I’ve written previously about singer/songwriter Chris Watkins, and how his music stays with me long after hearing it, drawing me back for another listen. His pleasing music is a style of alternative folk-rock reminiscent of Bob Dylan, Shawn Mullins and Lou Reed – simple, pure and honest, but always with a compelling story. Based in Anchorage, Alaska, Chris has been making music since his teens, when he first formed his band Drunk Poets. He’s continued performing and recording under that band name, though the members have changed over time. Drunk Poets currently consists of Chris, who writes the songs, sings and plays acoustic guitar, Eric Cobb, who played all the other instruments and also produced the album, and Chris’s niece Flower Evenden, who provides some of the lovely backing vocals.
The primary components of their sound are acoustic guitar and Chris’s quietly intense and almost seductive vocal style that’s closer to speaking than singing. Following up on their superb albums London Can Take It, from 2015, and Lights All Askew a year later (which I reviewed), in January Chris Watkins & the Drunk Poets dropped a stunning new concept album Derevnia’s Daughters. In preparation for my review, I sent Chris some questions to gain a bit of insight into his creative process for the album, which he kindly answered.
Me: Hello Chris. As you know, I’ve been a big fan of yours for a while. Your songs always tell engrossing stories through poetic lyrics, and your warm, soothing vocals and acoustic style make for an incredibly pleasing listen, even when the lyrics are melancholy. Where do you draw inspiration for your songwriting?
Chris: Thank you Jeff. I don’t know, it just comes into my head.
The new album has several songs that are set in or reference places in your home state of Alaska. A few of them even reference Russian words like “babushka,” and I’m guessing even the title name Derevnia is Russian. I know Alaska was once a Russian territory. Is it that heritage you’re trying to evoke or celebrate with your album?
Yes, I am interested in the integration of cultures that occurred on Afognak Island at the turn of the century.
Continuing on that theme, who or what is Derevnia? And what is the significance or meaning of her “daughters?” Is it meant to symbolize a celebration of women, since you make references to girls from California and San Francisco, as well as a White Sister, your grandmother, and a song about a daughter writing to her father?
Derevnia was the Russian section of the village on Afognak Island. Her daughters are the offspring of a Swedish immigrant that assimilated into contemporary society in the early twentieth century. I am fascinated with the contradictions and juxtapositions of rural pastoral culture and its collision with modern technological industrial evolution.
(I looked up “Derevnia’s Daughters” and learned it’s an historical novel, written by Lola Harvey and published in 1991, about the island of Afognak, which is situated immediately north of Kodiak Island.)
Two tracks have Russian or Slavic titles. I Googled them and found “Kristos Voscrese” means “Christ is Risen,” and “Kristos Razhdaetsya” means “Christ is born.” The second track also makes reference to Spruce Island Chapel. Is there a religious significance intended?
Yes. The orthodox Christianity that existed on Afognak and the ethos that runs through the book is identical to Tolstoyan Christianity and early Calvinist enlightenment theory.
(Tolstoyan Christianity advocates an ascetic, chaste and simple life, with no smoking, drinking, or eating of meat. Another basic tenet is non-violence, loving one’s enemies and fighting evil with good.)
Your niece has a greater singing role on this album, and her spoken vocals in the Intro and “Seattle, WA Oct, 13, 1937” are especially compelling. What is the meaning of that particular track?
The spoken word on “Seattle, WA Oct, 13, 1937” was actually performed by Meghan Kim. It is only one in a series of letters that are the narrative backbone of the book, all of them reflect the daughters assimilation and acceptance of modern civilization.
Many artists have mixed feelings about social media, but you’re pretty active and have amassed a considerable following. Do you think it’s helped with getting your music heard by more people, as well as sales?
My opinion is that we are on the precipice of a new paradigm involving the distribution and consumption of intellectual property. It is my hunch that in the near future sales will matter very little compared to exposure.
Do you ever perform live locally in Alaska? What about Canada or other parts of the U.S.? If not, do you have any plans to?
I will be more than happy to perform anywhere if somebody asks me.
If you could perform or record with any other artist or band, who would you choose?
Are there any final things you’d like your followers to know that I haven’t asked?
Never let the sun go down.
