Dust to Gold: The Bittersweet Metamorphosis and Sepia-Toned Songcraft of Robin Jackson

Wildly creative Portland musician takes an intimate turn with solo debut, Dust Diaries

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Perched above the flood, he throws paper birds into the water, transforming heartache and singing of burning violins, dusty desert nights, sweet obsession.

Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Robin Jackson, known for his wild, theatrical contributions to bands like Vagabond Opera and the March Fourth Marching Band, has set aside the pomp and cabaret gesture in favor of straightforward intimacy…with a twist. Drawing on life experiences, vintage sounds, and a fresh and vivid imagination, Jackson keeps it personal, without over-sharing or quaint evasion, in well-crafted, Americana-inflected songs on Dust Diaries (release: June 8, 2012).

“I wanted to bring it back to a more sincere and intimate place again, playing heartfelt music that is more about the music and less about the show,” Jackson reflects. “The color and quirk will never leave my music, I just wanted to get more vulnerable. I love drawing people into this close, whispered place that’s intense.”

Intense, but catchy. Jackson quietly takes inspiration from the Beatles, Gypsy jazz a la Django Reinhardt, and Western swing to create luminous, lyric-driven songs. In his disarmingly articulate voice, Jackson evokes bygone days and the immediacy of love lost, family shadows, and brightly lit passions, never losing his trademark penchant for wry storytelling..

“Many of the songs are about the bittersweet nature of transitions,” he explains. “from the notion that something that’s hard can be beautiful. What can you find in those places to lift you up higher and take you through to the next place.”

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Once a month, Jackson and friends clear out the furniture from his Portland living room and invite songwriters—both newcomers and established veterans like Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary—to try out new material. In front of an audience that often exceeds a hundred intent listeners, packed into the room. The thoughtful audience, supportive community, and constant deadline that sprung from these evenings helped shape Jackson’s award-winning work as a songwriter (he has placed several times in the prestigious International Songwriting Competition) .

“It’s an intimate, intentional event,” Jackson says. “Songwriters savor it. The audience is super-focused and quiet. Every month, it makes me write something new.”

Jackson comes by his songwriting instincts honestly. His late father, the inspiration for two tracks on Dust Diaries (“Red Blanket” and “The Spring”), was a prolific, intense folk songwriter, who shared his work constantly with his son. “He’d sit down with me and show me song form, what made a good song to keep someone’s attention,” recalls Jackson. “It was our way of connecting.”

Though steeped in folk, American roots music, and jazz thanks to a bohemian, arts-rich upbringing, Jackson became fascinated with music from around the planet, studying marimba and mbira (thumb piano) from Zimbabwe, Brazilian music, even traveling to Bali to learn gamelan. He busked across New Zealand and through Europe, and played with everyone from The Scorpions to The Decembrists. He mastered over six instruments and is proficient on many more, on top of perfecting a bright, fluid tenor voice. 

Curiosity-fueled explorations and wide-ranging travels eventually led Jackson back to the forms he’d encountered as a child, the storytelling and tight structures of a good song, be it a jazz standard or a rock classic. “I love stories, and their fantastical nature, to explore a storybook world,” notes Jackson. “I love words, and I love creating an emotional reaction through visual images.”

Unabashedly romantic and literary, even when at his most personal, Jackson speaks of emotional states in lustrous, cinematic pictures. Painting with vibrant tones, Jackson marshals both his deliciously clear singing style and knack for compelling scenes: the paper bird floating away on the waves (“Paper Bird”), the vivid and whimsical despair of a heartbroken night (“Heroin and Honey”), a shadowy tryst on a lamplit street (“Royal Hotel”). Jackson may hone his lyrics, or take beauty where he finds it (a spirited text message exchange inspired “It’s That Time of Night Again Isn’t It”). 

With production guidance from friend and producer Chet Lyster (Eels, Lucinda Williams), Jackson fleshed out his guitar and piano-based compositions with old-school flair, adding strings, cascades of low brass, suggestive hints of percussion. Jackson nods to early 20th-century jazz, marching bands, cowboy songs, even chamber music (the slow-building arrangement on “This Time”). The music underscores Jackson’s effortless straddling of immediacy and an aching nostalgia, a sepia-toned, slightly tongue-in-cheek vibe that runs through the tracks.

All flourishes aside, the heart of Jackson’s solo work lies in uncovering and fearlessly engaging with intense, difficult emotions—and the opportunities for creativity and transformation they offer. "I will always write from the power and color of metaphor, like most of the songs written for Vagabond Opera…I wanted to explore being more vulnerable and real, too on this album."