"My friend Flora gave the album its title. I wanted a titled with the word dust in it. It's a heartbreak album, I won't lie; but a lot of my songs are about the bittersweet, good things that come out of hard transitions, whether it's death or heartbreak or loss or leaving. I'm a storyteller, a lot of these songs are stories. It's like a diary of stories that fall to dust, to be born again. So the title made me think of the stories we all have that fade to nothing, and just letting go."
You can buy the CD here, and tickets to the show right here. Luz Elena Mendoza will be opening with a solo set, and if that means solo renditions of any of the songs from her recently-released Y La Bamba album "Court the Storm" then that's a landmark show in and of itself. You should go. It's just 10 bucks.
Dust Diaries is a lovely piece of work, graced with Jackson's characteristic lyric clarity and architecture of melody. Shifted to the background are the extravagant klezmer and music hall tropes familiar to fans of his Vagabond Opera songs, leaving space for the listener beside spare and sad arrangements produced in collaboration with Chet Lyster of EELS. I keep arriving at a comparison with Beck's "Sea Change" album, if you're familiar with that. A renowned creator with a highly distinctive and involved mode of expression lays down his masks and shares with his fans a genuine sigh of release.
"Most people know me as the guy in the cabaret world, so it took some people by surprise when they listened to it. Like there were expecting more Amanda Palmer style cabaret songwriting. Any you know, like many people I have different parts, and this was a part I wanted to explore."
"And I want to say, Songwriter Soiree, which is at my house every month, inspired a lot of the songs on this record. The format of the Soiree is more folky singer-songwriter style, so i started to write songs more in that genre, like on the guitar or the piano. I didn't have like a six-piece cabaret band to back me up - it's just me!"
I keep hearing about his Songwriter Soiree, and getting invited to it, and not ever going. I'm a bit of a songwriter myself, and I know a number of people for whom these gatherings have become an essential part of their practice. I ask him to tell me more.
"This event started two and a half years ago, inspired by an an acid trip at burning man. Yay burning man. I took a whole evening with my friend Kyrstyn Pixton, and we ended up at the piano at night singing songs for each other, and it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. She totally, that moment inspired me to write more. I thought, 'I oughta start a night at my house where I get all my favorite songwriters together and we just talk about the process and inspire each other to write. That's how it started as a monthly thing, and it's been a pretty profound event for me and a lot of people. We get around 70-100 people every night we have it, and it's getting now to the point where I don't even know half the people that come any more, which I like. It's like the sense of many circles of people rippling out. People get to come who maybe don't know a lot of people, or who don't have a lot of places in their life to share songs. It's really a very intimate setting, like a giant cuddle puddle, a very focused setting where people can share their music, and a little bit about their process of song with like a totally focused respectful audience. I feel like 9 out of 10 songs on this record, I wrote to be able to play there."
Robin Jackson's entire life has revolved around music. His father was a composer and a musician, and with his mother encouraged Robin's study of music from the age of 4. Violin was the focus of his childhood tutelage, from his Waldorf School beginnings in Oregon to his pre-adolescent Jazz School education in New Zealand. He took up the saxophone at age 12, and was playing to some regional acclaim with the funk band Soul Function before he turned 17.
"They were an awesome group," Robin remembers fondly. "Eight guys, all living in the same house, 16-19 years old. It gave me a real taste for a successful music ensemble at a young age."
Already a world traveler, living between New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest through high school and college, Jackson became fascinated with the music of other cultures, ultimately earning a degree in ethnomusicology from Evergreen State College.
In 2002, Robin moved to Portland, in search of the burgeoning freak scene that had already drawn many of his friends from Eugene to make the move. It did not take him long to find us.
"At that point I had never played in a klezmer band. I'm Jewish, so I was like huh, I want to play in a klezmer group. And this girl Erin said, 'Oh I play in a klezmer group with my friend Eric.'"
That would be Eric Stern, who had just assembled a group of musicians that he wanted to call Vagabond Opera.
"I met Eric on Halloween at Last Thursday on Alberta, and we had a real connection. We kind of attribute that night as the real start of Vagabond Opera. He and I coming together was the beginning of how it's evolved into more of a stage theatrical show. So he and I were kind of the Laurel and Hardy of it."
A girl Robin met at Breitenbush Hot Springs introduced him to a touselled young impresario named John Averill, whose circle of friends and collaborators were producing massive multimedia events under the name of Kaosmosis. It would be an oversimplification to say that the story of the 21st Century bohemian revival in Portland begins with Kaosmosis, but their sector of the family tree is definitely pretty dense. Speaking personally, Kaosmosis was a huge influence on my own work, showing me how the transgressive music and performance that I was engrossed with could find common cause with a tongue of celebration and glam. Robin's outlook stretched likewise to fit what he found in them.
