Robin Kester’s “Disguise” is a moody acoustic dirge that hits all the right notes, lyrically and musically.
I enjoyed the trance-esque sound to this piece, despite the barebones ensemble of instruments. Patient, steady guitar fingerpicking drives this track, and matches the tone of Kester’s voice perfectly. Beneath the surface of the melody, the textured combination of a bass guitar’s warm, but deep drone accompanied by a simple drum machine further develops the underlying theme of a stifling distance between the listener and the world around them.
This lonely atmosphere is accentuated by some well-placed effects and the haunting, melancholic legato of Kester’s voice.
The word distance keeps coming to mind as I listen to this song. There is a very nuanced sense of space in this piece, within both the music and the lyrics. One thing I noticed about this song was how the lyrics echo the exact tone the music conveys, adding to the overall cohesiveness between the words and the melody. Completely separate from the music, the lyrics are competently poetic and artful. Accompanied with the music, they are beautiful and provocative. The first verse begins with:
You have come a long way in disguise,
Blending into crowds, shouting random words
This sets the tone of the piece into motion effectively and artfully. The concept of traveling, or “coming a long way” in disguise, or with a false identity, resonates with many people. I think that, especially in musicians or other creative performers, the idea of careers, relationships, or even how you might live your life in general can feel like a performance or a façade. Like someone just following trends or sacrificing their individuality, “blending into crowds, shouting random words”. This idea of how suffocating blending in can be is contrasted by the chorus, which is a call to action, imploring you to take a step back, and look inward:
Hold your breath, close your eyes,
Only a fool would choose to fight
The tone feels a little despairing at this point, as the percussion begins to thump into a bar of reflective, lyric-less instrumental. This chorus comments on the futility of buying into the chaos of fake personalities that the world beckons you into, positing that the only thing to do is hide, shutting yourself off from a journey taken as someone you aren’t. Between lyrics, this song has great delivery, allowing you to take in the poetry of the words before ushering you into the next verse:
Surrounded by stories that unfold,
And reveal what lies shielded
Beneath paper flowers
I love the image this verse evokes. Standing amidst a crowd of people, each attempting to “blend in” and project their identity as willfully and as noticeably as possible, you notice that each story “unfolds”, revealing people’s true nature. The metaphor of a façade, or persona that someone uses to hide their true story as a paper flower is beautiful, capturing the apparent beauty of pretending to be someone you aren’t, but showing it to be a delicate, fragile, and impermanent. This verse brings the song to a more relatable level, saying that everyone belongs to this crowd, shouting random words, but that each of us has a story hidden beneath the appearances we present to the rest of the world.
The chorus repeats, urging us on through the song, followed by the bridge:
Steel burned like paper,
And glass became sand,
Everything faded, everything faded
This dissolution of false identity is bittersweet: implying that every perceived notion of strength or beauty in this sea of people trying to live the life of someone else will fade into nothing, and everyone will have to face their true selves in the end. The ending of the song takes a darker turn, as Kester finishes with:
Hold your breath, close your eyes,
` you’ll pay the price
When all that is left of you are lies
The music’s climax and decrescendo after this verse perfectly mirror Kester’s words of warning, fading out as the lyrics “Everything faded” repeat until the end of the song, giving us time to digest the wisdom behind the words.
This piece is musically beautiful, blending minimal instrumentals, spacious sound design, and impressive vocals with poignant and powerful lyricism to create a thoughtful, melancholic narrative within the listener. An excellent track.
I had the opportunity to ask Robin Kester a few questions about songwriting, and the process of crafting such wonderful pieces, as well as their history with music in general.
How long have you been making music?
I started this solo project year and a half ago. But I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. My grandmother used to sing in classical choirs and taught me the basics.
I remember sleeping at my grandparents and singing with my grandmother in the living room. They have very high ceilings so there was a lot of natural reverb present and I just loved the sound of our voices echoing in the living room. Also, whenever I was alone and afraid, or sad I would just sing. No words really, just melodies that would make me feel at ease.
Initially, making music was just something I did for myself or with my grandmother. It wasn’t until a period abroad in Ireland that I started thinking about actually being a musician and writing my own songs.
What caused you to start making music?
I decided to make more music shortly after I returned to Amsterdam from studying abroad in Dublin. The music scene in Dublin and the general atmosphere of the city (and the countryside, so basically everything about Ireland) just really triggered something in me. In the beginning, I was quite self-conscious so I preferred being part of a band or being a backing vocalist/ guitar player.
What’s your process for songwriting and composition?
When I’m on the bus or train, or when I walk somewhere, I often get ideas for lyrics. Just some words, or a couple of lines. I write them down in my phone (because I kept losing real notebooks). Then, when I sit down with my guitar (sometimes keyboard) I try to play something that resonates with how I feel at that moment and I use my notes as a starting point for the lyrics. Because of that, the melodies and chord progression reflect my emotions more directly than the lyrics.
Your lyrics are very poetic. Do you have any specifics poets or songwriters that inspire your lyrical style?
Thanks! I majored in literature and I’ve always liked authors with a rich, almost floral style of writing. I think that’s why I really like lyrics that are figurative. 19th century Dutch novelist Louis Couperus is one of my favourite authors. He uses beautiful similes and metaphors to describe ordinary life.
Portland-based songwriter Haley Heynderickx is also a big inspiration. As is Lisa Hannigan. Their lyrics are quite figurative but very relatable and to the point at the same time. I admire that.
Who would you say your biggest influences have been so far in your music career?
Hmmm I think Radiohead, Kate Bush, Lisa Hannigan, Sufjan Stevens, Marika Hackman, Haley Heynderickx, Broadcast and more recently, Aldous Harding,
Which of your musical influences do you think you hear the most in what you’ve released so far?
Probably Marika Hackman (I listened a lot to her debut album We Slept At Last) and a bit of Aldous Harding (Blend is one of my favourite songs) and Lisa Hannigan’s At Swim was also on repeat during the period that I was writing my debut EP.
Which genre would you say your music falls into?
Which track on the ‘Peel the Skin’ EP do you like the most?
Ah, I don’t really know. It’s like a magic trick: once you know every step involved, the magic is gone. I need a bit more distance from the EP before I’ll be able to say that.
What inspired you to write ‘Disguise’? Did you write the lyrics or the composition first?
I started with the composition and then the lyrics followed quite naturally. Partially based on lines that I had written in my phone’s notebook.
I was avoiding confronting myself with a life-altering decision that was inevitable. Writing the song actually pointed this out to me. Often, I’m not even aware that a certain situation is on my mind until I’ve ‘accidentally’’ written a song about it. It’s quite a handy tool I must say.
Is this song directed towards anyone in particular?
In a way, I’m talking to myself I guess.
The chorus of the song sounds like a word of warning, was that intentional, and if so, what are you warning against?
I’m telling myself that my evasive behaviour might seem like a good solution when it isn’t really.
The song talks about those who are ‘in disguise, blending into crowds, shouting random words’, who would you say falls into the category of being ‘in disguise’?
People who deny a certain truth or part of their personality and avoid confronting themselves with it.
If there was one thing you’d want listeners to take away from the message of ‘Disguise’, what would it be?
I don’t like the idea of telling others how to interpret what they hear, or advocating a message. I don’t mind explaining how the idea for Disguise originated and what it means to me, but I really hope that listeners have their own way of relating to the lyrics and the melodies of songs.
Do you have any final comments or things you’d like to tell your audience?
Just that I’m grateful that people listen to my music and that I hope my songs evoke pleasant and/or interesting feelings.
Image credit: Renate Beense
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