Robin O'Brien "Roothead" ( 1991)
Even now, Roothead is a breathtaking achievement. But this was hardly your first recording experience. Approximately when did you first start home taping your own songs?
First, thank you for your enthusiasm. I’m happy that you like it.
Since age thirteen I recorded my songs on portable cassette and two track reel tape. At 17 I had a hankering to multitrack, so I’d record with one, then the other, back and forth. It wasn’t until 1982 that a friend let me borrow his portastudio. A major love affair with recording ensued! I had so many voices in my head, in my being. Now they could all sing at once.
After you recorded your songs what did you want to do with them? Did you give tapes to family or friends?
Well hmm. It became clear that most of my loved ones don’t give a fig about my music. And I’m reluctant to share it, frankly. But I did have some personal fans who I gave stuff to.
Once I took some of my recorded material to record companies in New York. I ended up signing a contract with a couple of producers who recorded me at the now vanished (like so many great recording studios!)Atlantic Records Studio. It was a fantastic experience. An awesome sound, and all kinds of famous people around.
Where does Roothead rank in your hierarchy of releases?
It was the best sounding recording I’d finished to date. Greg Frey engineered, and he was fabulous.
They weren’t my best performances, certainly, and the songs were not hot off the press the way I like to hear them…these were songs of mine from the past. But I think the clarity of the sound helped my music to be more accessible to people. My experience with Greg taught me I hadn’t been communicating well with my sound.
You met up with keyboard player, David Mitros in about 1988 or so. Correct? This gave your music a new element I guess. The three albums you and he recorded were all improvised. Was there any discussion beforehand? They were done in his attic studio in New Jersey?
Yes.Yes. Cool, funky attic. No discussion. Sometimes we prayed. He played, I sang. Then I’d take the tapes home with me and edit and overdub and mix. Sometimes I’d take a jam home and re-construct it, make a song, ask him to play something different.
How did the sessions for Roothead develop?
I had small Janet at home and Mary in my body. I needed to go to my music, my place of life and breath for my own soul. Three hours a week in a recording studio refreshed me.—and to some degree frightened me. I had so much in me that was wild. I felt vulnerable a lot of the time.
Did you co-produce the sessions with Greg Frey or did you have the ideas for overdubs, instruments, etc?
Greg did not produce the album, he engineered it, beautifully. The musical ideas were mine.
What about the other players on these sessions. Did you give them charts or did you rehearse the songs beforehand?
I used chord charts, that’s all. Sometimes I’d write out a part. Usually I would sing specific parts to teach people what I wanted them to play.
There is quite a bit of harmonic singing on these songs. Was this very long after your work with David Hykes?
Roothead was several years after I met David Hykes. I took to harmonic singing for many years. It was a way to pray for me. I was doing it every day then. When I was in labor with Mary I was doing it.
It seems to me that with the amount of emotional intensity you bring to your songs there might be a danger of too much revealing making you vulnerable. Your take?
My fear, exactly. I wonder if that’s why I have had such a hard time letting people hear my music. Right now Luxotone Records in Chicago is releasing cds of my early songs. I’m not sensitive about it , I guess because those songs are no longer my life. But now, today, upstairs, Don Campau, I am passionately working my new music in private! Honestly, I wish I could be more communicative about the music that is still attached to my heart. I have the bulk of three albums that I just can’t seem to get out of my machine onto discs!
Can you talk about your influences for a moment? How do feel when someone compares you to artists like Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro?
Heck, I’m honored. These two are my biggest influences in the pop realm. Especially dear Laura. I hear her in me. Not so much Joni anymore.
Laura Nyro gave me my first digestible tutelage in vocal improvisation. New York Tendaberry. When I was 15 I would come home to an empty house after school and WAIL. I’d sing my heart out with Laura. I knew every detail of every song, same with Joni. Joni Mitchell was the horizontal line. Laura Nyro the vertical line. I was the dot, the point of crossing.
It does bother me when someone compares me to someone I don’t think I sound like. Then I feel unheard, like I don’t exist. That’s how sensitive I am.
A large project you and George Reisch are working on is a remastering of many of these older recordings done on your portastudio 4 track. There are already two volumes on CD (and an EP) available. How do you balance your ideas about reviving these well known classics with George’s suggestions for production? These are amazing re-dos and sound like they were recorded yesterday. In fact, your material is timeless I’d say. But still, he added some new instruments and production effects that changed the songs somewhat. How did that make you feel?
Well known by you! But my music has not been heard by an audience. George wants to bring my music to an audience. Luxotone is releasing remixes of my 80’s recordings. George Reisch is producing. I love George, and I love working with him. It has been painful for me to relinquish control and let him have the music. But I’m glad. Even if I’m unhappy with this or that small piece. I am overwhelmingly overjoyed with his hard work and his gorgeous musical sensibility.
