By Jordan Reisman
Photo credit to Lucia de Giovanni.
When Rob Drabkin wants to take a break from the hustle and bustle (if that’s what you want to call it) of his hometown in Denver, he heads to the mountains of Winter Park, CO. This may read like a slick tourist agency brochure, but he finds that it’s easy to get his writing done where there are less distractions.
The singer-songwriter does whatever he can to give back to the Mile High City, which includes recording live albums at home early in his career. One of his first releases was in 2012, Rob Drabkin Live, which was recorded at the Bluebird Theater in Denver. The album gained notoriety in the jam/live music circuit though not so much among critics (as the jam community still in a way functions independently of the mainstream music media) for including a front-to-back “cover” of Paul Simon’s 1986 monster album, Graceland. Luckily for him, the project was an underground success and heads were turned to focus on Drabkin’s original releases.
“For me, it was very last minute and I called my recording guy and I was like, ‘I think we’re gonna have people there and it’s gonna have a good turnout. I think it’s gonna be a cool idea.’ We came out and everything went great and that was our first live record. It seemed to open a lot more doors for my career, whatever I was doing. That first live album seemed to open more doors than my prior studio albums [laughs]. It was cool though too because everyone had pigeon-holed me into this solo singer-songwriter that maybe has a band here and there but when you have something recorded and live and something that people can get into, for the band alone that opened up a lot of doors,” says Drabkin about his unlikely success.
The positive responses were mainly coming from the festival circuit who, after being exposed to an artist in his most primal live setting, decided to tune into what Drabkin was doing. The jam and festival circuits operate in such a way that if you’re part of it, you’re there for “the show” and when a peer covers such a respected album during that show then he’s suddenly part of the fold.
Drabkin says that he doesn’t think anyone else has really done that album and when his booking agent would try to get him gigs, being able to cover a classic record like Graceland from beginning to end worked as his own little passport to get in. However with “press,” he says that “I don’t think many people wrote about it” but it certainly made waves with the “live music scene.”
BTR was able to speak with him as he was enjoying the fruits of high altitude in one of his favorite “mountain spots.”
Drabkin’s creative process is all about finding his most comfortable spot, whether it be on the road or off the grid. However, he’s finding that his particular nature when it comes to this fluctuates. When asked where most often his favorite spot is, he replies: “My basement.” When it comes to the mountains, he likes Winter Park since a vibrant music scene isn’t too far away from the open air. While remote, the town is not so much a Bon Iver-esque escape as one might think.
He’s not really sure if the “retreat to nature” aspect is really part of his music, but tells BTR, “I’ll pretend to make outside influences like, ‘Oh, that’s totally mountain-inspired!’ but really, I have no idea.”
What it comes down to, really, is that he likes to work “anywhere where I can get a recording device and a pair of headphones.” What Drabkin focuses on is the actual work and whether or not he can get it on recording, as he says he’s not really a “notebook guy.” Mountains are all well and good and you can spin the reason why you go there into anything but as Drabkin knows, it’s all about what you’re putting out.
Drabkin’s 2013 release, Little Steps, conveys a certain maturity from the beginning of his career as many of the songs (with the exception of “Don’t Worry About Me”) possess structures and crescendos that are clearly not the product of an amateur. The growth process of all of this came from Drabkin’s devotion to open mics where he would play in front of opera singers, comedians, and poets. Over time he developed the confidence and proficiency in his playing that he has now.
“I love builds in songs, I’ve always loved that. I think that probably comes from just maybe a love of jam bands or a love of playing jazz; having solos lead to something. I’ve always had this habit of as soon as I’d start singing, I’d quiet my guitar down. I think that might be a big reason, I mean that kind of shows in the songs. Sometimes as soon as the vocals come in, the drums quiet down and we have no choice but to build from there,” says Drabkin.
Not speaking of build-ups, the single Drabkin most recently released from Little Steps was “Don’t Worry About Me” which is a more somber, introspective acoustic song complete with a full string section and a music video to boot. The video has an interesting narrative of Drabkin as a wayward drifter collecting messages in bottles to (what we can only assume is) a lost love. He didn’t really feel the need to make a video for the albums most joyful tune because “Don’t Worry About Me” offered more visually and artistically.
“It looks like that scene in The Goonies where they’re all coming out of the cave and it’s foggy and there’s driftwood everywhere. There’s giant rocks and the waves are crashing and it turned into a perfect setting for it. We didn’t want just a performance video and so we thought of some narrative. I suggested a ‘message in a bottle’; something like that. I think I just lit a little spark in him and he went with it and I just didn’t even question it.”
Don’t even question the message with Rob Drabkin by clicking here.
Check out Rob Drabkin’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.