Jonathan Frahm:Your upcoming album is entitled The Distance. At what point did you realize that that was the name you wanted to go with for the record, and why?
Robert Gillies:That’s actually a great question, and it’s a great question because the album name is something that I’ve held onto for a while. I’ll start with when it was decided and then tell you about the why. I actually decided way back in January 2012, and I made that decision the day that I wrote “L.A. Rain” in that hotel room in Los Angeles. I just knew that that was going to be on a new record called The Distance. I just knew that had to be the name of the next record. I didn’t have an idea of any of the other songs that would be on the record, or what it would be like at all outside of “L.A. Rain,” but I knew that that had to be its name. No major steps were taken to work with it for even another year after that. It’s funny because I think that, so often, unless you start out with a title, you’ll go hunting for a title mid-production when you’ve decided what tracks you’ve got and go “Oh, we can name it after this song, or one of the lyrics in this other song.” I just knew from the get-go as soon as I wrote “L.A. Rain” that The Distance was what I wanted to do.
JF:On The Distance, you showcase a lot of different sounds, to an even surprisingly apt degree. For example, “I May Not Wake” is a soulful piano ballad, “Carry You Home” has some very country-esque elements, and in “Dreaming About You, Love,” you play with some strong blues and jazz elements. Where did you draw inspiration from when developing these different types of songs for the record, and have them fit together so seamlessly? Was it intentional?
RG:It’s funny because one of the things that I struggle with is making sure that there’s some sort of cohesion on a record. When I was writing it, I didn’t know how cohesive it was going to be; I just knew that I wanted certain themes to be touched on, I wanted certain sounds to be there. Only when Charlie Wilson and I were in pre-production did I realize how diverse the songs were, and we had gone through up to 10 different track list variations asking ourselves, “How do we best make this record flow, because it’s so diverse? There’s so many different styles!” When I write a record, one of the most important things is to make it sound totally consistent regardless of diversity. What we did was have the same players on every track and record all of the songs in the same day, just so that, if anything, there was going to be a sonic cohesion. We were going to have the same people and the same instrument, and even though there was such a change between each song, you had that big thing in common between each of them at the end of the day. I think that’s part of the reason it works. You have the same group of people, with the same instruments, and even though each song is a different style, the overall entity remains the same. So ultimately I think it was the group that helped it actually stick together as one piece of art, otherwise it could’ve been so completely all over the place. [laughs] I was actually concerned for a while, until we started throwing the parts in and fine-tuning it.
JF:What stood out about these 10 songs together that ultimately set them apart from other songs that you could’ve tracked, but didn’t?
RG:We started out with about 30 different songs. I’ve ended up with a third, total, of what we had, and I think, going into it, I wanted to make sure that I could showcase what I’m capable of doing as a songwriter. The songs that I picked were ones that I felt like were some of the best songs I’d written, hands down, during the period of time which we were working on the album in pre-production, or songs in which I could showcase all of my different styles. I’ve never wanted to be pigeonholed or put in a box, so part of my reaction to that was writing as many different styles as possible. There were actually a lot of songs that I would’ve had on the record if they accentuated diversity and cohesion as the 10 that were tracked do. I have a lot of songs that are very mellow and would’ve given the album a more Elliott Smith vibe than I would’ve intended, you know, so I ultimately kept them off even though I really did want them. I had to make some hard calls to keep songs like “Lucy Little” and “You Are Who You Are” on the record without them seeming out of place. The good thing out of it all, though, is that there’s songs that I want on future records that I’ve gotten fully written today.
JF:When it came to funding the project on IndieGoGo, what drove you towards using that service as opposed to similar websites, like Kickstarter or Pledge Music?
RG:It’s funny, actually. IndieGoGo wasn’t my first choice. Kickstarter was. The funny thing was that it was completely circumstantial. At least at the beginning. I liked Kickstarter; I used it for Astronaut. The service used to be a lot more accessible than it is now, and with me being a foreigner, there were certain hoops that I had to jump through in order to use Kickstarter again. It just didn’t work out, as a non-citizen. I had already designed a layout and rewards packages by the time I ended up finding out about these hoops. I put a lot of hours in, and I was disappointed. I told myself that “This needs to happen so freaking quickly,” and we’d hit this wall when I’d be talking about this album to everyone for months. I’d had a few friends who did use IndieGoGo before, though, and they recommended it, which was funny because, to me, I’d always seen it as the guy at a party awkwardly hanging out in the corner that no one wants to talk to. [laughs] I went and checked it out, though, and said, “Holy cow. This is actually a really great platform. It’s accessible, it’s fun, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to use.” So, I typed up my IndieGoGo fundraiser super quickly and got started. The decision came down to, “Is it easy? Yes. Okay. Let’s go with it.”
JF:At what point did you realize that you wanted to be a singer-songwriter for a living, and at what point did you realize that this dream could actually, maybe, become a reality? How did you feel in that very moment, and do you still sometimes feel that way to this day?
