Vikesh Kapoor isn’t doing anything new, really, and that might be what makes this string-plucking balladeer a little different. While so many artists are doing a variation on folk, updating it for a new generation, the 28-year-old Pennsylvania native has relied on the story song, one of the most elemental parts of the folk tradition, for his debut, The Ballad of Willy Robbins. Written and laid down during his first two years in Portland, Oregon, the album’s songs—delivered at a running pluck and sung with just enough nasal quaver and a clear, uplifting falsetto—collectively tell a tale inspired by a newspaper item about a working man who lost it all. It was this story that was swirling in his head, the young song-slinger tells Seattle Weekly, when he traveled across the country to Portland three years ago, a true balladeer with a story to tell about the folks he’s seen along the way.
SW: Did you know people in Portland before you moved there?
Kapoor: No. I got out here and, as far as the music scene, I was in a new swimming pool.
How did you come to work with Adam Selzer at Type Foundry?
I knew this was a very specific kind of album and it was gonna be done over a long period of time, rather than just a two-week block. I wanted to find the right producer for that, so I went to a couple producers and sang a couple of these songs for them, just live, just to see if they would be excited about it. Adam seemed to be the best fit.
Why was this album going to take some time?
I was writing it as I was going along. I had certain things mapped out, but it really unfolded in a way that a novel unfolds for some authors, in that you’re kind of discovering things as you go and you’re not quite sure where it’s going in the moment.
The title track is based on a story you read in the paper. What was it about that story that made you think it needed to be put into song?
It was about this guy who lost his job, and basically as his life got worse, he would have to wait in line at homeless shelters for a bed. Eventually he ended up building a lean-to in the woods somewhere that nobody else knew about. And he would go there sometimes instead of waiting for a bed, and that would be the only time he would feel at peace, just under the stars there in that lean-to. And that’s how the article ended, and it was just kind of a strange, peaceful way of ending a more predictable story. And that’s why I clipped it out.
How did you discover folk music?
I found a Johnny Cash LP for 25¢ at a church swap in my hometown in Pennsylvania when I was 17 or 18. It was kind of a joke at first between me and my friends about Johnny Cash. I thought he had a funny name. But I played it and he was singing stories; I remember specifically he was singing “Big River,” and that kind of piqued my curiosity. It wasn’t until a few years later that I found people like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and it was through them that I learned about turning newspaper stories into ballads.
Where does your interest in social justice come from?
I had a vague interest in it from growing up a minority in a small town in Pennsylvania, and seeing where my family came from by visiting back there, in India. I never got really heavy into political theory, and I didn’t go to rallies or anything like that. I’m not interested in being outrightly political. I’m interested in telling stories.
Do you feel that the music you are writing is just for entertainment, or is there a deeper function to your art?
It’s definitely not just to entertain. I think the biggest thing is just being able to communicate ideas or offer stories of people who you don’t always hear stories about. The reason I decided to pursue this album was because of something that happened when I went on my first tour. I remember singing that song, “The Ballad of Willy Robbins,” in St. Augustine, Florida, and a kid came up to me in tears and told me that Willy Robbins was a lot like his dad. In the genre I’m working in right now, I don’t see that happening too much.
Do you mean that you don’t see many artists who are connecting in that way?
Not connecting; just not speaking about this stuff, these people. I love a lot of music that is happening right now, but I don’t see a lot of artists doing this. I love entertaining, I love putting on a show, but it’s not just that. Obviously it’s not just that; otherwise I wouldn’t be writing story-songs. The Piranha Shop, 1022 First Ave. S., 205-1573, thepiranhashop.com. 8 p.m. $12 adv./$15 DOS. All ages.