The singing, producing and songwriting force known as How To Dress Well spoke with us about reacting to indie R&B trends and being surprised by his career. Tom Krell returns to Portland Oct. 18 at Mississippi Studios.
Robin Jackson lives a colorful life. He grew up between Oregon and New Zealand, and used his degree in Ethnomusicology to wail with carnival troupe, MarchFourth Marching Band, play with Vagabond Opera, and provide multi-instrumentalist skills to various big name artists like DeVotchca, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Rising Appalachia. He has strong ties with the community, holding a monthly songwriter’s soiree, and building The Joy Now Arts Project, a program that empowers youth through performance.
Taking a small amount of time for his own music, He recently recorded his sophomore album, Dark Stars, at Type Foundry Studio in Portland and self-released it on November 3rd.
Like his first album, Jackson is a storyteller. Dark Stars is full of layered instrumentation to accompany lyrical imagery. Songs follow many travels. Jackson is “Drifting At Sea”, finding courtship in an exotic land (Yellow Gardenias), there’s a whistle across dry lands in “Gospel And Grain”, and we are transported to the journey of a past generation on “Tears For The Soul”. It’s a collection fit for gypsy wanderers that find themselves on darkened dance floors.
We spoke with Jackson about Dark Stars, his many travels, instruments, causes and collaborations.
11: Tell me about starting the Joy Now Arts Project?
Robin Jackson: Joy Now is a program for for kids 5-18 years offering camps that focus on everything from learning instruments, sewing costumes, coordination through performance, self-awareness and acceptance. It’s such an awesome program and a lot of fun. But I’ve had a big transition coming out of the youth program. I poured my heart and soul into that program from 2012-2016, but we don’t have a lot of funding, like so many other grassroots and volunteer powered non-profits. And it’s an arts program for kids, which can be bottom rung in terms of funders. That’s hard, because we are working to change the next generation of people. Not just through the arts, but by teaching confidence. We teach a lot of social justice and human skills, how to be a better person. I put a lot of energy into it, and promised myself I would never become a burned out non-profit director, but I did. So i stepped away from the director role and took a break to regroup. I’m still on the board for Joy Now, but I gave myself this year to make music.
11: Was Joy Now influenced by your own experience growing up?
RJ: Being a teen sucked, frankly. Until I found band in school. Then it rocked. Music opened a doorway. it bonded me with friends and people I admired and also helped me to feel better about myself both creatively and as a person. My personal experience with that journey of self acceptance and love as a teen is one of the main reasons I like working with teens now. I think of how it was for me then and how important that was.
11: And you grew up between Oregon and New Zealand?
RJ: I was born in Oregon, and I was raised here for a while, but I lived in New Zealand on and off for about 12 years. My parents emigrated there with me in 1993. It definitely influenced me in a lot of ways, artistically. I split my time between New Zealand and the states, then I made the decision to move back to Portland in 2002.
11: You just released your second album Dark Stars on November 3rd. What’s different from your first album Dust Diaries?
RJ: There are some differences, for sure. I’m evolving. I mean Dust Diaries was my first record, so it was like ‘what do people do? How do you do this?’
This one was more intentional. I think you can make an album that’s a body of work about about certain subjects, like letting go, or the death of my father, or a relationship. This is more of a culmination of songs. They do have similarities, there is a thread and a throughline. One thing that is different with Dark Stars is that I hired a producer full time to do it. And together we were like what’s the cohesiveness of this record?
11: Who was the producer?
RJ: Chet Lyster. He’s a producer, makes records, he’s with the Eels and has played with Lucinda Williams. This record is as much his as it is mine. He just took it on like his kid, like his foster child. It was really special for me.
11: Are you still involved with Vagabond Opera and MarchFourth Marching Band?
RJ: You can still feel my Vagabond Opera roots on a few songs from Dark Stars , but Vagabond Opera went into retirement a few years ago. Eric Stern is still going with his opera company, and I often ask him if we’re going to revive. A lot of people want us to, and I would love to play. They were such a huge part of who I was and greatly influenced me. I have a feeling we’ll pull it out of retirement and do a show just for kicks. As for MarchFourth, I often say it is like Hotel California; You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I dont have the tattoo, but I will always be a part of that band in some way.
I actually got asked to do a stilt walking, horn playing gig next month, I haven’t put on stilts in 10 years. But i’m going to do it just for fun, to go back and do something.
