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Johno Leeroy Roberts on Recording an Album Among Crickets and Cicadas

Johno Roberts is releasing an album of solo tracks as part of The Magnolia Sessions.
Johno Roberts is releasing an album of solo tracks as part of The Magnolia Sessions.
Josh Warras

Nearly two decades ago, Dan Emery launched the Nashville-based Anti-Corporate Music, which has released its share of punk and metal albums by acts like Dwarves, Sky Burial and In Ruins. In recent years, the label has dropped music from dark Americana act Lost Dog Street Band and its singer, Benjamin Tod. Emery's latest recording, which drops Friday, November 6, is with Denver's own Johno Leeroy Roberts, who fronts the local country act Hang Rounders.

Emery, who’s also a recording engineer, had thought for years about laying down tracks outside, capturing sounds of crickets and cicadas during summertime, as a way to close an album. But while mowing the lawn last summer, he took his idea a step further: He would record an entire series of albums outdoors.

About two months ago, Emery started moving quickly on the idea, dubbing the series "The Magnolia Sessions," since the artists were recorded near a towering old magnolia tree. In addition to close-miking the artists, Emery used homemade binaural microphones, installed in the ears of a mannequin, to capture the crickets, cicadas and ambience of the South in the summer, creating a 3-D effect.

“The way that the human head is shaped, the way that your ears are positioned...and the fact that you have a torso that reflects sounds — it all plays into how you perceive sound, location-wise,” Emery explains. “So you can hear a sound and say, ‘Okay, well, that's like, you know, forty feet ahead of me to the right just a little bit, or you might hear something like, ‘Oh, wow, that's flying directly over my head from left to right and slightly behind me.’”

So far, Anti-Corp has released albums by troubadours Matt Heckler, who launched the Magnolia Sessions in September, and Jason Dea West; Emery hopes to release at least twelve albums. Casper Allen, a Texas singer-songwriter now based in Colorado, will also release an album as part of the Magnolia Sessions as well.

Roberts went back to his home town of Nashville about a month ago to work with Emery on recording songs written on his front porch in Colorado. Many were based on moving here from Nashville sixteen years ago, what he misses about his home state, and starting a new life here.

“A lot of it is just a lot of synchronicities between both locations going on,” Roberts says. "In the writing of the songs, a lot of it is based on my transition moving to Colorado and what I miss about Tennessee, and what I like about living here, what brought me here, the struggles along the way of getting here, loss of friends, substances, and everything that comes along with that.”

While Roberts says his songs with the Hang Rounders are brutally honest honky-tonk tunes that deal with him making bad Saturday night decisions and dealing with the repercussions the following Monday, his solo material is more somber. They reflect on how having children has changed his life.

“I can't stay out doing cocaine until morning, because I have to wake up at six and take the kids to school,” he says. “A lot of the songs come from that — a lot more of me opening up and admitting my faults or the way I've treated my wife in the past, of not being around whenever I should have just been at home.”

Roberts, who says Guy Clark is one of his favorite songwriters, also put solo acoustic versions of two Hang Rounders songs on his Magnolia Sessions album, including “Growing Up in the South.”

“That song was probably one of the first real heartfelt songs I ever wrote,” Roberts says. “And it still rings true. It's basically the whole story of my life growing up with a single mom. And it tackles the way that we always had Christmas. That absolutely blows my mind to think about how the hell she pulled through all that stuff. It tackles my dad going to jail for being a rapist when I was two years old. And then it goes into being at the location when my best friend was shot in the head and having to deal with heroin being involved and him getting shot, [and me] not knowing to call 911 because I was too fucked up.”

Roberts says he recorded a solo version of “Growing Up in the South” because fans had told him they just wanted to hear him singing the song so they could “focus more on that without hearing a ripping pedal steel solo behind it or something. It just kind of opens it up to a little bit more interpretation from the listener.”

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Roberts got involved with the recording project through Tod, who he grew up with, and Heckler, who suggested to Emery that he be part of the Magnolia Sessions. Roberts was fascinated by how the recordings sounded when he listened to Heckler’s album; he says he could hear a bird land on a tree branch in the recording: “If your eyes are closed, you could pinpoint where it was coming from."

The songs were recorded in the dark, under the magnolia tree. He played an 1860s acoustic Gibson tenor guitar while Emery recorded from the studio about 150 yards away.

“It definitely puts a sense of intimacy that you don't get from a traditional studio recording,” Emery says. “With the atmosphere and just the outside noises, it really conveys that there's no trickery going on. ... You hear things like the cicadas going crazy in a tree. You know it happened in that moment; it wasn't something that we hodgepodged together.”

For more information, visit Anti-Corp Music's website

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