Smile Politely

Top of the Anthill

Rob Jacobs is playing WEFT Sessions tonight at 10 p.m. You can tune in at 90.1 FM or stream it online.

I stopped by the Anthill yesterday afternoon to talk with him about growing up in Maine, how he developed his unique vocal style, and what it’s like growing up without really listening to the Beatles.

Smile Politely: How long ago did you start performing music?

Rob Jacobs: A really long time ago. I probably had my first recital when I was six years old, playing violin.

SP: When did you get started playing guitar?

RJ: I don’t really remember, I started playing it when I was a kid. I had a guitar with, like, three strings, and I would bang around on it. That’s not really playing guitar, but I was pretending to, at least.

SP: Did you grow up around here?

RJ: No, I grew up in Maine.

SP: What brought you to Illinois?

RJ: I went to this school that was sort of a school, for like six months. It had some courses on philosophy and stuff like that. And then we went to India to help out at an orphanage, with eight other students, so we all got pretty close. One of them was my friend Pierce who sort of grew up around here, and he was going to move here. He just asked me if I wanted to move here with him, and I did. I’ve lived here for like a year.

SP: Cool. The school you were talking about was in Maine?

RJ: It was in New Haven, Connecticut. It’s probably my favorite city in the Northeast. It’s pretty cool.

SP: How do you like it in Champaign-Urbana?

RJ: It’s all right. I’m ready to move on to somewhere else. I’ve met some cool people here, though (gestures to his housemates).

SP: You have a pretty unique vocal style. How did that develop?

RJ: Well, I was trying to sing when I was a teenager, and I didn’t like the sound of my voice. I didn’t feel that it held any uniqueness. So, gradually I started trying to emote more, and that’s what came out, I guess. And then from listening to different people — I guess I listen to a lot of R&B singers, I really like singers from India, things like that.

SP: Has anyone ever compared you to anyone that you especially liked or disliked?

RJ: I get compared to Jeff Buckley a lot, and I never listen to him, so… I’ve heard “Hallelujah,” but that’s pretty much it.

SP: I would think that (a comparison to Buckley) would be a compliment. How does the songwriting process work for you? Do you start with music and add words, or vice versa?

RJ: It’s always different, I think. But I usually try to write a set of songs, and sometimes I’ll have an underlying idea behind them, but I’ll always try to do something different. I try to write a set of songs, and each time, I try to do the opposite of what I did before. I’ve tried it both ways, I’ve written words and then written music to it, and I’ve written music and then written unintelligible words and then turned those into words as I’ve played it more.

SP: Any advantage or disadvantage to either way?

RJ: I feel like if you start with words, a lot of the time the structure of the song can be compromised because you’re trying to fit music to words, and a lot of time you can’t have a real, underlying melodic theme, at least for me. And, the other way, if I just have music, it’s hard to get a solid, lyrical idea out of it, and it ends up being pretty abstract lyrics coming out of that when I start with music.

SP: Have you ever played on the radio before?

RJ: Nope. Well, maybe. Maybe a long time ago when I played violin, but not since.

SP: Do you think it be different from playing for an audience that’s in front of you?

RJ: I think it’ll be easier, because I won’t have to think about the energy of all the different people watching me. Some people think that they’d be more scared to play on the radio than if they played for people, which I don’t think I feel that way, but I haven’t done it yet, so I don’t know.

SP: What kind of music did you grow up listening to?

RJ: I was raised Christian, so my parents had me listen to a lot of Christian music. I think my first cassette tape was the Gettysburg soundtrack, that movie with Jeff Daniels. I was really into that movie when I was a kid, and the Civil War in general, so that soundtrack I would listen to all the time. I kind of resent the fact that I didn’t grow up with the Beatles — and really good classic stuff — a little bit.

SP: So, are you playing catch-up, then?

RJ: Yeah, a little bit. I still haven’t gotten into the Beatles as much as I’d like to.

SP: Other than the Gettysburg soundtrack, is there another secular album that you remember being influential?

RJ: I don’t think so. I listened to a lot of classical music, because I had to play it. So I listened to a lot of that. I listened to a lot of pop music on the radio when I was a kid.

SP: Did you grow up in a city in Maine?

RJ: I grew up when I was real little in a residential neighborhood. And I moved to a really rural part of Maine in a town with 800 people. And that’s where I spent 12 to 18, my teenage years. I was home-schooled.

SP: Are you doing any classes while you’re here?

RJ: Nope, just working on music. I was working at the vegetarian restaurant, the Red Herring, but that closed for the summer, so I’ve been working on music all summer, trying to live off my savings.

For you completists out there, here’s the full audio of the interview (it even includes a helicopter flying by at the four-minute mark):

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