This could be a difficult interview.

The cover photograph of ‘Cracked Picture Frames’, Robert Chaney’s debut album, is black and white; he seems to be looking away, somewhat disinterested from the photographer’s lenses. His eyes are mainly covered by a long dark fringe. Chaney doesn’t look particularly happy. Oh, and then there is the small matter of his lyrical themes – A hit and run incident with a cyclist, Granny protecting her nephew from the Devil by stabbing him through the eyes, and domestic violence told from the point of view of the perpetrator. We’ve not even mentioned the love songs yet.

The only comfort I can take at this time is to confirm no animals were injured in the making of this album.

I’m at The Railway Tavern in Dalston in London, waiting for Robert Chaney. A guy arrives; his appearance is similar to my interviewee. He is, however, greeting people with handshakes, smiles, looking bright, cheerful, and very polite. We may have an imposter in the room!

This small and intimate gig was chosen as it allows Chaney to play songs from the still yet-to-be-released ‘Cracked Picture Frames’, and also gives a sneak preview of it to a lucky few. (The actual release date is April 26th, and its showcase launch is April 28th at the Servant Jazz Quarters, also in Dalston.).

Chaney moved from his home in South Florida to London two years ago. “I needed to expand my music, writing and horizons in general,” he tells me over a beer. “The opportunity came about to live and work in London, so I was more than happy to take it when the move fell into place,” He arrived in London, not knowing anyone in the music industry. So, with guitar in hand, he took his chance at an open mic gig at the Green Note in Camden.

“Oh man, when I got to the venue, the guys (potential players) were lining up into the street, just to register for a slot,” he recalls with a smile and shake of his head. “They put me on last.”

It, however, all worked out for Chaney as producer Ken Brake was watching his last-on- the-bill performance. He liked what he heard, and asked if he was interested in putting an album together. Soon after they started working in Brake’s London studio recording Chaney’s songs over a number of months, resulting in the completion of ‘Cracked Picture Frames’. The album’s title is taken from a line in one of the songs, ‘Patch It Up’.

Chaney was a late starter in writing his own songs and playing live gigs. Originally from Washington D.C., he learned to play chords on his father's guitar, who had his own band playing local venues. He was 25 before his songwriting skills blossomed. “As a teenager I grew up listening to Nirvana, the Beatles from my parents' record collection and Boston-based bands such as the Breeders. As I started to get better on guitar, I took more notice of chord arrangements and formatting of songs. I guess Dylan was a big influence at the time.” He recalls with a snap of his fingers…”Darby and Tarlton, man, I love those guys. They are from way back, late 20’s early 30’s. You should check them out,” he tells me, obviously a big fan of the duo.

Chaney played guitar and drums with various bands in South Florida, soon realising he was better suited to being a solo artist. It was his move to London which prompted a move towards a solo career.

“I’d started to write my own material and had a bunch of half decent songs. The music of Judee Sill, Paul Clayton and Jean Ritchie of Folkway Records I always found inspirational. I’d listen to how they construct a song, building up a story verse by verse. ‘The Cyclist’, for example, is about how people react to situations, how they see them happen and then cover them up. It’s a step process. Everyone has a cover-up story. That’s where I’m going with the narrative of the song,” he explains.

His lyrics are dark, menacing, concerning, thought-provoking and entertaining. I ask him, more wishing an answer on him, “I take it these stories are fictional. Yes?

“Er, no,” he tentatively replies. “I’m proud of the album. I think it’s different, I want to play the songs and want people to listen. ‘The Cyclist’ is one of my favourites from the album. I wrote it on a train from London to Cambridge. It just spilled out in one sitting. Others like ‘Black Eyed Susan’ tell the story of an abusive relationship, but from the perpetrator’s perspective. I’m not sure that has been done before, I thought I’d try it. ‘The Ballad of Edward and Lisa’ is a true story, it happened to a former co-worker. A grandmother stabbed her nephew through the eyes to save him from the Devil, leaving him to die.” Without a glint of irony, he adds, “It’s the goriest song on the album.”

“..And the love songs?” I ask.

“Yeah those are me. That’s personal stuff being played out. ‘The Morning After’ is just that, those regrets and leftovers, like perfume and lipstick being a reminder of what seemed like a good idea at the time”. He moves on quickly. ‘(I Didn’t Want Her) Anyway’…I wrote that about a relationship which wasn’t working out.” Chaney takes a drink of beer and moment of reflection.

There is a decent-sized audience and getting bigger when Chaney begins his set with ‘Patch It Up’, a song where he’s asking his “darlin’” to come home so they can work out past misunderstandings. His languid drawl lurches from resignation to anger at the love torn situation.

‘The Ballad of Edward and Lisa’ is a happy little ditty! The story, as I’ve mentioned, is about someone having their eyes gouged out, and also the subsequent TV headline of “South Florida woman arrested, for stabbin’ a boy through the eyes.” Whilst the theme is, shall we say different, it highlights and encapsulates Chaney’s ability to convey such a brutal, true story with an uncanny tenderness.

The song is over five minutes long, runs to over 300 words with nearly 40 lines of narrative, but not a word is wasted.

Be it the stabber Lisa, asking for redemption from the Lord, or Jason, calling to the police having found Edward “crying red tears from his eyes,” Chaney describes both his characters and weaves his words with emotion and tension, before concluding that “the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

‘The Cyclist’ has a similar scope covering time and words, again playing out a dark menacing story.

“I’ve had only one love in my life/She and my brother were married/But her eyes were mine/And the same with her heart and the babies she carried.”

As the story unfolds Chaney’s voice, cracks, wobbles, and trembles through the lies and deceit of their relationship. On the drive back from “sweating out their demons”, they hit a cyclist and leave him to die in the road. Listening to Chaney’s lyrics is akin to walking in bare feet trying to avoid broken glass, wondering which tangent the story will take next. Fear not, the secret lovers get their comeuppance.

Chaney really does sing from the heart. He has immense concentration and focus when he is performing, and looks as if he is trancing out in order to meet the demons of his songs head on.

By this stage the audience know attentive listening is the key component, or you may miss the punch line. None more so than on ‘Does Your Love Payout in Full?’ The song explores a woman’s decision to sell herself in body and soul, in return for material wealth. Whilst the set and songs are littered with lyrical gems, the line “You can still be poor lyin’ in a rich man’s bed” thrusts a deep metaphorical dagger into the psyche of those who take that path.

Be it Chaney live or on his studio album, he plays without any type of backing. It’s back-to-basics. He can play a finger picking style, or accompany some songs with a gentle strumming style across simple chords. I was caught up with his pithy, earthy vocals rather being hooked on his guitar virtuoso too much. Either way, first and foremost, he’s a solo performer.

It’s often said certain singer-songwriters are fine at small venues, move them into a larger venue and they become lost. At this small venue Chaney has interacted, enticed and captured his audience. One punter who came late to the party has a request when Chaney says that this is his last song…”Can you play them all again?”

At 33 years old, Chaney has kicked off his musical career with an exceptionally fine debut album. If this performance can be used as a bellwether, his direction is towards those larger venues.

He plays numerous venues across London during the spring and summer months. Catch ones of his gigs when you can. He’s different and a little scary when he morphs into the singer/songwriter/performer, Robert Chaney.

Photographs by Pat Wallace-Yoxford.

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