By Glenn Alderson
VANCOUVER — Daniel Terrence Robertson is sitting at the end of an empty communal dining table in the house where he lives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The house neighbours Oppenheimer Park and is part of a cluster of co-op community living houses tied to the St. James Music Academy. Every Sunday this table is full of various characters; some members of the Academy’s founding families, some members of the church they belong to, and some strange yet familiar faces from the surrounding community who are hungry and in need of a warm meal. At the end of every week, without fail, the house is bustling, full of energy and, undoubtedly, the grace of God. This grace is the root of pretty much everything here in this collection of brightly coloured antique houses, brought together by a belief in Christian values. At this particular moment the room is silent, void of dinner talk and scraping of forks on plates, the only voice heard is that of the deep, low and incredibly soft-spoken Robertson. The 22-year-old released a somewhat surprising debut album earlier this month, titled Death, via Vancouver-based experimental label Heavy Lark. It’s a collection of eight beautifully heart-wrenching and haunting piano-driven electronic-influenced songs. Imagine Sufjan Stevens on Xanax playing stark arrangements on a keyboard. The album has some interesting undertones, most notably derived from Robertson’s Christian upbringing. The first single off the record, “God I’m Sorry,” isn’t so much of a “Gaaawd, I’m sorry!” but rather Robertson’s genuine apology to God, the higher power of whom he is still wrestling to understand and find a place for in his adult life.
“I want to be a loving person and I see so much, be it in my friends and the pain they’re going through or even people in this neighbourhood—and every neighbourhood. I just feel like I’m not enough or not sufficient,” Robertson says coyly as he fidgets with the spider plant on the table in front of him. “I sometimes end up retreating from the world at times and that can be hurtful to people. When I wrote that song I was going through a lot of change and I didn’t know what I wanted or what good was.”
Good is Daniel Terrence Robertson. He’s a good, honest Christian boy, even if he is wrestling with his ideas of faith and what to do with them. And while his songs may be sad and stark, in conversation he’s actually really sweet and happy. Standing at about six feet tall, with a big Supercuts mop of hair on his head, cheeks rosy, he picks his words carefully as he talks about the creation of his debut and its dangerously vulnerable lyrical content.
“I did not intend to show anyone these songs,” he says. “Eventually though, I found myself in a really bad place and, just out of resignation, I decided to put them on Bandcamp and share them with my friends on Facebook. At that moment I didn’t care what anyone thought. I just have to keep reminding myself of that or just let them be. Let them be those moments that maybe don’t represent me currently, but the wholeness of my being is all of those periods and now and what’s to come.”
The idea of death and dying is a morose concept that humans generally try not to let ruin our already limited days, but it doesn’t have to always be so dark. Robertson, like everyone, doesn’t have an answer for where we go when we take our last breath, but you get the sense that he almost enjoys being perplexed and tortured by the unknown.
“I’ve thought different things at different times of my life but, more than ever now, I’m completely confronted with the mystery of it and I don’t know if I’m afraid of it. Maybe sometimes, but other times I don’t think it could be anything bad or worse than life.”
Daniel Terrence Robertson is not a depressive person. He’s got a huge heart and feels a lot, and in large doses empathy can be painful. Living and working in the Downtown Eastside, being surrounded by poverty and addiction on a daily basis has certainly had an effect on the way he perceives the world, but he uses his music as an outlet to express the feelings he picks up along the way.
“I am drawn to this area,” he says looking out the window into the park. “The vulnerability of people. I feel like people’s walls are less present. It’s in a sense more honest living and I find myself wanting to be like that, however that is. I think that comes through in my songs too; very honest and without too much concern of how people will perceive it.”
Daniel Terrence Robertson performs November 3 at Red Gate.BC, British Columbia, Daniel Terrence Robertson, Death, Downtown East Side, Red Gate