"I'M NOT INTERESTED in being perceived as a throwback," says Vikesh Kapoor. "I want to sing about things that are contemporary."
The Pennsylvania native, now a Portland resident, has just completed his first album, and it's a scorching collection of folk songs in the grand tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. The Ballad of Willy Robbins is a vital, blood-spattered document of the times America currently finds itself in, examining hard-working people and their families as they're sidelined by big business and the bottom dollar. "From struggles I'd seen in the town where I grew up in Pennsylvania and small-town living, to my parents emigrating from a really dire situation in India," Kapoor says, "those kinds of things definitely lent themselves to ideas for the stories, or lent a voice to what I wanted to say."
The first song Kapoor wrote for the album was the title track, and it was inspired by a New York Times article he read while working as a stonemason's apprentice in Boston. The article told the story of a construction worker injured on the job who ended up losing not only the job but also his home and everything else. "People like Hank Williams used to look in comic books for song ideas, and Woody Guthrie was looking at newspaper articles," he says. "I was using it as a jumping-off point."
Kapoor was also inspired by a cross-country trip in which he glimpsed small-town America firsthand, and a visit to India with his father, where he was able to see the slums where his father grew up. "You know, I always kind of felt like an outcast growing up in Pennsylvania with my family in a town of 9,000 people, so I always kind of felt like I had to speak about something that wasn't being spoken about. Or maybe that was a reaction to feeling like an outcast, in a sense. I had an outsider's perspective."
Kapoor dove deep into topical songwriting in Boston, and was invited to play at Howard Zinn's memorial service. He moved to Portland with the goal of finishing Willy Robbins, a piecemeal process that took two years as he worked, slowly, with producer Adam Selzer and musicians like Nate Query (the Decemberists), Holland Andrews (Like a Villain), Birger Olsen (Denver), and Jeff Ratner (Langhorne Slim). The many months of work have paid off: The Ballad of Willy Robbins is astonishingly good, with each song cutting like a sharp blade; the gravity of the subject matter is balanced by the musicality of each track. Kapoor's songwriting instincts are sound; he deflects attention from his fluttering guitar and trustworthy voice, giving the songs the air of a fly-on-the-wall documentary while he and Selzer carefully buttress them with subtle, dignified arrangements.
"Since I'm traveling alone so much, I needed each song to be able to stand alone with just a guitar," Kapoor says. "I didn't want any arrangements to be so elaborate that the songs felt lacking without them. I wanted them to add a sonic element or undertones that would drive the narrative. For instance, in 'Carry Me, Home,' which is one of the darker songs on the record and a shift in the narrative, I wanted it to be a very suffocating production and driving at the same time."
While touring over the past few years, a couple incidents with members of his audience drove Kapoor to complete the album. "I wrote 'The Ballad of Willy Robbins' and what happened was I got polarizing reactions from people, which was the first time that had happened," Kapoor says. "I got a message early on from a hipster in Brooklyn through MySpace, and he felt the need to tell me that I was being a Bob Dylan hack and that I should do something different. I had just started, so that left an impression on me and I thought about it for a while.
"But another time I was singing that song in St. Augustine, and a kid came up to me in tears and told me that Willy Robbins was just like his dad," Kapoor continues. "And I played a show at a café in Dayton, Ohio, which is kind of a down-and-out town, and a truck driver came in at the end of my set who had been listening through the window, and told me that the song reminded him of himself. Those kinds of things, getting to play small towns where people can set aside any kind of ego and say something like that really left so much more of an impact on me than a MySpace message trying to put me in my place."
With the grand achievement of The Ballad of Willy Robbins under his belt, Kapoor is ready for the next step. "The point of all of this is to communicate something and connect with people," he says. "The thing is, none of this stuff is black and white; any good protest song should show the gray areas. I try to keep that in mind. I know that trying to write protest songs is not an easy thing to do without coming off preachy. I want to show the gray area, and with that comes dark, and with that comes light and hope."