Robert Deeble: How adoption led to the songsmith's hope-filled album

Wednesday 30th May 2018

Tony Cummings spoke to the Seattle-based psychotherapist and singer/songwriter ROBERT DEEBLE

Robert Deeble
Robert Deeble

Robert Deeble is a singer/songwriter from Long Beach, California, now settled in Seattle. Down the years, he has received accolades from the critics and has worked with such luminaries as folk heroine Victoria Williams (she sang a duet with Robert on his 1997 album debut), Rachel Blumberg of The Decemberists and cellist Melissa Hasin. In his early years, Robert was a full-time travelling musician but in recent years his work as a psychotherapist has taken up most of his time. But not all. The release in March of 'Beloved' shows that this most gifted of song-craftsmen has lost none of his consummate skills. The inspiration for 'Beloved' is Robert and his wife Anastasia's rollercoaster ride in first fostering and eventually adopting their little girl, now aged seven.

Robert explained the saga which was to inspire such a haunting album. "We fostered for a year, we were told that we were able to adopt and then it reversed at the last minute. We lost her at the end of the year and we knew, we had a couple of months probably knowing that she would be leaving and returning to her birth mother. So a lot of these songs were penned during that time. Then the story took another turn and we were invited back into her life as extended family. Then I was just sort of making sense of what that would look like and what my role would be, as sort of a parent, but not quite. There were a lot of songs written about that and at the end of three years we were invited by the birth mother to adopt. So the last part of those songs reflect both her courage to do something beautiful for her daughter, but also the joy that we had in taking her home."

Robert and Anastasia are still in touch with their adopted daughter's stepmother. He said, "We just celebrated her having her own child and drove up to see her and celebrate the baby. It's a complicated relationship, but it's one that we have chosen to be in and stay in. We have a song on the record, 'The Mulberry Bird' was written for her."

Several of the songs on 'Beloved' are specifically about their daughter. Robert explained, "Several songs refer to her name and that's a kind of interesting aspect of the record. Her name, when translated, means both uncertain and beloved. So two of those songs refer to her name and the record pretty much goes in order to the back story. But 'Uncertain' was really trying to navigate in myself the fact that I had been called to be something important in her life and yet there wasn't the certainty around what that would be. I think any foster parent has to hold that tension. Especially in that I had been invited into a longer period of her life. Being her god-dad is what we were called, god-dad and god-mum. So just trying to navigate what my role in that was and to try to be a father to her in a way that didn't overstep, but was consistent for her."

By 1997, Robert was making "an okay living. . . for one" through his music. He toured throughout the USA, and even New Zealand, and recorded the albums 'Days Like These' (1997) and 'EarthSide Down' (1998). He admitted, "I think there were some competing values there in terms of wanting a relationship and wanting an artistic life. That's always been a tension as well and really not willing to do some of the pop-type stuff that probably would have made more of an impact financially. I was always interested in pursuing meaningful reflection in music and sometimes that's not always the stuff that sells."

'EarthSide Down' was distributed into the Christian marketplace. He admitted, "I was a little bit torn by that because I didn't believe in Christian music per se. I felt that it cheapened the idea of being a Christian, labelling things. You have both worship and prophets. I fall more on the prophets' side, not from the creepy sort of nutty thing. But I think artists are more prophets in that they call us back to what's happening in this life, how are we living? So I think that's where I've felt most comfortable and I think I've always written, even as a Christian, to a neutral audience. I've never written to the Christian, unless I'm kicking over the [money-changers'] tables."

In 2003 Robert recorded possibly his most ambitious album, '13 Stories'. He said, "Most of the songs on '13 Stories' were recreations of literary stories, famous pieces of literature. I think one of my proudest moments was taking The Brothers Karamazov and literally putting it to song. I got it below six minutes! It's one of my proudest accomplishments I think, but it was an album that sold like a tree in a dark forest. I've always been kind of quite sad that so few people got to hear it. It was sort of created in between labels and in between an industry shift. The industry was just moving to digital, I think. So it's also my lightest hearted record, although that song is quite dark, it was sort of written in a way to sort of change the trajectory of my career of always being so dark and brooding."

Robert continued, "It's a fun album and I love the packaging of the album too because it was designed as an old beatup poetry paperback, so we actually utilised a lot of old Saul Bass illustrations to do it. So that was kind of a fun thing. There were a lot of fun songs about literary figures and another person on that was Emily Dickinson. That was probably the biggest hit I ever wrote that never got heard. People have told me that song is worth millions; it just never got out the gate! But, personally, I'm trying to remember, I think the song 'Eclipse' was more of a story about my own struggle with a silent God and then 'A Formal Apology' was written about being a touring musician in a marriage that often got neglected because of that."

It was while visiting Seattle as a musician that Robert met people who were involved in a psychology school. He explained, "A couple of years later I came back and got my masters in psychology. So now I meet with people on a long-term basis, sorting out issues together. I kind of saw a pretty strong parallel between my own faith as a Christian and my training as a person in psychology. It's never about observing or judging other people; it's always about your own internal process. That's how I view my faith and walk with Christ. So they kind of fit like a glove in that I felt and was taught that I could only take people as far as I had been willing to go myself. So, as a part of my own training I went under a lot of therapy myself and continued to stay in close contact with other therapists and things like that in my life since. It's kind of more the model of the broken healer rather than the triumphant smart-ass."

For some critics, me included, Robert Deeble's finest song so far has been the title track to his 2012 album 'Heart Like Feathers'. Commenting on the song, he said, "It rises to more of a plateau, I think, where a lot of my songs deal with some darker, more complex stuff. I think 'Heart Like Feathers' is sort of the phoenix song if you will, or the renewal song in many ways, getting over a dark period."

Now Robert's thoughts are mainly focused on his 'Beloved' set and its undeniable ability to convey hope in its wistful melodies and inspiring lyrics. "I think when I first started writing the album, I never anticipated being able to adopt our daughter and I wanted to give hope to her should she ever find this record. I wanted to have hope for the birth mother and I wanted to have hope for us, that our journey together meant something in the larger scheme of things. Then beyond that to other people who enter this journey together, that there is hope in that suffering, even if it doesn't turn out the way that we want.

"The first two years of a child's life are so incredibly important and that's been documented for the last 70 years by psychology. Many of the problems that we look at today go back to those first two years and if a child can attach to anyone, even an animal, I mean even animals have this documented as well, it's not just human beings. So that was in many ways my hope, I knew that I might not be able to be her dad forever, but that even if she had a subconscious view of a father that walked with her before she lost me, that would be meaningful for her. That's kind of what I wanted to express in my own grief, but also with anyone else entering this journey.

"But also I think to acknowledge that even a beautiful story like this is filled with sorrow. That is a necessary part of the story. I would never want my daughter to feel like she was in this position that she had to be happy all the time about her adoption and could never be sorrowful about the fact that she lost her birth mum or didn't have contact. That's not a real way of accepting joy. So accepting the affliction of it as well as the joy is what I wanted to capture in this. We went through great sorrow, the birth mother went through great sorrow and I know that our daughter will continue to hold some sorrow in light of all of the good things that have occurred." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


 

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