Ashes to Ashes
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 groups first album was recorded). It comes from learning at a fairly early age that I could die very easily and didnt really want to, the heavyset, heavy-bespectacled, heavy-bearded artist says, sitting in his Lancaster home. Ive struggled with all the issues about that and will always struggle with those issues. Its a subject thats not too far away.
But dont 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.
Its the illumination that happens when we look at the darkest things, he says.
If the music comes across as decades if not centuries old, thats because much of the material is. Four tracks are traditional songs updated by WGCs 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 Fishers 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 its time we all learn to pray. Sufferings gonna come, he booms; its as old as the world.
Ambitious indeed, and Fisher would settle for nothing less. If youre 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. Hes 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, its fair to surmise that when its Fishers 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 Lancasters 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 dont know if its mortality. In the grand scheme, I guess it is, he says. Its 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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