Something weird that’s come up, tho…I’m jealous of my old self (or would that be “young self?”) for having cds out ! I want to have my new (now I’m old) cds out! But I don’t have any money…so I’ll wait until I’m a working RN(I’m in school right now) when I can afford to put my cds out. Let’s see, that will be in about three years. By then I’ll have six cds to master and print. I hope I live that long.
Although I personally wouldn’t mess with this masterpiece, any talk of re-doing Roothead in this same fashion?
George is more interested in the original portastudio recordings. Several of these: “If you”, “Day”, and “Looking for Daniel”, I re-recorded on Roothead. I do agree with George that the original performances are more compelling than the ones I did for Roothead.
How did moving to California in 1995 affect your music? Did the shock of moving throw you off balance? Did moving a couple years later from San Jose to Santa Rosa have a similar affect? Or was it the start of something new?
Well I left my musical community in New Jersey/New York, and that’s a wound that doesn’t seem to heal. I’m married to a wonderful, prolific, songwriter, which has it’s upside, but I tend to say to myself “OK he’ll be the music part of us, and I’ll do the other stuff”. So it hasn’t been good for my music. I fought myself to come back to musical life in 2004 with my cd, “Ilsanjo”. And I’ve written a lot of great music since then. Someday, as I previously mentioned, I’ll get it all out on disc. Then I won’t feel so overstuffed in my body.
Currently, you are now using a computer based recording set up for your original material. Do you think the techniques of the actual recording affect things like performance and emotional intensity? Or is the new technology just a tool to be used? Do you ever miss the 4 track? Why?
I miss the smell of magnetic tape. I miss it going around and around. I miss the dance of mixing on a board. Some days I think I’ll just go back to the reel. The reel is the green growing world. It makes a sweeter sound. Yes, the medium affects the work. On the other hand I’ve learned to enjoy the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that comes from computer work. A piece for percussion and melodyne?…may I enjoy many undisturbed hours of this!
For some time now you have been working on spiritual music and writing western style chants and devotional music. When you write these chants do they come to you like your other songs? Or is there some unspeakable spiritual element lending a hand? Perhaps you even feel that way about your other songs. Any way to discuss this?
They come like my other songs and there is some unspeakable spiritual element lending a hand. It’s always been this way for me. My connection to my music is the deepest connection I have to myself, and to Spirit. I feel so grateful, having music. I love these chants, and I love sharing them with people. I have a deep wish to put these tunes and words in the air, so maybe they will seed and grow good things for people.
Back to Roothead…when we were on our honeymoon ( Robin and I are married by the way since 1996), we visited Berlin and you performed “Change” with a German Metal band who had secretly learned your song. What was that like for you? It sure surprised me.
Ha! I’m just glad I had purchased a proper goth dress for the concert!. I felt thrilled, and too shocked to be scared.
Why do you think there were so few women in cassette culture in the 80s/90s? There were certainly great talents like Amy Denio, Heather Perkins, Sue Ann Harkey and some others so why did it have to be a primarily a boys club?
Music is a boy’s club. “ More women in music than ever” what does that mean? What’s the ratio? When I was in music school it was ten to one boys to girls. Hard for a girl to feel like a human being with those stats. When I was in the studios where the big records were being made, I heard awful gossip about the few women who were successful there. All sexual stuff, as if that’s all they had to offer. And double standards. It really pissed me off. I tried so hard to be gender neutral— just so I could walk down the studio hall to get a cup of coffee.
I don’t know why there weren’t many women in the cassette culture. Maybe a women doesn’t want her art and her self to be interpreted by sexual predators. Maybe she’s raising a family or taking care of a parent, and she doesn’t have the time or energy for art…especially if it’s “just a hobby”.
I think about this. Modern art relates to a person, a consumable identity. It seems to me it’s easier for a man to identify himself as an individual. Is this a cultural thing? Biological? As recently as the 90’s (when I was reading first books to my female child) there were NO female main characters. Even the birds and the bears and the circles and the squares were guys. One day little Janet looks up to me and says, “Where’s the girl?” I swear it had not occurred to me that there were no females having adventures…I went through her books and crossed out some of the “He” main characters and made them “She”. I do believe this has changed…somewhat. But what a message it was!
Now, however, it seems like a very fertile and exciting time for women and all independent artists. What changed?
Is it a fertile and exciting time for women? I don’t know about it. I do hope it is fertile and exciting for everyone.
Do you think the internet can give the same depth of contact that a postal letter can?
I think the US mail gave you a huge advantage over email when you decided to court me. I still love the yellow and red rose petals, and the label from that beautiful can of beans.
Do you think there is any lasting legacy to this so called “cassette culture”?
A lasting legacy requires an archivist.
This “cassette culture” is, it seems to me, a repository of pure folk music. Music by folks. Something like this always has value. It describes a culture: a time, a place, an aesthetic. Art by people goes on and on, seen and heard, unseen and unheard. The collector gives it parameters and makes it meaningful.
Thanks for your time Robin. See you by the fireplace later.
Thanks so much, Don!