By the time news of the US COVID-19 crisis reached Santa Fe multi-instrumentalist Robby Rothschild in Australia last March, he was concerned he’d be trapped down under without a lifeline. The former Lizard House and Round Mountain member was touring as Kip “Seventeen” Winger’s drummer and, he says, the suspense was intense.
"There was real unease going on," he tells SFR, "and I almost thought I wasn't going to be able to get back into the country. I hadn't gotten to see my kids in a while…I was in this very raw, emotional space."
Rothschild also recently went through a separation and divorce from his longtime partner (though he's lightning-fast to praise his ex as a wonderful parent and longtime life collaborator), deepening what he already calls a propensity for melancholy.
Songs started forming in his head. Some grew from bits and pieces he'd worked on with his Round Mountain partner (Rothschild's brother, Char), others came new, fresher and more immediate. The process served both as a means to quiet down the darker thoughts, and also as a signpost that he could create independently from his brother and other musicians.
Rothschild did make it back to Santa Fe before Australia locked down in earnest around May of last year, but the resultant quarantine lengthened the separation from his children. Rothschild would spend two weeks in a friend's small casita near St. Francis Drive and Agua Fria Street., stuck in the depths of over-analytical thought -patterns and sheer loneliness. Songs started taking more cohesive shape. Rothschild would spend the next two weeks roping in musician friends to help him record his recently released self-titled debut EP (Ottmar Liebert, Jon Gagan, Dana Winograd and Yuko Shimokawa to name a few), and it seemingly signifies a new era for the local while reinforcing musical -aspects we know about him—and introducing things we don't. Oh, did I not mention Winger mastered the thing, too? Amazing.
Robby Rothschild feels like what we'd expect from an Americana songwriter at first, but the deeper one explores its six songs, the more surprises reveal themselves. Even on opener "Untie Me," Rothschild incorporates the subtlest Irish folk nod while deftly changing chords in unpredictable ways, taking the musicality to places both unexpected yet oddly inevitable. It's like when someone points something out and it all feels so obvious—only we'd never have thought it ourselves.
"I want to hold my truth so the blaze of youth can work me fully over," he sings on the track, dubbed "Untie Me," "An open fire on the white beaches…"
Art keeps us young, or at least receptive to new lessons, and it seems Rothschild is both lamenting the passage of time and place while staying open to whatever comes next.
"It had become something of a…if I imagine what COVID has felt like, it's felt like a changing point, and this album for me became the central focus of that," he says. "I could feel something in my body that this was what I wanted to do, the seeds to follow it further."
This is no more apparent than on "Encircled," the EP's midpoint and a return of the oceanic theme. "This aching's going to last," he sings; looking back, absorbing more change but accepting pain is a path to personal evolution. It's a tear-jerker, no doubt, but lacking in pretense—this motherfucker cuts deep and true right alongside Rothschild's almost-breaking vocal work. If one absolutely must liken his voice to a known entity, it's almost like someone hurt James Taylor real good, but this is no vocal facsimile, it's straight up one of the most sincere voice tracks I've heard in my entire life.
The EP closes out on a higher note with "Bead of Glass," a slow build piece of kora music (think of it like a West African cousin to the harp if you don't know the instrument) and tribute to fatherhood. This one stings, too, though not with loss or remembrance, but in that there is no purer love than that of a parent. Sea imagery loops back in again and Rothschild promises: "I give my soul to your eyes."
Goosebumps. Just gorgeous.
"And I've got more to say," Rothschild tells SFR, "but I like taking it as slowly as the situation requires which, in this moment, is kind of slow. It's like…you know when you start a fire, and sometimes you put down fresh kindling with old coals and you're trying to get the new wood to catch fire? If you do one really big, fast blow, nothing happens, but if you do it slowly and increase gradually, you finally coax it hot enough to ignite the wood."
If he's saying he has more to give musically or emotionally, I'll take it any day.
Ghost Light Sessions at the Lensic with Robby Rothschild: All Day Friday, Jan. 29. Free. lensic.org