For the last five years, Wood Robinson has held down the bass position for Chapel Hill's Mipso, largely remaining in the shadows while performing an occasional lead vocal on a verse and contributing to arrangements more than the initial songwriting process. While "The Tide," the first of his originals, appeared on Mipso's 2012 LP, Long, Long Gone, Robinson found that his own songs were better off as a separate project from Mipso's modern string-band style.
Revisiting his days playing jazz as a young teenager through college—he was performing with combos and big bands in conjunction with the UNC jazz department when he took up folk and bluegrass with Mipso—Robinson began recording his own tunes more than two years ago for New Formal, where he blends acoustic jazz with bits of rock and Americana. On Wood Robinson's New Formal, the new record that Robinson will be celebrating in Carrboro Saturday night, he tells melancholy tales of a traveling musician, depicting snapshots of America along the way.
INDY: How does it feel to step into the spotlight as lead vocalist and songwriter on this project?
WOOD ROBINSON: Being a bassist, I never really thought of myself as being anything of a frontman. That's kind of the reason I got into the instrument. But I started writing a bunch of songs and realized that, stylistically, they didn't fit so well into the Mipso canon. Over the years, that just kind of kept going and I didn't want to stop recording. At a certain point, I had a whole record.
It's scary because my role artistically in Mipso is more of a vessel through which these songs can live and not so much being the initial creative force, but now I inhabit both of those roles for New Formal. So it's kind of a scary thing because the whole progress of the project rests on my shoulders. The only real artistic director is myself.
How do you approach songwriting as someone who primarily works as a bassist?
Most of it starts on guitar, but I wrote a couple of them on piano. Once I've kind of put the melody and lyrics together on guitar or piano, I usually put some sort of ideas on the bass. I think that's the central place of the groove, so I write the feel on the bass.
That was the other reason for the existence of this project—I was looking for a pocket, that communication between the bass and the drums, which I hadn't really done since I was in college. I was thinking of these songs as inhabiting kind of a funkier or a more rock 'n' roll role.
When you brought in the other players on the record, how did you shape their contributions?
I didn't micromanage it so much, but I did communicate what I wanted the feel to be and I might have suggested a song that I wanted mine to allude to, in terms of the groove. For instance, I wanted "Desdemona" to sound like Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" in terms of the syncopated rhythm. I would say, "Think of that when you're playing it," but I mostly just played my song for them, gave them a couple thoughts, and then we performed it.
When you first started playing bluegrass and folk, what were the similarities and differences that you found with playing jazz?
The differences are more apparent than the similarities, in that melodically and harmonically, bluegrass is simpler than jazz. But the role that the bass plays in them is close to identical, particularly in swing music—not so much in funk or in free jazz. In swing and in bluegrass or folk, the whole role of the bass is to be that pulse. It's to translate the harmony to the rhythm to the melody. It makes it all make sense and makes people feel it more. It took me a long time to really own that as a beautiful similarity between seemingly very distinct types of music.
Are you planning on this just being a one-off side project?
The only shows I have planned are over the next month, but I'm going to keep writing songs for it and I'm excited to play these songs with a different band than the one I recorded with. I hope to get a better idea of what the New Formal sound is by performing it a bunch of times, because the only way I've performed these songs live is on acoustic guitar in coffeehouses, so this is going to be a different context. Maybe I'll get a better idea of how I want it to sound for another record, but I'm going to have to wait to record again.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Just a Formality."