Vikesh Kapoor on Crafting Characters, Referencing Bruce Springsteen
At the beginning of 'The Ballad of Willy Robbins,' the title character is at the bottom rung of a ladder, unsure if he can will himself to climb it. This challenge, along with other downfalls in the fictitious Robbins' story, drives Vikesh Kapoor's debut record.
The singer-songwriter, whose stripped-down music has garnered comparisons to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, looks to lift the spirits of those are disheartened with their daily lives. The concept album focuses on the despair of Robbins' life; however, Kapoor was nothing but hopeful when he chatted with Diffuser.fm.
How did you get your start in music?
The earliest incarnation was when I was young I played piano for a little bit because I wasn’t allowed to play drums. This was back in third grade and at that time I learned ‘Yankee Doodle’ on the piano. My teacher ended up teaching me a little bit of it and I ended up teaching the rest of it to myself just by my ear. I played it for my third grade class because I was excited and then the rest is kind of history with that. I quit my lessons after that. I really started playing music seriously a few years ago after I’d been playing guitar for about 10 [years]. I played punk music when I was younger and then about a few years ago is when I found folk music.
Have you ever taken any kind of vocal lessons?
When I was young I went a Catholic school when I was in grade school and we would have to go to Mass once a week, I believe. I really enjoyed singing in the choir and singing hymns and stuff. I built up my chops there, but I never took any lessons.
‘I Dreamt Blues’ is one of my favorite tracks on the album, especially the lines “To go blind was fine when we were young, but now dear, your disguise is fallin'.” Can you talk about the inspiration behind that?
It’s the idea of, “To go blind was fine when we were young,” it’s kind of a reference to blind love. There’s actually a couple points in the record where I have nods to songwriters that influenced the album, or influenced me early on when I was first getting into this kind of music, and I just wanted to do that kind of tongue-in-cheek. But also, it’s something in the tradition to kind of borrow lines or steal lines, so “Your disguise is fallin'” is actually a reference to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Brilliant Disguise.’ Just something that his whole song is about that and I just wanted to kind of encapsulate that feeling in that part of the verse, even though the song is speaking about other stuff.
In every single song you really tell a vivid narrative. Can you walk me through your song-writing process?
There were certain things that I wanted to talk about. I wanted to have a song from the perspective of his wife. I wanted to have a song that laid out the narrative, which is the title track, ‘The Ballad of Willy Robbins.’ Generally speaking for this album, my songwriting process was writing the lyrics first, but I didn’t outline the entire record before I wrote it. I think Gabriel Garcia Marquez said something about this, just how you become attached to your characters and as you write them they kind of go their own ways and live their own lives and then you’re surprised at what happens. You’re upset if they die or you’re happy for them if they fall in love, things like that. They just start taking on a life of their own and you can’t formulate it from start to end without it coming off dishonest, at least for me. It had to be a little loose.
I had some touchstones. A song like ‘Carry Me Home,’ for instance, which is the second single, I wanted to write a song that would represent the accident that happens in the newspaper article that inspired this whole thing. He has a scaffolding accident and gets injured so bad he can’t continue to work. The record’s not about that article, but I did want to have some sort of moment with that dynamic shift, that plot shift. It’s not a very literal song. It’s almost a metaphor for suicide. It’s a little more impressionistic and that’s how that one came out. Even though initially I was thinking about doing that, it would be a little more literal. A literal ballad of the accident, but all in all, the album isn’t about that newspaper article. Really that song attempts to capture despair.
The songwriting process – I had a skeleton, so to speak. ‘The Ballad of Willy Robbins’ and ‘Forever Gone’ were the first ones written for it and then I just kind of filled it in, but it took time. I wrote it over the course of two years and wrote the words first for the majority. Songs like ‘I Dreamt Blues’ and ‘Blue-Eyed Baby’ were really fresh. I finished the words and the lyrics and what you’re hearing on the album is the first or second or third take where I performed it like that ... My guitar and vocals were performed live, except for ‘Ode to My Hometown.’ That was the only multi-tracked one. What I’m saying is, that those were still fresh, they were kind of structured and written. It was still uncertain how they would fit into the record or what the sequencing would be.
I’m glad you brought up Gabriel Garcia Marquez because I was going to ask you if you have any favorite writers.
For this album, someone like Philip Levine, who’s a poet. He has a collection called ‘What Work Is’ that I looked into a little bit. I think that’s a well-known collection of his. Leonard Cohen, for sure. Of course, people like Pete Seeger. Woodie Guthrie’s ‘Dust Bowl Ballads,’ for sure. Things like that. Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska.’ I just started looking at specifically concept records or thematic records just to see how they did things and see what I wanted to take from that, as far as structuring the record and writing the record. But as far as writers go, it’s some poets. Philip Levine, James Pate, Lorca, the Romantics. I don’t know if that’s bleeding directly into my writing.
I’m sure it someway influenced you, even if you’re not directly referencing it. This was a concept album, do you know if your next album will be one as well?
Thematically, probably a different direction. I have a whole batch of other songs that were written, or are being written, that just didn’t fit ‘Willy Robbins,’ so I’m going to start demoing them out soon. Now it’s mainly a chunk of love songs, so who knows where it’s going to go right now. I’m in the early process of this album and I’m just trying to get out there and communicate what I’m trying to say to people and hopefully they can connect with it. It seems kind of like an oddball first record and I just want to be able to show that to people and hopefully give them something that maybe isn’t being said elsewhere.
You’re on the road now. What comes after that?
I’m also a photographer and I also do some photojournalism stuff. It’s just a different mode of story telling for me. I want to be traveling for awhile, at least the next year, for this album and after that it would be nice to go somewhere else and disorient myself ... Get myself out of whatever comfort zone I’ve put myself in and strive to survive and meet new people and things. Anyway, to do that and maybe seek out a photo story or seek out something like that and writing or pulling together the next batch of songs. Like I said earlier, I already have a good chunk of songs, so I’m going to be demoing those out and kind of working one step ahead now. I’m just getting started.
Stay tuned to part 2 of our conversation with Kapoor.