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Ashes to Ashes 

Thursday, Feb 19 2004
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Photo by Nicole Weingart

You will die. No two ways about it.

Such a universal truth is not lost on Robert Fisher. The 46-year-old Southern California native has been considering the subject on some level since the dawn of the ’80s, when he waltzed dangerously close to the edge as a drug-and-booze-abusing L.A. club crawler. That chapter in his life ultimately prompted Fisher to leave his lifelong turf for Portland, Maine — “about as far away as I could and still be in the country” — in the name of survival.

Twenty-four years later, Fisher has made death — or more to the point, mortality — the core contemplation for Regard the End (Kimchee Records), the fifth studio effort by Willard Grant Conspiracy, the Americana- minded collective he helms (Willard Grant being nothing more than the two streets intersecting at the studio in which the group’s first album was recorded). “It comes from learning at a fairly early age that I could die very easily and didn’t really want to,” the heavyset, heavy-bespectacled, heavy-bearded artist says, sitting in his Lancaster home. “I’ve struggled with all the issues about that and will always struggle with those issues. It’s a subject that’s not too far away.”

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But don’t expect confessional songs riddled with such now-trite rock images as needles and empty bottles. Armed with a somber, gripping baritone and a dozen-plus musicians massaging acoustic guitars, pianos, violins and mandolins, Fisher captures something bigger on Regard the End — elegiac, slow-burning Gothic folk music about the sole absolute that this life has to offer.

It’s “the illumination that happens when we look at the darkest things,” he says.

If the music comes across as decades if not centuries old, that’s because much of the material is. Four tracks are traditional songs updated by WGC’s organic, symphonic style: “River in the Pines,” rooted in the Wisconsin Dells, is about a lover washed away; “Twistification” is a square-dance tune about another lost to “the maple swamp”; “Another Man Is Gone” updates the murderous Alabama work song “Another Man Done Gone”; and “Day Is Past and Gone” is a plaintive Appalachian hymn in which “the hour of death is near.”

Much of the remainder of Regard the End is Fisher’s attempts to bring such gravity to his own like-minded originals and co-writes. He often succeeds. Among the more monumental: the unsettled “The Ghost of the Girl in the Well,” in which a spirit haunts a murder site, and the towering, set-closing “The Suffering Song,” where Fisher sings of a dying mother who “thinks it’s time we all learn to pray.” “Suffering’s gonna come,” he booms; “it’s as old as the world.”

Ambitious indeed, and Fisher would settle for nothing less. “If you’re serious about your work, you try to measure up to stuff that you think has substance and weight and carries the time in it,” he says.

Fisher spent 20 years based in Boston, the last nine fronting Willard Grant Conspiracy. He’s traveled the globe and achieved ample acclaim in Europe, if not in the States, and even recorded the bulk of Regard the End in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a frequent tour stop for the outfit.

Still, it’s fair to surmise that when it’s Fisher’s time to go, his last breath might be drawn in Lancaster, one of the more joked-about outer reaches of L.A. County. Practical economics factored into his return last year — Lancaster’s much cheaper than Bean Town — but there were greater motivations, including the desire to be closer, literally and figuratively, to his parents and siblings for the first time in two decades.

And his major theme could be at the root of his homecoming urge. “I don’t know if it’s mortality. In the grand scheme, I guess it is,” he says. “It’s about time passing and the realization that you only have so much time with your family. I think I kind of live with the idea that every day might be the last day that I spend on the planet.”

Willard Grant Conspiracy plays the Hotel Café on Friday, February 20, at 9 p.m.

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