Durham chilled in February: Though the temperature spiked to 75 degrees during a mid-month warm stretch, there was a smattering of snow, several days spent just above the freezing point and an average maximum temperature around 55 degrees.
But Justin Robinson—a Gastonia, N.C., native who's lived here since beginning school at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2002—was warm in the sunshine of Pasadena, Calif. It was peaking into the 90s out west, he remembers, and he could always escape the heat in the climate-controlled environs of Joe Henry's Garfield House recording studio.
In Pasadena, Robinson was recording the major-label debut of his three-piece African-American string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops. The eight-day session was a major production—nine or so fancy microphones capturing any one performance, an engineer working to get the proper sounds in the right place, the Grammy-winning Henry listening in. Folk music, but with pop tools.
Indeed, for a band that met at a conference of black banjo players in the Appalachian mountains and has since specialized in ebulliently recasting nearly forgotten reservoirs of traditional American folk music, the Drops have become something of a mainstream attraction: In 2007, the band was the star of an early scene of Denzel Washington's historical drama The Great Debaters, contributing several tunes to its soundtrack. They've served as festival attractions, toured Europe, and landed a spot on A Prairie Home Companion. In April, the trio announced a deal with Nonesuch Records, the Warner Bros. Records subsidiary that's home to Emmylou Harris, Wilco and David Byrne.
Mastering those traditional songs was once Robinson's hobby while studying or working a service job. When touring those tunes around the world became a profession, though, he needed another outlet. On the road with the Drops in Europe, he started writing his first solo songs, building eclectic little sketches he came to collect as the band Birds or Monsters. When Robinson returned to North Carolina from California in March, he reacted against the prestigious studio's fine grain, recording quirky pop songs with folk instruments—an autoharp, a banjo, a bass, his distant voice—in two small local studios with Greg Humphreys. March in Durham was chillier still, and this time, Robinson didn't necessarily have control over the temperature.
"We couldn't figure out how to turn the heat on that day, so we were just really cold," says Robinson, sweat dripping onto the collar of his thin plaid shirt as he sips the remnants of a bright red margarita outside of Chubby's, a taco joint on Durham's 9th Street drag on a sticky late-May day. "That gives it another dimension. Some of those takes when it's so cold are so harsh and sort of scary. They feel like it was cold in the room. That's kind of awesome."
The material might come as a surprise to those expecting a solo Drop outing: Robinson mines hip-hop groove, Balearic flair and wayward indie pop, unifying it all with impressionistic glimpses of narrative, askance historical references and creaky production. The ideas are nebulous, but the hooks are mostly immediate. A violinist since childhood, Robinson played almost all of the instruments in the sessions, including bass, which he'd never before touched. He extols the project's experimental, trial-by-trying approach.
"I'm attracted to things that aren't perfect. I like the antithesis of mainstream perfection, being polished and being clean," admits Robinson, who came into folk music by finding a clutch of tattooed punks who were playing it. "Maybe it's a reaction to that: People aren't perfect. There's something human and more humanizing about that. That's actually me on stage. I could clean up every note and everything, but then it's not interesting. It doesn't feel like someone actually created that."
But Robinson's issue isn't one of authenticity as much as it is one of personal relevancy. By now, he insists, the Drops aren't simply a conduit for allowing old forms to survive. It's a band, and his chief goal is to enjoy making the music. Still, sometimes he feels that those old songs don't speak to him, as if he's the performer shut off from his own performances. So, instead, he's now borrowing from those old traditions to make something he can call his own.
Cue "Kissin' & Cussin," the brilliant original tune that will appear both on the Birds or Monsters debut, Ideas of the North, and the Drops' still untitled Nonesuch premiere. The song adapts its title and hook from Ike & Tina Turner and lifts lyrics from "James Alley Blues," one of a handful of cuts recorded by obscure bluesman Richard "Rabbit" Brown: "Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die." Robinson coos and moans, an air of foreboding clawing through the mix.
"He was saying something in a way that spoke to his generation. It's sung in this really jovial way, and I went a totally different direction," he says, deriding the domestic violence the song's 1927 presentation condones and maybe even encourages. "That song is about the relationships people have that are so volatile, physically and emotionally, that it's, 'I love you so much that I will kill you.'"
He has friends, he promises, who can identify with that feeling, even if he's singing it above an autoharp strum.
Birds or Monsters makes its live debut Friday, June 5, at Durham's Bull City Headquarters. Humble Tripe opens the show at 9 p.m. Donations are suggested.