A Calling to Music
by Karissa Perry
Photograph courtesy of Luke Urbanzcyk
Raw and soulful, singer-songwriter Griffin Robillard finished his education at Boston College and is now hitting the stage for his first tour. His debut album, Cracks in the Ceiling, is set to release on September 15th and he already has an East Coast tour lined up to perform his original music. The Buzz got the chance to catch up with Robillard and follow him through his journey from hardcore Beatles fan to folk-rock musician.
Buzz: Growing up, did you think you would take on music more professionally or how did you get started? I understand that you were born in Minneapolis, Minnesota and later moved to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Robillard: Correct. Well, I never thought I’d be doing this (laughs) but I was definitely into music. It sort of kind of happened in my teen years for sure and I was obsessed with music as a kid. I was always playing it in my bedroom. I never actually thought about pursing it. I didn’t know you could actually write songs until I was fifteen. It was just something musicians did, you know, there was a stark divide between the listener and the musician.
Buzz: Who did you listen to growing up?
Robillard: I was obsessed with Neil Young. The Beatles have always been up there. For sure, The Doors - I think my dad had a Best of The Doors CD which I pretty much played nonstop. And then, I also liked those early 70’s folks. Just pretty classic groups. It was sort of what was passed down. The Shins really changed my life.
Buzz: When would you say things shifted for you musically? You went to Boston for college and also spent a year in Denmark. Did that have an impact at all?
Robillard: I had a vocational dedication to songwriting. I never thought of pursuing it beyond my own interest and I wrote about half the album in Boston about two years ago and the other half was living in Denmark. The songs are actually not all that different from each other – the ones written before and after. I don’t know, it just felt like something I was called to do. There wasn’t really a switch or shift that went on. I think it’s always been on. I actually skied Division 1 when I was in college so I didn’t really have much time to do my music, which was pretty frustrating, but also my own doing. So, it’s always been there; I’ve just been tending to it recently.
Buzz: Your music is described as “folk-tinged indie rock.” How did you come to develop that sound?
Robillard: (laughs) “Folk-tinged indie rock” Yeah, I think it’s born out of my influences. This is the first full-length album I’ve ever done and I couldn’t have it any other way and this album is sort of what I’d want out of my influences my whole life. Sonically, it’s just a combination of those influences. Some of my band members describe it as folk songs with glam rock over it. It’s mostly born out of all the big music I like.
Buzz: Tell me about your time in college.
Robillard: So I just graduated and I studied English. I stumbled into it but I switched around a bunch. I kind of studied creative writing as well. I think my education helped with my work ethic. You know, you go to arts school to hone your craft but it really helps with discipline. It also gave me the time to read a lot, which was nice and certainly a privilege.
Buzz: Do you have a certain writing method or process?
Robillard: I don’t really have a methodology. I think you have to sit down in a chair first - that’s step one. (laughs) From there, it’s exploration like anything else and once you get the initial thought down there it’s just kind of sitting down and walking through it. I would say I write very slowly. If I have time, I will take a whole morning. Usually, by the afternoon, I’m sick of it. But you have to make time for it or else it doesn’t happen. I try to be as consistent as possible but I think that’s tough for people who aren’t full-time musicians. I think it’s very specific. My writing habits stem more from prose writers – I don’t know what other songwriters do. It seems like it’s all pretty similar unless you’re like Bob Dylan and you write for thirty minutes a day and it’s like four songs.
Buzz: You’re a guitarist as well. Are you self-taught or did you have lessons?
Robillard: (laughs) A mediocre one at that. I learned at a young age but it ended up being self-taught because I was really stubborn and my dad instructed. Live, I really prefer to just sing. It just makes for a better show.
Buzz: The album’s called Cracks in the Ceiling. Is there any meaning behind that title?
Robillard: So the title came from a song on the album and it felt like it sort of wrapped up all the themes that the rest of the songs had. There’s sort of an undercurrent of something opening but it’s just kind of a nice, symmetrical title in terms of the C’s.
Buzz: What would you say is the theme of the album?
Robillard: I think that it’s sort of a new start, but it’s also – I’ve come to terms with being kind of a s***** person. Hope, despair, doubt, uncertainty – all of that.
Buzz: What was the process like of releasing an album?
Robillard: I recorded the album about a year ago and I thought I’d release it in February but I was still in school so touring wasn’t really an option. So I had an excruciating wait to release it until this Friday (September 15th, 2017). I have about twenty dates lined up for this month between Boston and Minneapolis but a lot of it is just been getting my ducks in the row to be on the road for a month. So (laughs) a lot of the fun, art stuff is sort of over for the time being. Now it’s a lot of practical affairs.
Buzz: Who were your biggest support systems throughout this journey?
Robillard: Definitely Pati (deVries), my publicist, but my producer, Jon Niess, is a friend as well. He’s also a good guy if you have questions because he’s been in the business for twenty years so he’s knowledgeable. My dad, for sure as well. You really can’t do it alone - a sort of dysfunctional team.
Buzz: How did you decide which songs would be on the album?
Robillard: I’m pretty calculated when it comes to what’s included. I’m like that because it just takes me so long. “In Your Own Way” is the only non-single, but that’s available for pre-order. I chose that one because I like it and it was a sort of secret to fans if they pre-order. There was a lot of stuff that was three-quarters written and I just abandoned it because it wasn’t any good. The nine tracks were sort of my vision and there was nothing beyond that.
Buzz: How do you feel about touring and performing your own original content?
Robillard: I performed quite a bit around Boston but in terms of performing every night, I am not used to that. We’ll see how that goes. It’s my first big tour so I’m sort of ambivalent towards it but it’s new, it’s exciting, but we’ll see if my voice holds up. One can only hope.
Buzz: Do you have anything you do before performing?
Robillard: I don’t have superstitions or rituals. A glass of whiskey. Just a solid glass of whiskey.
Buzz: What are your goals or hopes for this album?
Robillard: I hope people hear it. In terms of artistic merit, I hope it’s appreciated. That’s what any artist hopes. But commercially, no expectations; that’s not up to me.
Buzz: If there was one thing you want listeners to take away from your album, what would it be?
Robillard: I hope they just realize how good we are live. I’ve got a sweet band and great musicians. Yeah, just come out, get drunk, and have a good time.
13 Sep Boston, MA Middle East Downstairs
17 Sep New York, NY Pianos
21 Sep Norfolk, VA Borjo Coffeehouse
22 Sep Newark, DE Grain Craft
23 Sep Mt. Joy, PA Bubes
24 Sep Baltimore, MD The Depot
27 Sep Cleveland, OH Wilbert’s
13 Oct Minneapolis, MN Palmer's