Letters to Home
On the road with Robert Sarazin Blake
Robert Sarazin Blake
At the end of a Robert Sarazin Blake show, you half expect him to toss his belongings into a bandana, tie it to a stick and hop a freight train to the next town that suits his fancy. Blake, who has logged more than 200 shows per year for the better part of the last decade, is a throwback to a bygone era of American folk troubadours. He’s almost more at home on the road than in his home base of Bellingham, Wash.
Blake’s latest record, Put It All Down in a Letter, is a smudgy reflection of that rogue lifestyle and the observations gleaned from traveling America’s highways and byways. Recorded in a single impromptu session with Philadelphia band the Powder Kegs — who occasionally back Blake on tour — the album exudes an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous charm that’s likely familiar to anyone who has experienced the singer in person.
Seven Days recently caught up with Blake by phone from his home, in advance of his three gigs in Vermont this week. We chatted about life on the road, his new recording and meaningless distractions.
SEVEN DAYS: There are two epic “talking blues” songs on the record: “I Didn’t Call You From Philadelphia” and “Magic Hour on Baltimore Ave.” Are those off the cuff, or did you plan out the rants beforehand?
ROBERT SARAZIN BLAKE: They’re a little different, but they were recorded within the same half hour. “I Didn’t Call You” is a rant I’ve been working on for a year or so, and it’s different every night. In the studio, we really had the time to stretch out. Without the presence of an audience to entertain, we were able to get into the story deeper. And it was an experiment to see how far we could take it. We really had no idea if it would be something we’d ever share with anybody. With that one, there are some familiar themes that come up when I do the rant onstage live.
SD: And “Magic Hour”?
RSB: Complete improvisation. Nobody knew what was going to happen until I said, “E minor.” We just went.
SD: That sounds terrifying.
RSB: Well, we were recording that at the end of a tour, so it was somewhat fresh to me. I couldn’t do that just anytime. It was a special moment. Now, that said, when I’m on the road, I’ll probably do an “I Didn’t Call You” ramble every night. And there will be similar themes. But it will always be an improvisation.
SD: That must make the potential for an onstage train wreck pretty high. How often do the wheels come off?
RSB: Well, that’s what makes it exciting. And, yeah, it can train wreck. But you just use a train wreck. If it starts to fall apart, that’s another tool in your belt. And that’s the nature of live improv. I always have an escape, because I have 10 albums’ worth of songs that I can play. So, were the ramble to fall apart, hey, I also know songs!
SD: The recording session being relatively unplanned, the album doesn’t sound as though all of the arrangements were, for lack of a better phrase, fully conceptualized. There’s a lot left open to interpretation.
RSB: Absolutely. And I wouldn’t be embarrassed about that. There are a lot of different ways to make a recording, and there are ups and downs. Some of the songs are still being edited. As an artist, you have this experience that, while it’s great to get songs down while they’re fresh, when you go out on the road and play ’em for a year, you notice how they change and grow. And you think, It’d be great to record them now, once they’re established. But I think it was great that the forces aligned when they did, when there was such a sense of adventure about every note.
SD: “Tiger Woods Boom Boom” seems like surprising subject matter for you. What attracted you to his story?
RSB: Well, I wasn’t attracted to his story. What I’m curious about is the distracted lives we’re living as consumers of pop culture. There are two stories going on. And the one we’re being fed is a total distraction, i.e., Tiger Woods. And the ones that really matter to our lives, we’re ignoring: the housing crisis, economic collapse. That’s the duality of our American lives. And that’s what I’m getting at in that song.
SD: It seems that, for you, touring is more a lifestyle choice than a means to an end.
RSB: Because I live so far away from everyone else, my tours have had to be long. So there’s a geographic force there. Then there’s the fact that I’ve loved it. I love being gone and being in the moment. The older I get, I realize I need it to make sense financially. But that’s not the motivator. I love the experience. I love being on the road.
SD: And those experiences seem to manifest themselves in your songwriting. How much material do you write from the road?
RSB: This album has a few songs. But I rarely get any serious work done on the road. But I do scribble down ideas. Then I come home to the rainy Northwest and hermit away, and I fall back into the moments where the scribbles went down and sort of see if they take any shape. So the rainy Northwest is just as much a part of it as the road. I need both.