A year ago, the word on Kevin Robinson was that he had lost it. His bands, Viva Voce and Blue Giant, had dissolved. In their place, he started Electric Ill, playing pastel-colored electro-funk worlds removed from the psychedelic pop and country rock he made his name on. He cut his hair and dyed it blond and insisted on being called "Kaylee Rob." People knew Robinson and his wife and bandmate, Anita Elliott, were getting divorced, and the assumption was that losing both his marriage and artistic partner had sent him flying off the rails.
Robinson swears he wasn't having a breakdown. But he heard the mutterings. And if the audience wanted a crazy person, he was going to give it to them.
"I felt like owning it," he says from a picnic table outside his Hawthorne neighborhood apartment. "If people are saying I lost my mind, I'll hang a neon sign around my neck that says 'Midlife Crisis' with an arrow up to my face."
That doesn't mean Robinson wasn't actually in crisis, though. He and Elliott were together his entire adult life. When they came to Portland in 2003, it was as an indie-rock power couple with two well-regarded albums on their résumé. He'd never made music without her, at least not seriously. If Robinson's public meltdown was a put-on, it helped disguise the real freak-out happening in private: He spent last summer sleeping in a tent in his backyard, because he could hardly bear to be in the house they used to share.
At age 39, Robinson is starting over from scratch. He's divested himself completely from his past projects, including Electric Ill, and is performing solo for the first time. For someone whose career, not to mention identity, was so closely intertwined with another person, the transition is much more complicated than simply taking the stage alone.
"Re-creating yourself—professionally, personally, emotionally—in complete public view," he says, "is kind of a mindfuck."
Robinson met Elliott in Muscle Shoals, Ala. In 1998, they formed Viva Voce, a band blending indie-pop jangle with psychedelia and classic Southern rock. He played drums, she sang and played guitar. After a stint in Nashville, the couple got pulled to Portland by Menomena's Danny Seim. Viva Voce played the inaugural PDX Pop Now, and in 2004 released its third album, The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, which broadened its fan base enough to tour Europe. Robinson claims that's the last year he held a straight job.
By 2009, however, the strain of being in a band with only each other was beginning exact a toll. Viva Voce expanded to a four-piece that year, to lighten their load musically. But the reception for 2011's prophetically titled The Future Will Destroy You was tepid, and band problems began bleeding over into the relationship. Issues they once shrugged off exploded into arguments. Robinson says the group's last tour "was like going from one beheading to the next." Elliott left early and flew home to Alabama.
"Everything just started to slowly disintegrate," Robinson says. "When the shit really started to get thick, I was like, 'I didn't marry a guitar player. I married you. I'd rather have a love in my life than a musician in my life.' I never heard that back to me."
In the initial aftermath of the divorce, Robinson admits he was in a sort of daze. As he came out of it, he entered what he calls the most prolific period of his life, filling hard drives with new songs. Robinson describes his life now as "rad." But in a lot of ways, he's still struggling to find his footing. Having given up on the idea of ever making money from music again, he is basically unemployable, he says; the day of our interview, his phone got shut off. A few weeks ago, he and his new girlfriend fled their shared house after a confrontation with one of their roommates. "Won't Let Me Sleep," a song Robinson posted to Bandcamp in January, addresses the past year with unambiguous regret. "I'm fighting off the dark," he sings over drums and acoustic guitar. "Somehow I missed that mark.â
But Robinson is sure of one thing going forward: He doesn't want to be another sad-sack songwriter, crying over a past he can't change.
"Woe is fucking relative, dude," he says. "You think your shit's tough? Shut your mouth and listen to someone else talk for a while. Then you'll realize if you could put all your problems in a giant pile to swap with people, you'd pick yours right the fuck back up."
SEE IT: Kevin Robinson plays Cymaspace, 4634 NE Garfield Ave., Suite B, on Saturday, July 12. 8 pm. $5.