Robinella barely has time to catch her breath these days. Her long-standing Sunday night engagement at Barley’s Taproom may have ended, but the 34-year-old chanteuse has more than enough to keep her busy. Her show at the Square Room this Friday will celebrate the release of two CDs, and a tour at the beginning of the year will take her all over the eastern United States. Her other current projects include a collaboration with the Appalachian Ballet Company, several commissioned art pieces (she’s an accomplished painter), and her most challenging gig to date: raising two young children. Her biggest trial as a musician right now, she admits, is simply finding time to make music.
Robinella (Robin Ella Bailey when she’s not onstage) has been a fixture on the Knoxville music scene since the late 1990s, when she formed a band with then-husband and fellow University of Tennessee student Cruz Contreras.
“I’ve always been into music,” she says. “My dad’s one of 10 children, and more than half of them play an instrument and sing, so I guess I’ve been around it for a long time. I met my first husband while I was a student at UT, and we started playing music together. We didn’t play out professionally until after we were married, and we thought about doing it as a career. We played for quite some time, and I’ve been playing music ever since.”
Robinella and the CC String Band released their debut album in 2000, followed by No Saint No Prize in 2001. They landed a contract with Columbia Records, and in late 2002 released an EP called Blanket for My Soul. A full-length self-titled album followed in 2003, with 2006’s Solace for the Lonely finding the group, having shortened its name to simply Robinella, back on the indie scene with Nashville’s Dualtone Records. The couple’s collaboration—along with their nine-year marriage—ended the following year.
“We were married almost 10 years, and we played music together, and then we weren’t together anymore,” Robinella says. “It’s hard to get divorced. It changes everything about your life. Cruz helped me a lot with my music. If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could just ask him. Since he’s a musician, it was like having not just a husband, but a musical peer with me all the time. “
Since the couple’s amicable split, Robinella has discovered a new sense of personal and professional self-reliance. She says she had no desire to shop her upcoming CD to major labels, preferring the DIY approach of releasing it herself.
“Really, the only difference in working with a big label is that you have a bigger pot of money to use for everything,” she says. “For instance, this time around, while I was making this record—actually, I’m doing two records at once; I’m doing a live at Barley’s CD and my new release—you don’t have to pay for the recording. Now I have to find ways to get everything done within my budget, and it’s a whole different thing.”
Working independently of the major-label scene also gives the Blount County native the flexibility she needs to balance her family life with the lifestyle of a professional musician.
“At the end with Columbia, I’d just had my son Cash, so I was kind of struggling,” she says. “It was a battle with performing and having the baby; those lifestyles don’t necessarily mix. It’s hard to do a family and to do music—almost impossible. I think I’ve kind of found a spot for myself now, but I guess my big battle over the past five years has been, how am I going to balance my family and my music?”
She must have figured something out, because that’s exactly what she’s doing. Robinella is remarried now, and divides her time between her family and her career as a musician. Her upcoming CD, Fly Away, Bird, will include only one cover; the rest are original tracks. The day of its release will also see the re-release of Sunday Kind of Love, a compilation of live recordings from her shows at Barley’s.
Though her music reflects the personal upheavals of recent years, it also embraces her newfound confidence, and her enduring faith in the possibilities that lie ahead.
“I did a photo shoot the other day, and when I got the photos back I thought, ‘Wow—I look like a mommy,’” she says. “But then I thought, ‘You know what? That’s alright.’ I’m getting real comfortable with myself and my life.”