Vikesh Kapoor's parents were born in India, but the singer-songwriter grew up in rural Pennsylvania, halfway between Williamsport and State College, one of the few non-Catholics in his Catholic school. "I was always an outcast," he says. So when he heard a Johnny Cash record while he was playing in a high school punk band, he felt little allegiance to peer pressure and went off on a tangent.
"I got interested in folk music by accident," says the 28-year-old Kapoor. "I think I was just looking for something with more depth — something that sounded more transcendent than most of what was modern. I always felt I didn't belong anywhere, so music was a personal thing for me; it was a way to go somewhere else, a way to deal with being different from everyone else."
Cash led Kapoor to Elliott Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin' Hopkins. All the above led him to his unusual debut album, The Ballad of Willy Robbins, which Kapoor will showcase during his show at The High Watt on Saturday. Unlike most singer-songwriter albums, this one is neither a meditation on self nor a collection of 10 disparate songs. It's a semi-concept album, loosely organized around a fictional character named Willy Robbins, a married, older construction worker.
Willy has been hired to help build a giant tower in his hometown, but he gets cheated on his pay. His kids go hungry, his wife leaves, his neighborhood goes to hell, and he ends up homeless, sleeping in the woods. He eyes a waitress in the local cafe, but can't work up his nerve. He recalls his dreams of climbing the ladder, scaling the mountain, reaching for the sun, but it was all undone when the construction-site scaffolding collapsed beneath him.
If the album is unlike most singer-songwriter projects, it's also unlike most political-folk records. Kapoor isn't writing musical journalism — he's more interested in metaphor than in facts. On the album's opening track, "Bottom of the Ladder," the singer describes Willy's ambition not in terms of dollars and cents but as if Willy were holding a lightning rod as he tries to climb high enough to catch fire. Later in the same song, Kapoor describes Willy's poverty: "The days are dark, like the peeling bark, of a dyin' hemlock tree."
The album's title track was inspired by a newspaper story that Kapoor read while working as a mason's apprentice outside of Boston. The journalist described an anonymous construction worker who was injured in a scaffolding accident and wound up unemployed and then homeless. Kapoor decided to write a song about him and called the worker Willy Robbins, because it sounded like a folk-song name. You can hear echoes of Guthrie and Dylan in these lines from the bridge: "The heat pipes cough, the jam jars nearly empty, the apples soft, the bedroom dusty."
"At the end of the article — and this is what made me clip it out — he had built a lean-to in the woods that no one knew about," explains Kapoor, now based in Oregon. "And he would sleep there sometimes rather than waiting in line for the shelter. That was the only time he felt at peace. The best protest songs aren't the ones that drive home a point too strongly, but are the ones that have a gray area. That's what I want to do — to write a song that's honest but will last. Something that's specific and general at the same time. If I write about Gmail, that's going to go out of date at some point."
Metaphors about hemlock trees, however, are not going out of date.
When Kapoor started playing the song live, a few people dismissed him as a Dylan wannabe. "On the other hand," he says, "especially in smaller towns, where people aren't so jaded, people would come up in tears and say that song reminded them of their families. That moved me; it made me feel I had really done something. That gave me the idea of writing more songs about Willy."
Not every song on the album works; some get so tangled in their fuzzy metaphors and static music that they fail to register. But the strongest songs — "Bottom of the Ladder," "Blue-Eyed Baby," "Ode to My Hometown," "Forever Gone" and the title track — are impressive enough to hint at Kapoor's considerable potential. That promise is clearly evident on the album-ending "Forever Gone," when a mournful clarinet underlines Willy's lonesome lament for a lost American dream, "I had a time I could call my own; now my freedom's gone."
All this from a 28-year-old.