In the title track to Rafael Vigilantic’s latest album, Blue River, Grey Sky, there’s a tangible balance between hope and despair. At times, it almost sounds like a cheerful pop melody, but then the Taos-born Vigilantics makes it clear that he’s struggling to stay optimistic while dealing with a soul-crushing break-up. “I’m leaving on my feet this time,” he says, as if life and this relationship have at times knocked him down. The album, his fourth, will be available on Friday, Nov. 13, and is largely about getting back up when things are tough.
As a teenager, he went down to Tijuana, Baja California, to box and kickbox in pool halls. “We would fight in these old pool halls. It’s kinda crazy when you think about it,” says Vigilantics, 39. The trips were an escape from his life in Silver City, where he was raised by his mother, a folk singer. His father, meanwhile, was in and out of incarceration and not around for much of Vigilantics’ life.
“The first time I met him, he showed up to a concert at Taos Mesa Brewery about five years ago,” Vigilantics says. “I had this feeling; there was one 70-year old man in the crowd and that turned out to be him. Turns out that he was squatting on my piece of property out there for years, and I just had no idea because it was just raw land.”
As a teenager, Vigilantics struck out on his own and later found work with the U.S. Forest Service as a contractor in kitchens and on trail crews. He went on to create his own punk-rock clothing brand, which kept him close to a number of musical acts. “I came home from one of those tours just super-inspired,” Vigilantics says. “I started writing songs and sharing them with friends.” He recorded his own music and handed out demos. The recordings landed him a spot as an opening act to touring rapper Pigeon John and punk rockers Greyskull. Vigilantics proved himself dependable and was soon on tour with the bands.
“More of a confessionalist than an MC, Rafael Vigilantics kidnaps you on his adventure thru whiskey, women, and wanderlust,” wrote Mike Ragogna in the Huffington Post in 2013. “Think Iggy Pop does hip-hop.”
Vigilantics moved to Los Angeles where his knowledge of hip hop helped him find a job writing lyrics. “I met the woman who was the director of A&R at Capitol [Records], and we had a two-hour conversation about music,” Vigilantics says. They mostly talked about the difference between East and West Coast rap. He sent her some tracks, and she responded to his writing and brought him on board to help create lyrics for acts like Nick Jonas and Georgia Florida Line. “It was really one of the most freeing experiences I’ve ever had. For the first time in my life, for a minute, I just quit telling my own story and got to put my feet in someone else’s shoes.”
Clever, often funny writing is on display in Blue River, Grey Sky. “A lot of it is personal, but I try to convey it in a bigger manner, so that people can relate to it,” Vigilantics says. “There’s a lot of inside jokes in my stuff, that I kind of built in to show respect for the people around me.”
The track “Exit Here” is filled with inside jokes and opens with a play on words — “I just want to do hard drugs with soft intellectuals. I don’t need to be judged, to be [expletive] like the verdict is guilty,” Vigilantics raps. Turns out that the pointed commentary in the song is in direct conversation with author Jason Myers. “I kept trying to play the album for him, and he kept nodding off, passing out, all strung out on drugs. I wrote that track about him,” Vigilantics says. Myers wrote the 2007 novel Exit Here and became something of a cult hero on the strength of the book.
Other tracks veer into more serious subjects. Vigilantics copes with hard times and rough relationships. “That’s the overall theme: blue river, grey sky. There’s no real solution. Even if the waters are clear, we all have to jump out of the boat at some point because there’s always trouble ahead,” he says. “Even just being in the present isn’t good enough because we can’t be complacent.”
As the album moves between optimism and rugged determination, it’s hard to imagine that it would work as pure hip-hop. Instead, Vigilantics embraces his folk roots and blends it with an alt and rock sound. In part, that’s because of Noah Harmon, formerly of the band Airborne Toxic Event, who co-wrote and co-produced the album. Harmon is from Arizona, and the two shared a Southwestern vibe. Vigilantics also wanted to move out of hip hop because of his age. “Especially as you get older, no one wants to be an old rapper,” he says. “Folk and country age well.”
Vigilantics also plans to rejoin his folk past by opening up an artistic center in his native Silver City. He and his mother are rehabbing an old structure a few miles outside of town to serve as a music venue and for sustainable living education. They call it The Building. Over time, Vigilantics hopes to make it a creative center with national appeal.
“My goal, currently, is to bring back something the industry has lost and make people fall in love with music again in a way that doesn’t put it on a plateau,” Vigilantics says. “Something that is genuine, accessible, and meaningful.”
Even with The Building, and his acreage near Taos, Vigilantics can’t resist the call of the road. He’s currently traveling the West to capture the sounds of the country for his next album. “They say when you sing you pray twice, and that’s how I feel about it. You can commiserate with people and help brighten their day,” Vigilantics says. “Without being able to write songs, I don’t know if I’d have any sanity.” ◀