"So one of those events was going to be a Mardi Gras show in 2002, so they were going to put a marching band together for this event. And they were like, 'Oh, we need another band to open up the night, maybe we should ask Vagabond Opera to do it.' Vagabond Opera was like six months old at that time, and they called the marching band March Fourth. So my band opened for my other band on their creation night. So we had a really awesome night there, and then the (Iraq) War broke out, and March Fourth marched in those protests, and John asked me to play in it. I was one of the first horn players, with Daniel Lamb."
I tell you, somebody ought to write a book.
Thus, the world came to know Robin Jackson amidst an explosion of color, sound, motion, and genuine cultural upheaval. Whether surrounded by stilt walkers, dancing girls, and drum corps; or engaged in the madcap choreography of an ensemble of richly costumed classical musicians and variety performers; Robin has played the part of unflappable wag. His playing on the saxophone is expert, fluid and expressive in ripping solos and sad little ditties alike. His singing voice is still more distinctive, and perfectly at harmony with his stage manner and the involved musicality of his songs. In an era of emotive, grandstanding vocalists of innumerable pretensions; Mr Jackson's singing is unadorned and articulate. On this album, his singing is thrust to the fore more than ever. I ask him about his vocal approach.
"I haven't thought about my singing that much. I never considered myself a singer really. I love chet baker, and I love his style. He just has this soft and milky and plain way of singing songs, and I would just sing like that a lot. I never really tried to make my voice anything but what it was. I would just try to sing on tune and clear and vibrant, and that's how it came out. And then playing in Vagabond Opera, I've become a lot more aware of articulation, on stage, not to mumble. I want to project, I want the lyrics to be heard. I tend to be kind of verbose in a lot of my songs, so I've been working on really speaking the words."
During the same period as these songs were written, Robin quit the March Fourth Marching Band after nine years, desiring more time at home to enjoy human relationships outside the pressured atmosphere of constant touring. He's taking a sabbatical from playing out-of-town with Vagabond Opera as well. Here in town, his Joy Now project (co-founded with Ariel Bradley Daglish) is going strong; offering a five-day band camp for teens who want to, in Robin's own words, "learn how to be in March Fourth." Students at Joy Now, like so many people who encounter this extended family of artists, say their lives have been changed forever.
It's a shift in focus that I've been seeing with many members of my approximate generation of performers recently - a desire to slow down the ride and take a closer look at things.
"It's been really fun to watch the evolution, living in the city for 10 years, and to see where we've come. It's cool, you and me, having lived in this city for a long time, have become pretty big contributors to the world. Just a little while ago, I was like, "Wow, I've done a lot here, and my friends have done a lot, we're all doing a lot together." We've all had a lot of impact on other people. It's cool to look around at my friends and think when I'm older I can say these are the people that I built this with. I'm excited to see where we keep going. I watch myself aging too, I've hit that point that's kind of scary. I'm like entering the next stage. And watching peopole who are joining march fourth who are 22, and have that spirit i had when i was 22."
Dust Diaries, therefore, looks and sounds like a turning point for Robin Jackson. I for one intend to pay close attention to what this fellow does next, pivotal as his Work and his life have been to the music and culture of our time. He talks like a man who is rallying his powers for something extraordinary.
"The album was originally like a personal project, more of a labor of love honestly rather than a business thing. So I could have probably arranged some of the songs a little differently, but i feel like these were more kind of singer-songwriter style. I feel good about it. Chet Lyster put his mark on it, like that Americana, which I love. I feel like I'm never going to lose my more wacky and zany, wild set of roots. And in fact I feel like for my next set of songs i'm probably going to want to change the instrumentation a bit. I like to experiment and play, whether it's singing over a marching band, or just weird instruments. Or an a capella album, I was thinking about at some point. or something with a lot of drums and singing."
"It's very easy for us to go to where we already know again, the same sorts of chord progressions and the same sorts of songs, which works and it's very familiar. But I like to try to get myself outsdide of what I'm used to."
"For me, most of my success has come from collaborating with my friends and not trying to do things alone but creating healthy collaborative projects, which is what this album is about. The most intense emotional experiences are what inspire songwriting. This album, a lot of the songs are like heartbreak or about death of some kind, so it feels to me like a kind of chapter in a journal that I made that's pretty vulnerable, and I put it out, and now I'm actually wanting to kind of shift my energy a bit."
How fortunate you and I are to be invited to witness the continued unfolding of his multifoliate vision. The next chapter is June 8th at The Secret Society. Don't miss it.
Tom D'Antoni | Editor In-Chief | oregonmusicnews.com
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