RG:You know, I had been songwriting relatively late, or at least compared to a lot of my friends. I was about 19 when I started writing songs, and it wasn’t until I was 22 or 23 that I felt I had to make a decision about which direction I was going to go in. I realized by that point that I’d been writing songs solidly; I loved doing it, and people were really enjoying what I was writing. That, for me, was really the kicker. I was getting super positive reactions from everyone I was playing for. I was thinking “Okay, I think there’s something in this!” That’s when I started looking at going into Berklee. I could’ve just had a career as a writer, and playing open mic, but I wanted to go somewhere to be placed in a pressure cooker because I was almost 25 and needed to get my butt kicked. That’s why I went to Berklee, to really take things to the next level. In terms of when I started to believe that I could make a living from this and have a degree of success as a songwriter or as a singer, it’s… I gotta be honest, it’s up and down all the time. I’ve heard people who’ve won Grammy’s who feel like their career is up and down. You hit points that you feel like you’re really on it, and other times, your calendar’s empty, you’ve got no shows lined up, and no one’s talking about you. It’s so self-propelled. There were moments. When I was on Ellen, I was like, “I’ve totally got this. This is great.” Opening for bands like A Great Big World and artists like Andy Grammar, or when I’ve placed highly in songwriting competitions… Those are the big things that tell me I’m doing something right, but the biggest thing is when I get messages from people. When I hear that somebody likes my music on Facebook or Twitter, or via an email, and lets me know that I’ve done makes a difference for them. Those make me feel good about what I do, but it’s still up and down all the time. There was even a time when I first graduated Berklee around March of 2011 that I was in Boston and told myself, “I don’t think I could do this. What if I just quit?” [laughs] I do feel, though, that every piece of positive feedback that I get propels me forward and keeps me going a bit. I really appreciate all of it.
JF:Assessing your greatest ups and downs as a singer-songwriter, and as a person, in life thus far, how have these instances helped in growing as an artist?
RG:I feel like, when I first started out, I was writing just because I enjoyed doing it, and it was fun. I was writing stuff that I enjoyed, but it definitely wasn’t a conscious response to what was going on in my life. I feel like what makes The Distance an interesting record is that every single one of those songs is a response to something that I’ve gone through. Astronaut definitely had that, but I feel like it was a bit comparatively contrived; I don’t feel like it had the same gut in it. With the songs that I’ve put together for this album, I feel like I’ve let myself feel the real ups and downs. I wasn’t just going “This thing made me slightly upset, or this thing made me feel pretty good, so let’s write about it!” It was “Oh wow, that was a big occurrence in my life,” and reflected based off of that. The one song that gets me on The Distance is “I May Not Wake,” because it’s a response to gut-wrenching, and I never envisioned myself writing a song like this. I didn’t ever want to write a song, come right out of the gate and say, “Hey, guys! This song is about terrible things!” [laughs] I felt like the only way I was going to get better and more sensitive and more in touch with my own life and with others’ lives was to tackle the big things, the things that really hit me. “Here Comes The End” is one of those songs as well. The ups and downs have always been there, but when I had first gotten in tune with them and allowed myself to not just as a writer or a musician, but as a man, that was when I really had gotten a grasp of how to incorporate them into my songs and really connect with others.
JF:Are you a vegetarian?
RG:Wait, what? [laughs] I was about a year ago, and I was for a while, but I quit.
JF:So, you eat meat now?
JF:Good. That’ll make my dad’s question pertinent. Do you like barbecued chicken or burgers better?
RG:Oh man, oh man… I would say that… God, that’s a hard question. Chicken is a good meat; you can do so much with it, and it absorbs flavor. So, if you do it the right way, chicken is so freaking malleable, but with a good hamburger, there’s nothing that tastes like it. It’s such a hard question, but right now I’m going for the hamburger.
JF:And any closing statements?
RG:Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how challenging anything is when you’re dealing with low self-esteem. I deal with it a lot, and people are very surprised when I tell them this since I don’t seem like the type of guy who’d deal with this kind of stuff. I only bring this up because it’s something that I go through a lot, myself, and always have, and working on this album, 50% of the battle has been working through that. Every step of the way, I’d have a little voice in the back of my head telling me that “this sucks” or “you can’t do this.” The entire thing has been a battle feeling like I couldn’t. I just want people to know that, if they’re suffering from low self-esteem, it’s not a death sentence for your life kind-of thing. It’s something that you can work with. It’s definitely a big barrier, but it can only beat you if you let it. When I’ve been working on this record, I’ve learned that doing things with other people who really appreciate what you yourself are doing, as an artist, that that’s the best way to beat low self-esteem, that lack of confidence. You can only do so much yourself, and I’d always wanted to be a self-reliant type of guy, and letting people help me, made all of the difference. You can’t just be a stereotypical man and say “Oh man, I want to do this all on my own so I will!” It’s obvious to let people help you, and if you open yourself up, then it does make a huge difference. Thank you.
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