All right, let’s dig into Derevnia’s Daughters. It’s an ambitious work, with 13 tracks that touch on various aspects of what life would have been like on Afognak in the past. The songs seem to address three dominant components of life on the island: the salmon fishing industry, church, and family (all pretty much still the same dominant features that exist today for a lot of small or rural single-industry towns).
The first track is a brief intro that consists of a reading by Eric’s daughter Emma of a letter from the book that was written by a young woman named Enola to her papa and family, updating them on goings on in her life and asking for a few dessert recipes. Her spoken vocals are accompanied by gentle acoustic guitar and strings. It immediately segues into “Black Iron Birch,” which is sung by Flower. The lyrics seem to be from the point of view of a woman telling her story about arriving in Derevnia to start a new life: “Arriving are the salmon ships. Oh my housemate. Where are my keys?”
“Tea and Cigarettes” is a perfect example of Chris’s sound, with a simple but arresting acoustic guitar riff, accompanied by a steady drumbeat and beautiful strings. He sounds wistful as he sings “When there’s nothing left,” and Flower’s gentle backing vocals are sublime. “Devil’s Town” starts off quite pretty with sounds of seagulls and delicate synths, but gradually keyboard synths, guitar, bass, drums and rattles are added to create a decidedly somber mood to match the rather sinister lyrics about a cold, cruel place where everyone seems to be ruthless: “They’ll cut you for a dollar, if they can count that high. Like a dog under the collar, in a 3-piece suit and tie. / Everyone’s talking but no one says a word. And that’s the price of inhibition, when you’re running with the herd. I ain’t goin’ back.”
The influence of the Orthodox church is addressed on several tracks. “The White Sister” speaks to the contradictions between the good and malevolent aspects of religion. Early in the song, Chris sings of the nun’s support: “The white sister takes my hand. I was lost in Afghanistan.” But later in the song “Rasputin throws his coat around her neck, around her throat./ She keeps knocking on my door. It’s a song I’ve heard before.” The little riffs of electric guitar at the end give off a bit of a sinister vibe, contrasting with the beauty of distant sounds of nuns singing. “Spruce Island Chapel” seems to touch on the internal struggle between our chaste and sinful sides: “You only speak in Latin when they bring you wine. On bedsheets made of satin, over Hollywood & Vine. In the morning, when you wake up. You’re gonna fall down on bended knee. In the evening, when it gets rough, you’re gonna get tough like St. Timothy in Rome.”
“Kristos Voscrese” is an interesting track that opens with discordant sounds like static from dialing through stations on a radio and heavily distorted guitar chords. Eventually, guitars and drums take over as Chris sings the rather depressing lyrics “The Salvation Army band doesn’t come around no more. I think we lost them in the fire. But I can remember the dark of December. The winter had you under the heel. With Dickens and Capra, the sugar the safra. The wolves circling the spinning wheel.” “Prayers For the Damned” has a darker, harder rock feel, with menacing distorted guitar riffs layered over acoustic guitar. And on “Kristos Razhdaetsya” the rather haunting repetitive acoustic guitar riff and eerie synth gives the track a disquieting tone.
Meghan Kim does the spoken vocals on “Seattle, Wa Oct 13, 1937,” another letter featured in the book that was written by a woman named Eunice to her father. Eunice asks her father for advice with her dilemmas of being unmarried and becoming an old maid, obligations of having to care for her sister Enola and her children, and trying to finish college so she can have gainful employment as a teacher, instead of the physically demanding job she now has.
Several songs touch on the difficulties – both physical and emotional – of Alaska’s long, cold and dark winters. Besides some I’ve already discussed earlier, “Swallow Tail Cape” seems to address the desire to escape: “When the winter takes it toll. When the kerosene goes cold./ Don’t you wanna fly home?” And on the “Kodiak Flyer,” Chris sings of making it “over the mountain to the other side.” The catchy, melodically complex album closer “Mother of Sorrows” has some great riffs of psychedelic surf guitar layered over acoustic, and is one of my favorite tracks from a music standpoint.
Derevnia’s Daughters is a truly outstanding work that’s beautifully conceived and flawlessly executed. Chris Watkins once again shows us his skill for weaving powerful narratives out of often spare lyrics and instrumentals, and his music has a raw yet pristine quality that sounds honest and never over-produced.