James Robinson's Palette of Many Colours

James Robinson grew up thinking he was normal. It didn’t occur to him until later that not everyone comes from a brood with 13 kids—all of them piano players, six of them guitarists—and a house full of highly desirable musical equipment.

That he was the twelfth of the 13 siblings worked to his advantage in more ways than just hand-me-down Gibson L5s and groovy record collections. “My older brothers wore my father down,” he remembers. “To my father, you were supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer, not a musician. But he found he wasn’t going to dissuade them from playing. So he made a 180 and started supporting the music. By the time it got to me, it was like, ‘Here’s the gear. Go play.’”

Colours, Robinson’s new release on Favored Nations Acoustic, spins through sonic territory peppered with flamenco and other funky Mediterranean, Brazilian, and Latin sound bites. His eloquent fretwork is quick, clean, and precise. Enhanced by percussive elements seemingly sampled in the back alleys of a Greek street market, the disc’s 11 tracks are full of diverse, worldly flavors.

Talk a little about your life growing up.
There was a lot of music going on. My older brothers had a blues band when I was a kid. They would be jamming with their band while my brother Chris was playing Russian Romantic music on the piano in another part of the house. My brother Danny played country, so I’d get country licks from him, blues licks from my other brothers, and plenty of other things from various teachers. I didn’t think anything about it at the time. I thought everyone listened to everything. When I look back on it now, it was cool.

Your musical diversity largely stems from that upbringing then?
Another contributing factor was growing up in Northern California. When I would try these different styles of music, the Bay Area would support it. If I started playing something with a flamenco feel, or put a blues scale over a Latin groove, the diversity here would embrace it.

What’s the story behind “Six Giant Steps to Heaven,” your reworking of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”?
I like to put odd time signatures in cool places. I like playing in five or seven. “Giant Steps” starts in seven, but I didn’t want to play it the same as everyone else, so I put it in six. And then the middle section, which I wrote, is in seven. And then back into six. I’m not doing it to be weird. I’m doing it to be interesting. I want to challenge the listener.

Your main guitar has been with you awhile, hasn’t it?
Yes. It’s a Takamine Hirade 9 nylon-string. Talk about beat-up guitars! There are cracks on the back of the thing and there’s a large crack on the top. When I was recording Colours, I got up and knocked the guitar over. Later, I realized it had this huge crack on the top. I said to myself, “This guitar is firewood now.” But I took the guitar and recorded it, then matched it up to the before-the-crack tracks, and it actually sounded better! So now I’m offering to crack the tops of peoples’ guitars, for a consultant fee—of course.

How do you blend these diverse styles when writing your own songs?
I throw theory out. I just want it to hit me. I’ll look for a cool groove, then try to put a melody over the top of that. Sometimes it happens really quickly, and other times I work building the whole thing up just to throw it away. But even then, that will take me to something else.