Interview / Gig Review - The Railway Tavern - London
by Owen Peters
I haven’t made up my mind, but then again maybe I have, this could be a difficult interview. Why?
The cover photograph of Robert Chaney debut album Cracked Picture Frames is black and white; he seems to be looking away, somewhat disinterested from the photographer’s lens. His eyes mainly covered by a long dark fringe. Chaney doesn’t look particularly happy. Oh, and the small matter of his lyrical themes. Hit and run incident with a cyclist, Granny protecting her nephew from the devil by stabbing him through the eyes, and domestic violence told by the perpetrator. We’ve not even mentioned the love songs yet. The only comfort I can take at this time is to confirm no animals were injured in the making of this album.
I’m at The Railway Tavern in Dalston London, waiting for Chaney. A guy arrives; his appearance is similar to my interviewee. However he’s greeting people with handshakes, smiles, looking bright, cheerful, and very polite. We may have an imposter in the room.
This small and intimate gig was chosen as it allows Chaney to play songs from his yet to be released album Cracked Picture Frames. A sneak preview for the lucky few. (actual release date April 26th 2015, the albums showcase launch was April 28th at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston.
Chaney moved from his home in south Florida to London two years ago. “I needed to expand my music, writing and horizons in general,” he tells me over a beer. “The opportunity came about to live and work in London, so I was more than happy to take it when the move fell into place.” He arrived in London, not knowing anyone in the music industry. So with guitar in hand, he took his chance in an open mic gig at London’s Green Note.
“Oh man, when I got to the venue, the guys (potential players) were lining up into the street, just to register for a slot,” he recalls with a smile and shake of his head. “They put me on last.”
Well, it worked out for Chaney as producer Ken Brake was watching his last-on-the-bill performance. He liked what he heard and asked if he was interested in putting an album together. Soon after, they started working in Brake’s London studio recording his songs over a number of months, resulting in the completion of Cracked Picture Frames. The album’s title taken from a line in one of the songs, “Patch it Up.”
Chaney was a late starter in writing his own songs and playing live gigs. Originally from Washington D.C. he learned to play chords on his father's guitar- his dad had his own band playing local venues. He was 25 before his songwriting skills blossomed. “As a teenager, I grew up listening to Nirvana, The Beatles (my parent’s record collection) and Boston based bands such as The Breeders. As I started to get better on guitar, I took more notice on chord arrangements and formatting of songs. I guess Dylan was a big influence at the time. He recalls with a snap of his fingers ”Darby and Tarlton, man I love those guys. They are from way back, late ‘20’s early ‘30’s (that’s the era not their ages by the way). You should check them out,” he tells me, obviously a big fan of the duo.
Chaney played guitar and drums with various bands in south Florida. Soon, he realized he was better suited to being a solo artist. It was his move to London which prompted a move towards a solo career.
“I’d started to write my own material and had a bunch of half decent songs. The music of Judee Sill, Paul Clayton and Jean Ritchie of Folkway Records I always found inspirational. I’d listen how they construct a song, building up a story verse by verse. For example “The Cyclist” (a track from the new album) is about how people react to situations, see them happen then cover them up. It’s a step process. Everyone has a cover up story. That’s where I’m going with the narrative of the song” he explains.
His lyrics are dark, menacing, concerning, thought provoking and entertaining. I ask him “I take it these stories are fictional, yes?”
“Er, no,” he tentatively replies. “I’m proud of the album. I think it’s different, I want to play the songs and want people to listen.” “The Cyclist” is one of my favourites from the album. I wrote it on a train from London to Cambridge- it just spilled out in one sitting. Others, like “Black Eyed Susan,” tell the story of an abusive relationship, but from the perpetrators perspective. I’m not sure that has been done before, I thought I’d try it. “The Ballad of Edward and Lisa” is a true story, it happened to a former co-worker. A grandmother stabs her nephew through the eyes to save him from the Devil, leaving him to die. He says without a glint of irony “It’s the goriest song on the album.”
...and the love songs? I ask.
“Yeh those are me, that’s personal stuff being played out. “The Morning After” is just that, those regrets and left over’s, like perfume and lipstick being a reminder of what seemed like a good idea at the time.” He moves on quickly. “(I Didn’t Want Her) Anyway” I wrote that about a relationship which wasn’t working out.” Chaney takes a drink of beer and moment of reflection.
There is a decent sized audience and getting bigger when Chaney begins his set with “Patch it Up,” a song where he’s asking his “darlin’” to come home so they can work out past misunderstandings. His languid drawl lurches from resignation to anger at the love torn situation.
“The Ballad of Edward and Lisa” is a happy little ditty! The story as I’ve mentioned of someone having their eyes gouged out. TV headline “South Florida woman arrested, for stabbin’ a boy through the eyes.” Whilst the theme is, shall we say different, it highlights and encapsulates Chaney’s ability to convey such a brutal, true story with an uncanny tenderness. The song is over five minutes long, runs to over 300 words with nearly 40 lines of narrative. Not a word is wasted. Be it the stabber Lisa, asking for redemption from the Lord, or Jason, caller to the police having found Edward “crying red tears from his eyes,” Chaney weaves his words with emotion and tension concluding “the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“The Cyclist” has a similar scope covering time and words, again playing out a dark menacing story. The scene is set:
“I’ve had only one love in my life, she and my brother were married, but her eyes were mine and the same with her heart and the babies she carried”
As the story unfolds, Chaney’s voice cracks, wobbles, and trembles through the lies and deceit of their relationship. On the drive back from “sweating out their demons” they hit a cyclist and leave him to die in the road. Listening to Chaney’s lyrics is akin to walking in bare feet trying to avoid broken glass, wondering which tangent the story will take next. Fear not the secret lovers get their comeuppance.
Chaney really does sing from the heart. His concentration and focus when performing look as if he’s trances out in order to meet the demons in his songs head on.
By this stage, the audience know attentive listening is the key component, or you may miss the punch line. None more so than “Does Your Love Payout in Full.” The song explores a woman’s decision to sell herself in body and soul, in return for material wealth. While the set and songs are littered with lyrical gems, the line “you can still be poor lyin’ in a rich man’s bed” thrusts a deep metaphoric dagger into the psyche of those who take the path.
Be it Chaney live or in the studio, he plays without any type of backing. It’s back to basics. He can play a finger picking style, or accompany some songs with a gentle strumming style across simple cords. I was caught up with his pithy, earthy vocals rather being hooked on the guitar virtuoso too much. Either way, first and foremost he’s a solo performer.
It’s often said certain singer songwriters are OK at small venues, but move them into a larger venue and they become lost. At this small venue, Chaney has interacted with, enticed and captured his audience. One punter who came late to the party has a request when Chaney says this is his last song…”Can you play them all again?”
At 33 years old, with one album to his name, Chaney has kicked off his musical career with an exceptionally fine debut album. If this performance can be used as a bellwether, his direction is towards those larger venues. He plays numerous venues across London during the spring and summer months. Catch ones of his gigs when you can. He’s different and a little scary when he morphs into a singer/songwriter/performer.
See more about Chaney at his website
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