When it comes to Robert Harrison and Cotton Mather, it’s nearly impossible to discern where the man ends and the band begins. Harrison is Cotton Mather. So why even bother with anything else?
“It’s very difficult to sell a reboot to people,” says Harrison via Zoom from his cabin in the Texas Hill Country. “I was a big fan of the Pixies and the Jayhawks, but I didn’t go out and get their new records. I had this perception that they belonged to another time. And I kept running into that same perception with Cotton Mather fans.”
“Face In The Crowd” is an enticing teaser for Watching The Kid Come Back (Monostereo), Harrison’s first proper solo album, which is due July 23. Though perhaps a bit more austere, it’s a close cousin to the sort of bittersweet, Lennon-inspired melancholy and timeless craftsmanship that’s been a Cotton Mather constant since the late ’90s. Around that time, a copy of the band’s brilliant second album, Kontiki, found its way to Liam and Noel Gallagher, sparking a brushfire of hype in England for the Austin-based band. Alas, the group’s tiny label was underfunded and ill-equipped in every sense, and Kontiki fell out of print.
“Only about 1,000 copies were made,” says Harrison of the album’s initial U.S. release.
Almost a quarter-century later, Kontiki is considered a power-pop classic, its status bolstered by a 2012 reissue that prompted the reunion of Harrison and cofounder Whit Williams, along with Kontiki bassist George Reiff. With their help and encouragement, Harrison hammered out two more Cotton Mather albums and an EP. All were well-received by critics but got virtually no traction with listeners. That lack of success, compounded by the 2017 cancer death of close friend Reiff, threw Harrison into a funk, creatively and otherwise.
“Everything for me shut down a bit in 2018,” says Harrison. “The funding I’d set aside for the Cotton Mather records was done, and we’d expected to generate more. Then my best friend passed away. I really needed to regroup.”
Hesitant to leave Austin too far behind, Harrison found a small cabin just outside Dripping Springs. “It’s small, it has high ceilings, it’s made of pine, and it’s a little bit remote,” he says. “I was coming to a new chapter in my life after some disappointments. Then COVID happened, and suddenly I was forced to be alone. The album is mostly me recording by myself or with a guest in the cabin or on the front porch.”
Austin fixture Gary Newcomb added pedal steel, and Brad Fordham (Dave Alvin, Monte Warden) played mostly standup bass. Never too far from the fold, Cotton Mather cofounder Williams contributed guitar parts. “I had a couple of visits from drummers that were super careful,” says Harrison.
As much as the album may be a scaled-back departure for Harrison, it shouldn’t put off Cotton Mather fans. “For me, it’s just a matter of changing the scenery,” says Harrison. “I can do a country song, bring in the pedal steel and get everything just right. Then I sing, and there I am again. That’s the thing that’s distinctively me. I couldn’t shake it if I tried.”