Robert Skoro explores all the angles of pop songwriting
Robert Skoro’s work could be described as the sound of two distinct songwriters. Both of them are named Robert Skoro.
As a kid growing up in Minnesota, Skoro received several years of classical piano training, and followed that with a solid decade of concentrated study on the guitar. When, at the age of 14, he began to write songs for himself, he detected a split in his aesthetic. As a pianist, his big influences were classical composers such as Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. As a guitarist, his mentors were roots players such as Leo Kottke and John Fahey. As a result, Skoro’s two solo albums, 2002’s Proof and last year’s That These Things Could Be Ours (on Yep Roc Records), find him veering between elaborate, baroque pop (“All The Angles”) and folky acoustic-based ballads (“China”), with generally successful results.
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“I try to use the two together, to jump back and forth between instruments,” says the 25-year-old Skoro.
“If I get stuck on an idea with guitar, a lot of the time I can jump over to piano and get a creative boost. Conversely, because I have a little more of a theoretical background on the piano, I can dig myself a rabbit hole on it, and it can help to simplify things on the guitar.”
Skoro cut his teeth as a touring musician playing bass for Minneapolis troubadour Mason Jennings, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who recently became the first artist signed to Modest Mouse leader Isaac Brock’s new Epic Records imprint, Glacial Pace. The two friends bonded over jam sessions in Jennings’ living room, switching instruments until they finally settled on a lineup that included Jennings’ brother on drums and Skoro on bass.
“To be young and impressionable in every regard, to be in a band with a fantastic songwriter like Mason was a huge opportunity for me,” Skoro says. “It was the first time I’d played with a songwriter who knew exactly what he wanted to do. I learned a lot about the economy of songwriting and what makes a song catchy.”
You can also detect a trace of Jennings’ idealism and social consciousness in Skoro’s work, which unabashedly cries out for world peace with “I Was Blonde At Age Four” (“Rarely a day goes by that I don’t feel overwhelmed”) and dares to to be nakedly wistful with songs such as “Old Friend.”
Frequently compared by publicists to the left-field pop of Wilco and the Shins, Skoro is probably closer to the sincere, reflective side of the Eels and the earnest confessionals of Ron Sexsmith. His plain, generic voice recalls Jules Shear, another cult-appeal songwriter able to meld lyrics and melodic ideas together so seamlessly they feel inseparable.
As a product of the Minneapolis club scene, Skoro is inevitably asked questions about Prince, the Replacements, and Husker Dü, the Holy Trinity of that city’s 1980s period of influence. Barely a toddler when those artists were making their marks, Skoro reveals that aside from “a little bit of Prince,” that era failed to register for him. “I was too young to really be a Replacements fan,” he says. “I was into punk rock, but I wasn’t into it at the time that I could have gone to see the Replacements in a basement. I missed it by a few years, I guess.”
While Skoro recorded Proof intermittently during his stint with Jennings and overdubbed most of the parts himself, That These Things Could Be Ours showcases Skoro’s band as a live performing unit. He enlisted the production services of Brian Deck, who has achieved a similarly organic effect for the likes of Iron & Wine. The resulting album manages to feature eloquent arrangement touches -such as marimbas, melodicas, and synthesizers — while maintaining a spare, unobtrusive intimacy.
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“It was a very deliberate step on our part to create a simple, unified production aesthetic for the whole project,” Skoro says of the album. “We tried to make the most out of a finite number of instruments or arrangement elements. The goal that we were seeking was to have the focus be on the songs, but also to keep the listener interested in what’s going on with the band. I’m really into the idea of promoting music as a performance art, even on record.”
While his bandmates -and most of his friends and family — remain in Minneapolis, he recently relocated to Philadelphia with his girlfriend. “She got a really fantastic job and I kind of decided that it would be a good opportunity for me to put myself in a situation where I could woodshed and write as much as possible. To really focus on creating a body of work before I start unloading it on other people.”
Skoro says he cranked out six or seven songs over the last two weeks he spent in Philly, ultimately determining that three or four were keepers. It’s a batting average he’s more than willing to accept.
“I’ve been operating under the mentality that: (a) there’s no such thing as writer’s block and (b) it pays to finish everything you write, even if you throw it out the moment that you’re done,” he says. “It’s provided me an opportunity to write at a faster, more focused pace than before.”
Although he makes frequent return visits to Minnesota, he’s developed an attachment to the City of Brotherly Love. “Philly is really cool,” Skoro says. “To me, it’s kind of the epitomizing East Coast city, even more than New York. It’s just old, with so much cultural and social history and you also see the way the culture develops in kind of an insular way. If you’re born in South Philly, you stay in South Philly.” •