Last week, NYS Music covered staple jamgrass group Railroad Earth during the incredible northeast run of their 2019 winter tour. While all musicians put on a strong showing every night, one performer stood out in particular: Mike Robinson, special guest musician for the run that shined on pedal steel, guitar, and banjo.
Many music fans may have discovered Robinson during this tour, or maybe already knew him from his days with the progressive grass outfit Jeff Austin Band. Yet, soon enough, the musical world will get to know the singer-songwriter in his own right, when he releases his debut EP, Clevidence, on March 7. Featuring five emotionally and sonically rich songs, Clevidence comes as a great introduction to not only Robinson’s prolific talent across a number of instruments, but also his natural affinity for songwriting and singing.
The album’s release on March 7 will be celebrated with a special performance at Owl Music Parlor in Brooklyn NY, with singer songwriter Emma Frank opening up the show. In anticipation of the date, NYS Music talked with Robinson about the making of the record, his musical upbringing and more.
Miles Hurley: My first question is on your experience with working in the studio. Being that Clevidence is your debut solo EP, was the making of this album a new kind of experience to other recording stuff you may have done in the past?
Mike Robinson: Recording almost all of this project at home was a big departure from other studio experiences I’ve had. I was able to give everything the time it needed without the pressure of the clock that comes with being in an expensive studio. I find that in fancy studios with high hourly rates I am never I able to fully relax. Doing a majority of the recording in my home studio in Brooklyn made it possible for me to focus on the nuances that might have been otherwise overlooked.
MH: One thing that stands out on the EP are the lyrics, which are pretty intense throughout. Do you feel like you were able to express the ideas or messages behind the songs in the way that you wanted?
MR: In the process of writing, I found that using hyper-specific language was a potent way to paint a clear picture of an emotional situation. My goal was to give a listener clear mental images to hold on to. I think the specificity of the lyrics contributes to the ability the songs have to convey an emotional message. This can make things seem especially intense and revealing personally, but not sharing the whole story would feel fake. Songwriting is cathartic for me and can be super helpful for me if I’m struggling in my life. Hopefully it can also be helpful to listeners struggling with their own experiences.
MH: Listening to “How Do You Know” in particular, I’m interpreting a sense of something like self-doubt, or worry. Would that be a close guess? Could you comment on what this one means to you?
MR: “How Do You Know” is about a generation that is terrified, broke, and leaning on substances to deal with it. I’m twenty-six and I’m struck by how many conversations I have with people my age evolve to this conclusion. I don’t want to get into the politics of the specific things that could be to blame for a generation wide problem, but I do want to address that it is a real thing that many people are going through. From lack of health insurance, to being buried in student loan debt, to facing an uncertain collective future, there is a general sense of uneasiness in the air. And I see those around me relying on substances to cope. I don’t know if these are new problems. I just know that they are real ones.
MH: The range of instruments you perform, in general and on this record, is nothing short of impressive. Did you develop an interest towards learning these instruments around the same time in your life, or has your progress as a multi-instrumentalist been more spread out across your career?
MR: My dad plays a few instruments so I grew up with guitars, fiddles and mandolins around. My older brother played bass and drums in high school and my grandpa is a classically trained pianist and even played the cello for a while. I started guitar at age six and it has always been my main instrument. But being surrounded by different types of instruments, I wanted to learn how to play more of them. My first serious double was banjo which I picked up around 15. I didn’t become interested in the pedal steel until a few years ago, but I really got into it. That thing will make you crazy! I was listening to these lush records from the 60s and 70s and wanted to be able to relate to those sounds on a deeper level.
MH: Follow-up question to that, asked by a non-musician interviewer: how hard is pedal steel to learn?
MR: My cousin is studying to become a helicopter pilot and it sounds similar to that with lower stakes. The toughest thing for me was to be able to establish independence in all of my limbs. your left leg is responsible for 3 or 4 pedals and 2 or 3 levers, right leg is on a volume pedal and 2 levers, right hand is picking and stopping strings from ringing and the left needs to make sure the bar is in the right place and in tune. Physically, it’s a very complex instrument to master. While it’s also challenging mentally, it would be even harder if you are a non musician to start. Most of my knowledge came from guitar and I was able to transfer the theory to steel.
MH: There are some great harmonies on the album. Can you give a little background on who’s there with you?
MR: I sing all of the lead and some of my own harmonies, most of the female vocals are an amazing singer and composer based in Brooklyn named Emma Frank with the exception of “How Do You Know” which is sung by Abby Hollander.
MH: Speaking of the pedal steel, it sounded great in the Railroad Earth setting—I caught The Egg show and you sounded fantastic! You’ve been on tour with the band and have performed many shows with them now. Can you speak a little to what that’s been like? Has playing with them met or been different from any expectations?
MR: I did three shows with them that week: Albany at the Egg, Boston at the Wilbur, and the Capitol Theater in Port Chester. That’s been it so far, but I will play with those guys whenever they want. That band and crew are incredible. The songs are great, the players are great, everyone was very supportive and positive. It was a complete lesson in how the business is done and how to keep the music as the focus. The fans are some of the most genuine music fans I’ve had the pleasure of playing for and I would be very fortunate to do some more work with those guys. One of the highlights of my career so far, without a doubt.
MH: You moved to New York at an early age, and is where you are based now, if that’s correct? Have you found NYC to be a fruitful creative environment towards your career as a performer or songwriter?
MR: I’m from Colorado. I moved out here at 18 for college. I was pretty overwhelmed by the city but determined to study with all the inspiring New York musicians I grew up listening to. I had every intention of moving right back home to Colorado when I was done with school but right about when I graduated I had just started seriously gigging in New York. I decided to give being a full time freelance musician a try for a few months. One thing led to another and I found myself living with some of the most inspiring musicians in my generation, touring in several bands and growing as an artist. My life was working too well that I didn’t have a compelling reason to leave. I’m constantly pulled towards a the desire to live somewhere more calm and connected to nature. But 8 years later, New York has yet to let me down in the ways I’ve feared.