Britain’s most intriguing troubadour gets inside his groove. Phil Collins, be very, very afraid…
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
The gentleman is unique among his peers, a musician who originally mined the lessons bequeathed by the Beatles, Syd Barrett and the various proponents of late ‘60s psychedelia, and then used them to create an unerringly compelling catalogue spawned from his own flights of fantasy. Starting with the Soft Boys and winding his way through a couple dozen albums and some 500 songs, Robyn Hitchcock has consistently used his instincts and imagery to create a rich musical tapestry that never fails to marvel and mesmerize his loyal devotees.
Hitchcock’s latest, Love From London, continues to draw from a rich spectral tapestry, one loosely wrapped up in a theme of environmental concerns. However, where he once sang songs with unlikely titles like “Where Are the Prawns,” “Madonna of the Wasps,” “Chinese Bones” and “Uncorrected Personality,” his new album boasts far more tender tunes like “I Love You,” “Be Still,” “Death and Love,” “Strawberries Dress” and “End of Time.” Indeed, it may be his most accessible effort to date.
A conversation with Mr. Hitchcock is always enlightening – during this interview for example, his attention seemed to drift to the outside environs within view of his New York hotel room window – but he proved thoughtful, engaging and disarming, speaking dryly with a refined manner of speaking while offering a wealth of insights into his songwriting regimen and overall m.o.. Here then, is Mr. Hitchcock expressing himself with unusual candor and eloquence and speaking on a subject which he clearly knows best – his muse and motivations. (Below, watch “Love In the Garden of Light,” a video Hitchcock released late last year comprising previously unreleased footage.)
BLURT: From what we’ve read, Love From London almost appears to be a concept album.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: It’s more like you lay the egg first, and then you have to kind of put a label on it. And then you decide where it’s going to go. Looking at it, you can see that some of it is, but it’s not at all a total concept. There’s never a concept behind my songs. At least very seldom.
The press release says that it “celebrates like in a culture imperiled by economic and environmental collapse.” That sounds very heavy. But the album didn’t seem to convey any sense of impending doom whatsoever.
It’s celebrating life in that situation. That is, it’s not complaining. All I was doing in the press release was giving it some context. All I’m doing is picking up the guitar and doing what I’ve always done. But in terms of the way it sounds… it’s all in a context. It’s all a way of framing it. That’s the world we’re in now.
Do you start with a concept in mind, or do the songs come along and you find a concept with what’s emerged?
It seems like it’s the latter from what you’ve just described. In fact, it’s very much the latter. I can’t write songs to order like some people can. Like, I want eggs, steak and ham. You can try to render that in some way, but I wouldn’t normally be able to do that, and I normally wouldn’t know how to do that. And I never really have. I come from the generation of songwriters that were there simply to please themselves. Bob Dylan is an example of someone who could grab a guitar and assume the mantle of folk prophet (chuckles). That’s something that the world needed to hear, whether it was about their toenails or what kind of sandwich they weren’t eating, or the rain that wasn’t falling on them, but falling or somebody else. All these things might be worth hearing. In commercial music, the lyrics are supposed to focus on subjects that are common to everyone, which is usually some kind of sexual jealousy or a desperate appetite for something they can’t have…all the fundamental motives. Mine is really exactly the same way it always has been.
Still, from what’s been described, there seems some kind of desperate undercurrent here…
It’s worth pointing out that everything has always been on the verge of a state of collapse, at least in my lifetime. The fact that we ourselves are finite beings, we go into this life knowing that our conscious is finite, that that little flame is eventually going to be snuffed out by the wind of time, and so we humans have always had a tendency towards doom and apocalypse. Judgment day. It’s the paradox. Everything must finish, but life carries on, so we now know that the doomsday scenario may be environmental, but it’s still there. But even if none of that comes to pass, we will all eventually disappear anyway.
Your song with KT Tunstall, “There Goes the Ice,” had that environmental theme to it, so the first thought was that maybe this album was a thematic continuation of that scenario.
