May 23, 2014

Time Travel with Justin Robinson

This is a piece I wrote for Red Thought Media back in the day. Since that URL is no longer supported, I thought I'd post it here. This was based on an interview with Grammy winner Justin Robinson, one of the most interesting people I've ever talked to. 

Time Travel with Justin Robinson
by Jesse McCarl

Recently I had the chance to chat with Justin Robinson. Justin is a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and current member of his own project – Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes. His sound and style are unique, to say the least. I wanted to figure out where his inspiration came from, and he wound up describing eras long past and the End Times still to come. Join us for time travel with Justin Robinson.

December or January, Few Years Back

Evening dew had become an icy casing for the dead leaves that littered the ground. Justin Robinson tried to avoid their crunch as he prowled from tree to tree, lest it scare off his prey. His trusty canine companion crept close behind. Eventually Justin reached a clearing where he saw a swamp, or at least what used to be a swamp. The chilled air had turned the place into an ice-skating rink. Trees jutted from their murky, frozen bases. The entire area had a warm, calming glow from the moonlight being reflected off the ground.

Perhaps the discovery should have been eerie: the full moon, the swampland, and the late hour. But instead the image was beautiful. It was nature, in it’s purest form, and it had been paused just for him. Justin circled the clearing, trying to absorb every ounce of the beauty that surrounded him. After that, there was no point in continuing this hunting venture; he had seen all he needed to see.

The evocative visual affected Justin in ways he could not have expected, down to the very sound that would define his future musicianship. Whenever MySpace or Facebook asked him to list his influences, the first thing to come to mind was always the same: Moonlight on a Frozen Swamp.

This Week(ish)

You probably won’t realize it if you run into Justin Robinson this week. He studies at North Carolina State University, where he is pursuing his graduate degree in Forestry. This may not seem to be the logical follow-up to the undergrad in linguistics he earned at the UNC, but it’s whatever. He loves his iPad and his car and other modern luxuries like not dying from gonorrhea. He hits the gym in the morning and the books at night.

If you run into Justin Robinson this week, you probably won’t realize that he has a Grammy at home. You won’t know this summer he’ll be on tour to support his latest genre-defying record. You’ll have no way of knowing that some of his biggest creative influences come from eras past.

When Justin Robinson Became Grammy-Award-Winner Justin Robinson

Justin Robinson was one of the founding members of the Durham-based Carolina Chocolate Drops. This all African American band countered modern stereotypes of folk music by adding hip-hop elements for an often more playful sound. On February 12, 2011, they won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. The album was Genuine Negro Jig, for which Robinson shared vocal responsibilities and played a variety of instruments. A week prior to their monumental win, however, Robinson had publically announced his departure from the group.

A year later, Justin still doesn’t say much about his split from the Chocolate Drops. He will say that he is on good terms with his old band mates, and has a strong feeling that they’ll work together again in the future. He is happy for the continued success of his former group, but says their popularity wasn’t what made the split difficult.

“Those are the folks I’ve played music with for the last five and half years, the folks I’ve been in really intimate situations with for so long,” says Justin. “And that not being a thing anymore is difficult. It’s not unlike a break-up. Well… it is a break-up. That part was hard. But the success had nothing to do with it. Success was not really an important factor for me. Being a full-time member of the band just isn’t in the cards for me right now.”

Formation of the Mary Annettes

Following his departure from the Chocolate Drops, Robinson continued to write and play his own weird brand of music. He decided to assemble a group that could play behind him while he experimented with new styles and influences. He took members of other bluegrass groups and mixed them with employees from instrument repair shops and then threw in a drummer he found on Craigslist.

Together, they formed Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes.

As the group worked together more and more, they transformed from Justin’s backing band to an ensemble with a distinct sound.

Post-Civil War

In the wreckage of a nation divided, there was one movement that brought the people back together in the 1870s. A new type of music blended the styles of black and white folk, North and South. It featured string instrumentation of classical artists from centuries ago, and infused the rhythm Confederate soldier chants. The music that resulted was bouncy and playful, but the lyrics placed over were thematically heavy and dark. The genre became known as Post-Civil War Hip-Hop.*

* None of the previous paragraph is not backed by so much as an unedited Wikipedia article, but it somehow captures the aura of Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes. Some members of the ethnically diverse group are classically trained, while others taught themselves an instrument based on their Southern upbringing. They don’t like to be classified by something as simple as folk or bluegrass. One of Justin’s friends once off-handedly described their genre-blending sound as “post-Civil War hip-hop,” and the title just kind of stuck.

The Release of Bones for Tinder

The first LP of Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes, Bones for Tinder, was released January 17, 2012. Anybody expecting an extension of his Carolina Chocolate Drops sound was surely disappointed, but new fans found a diverse record that transported them to another time and place.

Justin wanted to make sure no two tracks sounded the same, but still keep them thematically united via a quality he refers to as “shimmering darkness.” Many of the tracks have a full band sound with lovely harmonies, but are still laced with intense lyrics.

“I’m highly suspect of music that is just too unabashedly happy,” Justin says. “I assume there’s something wrong with it. Songs should be more complex than that. I like the layers.”

There are multiple tracks (Kissin’ and Cussin’, Ships & Verses, and Brook Street) that don’t feature the Mary Annettes at all; he’s playing all the instruments. They were written years prior and stored in his back pocket for when he had freedom to be a bit more obscure with his music.

The CD release coincided with the creation of a music video for their first single, “Vultures.” Justin describes the debut video as unintentionally creepy, but he’s thrilled with how it came out and he wouldn’t change a thing.

Less than a month after the official drop, the band hosted their release party in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The band wore elaborate and elegant attire. The men wore entirely white tuxedos and the women glammed out with jewelry and rhinestones to complement their old-fashioned, hoop skirt dresses. They like to dress up for every performance, but the release party got the best of their costumes so far.

“Costumes make it more fun,” he says. “You get to wear something you don’t wear every day. I’m never going to put on a tux again unless I’m getting an award or something.”

December 23, 2012 (and Beyond)

Besides moonlight on a frozen swamp and post-Civil War hip-hop, Justin Robinson is also known to list “the apocalypse” as a major influence. The group is preparing for the End of Days by getting as much accomplished as possible with what’s left of the Mayan calendar.

They are currently preparing the video for a second single, “The Devil’s Teeth.” Over the summer, the band will tour to continue to promote Bones for Tinder. Justin says they are already working on another CD, and that their next release will be a more collaborative effort by the Mary Annettes, now that the group is more familiar with each other.

So Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes definitely have more in store, but are they a permanent fixture in the indie music landscape? Each member seems to move to the beat of a drum no one else can hear; is there the risk of another break-up?

“If you focus too much in one spot, your music tends to get weirder and then it suffers. I like making music and that will probably never change. Whether it will be this exact group of people or some variation, who knows? But I will say I like what we’ve done so far and what we can accomplish musically.”

Only time will tell.

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