Portland, Ore., husband-and-wife duo Viva Voce have been recording themselves for years, going all the way back to the four-track in high school.
But for Kevin and Anita Robinson's upcoming record, Rose City--which will be released by Barsuk Records on May 26--they took their home recording to a whole new level. First, they built their own recording studio in their backyard--the musician's equivalent of a tree house (insert Swiss Family Robinson joke here). And then they decided to write and record everything in one month.
The result? A bright bundle of songs that emanate the feeling of sunny afternoons in the backyard.
"I think that there's an immediacy in the way the album sounds," said Anita Robinson over the phone from Portland, where she and Kevin have been living since 2001. "We did everything pretty much in a month, and that's really quick for us. We usually like to really take our time and experiment a lot, and I think we still experimented, but we gave ourselves a self-imposed deadline and really stuck to it, and in a fury, finished writing the material and recorded it and really rocked it out."
Before the new studio was built, the Robinsons' house would get taken over by recording gear when they were working on a record. "The wad of cables gets larger and larger, and you can't even move," laughed Robinson.
So having their own studio separate from their house, but still at home, allowed Viva Voce to live their lives without dealing with the gigantic wad of cables. "Things can stay mic-ed; we don't have to rearrange our entire lives to finish recording the drums for our songs," Robinson explained.
This compartmentalization may be what allows Rose City to be so expansive; perhaps something about the fact that the recording was contained to a small space allowed Viva Voce to not have to impose musical constraints. The guitars expand into space; Kevin and Anita's vocals endlessly harmonize; and songs move from slow and dreamy ("Midnight Sun," "Flora") to raucous and sharp ("Devotion," "Tornado Alley").
Explained Robinson, "I never would have imagined how much difference it's made, but it's been a really prolific time ever since we've been able to finish (the studio) and get our equipment out there."
Prolific, indeed: The Robinsons finished Rose City, their fifth full-length album and second for Barsuk, and then formed an entirely new band, Blue Giant. And the compartmentalizing continues: Where Viva Voce is undeniably rock informed by shoegaze, dream pop and '70s rock, Blue Giant is all country.
"I love classic country. I grew up listening to that--I grew up playing those songs and singing those songs and listening to Southern rock and bluegrass," said Robinson.
So far, she said, she's had no problem keeping both projects separate. "It seems pretty cut and dry," she said. "Blue Giant is stylistically so different that for me, as far as songwriting and playing, one band is invigorating the other."
And even more changes have invigorated Viva Voce: Instead of just playing out as a duo, the Robinsons added two new musicians to their lineup: Corrina Repp and Evan Railton. Instead of playing drums, Kevin Robinson is now playing bass. This lineup expansion is one more way in which Viva Voce is making their musical lives bigger, better and more exciting.
"Since we moved to Portland, we've mostly played as a two-piece, but it never was in my mind that it was always going to be that way," said Robinson. "It's always good to mix it up. Evan's going to be drumming for Viva, so it's going to be a totally different dynamic. And Corrina is an awesome singer, and it's going to be great to have harmonies. I really love harmonies, and always record a lot on Viva stuff, and it's going to be so great for that to happen live."
Eight years in the Portland music scene has done wonders for Viva Voce: Since the critical acclaim surrounding 2006's Get Yr Blood Sucked Out, a record as thoroughly ass-kicking as the title suggests, Anita has toured and recorded with fellow Portlanders The Shins; and in their new studio, Kevin has recorded some songs for Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down; two Blue Giant records; and an EP for Tu Fawning, Repp's band.
Said Anita Robinson, "The supportive atmosphere here has been really good for me ... I just think it's important, if you're a creative person and you're trying to express yourself through music or art or whatever, to live in a place--I don't want to sound all hippie-dippy--but a place where you flourish, as a human. I don't know why, but this is that place for me."
Their success might have a lot to do with the trees and overall grandeur of the Oregon landscape, but it also could be argued that Viva Voce would flourish anywhere. Just in case, though, Viva Voce constructs and puts themselves in places that let them flourish even more--like their own backyard in Portland.