Music, Life and Social Media with Robyn Hitchcock
By Jeff Slate
Whether you’re a fan of the Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians or simply Robyn Hitchcock as a solo singer-songwriter, there’s definitely something for you in the English musician’s new self-titled, Brendan Benson-produced album.
The legendary tunesmith tells me at the outset of our conversation that he sees the album as almost a summary of his career; hence the name. But for fans of the Soft Boys, the urgent, full-band sound of the album, with guitars coming at you from opposing ends of the stereo spectrum, marks a sonic return to the halcyon days of that fabled band, even if that’s filtered through the eyes of man who’s seen a lot of life – and a lot of the road – in the intervening years.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Your new record strikes me as having an almost mature Soft Boys sound, certainly relative to the Joe Boyd album. I’m curious, you leap from band project to acoustic project, back and forth, regularly. Talk a bit about doing something that harkened back to intertwined electric guitars, very reminiscent of your old sound, to the acoustic thing you’ve done more of lately.
Robyn Hitchcock: That was Brendan Benson. He got in touch with me about three years ago, I think before I even moved over here, and he said he was in Nashville. He just wanted to do something. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, whether it was to co-write or produce something or whatever.
But we finally hooked up and he asked right away, “Could you make a record like Soft Boys?”
I told him I didn’t think I had the same nutrients. I don’t have the kind of youthful anger I had back then. He understood that, but he said, “But you could have two guitars, bass, drums and harmonies.”
Also, because Nashville is full of great musicians, and we both knew so many of them, that we thought we might be able to come up with something good.
When I first put the record on, it leapt right out at me. It had the kind of energy of those old Soft Boys records, but the songs seemed filtered through a more mature perspective. I don’t think of you as a nostalgic guy, but by the same token you’ve never seemed afraid to tread into areas you’ve been before if you felt you had something new to say.
Was it that, or were you just nostalgic for those days?
Robyn Hitchcock: No. And I never have anything new to say. I just have two settings. Acoustic and electric. Electric’s a bit more expensive, and you have to have the right talent around you, and you need the songs. I had a bunch of songs that came through that really suited an electric setting, so it was as simple as that.
You’re constantly on the road. When do you write, and do you write all the time and stockpile and then just kind of pick and choose what to record based on the project, or do you write in batches?
Robyn Hitchcock: I write all the time, and therefore I stockpile. I’ve got three dozen notebooks up on the shelf at home representing the last 30 years. So I have a lot of, particularly, lyrics written down that I may or may not have put music to. And I’ve got a guitar in every room. And I just got a piano as well. So everything is set up for me to write whenever I have a break from doing administration, which is what my life is really about these days.
Like every musician now, I seem to constantly be doing emails and social media and going to the shops, just trying to keep the whole thing going. But when I can I sneak off and write, or at least read my notebooks and see what I’ve got in there just sitting. It’s a constant process.
I think people imagine something different. But you touched on the fact that artists nowadays have to wear many hats and are often almost their own managers, relative to the old days. I’d love to talk to you about your Twitter posts, because they’re entertaining, but by the same token are those things to you a distraction or does social media inspire you in any way?
Robyn Hitchcock: I enjoy Tweeting because whatever you say has to be pithy. Whatever you say has to fit into 140 characters, so it’s like a haiku, or a fortune cookie. I think it is very distracting doing social media, though. Just as someone once said that email was eating into quality TV time, now social media is eating into quality email time.
I definitely send fewer emails socially to people. My friends are on Twitter and I’m more likely to contact them quickly there, like a little postcard. Somehow, the more labor-saving devices we seem to come up, with the busier we seem to be. People don’t have time to read the great books anymore. They’ll read a condensed version, or someone’ll put a link on Twitter to some cool article in the New Yorker, but I don’t know how many people will just read through the magazine.
