When eight years passes between a musician’s albums, it’s natural to wonder what he’s been up to during that time. For Asheville songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Chris Rosser, however, it’s almost easier to diagram what he hasn’t been doing.
On top of steady solo gigs and collaborations, Rosser has stayed busy with percussionist River Guerguerian and bassist Eliot Wadopian in their world-fusion band Free Planet Radio. He also went on two tours of China, playing piano, guitar and oud in flutist Rhonda Larson’s band Ventus. And then there’s his day job, producing projects for others at his Hollow Reed Arts recording studio.
In the last year alone, Rosser’s credits include world musicians (Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band), a kirtan singer (Kristin Luna Ray), an old-time duo (Zoe and Cloyd), a native American flutist (Marina Raye), a Celtic band (Noonday Feast), a storyteller (Andy Offutt Irwin) and a host of singer-songwriters, with more work on tap for 2015. “The expression ‘The cobbler’s children have no shoes’ came to mind often during the last several years,” says Rosser, who’s lived in Asheville since 1995. “I finally had to just book some time for myself on my studio calendar to make it happen.”
A Thousand Hands, Rosser’s fourth collection of lyrically driven folk, gets a release show on Friday, Dec. 12, at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall. He calls the show a split bill with himself. First up is a set of vocal songs from the new album with Guerguerian and Wadopian backing him up, after which the three return to play as Free Planet Radio.
After the trio’s 2008 album, The Unraveling, Rosser worked sporadically on a solo follow-up to his 2006 Hidden Everywhere, usually for a week at a time between his producer/engineer efforts. Of the songs that made it on to A Thousand Hands, some have been around since the beginning of that period. New additions along the way replaced songs that Rosser stopped liking. “One advantage of taking so long to finish is that the weaker songs became more obvious after listening to them for a few years,” Rosser says. “I was just left with the ones I really felt good about.”
With the exception of Guerguerian’s drums and harmonies by Rosser’s wife, Lynn, the musician ended up playing all of the instruments on A Thousand Hands. He didn’t originally plan on such a one-man-band approach, but as he got further into the process, it became a creative challenge to see if there was an instrument he could play that would work instead of bringing in someone else. “On the song ‘Anchor Tattoo,’ rather than have River play drum set on it, I ended up tuning the open strings of a guitar to the key of the song and playing it like a hand drum as the percussion track,” Rosser says. “On the same song, I added some backwards electric guitar to take the place of what I originally imagined as cello and violin.”
As both artist and producer/engineer on A Thousand Hands, Rosser constantly shifted between the two distinct perspectives. While his artist side needed to be creative, imaginative and deliver what he calls “true performances,” the producer/engineer side had to evaluate the performance and capture and organize it in a technical way. “It’s always a balancing act of trying to hear it from both points of view — kind of a left brain/right brain thing,” Rosser says.
By contrast, when he’s producing someone else’s project, Rosser sees himself more as a facilitator for the vision of the artist rather than trying to impose his own aesthetic. Since songs can go in many different directions, his goal is usually to figure out what kind of sounds and styles the artist likes and imagines for the album, and then try to help them realize it.
“I’ll certainly offer lots of ideas and direction, but ultimately it’s not my name on the cover,” Rosser says. “The artist needs to feel like the recording accurately represents who they are and what they want to present to the world.”
WHO: Chris Rosser with special guests Free Planet Radio
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday, Dec. 12, at 8:30 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show