Vikesh Kapoor,
The TVD Interview

The Ballad of Willy Robbins is Vikesh Kapoor’s loose concept album about a working class man whose life crumbles and he loses his health, wife, and home. After playing for Howard Zinn’s family at the late historian’s memorial service in Boston, Kapoor was inspired to write the album over the course of two years in Portland. What resulted was a beautiful collection of stories of determination, grit, and the nuances of the human condition.

Kapoor is often compared to the great Americana folk singers like Pete Seegar and Woody Guthrie, but Kapoor tells me that his music isn’t intentionally political. Rather it’s the tradition of telling stories of the working class that Kapoor has revived. He stands out among many artists who live and produce music within a highly digitized world where songs are churned out constantly and consistently and put together by a producer on a computer.

Last Sunday’s (2/16) Schuba’s crowd warmly welcomed Kapoor’s raw pickings of the guitar, the bluesy sound of the harmonica, and Kapoor’s clear, full vocals. It’s true, most of the audience did not know Kapoor before Sunday but once he started singing, the entire room fell silent—and not in the way that implied that the show was boring, rather the audience had every intent to listen and connect with the stories they were told. Here was an actively listening audience—something that can be a rarity for those talented but still unknown musicians embarking on a major tour for the first time.

Just before the show, we sat in the basement of the legendary Chicago venue and reveled in the fact that so many great musicians had sat where we’d been sitting, drinking beer, and warming up to play. We talked about what it’s like to tour alone, Willy Robbins, and of course, vinyl.

You were just signed to Loose Records. Congratulations.

Thanks. There’s some really cool American [artists] on the label but it’s a UK label so it’s giving the record a proper release in Europe so it’s pretty exciting. It’s still new. What I do know is that it’ll now give me a good reason to go to Europe so we are working on that right now.

Do you feel compelled to tell this story because there is a lack of these kinds of stories in songs?

I don’t know. I just felt like at least in the genre I’m working in there’s a lot of people singing about nothing. I like that there’s a lot of good music but they’re not really saying much that’s not really being said already in pop music. And I guess I just felt like I wanted to write an album that tried to say something a little different or say something more than just “I love you,” you know?

That’s not to knock it. I love those kinds of songs too. This just was kind of like, I read that story, it’s been a while since I read that story, and wrote the title track kind of right when the recession was happening, and right before that there was kind of a general apathy about things too and I wanted to try to capture that a bit, you know?

You’re compared a lot to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan. I wonder if there’s a sense of activism in your songs as well or is it about telling the stories?

Not like political activism. That could be a by-product of it as far as people like Seeger and Dylan, early Dylan, they did move people to action maybe. Especially Seegar, but they were still pieces of art. It wasn’t like journalism or a political agenda necessarily. There were definitely singers like that at the time. But I think it’s kind of just like writing about things that resonated within me and then you know, maybe compelled me even more to write those things because I didn’t see it being done and it could have been much easier for me to release a debut album of my ten best songs you know? But I wanted to do this. It’s kind of a curveball and it’s a slow burner kind of a record I think.

I don’t hear a lot of the music you’re putting out. Meaning, the type of stuff I’m listening to or that is sent to me or whatever it is, is like one track so much production and you’re one person with a guitar and a harmonica. Your music is fresh sounding. So, what’s your relationship with vinyl? The first piece of merch I had of yours from way back in the day is your 7”, “Newspress Scare” what’s your story with vinyl? Do you have vinyl at home?

I’m traveling more and more so it becomes an issue having something like that. But the idea of physical product for sure. Even how this album is constructed. Following a narrative through the entire thing, it’s kind of old-fashioned in a sense that it’s an entity. You want the build to listen to. Whether that’s a CD or vinyl and I just don’t want things to become more and more disposable especially when these are things that I want to make that will last.

And if so that means they’re gonna last because people are listening to it on a vinyl rather than just shuffling through it on Spotify or something like that, then I’m all for it. Because I kind of think of that in the same sense of you know, I get sad, and I do this. Bit when we just kind of capture our memories on an iPhone and one day we might lose all of those photos and those memories and there’s never an album that we’re gonna make [with the photos].

And in one sense it’s relieving because there’s not as much stuff, physical stuff. And another way it’s kind of like things become more and more disposable. And this album, for instance I worked so hard on it for many years and for it to just be in this weird internet ether and then be gone a few days later when someone’s been distracted by something else… it’s not meant to be experienced that way.

Some people are going to experience it that way anyway and some people are going to take their time with it, I hope. We’ll see. But I think the idea of physical media is important. We can only connect so much through a computer screen. Even when you’re designing something for instance versus seeing it you know? Like a photograph. When you’re seeing a print or something rather than seeing it on a CD or on your computer it’s a different experience for sure, I would say.

I’m new to vinyl, I have a couple of records. It’s one of those things that I almost feel intimidated by it. It’s this physical thing that you take on and there’s equipment involved. So it’s funny how in a world where we are constantly consuming and buying things and that’s how your success is measured—you can make sure you can always buy stuff for yourself. So, you’re traveling around by yourself? You gotta pack light.

We don’t have any vinyl yet for the album, but it’ll be some time soon coming out here and coming out in the UK also. I do have to travel light. I have to be smart. I would like to have my 12 string guitar with me but I just can’t fly with it right now at this time.