I think the emphasis on this record is celebration. Whatever it was… celebrate good times. This is the closest I get to a fun record.
Your songs have always had an imaginative and dream-like feel to them. You go into these surreal realms that few others venture into. Where does that imagery come from?
Well (pauses)… I expect it’s there in everybody, but it’s just that I’ve probably been trained to develop it. I don’t think people get a sense of their dreams, what occurs to the mind when it’s basking in its own juices, when it’s sort of trapped in its own hall of mirrors. It’s what’s conventionally called surrealism. The term surrealism has existed for about 100 years. Dreams have probably been there as long we’ve been around, if not before. I don’t know if people have done texts on what smaller mammals dream. I don’t know if crustaceans dream. But presumably, if we dream, then our relatives – the monkeys, the apes and the shrews and the kangaroos and the lemurs – all have some kind of dream activity. I can’t believe it’s just the prerogative of word speaking creatures that have dreams. I think that mechanism is in all animals — certainly in mammals, — whereby your feelings are translated directly into pictures…
Needless to say this long preceded television. So I think this facility for creatures to have feelings and then see pictures has been there forever. Music has also been there a long time as well. There are those that believe we had music before we had speech. We humans started making rhythmic noises and them chiseling them into words. Originally we were a kind of record collection, a kind of bass drum setup, and I think my way of writing songs is just really, in terms of words, it’s a very basic response to life. Most people confine it to their dreams, or if they’re superficially labeled as artists, they can do it in marked zones, such as art school and museums. But the division between art and life is an extremely artificial one. Everything we do is a form of life. Right now, I’m looking out the window and staring at these incredible buildings in New York (chuckles). So I’m just really into that idea. That’s where it comes from. I think it’s in everybody, but I’m just someone who chooses to, or is able to, practice it.
To answer your question in brief.
So it seems your talent is to make these images real and accessible.
That’s very kind of you. I think the imagination is there in everybody if they are encouraged to cultivate it. “He was trained as an engineer and then he became a cartoonist, then he worked on novels and plays and he carried on painting here and there.” So I come from that kind of background. So that’s another answer for you.
Given your vast catalogue and lengthy trajectory, do you ever find yourself competing with your younger self? Have you set a bar that’s so high, it’s now a challenge to maintain that level of artistic excellence? Does that create added stress and pressure in any way?
(laughs) I wouldn’t say it’s stress, but it’s certainly a reminder. I think yes, once you’ve gone on awhile, you are in competition with your younger self. But at the same time, um, it’s not necessarily – what’s the word for it – I don’t think you necessarily improve on things.
It’s like, are you a better artist at 20 or 40 or 60? You’re just a different kind of artist. Early Graham Greene as opposed to later Graham Greene, or early Picasso as opposed to middle or late Picasso. It is true that some people peak early and some people peak late, but I think really, you’re just representing where you are in life, which station you’re at. And they can all be equally valid. Some come before others, so that’s the way it goes really. You know you’re not going to (draws a breath)… you know there’s certain things that you can only do at certain ages but you’re not going to come up with the same intensity of feeling in the same way when you’re older as opposed to when you were young. I’m not going to write another song like “Insanely Jealous” or “Kingdom of Love.” I’m not even going to write another song like “Madonna of the Wasps,” because I’ve written them already. There’s no point in trying to compete with them. If I tried to write a song in that vein, it wouldn’t match up. But I have to accept that whatever qualities that times gives me are worth having. Generally time gives you greater depth, but less intensity. So if I were a 20 year old now, I’d much rather listen to the Soft Boys than my later records probably.
Having said all that, it’s worth in checking in on what one’s already done before to make sure your songs aren’t too long. I’ve noticed that we slow down as we get older and if I play my older songs, I’m playing them at half the speed. I’ve discovered that “Underwater Moonlight” can be done in two minutes, but I’m doing it at about two and half now. I try to have a younger person on stage to help lead it. Like a young horse to keep me on the path. People like Bob Dylan… I think he’s physically incapable of writing anything under seven minutes now. Which is a pity. I think you do need to remind yourself that when you get older, you need to get on with it.
Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you can waffle, just like this answer has. I do hope you will edit.
I will attempt to do so, Mr. Hitchcock.
Just take the bullet points.
Speaking of getting older, you’re going to be 60 next month, so how will that affect your art, your outlook and your perspective?
I probably covered that in my previous answer.
So you did! Indeed, do you ever find that as you’re writing a song, you’re going over the same terrain and you have to remind yourself to reboot?
Yes. I think you’re entitled to rework certain themes. Like nearly all the protagonists in Graham Greene’s books seem to be Catholics, or lapsed Catholics.Or at least an unnaturally high proportion of them. But he writesof what he knows. Many years ago Bryan Ferry laid out the template of his post Roxy and late Roxy style. Arguably he put it all out on Avalon and lately he’s just been sort of refining it less effectively. (NOTE: Ferry’s latest album contains instrumental jazz versions of his earlier works.) It’s still a great style and it’s lovely to hear the man who invented it creating more in the same vein. If you liked that, here’s something that’s almost as good and twice as expensive.
Personally, I’m not someone who likes learning new tricks and I’m not always rushing off to listen to new music and to see what I can glean from it. I should, but I’m just a reluctant learner… although the Empire State Building is looking down at me and distracting me. It telling me something, but I don’t know what. So yeah, I do have to watch out for that. In music more often than lyrics. I’ve just rewritten a section of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Or something like “The Joker” by Steve Miller. Occasionally I rewrite bits of my songs. But it’s a fascinating question. People have a natural penchant towards certain chords. People like artichokes. Some people like cabbage. Some people can’t stand marlins. Some people want salsa. Some people love purple, but they can’t abide orange, or whatever. So we’ve got natural inclinations.
There are things I just want to do as a songwriter. There are probably chord sequences that satisfy my ears and there’s other stuff that doesn’t. Most of my stuff is in major keys, for instance. There are just certain ways I’m bound to go because I like them and you will hear that from the Soft Boys days up until the last things I’ve produced. There will always be a certain way my chords go. I don’t know what it is. And I don’t think I can really fight that.
And why should you?
Perhaps to wrong foot myself and come up with something I’m not expecting. And also, the great stuff is probably done by mistake. I probably come up with my most interesting stuff when I’m singing the wrong notes over a chord.
But if you were to do it deliberately, you might throw your fans for a loop. Like if you came up with a heavy metal album for example. Or did something like when Nick Lowe suddenly made a shift in his sound and went country. That was sort of unexpected at the time.
Well, didn’t he kind of drift into it? Nick’s been kind of good at moving into a sort of mature persona. His persona has kept pace with him. He has made absolutely no attempt to hang on to his younger self. I’m kind of sorry he’s jettisoned the multi-tracked voices and all the pop stuff, but I love the way he’s just sort of moved with time. He’s very graceful and extremely cool, and now he has this whole parallel world of late ‘50s, early ‘60s supper club style. It’s this very American world which is actually captained by this extremely English person, so it’s exquisite. He just does it really beautifully, but he’s completely created mondo Nick.
Your stuff is exquisite as well, and you’ve pretty much stayed the course.
Arguably Nick’s gone somewhere and I’ve stayed exactly where I was.
It’s a wonderful thing. And that’s what the people who love your music love about you.
Well thank you!
Because your music is filled with such imagination and uniqueness, it always sounds fresh and unexpected. So you can keep on sounding like Robyn forever, Robyn, because by the nature of what you do, it will always sound brilliant.
That’s very kind of you.
So that leads into my next question. I’m filled with the power of segues….
I’m staring out at New York and thinkingit’s wonderful how the great cities exist.
Okay… Umm, So what is the greatest advantage to being Robyn Hitchcock?
And what’s the biggest disadvantage? A bit of an artsy, ambiguous question, I grant you.
