Kenny Roby | The Reservoir | (Royal Potato Family)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars
Singer/songwriters are often expected to reveal themselves in their work. While transient pop stars may believe they’re well served by fickle thoughts and senseless rhymes, the true artist is often obliged to convey deeper thoughts and work that conveys wisdom as well as entertainment. Granted, it’s not always easy to be so vulnerable or to allow the world in on the trouble and turmoil that often accompany that degree of introspection and circumspect. And yet, when there are deeper meanings and life-defining scenarios, the work will usually resonate with far greater clarity and conviction.
With his new album The Reservoir, Kenny Roby gleans those lessons learned and transmits them through a set of songs that are taut, tender and flush with both resilience and resolve. By his own admission, he’s had some difficult emotional conflicts to contend with over the last several years — the need to find sobriety, the dissolution of his marriage and the suicide of his friend and collaborator Neal Casal in particular. It was a devastating set of circumstance, and yet Roby found the courage and determination to share those emotional encounters through his own voice and veracity.
“The record is about isolation,” Roby reflects. “It’s about sharing, and the importance of conveying certain truths. Sometimes the best way to express something is just to say it, no matter whether it’s to a crowd of people, on a record, to a therapist, through a recovery program, or whatever it is. It’s just about offering something honestly. If somebody else hears that, maybe they can either give you some feedback, or identify with it, or find that it helps them in some way.”
While it’s easy to imagine that the new album might be a somber affair, it has many moments where there’s an uptick of energy as well. “Vampire Song Whatcha Gonna Do” boasts a refrain that simply won’t quit (“Whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do, when’s a man got nothin’ to lose”), while “History Lesson” shuffles along with a seemingly carefree saunter. Yet other songs clearly reflect an inner uncertainty. “See I must confess that I’m a mess,” Roby croons on the self-effacing “Only Clown in Town.” “And I ain’t going to make a sound. Oh, bad times wasted on broken mimes, and I’m the only clown in town.”
“Room 125” nails those sentiments even more succinctly: “What do you do, when loneliness surrounds you, and holds you in its grip…And no one’s there to listening you hold your tongue, when somethin’ don’t seem right.”
In retrospect, it’s easy to assume that these tracks were borne from Roby’s own internal malaise, but they also bear a connection to Casal that Roby didn’t realize at the time. His friend was dealing with depression and it eventually led him to take his own life.
“If I look back I can look for signs, I can see them now,” Roby concedes. “I knew he was struggling with some things. I had heard some things from other people, but I hadn’t heard any real details. When I sent him the song ‘Only Clown in Town,’ he said something like, ‘Oh my God, I can really relate to that one.’ When I sent him ‘Room 125,’ which I wrote later, he said ‘That’s my life.’ In hindsight I think I should have known. But people always talk like that. He would be telling me that the songs really were helping him focus, and so I said I was glad, but I didn’t think ‘Oh my God, Neals’ in trouble.’ I didn’t look at it as a warning. It’s easier to see that now in hindsight.”
In fact, it was Roby’s original intention to have Casal produce the album. The two had recorded together before, specifically on a pair of EPs, Not So Low and Black River Sides. “Neal wasn’t sure if I wanted him to produce it or play guitar on it or find another producer, but he was really open to working on this record,” Roby recalls. “Then after I started writing the songs, Neal expressed an interest in producing the record. He heard some of the early demos. We had gone back and forth for a few months and we were making logistical plans. I was just coming out of the woods as far as my personal stuff was concerned, and I was starting to get my head a little bit straight. Neal’s loss knocked me for a loop and knocked me back down. So a lot of lot of this material is about that trauma and that experience. Fortunately, I had some fellowship with friends of Neal’s and just some old friends of mine who offered their support. We just tried to work through it as best as we could.”
That’s when Dave Schools, a mutual friend and member of the band Widespread Panic, agreed to step in and take over the role that was originally intended for Casal. “He agreed to produce the record, and then some other players fell into place as well,” Roby recalls. “It was sort of a family affair. Everyone had some sort of association with Neal, including Dave. So it was a healing and cathartic experience for all of us to make the record. I knew it was going to be to some degree while working with Neal. But I had no idea it was going to be that kind of experience afterwards. How can you know?”
Not surprisingly, the album is dedicated to Casal’s memory,
It’s also somewhat significant that The Reservoir is Roby’s first solo effort since 2013. He says that it was his involvement with his long-tenured band 6 String Drag that became the main reason for the delay. The band had been on an extended hiatus when they finally reformed in 2014. Once Roby reconnected with his former bandmates, he decided to continue with their comeback for a few more years.
“Our bass player Rob (Keller) and I continued to do the 6 String Drag thing and I was writing songs for that. Rob and I kept it going, and we put out the Top of the World record in 2018. After that, it was the combination of a lot of life changes, and also just realizing that I wanted to write and not be too concerned with who played on the songs. I will say that it was a little tough in middle age to get back and do the band thing again, and try to manage the musical life of multiple people. I just wanted to get back to my solo thing. I still love playing with those guys, but it’s a whole different thing trying to manage that literally, as well as in my head, and even artistically. Everyone has lives and families and that sort of thing, and while everyone was great, you get to a place where you just want to take care of yourself, especially as the older you get. That was happening to me at the same time as my marriage was splitting up and then I was back in recovery, and sort of getting my head straight and grounded in life.”
He also found a new attitude as far as his divide between the band’s collective efforts and what he hoped to accomplish on his own.
“I used to think it was all or nothing,” Roby continues. “I thought I had to do either one or the other, but now I’ve come to realize I can do 6 String Drag and still do my solo stuff as well.”
In fact, Roby has become remarkably prolific of late, and his new material reflects his more personal perspective. He originally had 25 songs written and recorded, and from that number he narrowed down his choices to a still bountiful 16.
“I didn’t sit down to write a certain kind of song,” Roby remarks. “They were just coming to me and I was processing things, and just willing to share some of those things honestly. I waswilling to let them happen. I was a conduit, and so I kind of just got out of the way and chose not to have any filters and be as honest as I could. It can be tough, but the songs just sort of happened through the process of doing a lot of writing.”
Not surprisingly then, Roby has his own theories about songwriting, based entirely on his own experiences.
“I may have an idea for a melody while I’m driving down the road, and so I hum it into my phone,” he explains. “There may be a few lines, or even a verse or two, that I hear in my head. Then I forget about it, and I sit down later and do the work. It might create a spark and I’ll tend to the fire. But I don’t sit down and say ‘I’m going to write a song today.’ When I’m there, I’m there. I don’t sit around and wait for the magic to happen. It’s a combination of work and discipline, and being open to ideas that come to me. That song ‘Don’t You Know What’s On My Mind’ was basically borne from a stream of consciousness.”
Roby says that songwriting can be a challenge, and in fact there’s no way to force the issue. In the case of his new album, he let the ideas flow naturally.
“Magic happens, but the muse doesn’t just happen,” he suggests. “You’ve got to dig in and find it. You can get in the flow, but you also have to go to the river everyday. I was open to letting that happen, and doing the work, and having the discipline. In the past, I usually wrote from a character’s perspective, but with this one, I was very straight forward. A lot of these songs are about me. In general, I kind of let them happen. I don’t know where they came from…maybe deeper in my subconscious. So I didn’t attempt to cover up the truth by overcompensating for it, or by hiding it with a lot of metaphors. It’s about being honest…saying, this hurts, this is how it feels…and not over complicating it, over explaining it, or hiding behind a bunch of metaphors. You can’t be trite or use cliches because that’s a danger too. It’s a fine line between being trite and telling the truth.”