Kate Robberson, one-fourth of Ley Line, was first introduced to Brazillian culture while studying at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 2006 and working at Glacier Ice Cream on The Hill.
Her manager’s sister had created an exchange program that helped people living in a rural region of Brazil learn English so they could be ecotourism guides and the jobs wouldn’t just go to people from the city.
Robberson decided to make the trip alone.
“That’s how I started singing, just kind of being in nature alone,” she says. “These melodies started coming about the same time that I was learning Portuguese. There was just a natural synergy of ‘right place, right time.’”
She began writing her own songs in Portuguese and later moved to Austin, where she graduated in 2012 from the University of Texas.
Prior to graduation, Robberson met Emilie Basez during a stint with a volunteer organization and the two began singing together. She says she was captivated by the magic of vocal harmonies. The two decided to hit the road and travel through South America, including Argentina, where Basez’s family is from. About six months later, they met up in Brazil. (The two were joined by sisters Madeline and Lydia Froncek a few years later in 2016, and the quartet became Ley Line.)
“We just spent hours on the beach exchanging songs,” Robberson recalls. “I thought we could take this on the road. We could book shows and experience the country through music. We toured around Brazil for about six months, meeting different people and hitchhiking.”
When they returned to the United States, the two joined an independent folk group to immerse themselves in different styles of Brazilian music like maracatu and ciranda.
“Something that really inspired us a lot about Brazilian culture is that music and art are viewed as community arts,” she says. “A lot of it is about getting people together and nurturing the community through community expression.”
She says the music of New Orleans has a similar community quality to it.
“There are musicians but everyone is singing and dancing and clapping along,” she says. “There is a community element to it, a street element to it, passing down oral traditions. It depends on what region and what type of music we are talking about.”
Ley Line tries to bring the community aspect to its music in numerous ways. They’ve held workshops on tour to teach people about the music and dance. They recognize that the music they write is inspired by cultural traditions that are not their own, so they strive to give those traditions the respect they have due. She adds that when people see a performance, they often say that they feel the urge to sing along.
“That is something that is a huge gift of being able to perform is to inspire others to find their own creative voice,” she says.
Ley Line sprang from Brazilian musical traditions, but the group also performs in English, Spanish and French. Lydia Froncek, the band’s main percussionist, writes in French and spent a lot of time in Montreal, Quebec and Senegal. The group has songs in Spanish primarily because of Basez’s Argentinian heritage.
“To be able to reach people who speak all these different languages is really rewarding,” Robberson says. “We’ve taken the time to learn how to communicate. It’s also beneficial to us because it’s this whole other range of expression.”
Ley Line released its first album, “Field Notes,” in 2016. The quartet went on a long tour of Brazil in 2017, which helped inspire their latest record “We Saw Blue.”
“The focus for this last album is Brazilian because we wrote a lot of it on and it’s inspired by our trip to Brazil,” Robberson says. “But you are going to have the influences from West African percussion because that is Lydia’s foundation in her study.”
She adds that the songs, although they are heavily influenced by Brazilian music, also bear some of the Spanish and French influences that have become part of Ley Line’s signature sound.
The band also released “We Saw Blue” as a visual album with scenes shot during their 2017 Brazil tour. It was important for the band to show people what they do and give them a multimedia experience. The band considers the album to be an origin story of sorts.
“We took cameras throughout the whole trip and filmed everything,” Robberson says. “In May we screened it at the Paramount Theater (in Austin) to a sold-out crowd, which was amazing considering that we were coming out of the pandemic. We are really excited to bring the film to Colorado.”
Colorado has always felt like a second home to the group. The group has toured through Colorado a few times, including a return to Telluride, where they actually performed this time around. They’ve played most of the venues in Boulder. Robberson and Basez met Lydia Froncek at the Telluride Blues Festival in 2013. Around that time, Madeline Froncek was living in Durango and studying at Fort Lewis College.
“We ended up doing a camping trip together and singing,” Robberson. “It was one of those chance meetings, going on a little adventure with some people you met at a festival and then you say goodbye and see what happens in the future.”
They have been working on new material this year. It’s been a strange experience because of the COVID pandemic, so they’ve taken time to reflect.
“We’ve had an immense moment of pause during the pandemic to look inward and see what our next message is going to be,” Robberson. “A lot of us were feeling distant from loved ones and friends.”