(Pauses) Well, the biggest advantage… I suppose that the biggest advantage to being me is probably that I don’t have to be anyone else at this point. That wasn’t necessarily a big advantage 30 years ago. The advantage to being me now is that I’ve been this long enough so that I don’t have to look around for something else I ought to be. I don’t really have to justify my existence as far as doing anything other than what I’ve already done. So that’s quite something, I suppose.
That’s a worthy answer for sure.
Thank you. The disadvantage is probably to go back to what we were talking about five minutes ago, that unless I stand outside of my usual position and challenge myself, I am very likely to only remain writing the kind of songs that Robyn Hitchcock would write. So I am perhaps less likely to surprise anybody, myself included, with what I do. The most likely thing is that people who have been listening to me the last 30 years will go, “Oh, that’s great. Put it on the pile with the others. That’s a good one” or whatever. But it’s less likely people will go “Wow, what the hell was that?” It’s that much harder for me to come up with something that surprises my listeners or me. So perhaps that’s the challenge in what I have lying ahead, to see if I can do anything that people wouldn’t expect me to do. Whether I do that is another matter. Now I’m looking between the Empire State Building and me and I see there are some roof gardens. I’m thinking, what a very unlikely place to put a bunch of trees.
They often put trees on roofs in these urban environs.
Well, they put trees on roofs, but they’re big enough to be clipped. There’s what looks like a greenhouse and a shed up there, so it’s obvious that some people on 28th Street who have got some forest or arboretum up there. There’s obviously something going on on the roof and I’m expecting that this is what I need to be doing.
It is strange to see trees growing on roofs. They’ve apparently run out of room and they have to have a bit of greenery to make it a kind of concrete jungle.
Yeah, but it’s quite nice that they’ve actually done it up there, so maybe that’s the thing to do, to maybe have stuff growing on the roof in some way or another.
Getting back to matters at hand, you seem to have a new group of players on this album. Is that a correct assumption?
Paul Noble is my British music director – he plays bass in my British band and we’ve played together fairly consistently for the last ten years. Jenny Adejayan I’ve known for a similarly long time and she plays on Goodnight Oslo/ We made a record called Tromsø, Kapteinthat only came out in Norway last year and it features Paul and Jenny and a couple of other British musicians. Lucy Parnell and Jen Macro I met through Graham Coxon, they do some backing vocals and they were on the Tromsø, Kaptein record. And Anne Lise Frokedal is in a group called I Was a King, and Norman Blake and I produced their album You Love It Here last April.
Sadly, it hasn’t had an American release but it should have. It’s a brilliant record if you like Teenage Fanclub or the Byrds or the Soft Boys. It’s all in there with these beautiful, distinctive Scandinavian vocals. It’s like ABBA meets the Byrds. F\or some inane reason, nobody’s picked up on it over here. There hasn’t been enough focus on it, but they’re brilliant, and Anne Lisa is singing on “Be Still” and “I Love You.” I’d love to get them over sometime. She also has a band called Harrys Gym. So there’s the Norwegian element from her and Jenny playing cello, and Paul and me doing pretty much everything else. Paul does all the drum sounds so there’s no real drums. There was no kind of backing tracks sessions. It was all done in Paul’s bedroom.
When you’re in the studio, how emphatic are you in terms of directing the proceedings? Do you dictate to the musicians what you want them to play?
If I’m happy with it, that’s great. If I’m not, I try to steer them towards what works. Really, I think everybody can tell when it’s working. Sometimes maybe you have to tweak the drums or something, or it takes awhile to get a drum pattern that works. It always seems to show up in the drums. I’m not a meticulous arranger or anything like that at all. Often it’s good to have somebody else like Paul who deals with that kind of thing. I always remain the executive producer so I have the final say about everything, but I don’t necessarily put it together. I have to make sure it’s working, but I’m not going in saying anything unless there’s a riff and I have to show everybody how this riff goes. I’m certainly no Captain Beefheart…
Or Phil Spector presumably…
Oh no no no. Christ, I’m not even Phil Collins.
Below, watch Hitchcock provide a track-by-track commentary of his new album.