I’m doing a lot of flying and renting cars and things like that. [I have had to] you know? Kind of changing songs and stuff with it to adapt them for a 6-string guitar. Changing my sets and set lists for that.
 I don’t buy that much vinyl either, but I hardly buy digital mp3s. I’ll listen and I’ll buy CDs which I know is kind of a silly idea. But when I’m listening to things on the internet for sure, I’m listening to things with less intent. I have less intention. I’m just consuming. I think that’s just what happens when you get on a computer and you can zip around. And it’s great for some stuff, but not for art. I don’t think so.

There’s something to about taking a record with your hands and putting it on to the player too.

Yeah it’s a pain in the ass but it does something else to you when you do that.

When you were writing this album, was sound production or how it might sound on vinyl something that you considered or thought about while writing or while putting the record together? I’m talking about the idea that people who are vinyl enthusiasts strongly believe that everything sounds way better on wax.

No, I just wanted it to sound good. However, for the most part, I recorded my vocal and guitar at the same time (live), which is how many old folk records from the golden years of vinyl were recorded.

I feel like your record has a quality to it that isn’t heard often. Even the storyline about this guy who’s at the “bottom.” But there’s so many stories like that aren’t told, everything else is all about someone else that’s already “made it.” It seems the subject matter is trivial. At least to me pop music is about glorifying. Do you ever worry about being heard over the noise?

It’s definitely my aspiration. I don’t know about every artist, but I’m making this because I want people to hear it. It’s being born out of a different thing not because of what other people want but after you make it of course. I want as many people to connect with this as I can. But I’m coming from a totally different side of things than pop music so I can accept that it’s a slow record…It’s one that you maybe have to sit down and take some time with. A lot of my favorite records are the ones that probably mature over time and have some depth to them. I didn’t consciously go for that, but I’m hoping it’s more that than just slow burning and therefore boring.

I don’t think slow burning is boring necessarily.

But it’s kind of like, there’s these records like Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen for instance, that influenced me when I wrote this album. That record was kind of a curveball for him early in his career and after he wrote some hit albums and maybe it wasn’t well received by the press at first but it’s become such a beloved album now. It’s a very sad album. It’s very sad. But it’s great.

I mean, getting worried about being heard over the noise… I’m pretty grateful for what’s been going on so far. I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve been touring so much by myself and there’s still so many people who say that they’ve never heard of me even if I’m being written about in the press in a town, or they know who the headliner is that I’m supporting, they still have no idea who I am. That happened yesterday in Milwaukee, WI where people really enjoyed it and were happy to be there but admitted that they had never heard of me before that moment. So, maybe it’s very much of a grassroots thing at this time.

Everybody starts out that way where nobody knows you, right? You’re based in Portland. So when are you going to be back there?

I’ll be back in early April. I left at the end of January and I was gone for 2 months…I will most likely go to Europe shortly after that is what it’s looking like. I’m based in Portland but I’m hardly going to be there. Since May I’ve been traveling a lot.

Have you been writing at all while you’re on the road?

A little bit. I have a collection of songs that weren’t meant for this album, some that are old and some that are newer and I’m really excited about that material now. This album took awhile to make and it was kind of my first album which takes some time to make that first album, you know? And now it feels like momentum has grown and I feel excited about moving forward and moving on. There’s a whole other collection of songs. A lot of them love songs. Some heartbreak songs.

You were in Boston for many years. Did you then go straight to Portland? Were you playing a lot there?

No and I wasn’t playing a ton. I was pretty selective with which shows I chose to do just because I didn’t want to start completely from scratch. It was mainly to focus on finishing the writing of this album and recording. So that’s why I went out there to kind of displace myself and be inspired by new things and focus. Now I’ve past that point. Portland and the Northwest in general has been really supportive of me but now I’m not interested in just being a local artist. I’m interested in being national.

So that’s why I’ve been traveling so much. Portland is definitely a supportive place for musicians and I owe it a lot. Yesterday a woman came up to me at the end of the show, an older woman, for an autograph on the CD and she wanted it addressed to her son who’s name is Willy Robbins and that was kind of interesting.

I’m doing a headlining show in Cleveland tomorrow and then I’m driving to Pennsylvania to drop off this rental car and then immediately flying to Portland, playing a show in Portland, and then the next day start going down the coast.

“Willy Robbins” could really be anyone. So, could you elaborate on what that was like when the woman came up to you in Milwaukee asking you to sign an autograph addressed to “Willy Robbins”? Do you think she knew what you were trying to say or maybe she was just hung up on the fact that there was a record out there with her son’s name on it?

Yes, Willy Robbins can be anyone, but I think in the case of this sweet-natured mother, it was just a pleasing coincidence for the both of us. Who’s to say what she thought—she didn’t say…

That’s the main beauty of this record—we can all connect to a story of failure or times when things aren’t going in our favor. They say that the wheel always spins back up, but for the times when the wheel has stopped spinning, we can think of Willy Robbins. 

Kapoor is currently on tour, finishing up the last leg on the West Coast. The Ballad of Willy Robbins arrives in stores on 4/19. On vinyl.

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