Nashville Fridays: Songs From My Couch with Katie Robertson

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I lived in Washington, D.C. for 10 years, and I developed a healthy, gut-driven dislike for all things political. But if Katie Robertson were to sing transcripts from the Congressional Record, I’d still probably listen. I might even enjoy it. She’s that good.

I first heard Robertson and her band Stagolee a few years ago at a show they played with the Cold Stares (another top-shelf Nashville blues/rock band). I was chatting with a friend, half-listening, when a few songs in they played “I Want It Back.” It’s a kiss-off song about wanting back the wasted time and energy we spend on broken relationships. It’s also smoky, slinky, throwback soul, the kind of song you’d imagine wafting out from some tawdry jazz club after everything else has closed. Robertson starts slow and bluesy, then climbs, building on regret and anger, until she’s simply soaring with emotional indignation.

Given Robertson’s range and deft vocal maneuvering, you’d think she’d been and out of studios for years. She can croon dark, smooth and sleek, like Dianna Krall or Norah Jones, then dial up the rasp and howl, at times evoking Janis Joplin or Bonnie Raitt. (As she does below in her scorching cover of the blues tune “Trouble in Mind.”) Thing is, Robertson isn’t yet singing full-time. She’s still trying to break in. During the day, she teaches fifth- through eight-graders. Welcome to Nashville.

A few months ago, Robertson and Breck Cooper stopped by for a Songs From My Couch session. As you’ll see in the videos below, she set the room on fire. (That’s me blurting out “Jesus Christ!” at the end of “Trouble in Mind.”)

In addition to Robertson, who sings, plays guitar and plays piano, Stagolee is Jimmy Kent on vocals and guitar, Pearce Harrison on drums, Nicklas Hamilton on guitar, Collins Gordon on keyboard and Breck Cooper on bass. Their new CD, “The Latest Craze,” is out now.

Thanks to David Johnson for the video and video editing. Thanks to M. Allen Parker for the sound recording and engineering. The unofficial bourbon of Songs From My Couch is Prichard’s Double Chocolate. Also, thanks to my dog Daisy for being so damned rock ‘n’ roll. I supplied the couch.

 

 

How did the band meet?

I met Jim at Dave’s Darkhorse Tavern in Starkville, Miss. We both worked at a place called the Tavern and we both played music there. Jim approached me after an “open mic night” and asked if I would be interested in backing him on some of his tunes. He had a band called “The Clap” at the time. I was particularly intrigued by a song called “Sticky Fingers” and his clever use of words. From there, we started a new group called “Stagolee” as an acoustic blues duo. Jim and I moved to Nashville shortly after and started to “fill/feel” out our sound. We have had a few different members since living in Nashville, always focusing on being eclectic in our sound. We have grown to a six-piece band and feature songs that fit into genres from blues to psychedelic garage rock and soul. We love it all.

You have two singers and multiple songwriters in the band. Can you give us some insight into Stagolee’s songwriting process? 

We all have our own methods of writing. Jim is certainly the most poetic and prophetic writer of the bunch. He is quite the wordster.  Personally, I write melodically. I write best by starting with a melody; words come later for me. Breck is amazing with chord progressions. It makes it easy to write a melody over over his chords. Our more recent songs have been a mixture of all of the above. We all write differently, but we all strive to make each other’s songs better than originally conceived. “Lay It Down” was a major group effort. Breck came to us with a concept/skeleton, I wrote a melody line, and Jim wrote the words.

Why did you decide to move to Nashville?

I came here, like everyone else, following a dream. Nashville seemed like a place of opportunity musically but close enough to home. Seven hours seemed a better option than moving to L.A. or New York. I wanted to be involved in a bigger music scene, and I knew that Nashville had far more to offer than just its country music reputation — not that that’s a bad thing. The amount of talent in this city is unbelievable, regardless of genre.

 

 

Can you talk about your first few months here? How did you get yourselves known and start lining up gigs?

I moved here with my best friend, Samantha, thinking that I would have an easy time. I expected to be able to jump right in and make a name for myself. I underestimated the amount of talent in this town — by far. I convinced Jimmy K to move here about a year later, knowing that we were stronger together. Once he was here, gigging became a lot easier, and the natural progression of things led us to seeking out band-mates to complete our sound. We have had the pleasure of playing with several very talented musicians and have gone from a two-piece blues duo to a band that spans several different genres of music. I am very proud of the fact that when we play, there is something for every listener.

Do you have a good “only in Nashville” story?

Yes. So, our guitar player, Nick, use to play in a band called The Mad Ones. A couple of years ago we booked a show at The End, splitting the night with Nick’s previous band The Mad Ones and a band called Paradise Daze. At the last minute, Paradise Daze had to back out. We were stressed out because we were a band down on the day of the show. Upon arriving at The End (and after reading the Nashville Scene that day) we saw The Mattoid was on the bill, and not The Mad Ones, which only increased our anxiety. Our friend Adria said to us, “Hey, Is that Ville from the Mattoid hanging out on the patio?” So I walk over to him and ask him if Bruce booked him on the show. His response (in his thick Finland accent) was, “No, I read paper and see my band is playing at The End, so I show up and play.”

Only in Nashville could you have a band drop out last minute, have the booker mistake “The Mattoid” for “The Mad Ones” and then have The Mattoid show up to play a gig they never booked because they read in the Scene that they were on the bill.

When did you first begin to notice that you could sing? Have you always wanted to become a singer?

Both of my parents were vocal performance majors in college. That is actually how they met. So I’ve always grown up around music, particularly singing. I have a strong background in gospel music and hymns. My first performance was at 2 years old, or so I’m told. I sang “Jesus Loves Me” at church but was far more concerned about holding the mic than my singing. Singing has been my everything since I can remember. It calms me, it excites me, it pacifies me, it encourages and pushes me.

 

 

What other artists have influenced you?

I have been influenced by all kinds of music. It’s not possible to put it into a box. I love the soul of artists like Etta James and Janis Joplin. I love the ease of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, I love the intensity of Thom Yorke.

If you could collaborate with anyone out there right now, who would it be?  

I am particularly drawn to Jazz music right now. I recently heard a band called “Davina and the Vagabonds,” and I was blown away by her talent. I would love to learn some of her vocal techniques, not to mention her exceptional ability to captivate and entertain an audience.  Watch out for her. She’s the next big thing!

Who are some of your favorite Nashville-based artists right now?

Alanna Royale, The Future, Milktooth, The Young International.

It seems like there are lots more options for independent artists today than there have been in the past. Ideally, where would you like to see Stagolee end up? With a major label? An indie label? Would you prefer to just handle all of that yourself?

We do everything on our own right now. I would much prefer the help! I think that record labels/indie labels are looking for bands who can do it on their own. My only goal is to eventually make a living off of my music. While I love teaching, my passion has always been music. I plan to follow my passion.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko | March 21