Cracked Picture Frames, the bristling full-length debut of American-born, London-based songwriter Robert Chaney, opens with Black Eyed Susan - a scene of domestic violence sung from the point of view of an ashamed abuser - and sets off ticking through a further nine songs; chronicling assaults, traffic accidents (two, in fact), and all kinds of heartbreak.
"The record almost didn't happen," recalls Robert. "After moving from Florida to London, I didn't know anyone. I thought I was going to have to get into the open mic grind. So I went to one and showed up late and they put me on last." But it was on the strength of this performance that Robert was approached by producer Ken Brake (The Clientele, Louis Philippe), and the two started working in Ken's London studio, recording dozens of songs over a number of months. Most of the songs on the final record are first or second takes.
The negative space afforded by the spartan guitar-and-voice arrangements serves to bring the lyrical content into hyperfocus, and it is here the 33-year-old truly differentiates himself from his peers. “There was this great DVD rental place around the corner from me on Brick Lane,” Robert explains, “I started to get into old foreign films, art stuff. I started to think like a director or screenwriter. How to maintain tension, how to write from a character.” He pauses for a moment, and is then quick to add, “It’s not all exercises in storytelling, though. There’s a lot of personal stuff on there.”
This tension between love song and story song provides much of the motivating force behind the album. ‘The Cyclist’ is equal parts tragic romance and cliffhanging thriller, as a couple deal with the aftermath of a hit-and-run car accident. ‘The Ballad of Edward and Lisa’, written about a former co-worker of Robert's, offers a sly critique of organized religion as the song masquerades as an old-fashioned blood-soaked murder ballad.
Though he is still a relative newcomer, the past two years have seen Robert Chaney become one of the most talked-about performers on the London singer-songwriter scene, and with Cracked Picture Frames, he proves that the titular shattered glass isn’t the only thing about this record that’s razor-sharp.
See the video for 'Patch It Up'.
Robert plays The Railway Tavern, 2 St Jude Street, Dalston, London on Thursday 5 March.