a field recording of wind, birds, some distant cars, etc. Listen for it! http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/mattrobert/TheBalladofHortenseandClyde
So, a year has passed, with near-weekly trips east on the Mass Pike out to Riverview Studios, in Waltham, MA, to record my first solo CD. A big thanks, first to Sam Margolis and Andrew Kramer, the owners, engineers, and producers at Riverview, for a great recording experience! These are two guys with a laid-back, but dynamic and creative energy, who not only guided me (and listened to me!) along the process, but welcomed me into their funky home and studio. What a great environment to record! And I'll probably remember best of all sitting out back sipping beers and watching the Charles River (oh, and the field recording of the birds and traffic). Huge thanks to Andrew, who generously played bass (upright and electric) on every track, and Sam and Andrew, who provided seasoned, authoritative foot stomps on "Gonna Go Out Tonight." More big thanks to my old buddy John Jordan (of New hampshire's Halfway to Nowhere) for drum work on every tune except "Jesus in My Amplifier." Last, a big thanks to J. Stu Esty "Dr. Gonzo" of The Roadkill Orchestra for driving out last summer to play accordion, piano, and organ on "Why'd You Leave Me Here" and "Take Me There." What a good time we had exploring these songs and thinking about suitable arrangements. Sam and Andrew offered excellent ideas, always had the right mic ready, did meticulous work at the desk, and always ceded to my own visions (when they made sense). Thanks! Along the way, of course, the vision shifted and things were added and scrapped. (Basic tracks for my old tune "40 Seasons" were aborted, for one, and xylophone was added effectively to "Take Me There," for another.) I've been embroiled in all the paper work and nerve wracking decisions associated with completion of the physical product and setting up distribution and stuff, and I'm relieved to be done with the project... ...though I'm already itching to get back to Riverview to start work on my latest batch of tunes. Tune in for release information (I expect to have discs in hand within two weeks) and come out to a show or search online to pick up a copy. Thanks, Matt