And the kids program, Joy Now, keeps me linked because it’s a mini-Marchfourth.
11: You’re a multi-instrumentalist, what instruments did you play on Dark Stars?
RJ: Ironically, on this album i’m not playing a lot. I’m mainly just singing. I also whistle and play saxophone. But I can play saxophone, clarinet, guitar, a lot of other percussion and African drums. On this album Chet and David are doing the guitar because they are so bad ass at it.
11: There’s also a lot of beautiful piano.
RJ: That’s Gil Assayas, keyboardist, pianist, he’s an animal. We brought him in for just a couple of tracks but ended up putting him on all 10.
11: You’ve worked with a variety of artists, like DeVotchka, Emancipator, Gregory Alan Isakov, and I seen you recently played clarinet with Rising Appalachia?
RJ: I love their music and love playing with other people. I approached them a few years ago after I seen them at a Beloved event. I asked if I could sit in on their set with The Human Experience. So I played with them, And I got invited to play with them last month at The Crystal Ballroom. I just love their music, their whole vibe, what they stand for. That gives me an outlet to play with other people that I need so much, because I don’t tour so much with my band The Caravan.
11: Do you think you’ll have a tour coming up?
RJ: I don’t think i’ll tour right now with this record. My energy is here. I toured so much with Vagabond Opera and MarchFourth that I feel like that kind of used up my touring energy-at least at the moment. I’m always opened to playing a house show somewhere or possibly touring with another group. I’ll always play The Oregon Country Fair with The Caravan and other Northwest festivals and Seattle.
11: What else is coming up?
RJ: I’ll be putting out some music videos soon. I do have one video from my previous album for October Rain. I’ll probably be doing one for one of my favorite tracks, “Gospel and Grain”. I’ll be booking summer dates, and maybe play with RIsing Appalachia again. And I’m going to keep running The Soiree.
11: The Soiree?
RJ: The Songwriters Soiree here in Portland. It’s a huge public event. It’s my main jam. It was at my house, started in my living room for professional songwriters to play music for each other. But then it erupted into this whole underground community. We get like 200 people in attendance, and about 23-25 perform, it’s an audience performer situation. I always book two features in the middle. They have to play original music. I’ve had the Shook Twins, David Jacobs-Strain, Three Leg Torso, Three For Silver, Luz Mendoza (of Y La Bamba). So i moved it to the Yoga Shala, it’s once every month. It’s a beautiful space.
(learn more here)
11: And you hold a degree in Ethnomusicology? Give me a quick lesson.
RJ: I studied Ethnomusicology and also advanced production and media studies. Ethnomusicology is looking at cultures from a sociological perspective, sociology and anthropology and music. Understanding a culture through its music. It’s an amazing lens to look through. Like take American music, which is so broad and varied, but it’s all about the individual. On a pop culture level it’s ‘me, me, me’, it’s American idol, we create pop stars. It’s also about standing out, uniqueness, drive, and capitalism.
But you look at other cultures, say Zimbabwe, where music is very communal and cyclical and people play together and sing together.
I’ve played all sorts of music and love eclectic styles, which is also why I like playing with other people, like Rising Appalachia or other Brazilian Groups. It’s a bit of a challenge, it keeps me on my toes. And although my albums don’t have a lot of world music, this is one reason why I use a lot of instruments and changing up the sounds. Like one of my songs on the album has a very Eastern European vibe.
11: Which one?
RJ: “Tears For The Soul”. It’s about my great grandma actually, and her trip from Russia, over the Atlantic to Boston when she was sixteen years old. It’s a classic story. Both of her parents died.and her uncle shipped her off to the states, where she had my family. It’s this somber ode to her.
11: You’re a very good storyteller. I really enjoy the imagery in “Yellow Gardenias”.
RJ: “Yellow Gardenias” was a Vagabond Opera tune that I never recorded. I changed it from swing. I wrote it when i was in Bali, bored and sitting by the pool. It was raining. This warm rain was knocking all of the flowers off into the pool. Bali is so rich in their spiritual culture, and they really honor death in this beautiful way. they are constantly making altars and celebrating death in this festive, magical way.
Every song I’ve written has a story. For me that’s what my music is about. It’s an outlet for me to tell a story. It’s hard not to, it’s just the way I write.
The album release party for Dark Stars will be performed with the original recording party and The Colin Trio, at The Secret Society on 11/11.