Art is accelerated, too. There are many things I don’t have time for. Fortunately, I still have time for writing songs. But I do enjoy Twitter. And I think Instagram is more positive, because that’s just nice things to look at. You don’t get many people putting out, you know, the dystopian horror of “here’s a car crash or a severed limb” or “here’s my mother having a breakdown.” Whereas on Twitter people tend to give vent to their dubious thoughts. I certainly do.
You know, you can wake up and within five minutes you can be in combat with a right-wing troll, having just read about atrocities around the world and the next fascist being elected somewhere. You can bring yourself down right fast on Twitter.
Let’s talk about the differences in working with Brendan in an electric setting and working with Joe Boyd, as you did on your last album, in a more stripped down setting. Talk about the differences and also similarities in their styles and why you wanted to work with them.
Robyn Hitchcock: Well, Joe produced some of the records I had as a teenager. I first saw his name spinning ‘round 45 rpm on a Pink Floyd single, and then I saw it spinning around at 33 on an Incredible String Band album, and then on Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, though I wasn’t really into Nick Drake at the time.
In fact, not many people were into Nick Drake back when he was actually making records. He didn’t have the right sound. He had a very jazzy, breathy sound that didn’t fit with the whole drone sound that was fashionable. He was very original. It was a sort of jazz. Everyone else was singing like Bob Dylan, one way or another, and although Drake was a Dylan fan, he totally wasn’t doing that.
Anyway, I knew of Joe and then I met him in the 80s and we’ve done odd projects together over the years. He’s doing a Nick Drake project with a string band in Edinburgh this summer that I’m going over for. He also reads from his book sometimes and I sing the songs. We did that at SXSW about ten years ago, and we’ve done it a few places since. He’ll read about discovering Pink Floyd and I’ll sing “Arnold Layne,” or he’ll read about Nick Drake and I’ll play “Riverman.”
But through all those projects I’d wanted to work with Joe, and Joe he was very keen for me to do a record of half covers and half originals, which I really liked because I’ve never made a covers album. But he said, “Why don’t you try a do something like Judy Collins, half originals and some songs by some well know people, as well as some less well known stuff?”
So I did a Roxy Music song and a Psychedelic Furs song and Doors song, but I also did a song by my Norwegian friends I Was A King, and I did a song by Grant Lee Phillips, and I kind of matched the covers song by song with one of my own. Joe is quite impatient; he likes to get things done fast. I’ve worked with him always in a solo acoustic setting, so it made sense to make an acoustic record. Joe will tell you all he ever did in the old days was sit there doing the crossword and say to the talent, “Oh, you could do that one again.” Or, “That’s good.”
Joe is very binary. He’ll say, “I like that, but I don’t like that.” His decisions are very fast. And I think his taste is very good. Then he does this thing where he kind of sits up like a meerkat and shuts his eyes and will start saying, “Oh, okay, can we take some bass off that?” It’s not exactly technical, but he would just sort of feel it, almost. But he’ll wait until you’re in a mixing stage to do it. So I like working with Joe. He was definitely the guy for an acoustic record. That was my last album. As for the new album, Brendan’s engineering is much more involved. And Brendan was the guy for the new one – a band record. I wouldn’t have wanted to swap them around.
Talk a little bit about this record and the process and what you and Brendan were trying to achieve and how he helped you get there.
Robyn Hitchcock: Well, we just want to record the songs I think, make them as good as possible. I came in with the songs finished, but I did play them to him before. We did a bit of demoing, and he’d make suggestions about the arrangements, especially with regard to how they would work in the band setting. So yeah, he was good. He was definitely the man for the job with a band.
It seems as though maybe Nashville was the place to be for you, too, because that was a new experience for you and a very creative atmosphere to be in.
Robyn Hitchcock: Yes, it was. It’s all musicians. I’d made a record here a dozen years ago with Gillian Welch and Dave Wellings called Spooked and my friend Grant Lee Phillips had moved here. Along the way, I’d met people like Pat Sansen, who sang on the record, and my partner Emma Swift also sings one the record. In fact, she was here before me in terms of living here. So it all conspired what with Brendan being here, and everyone else, for me to move here and make the record. If I was going to make another record with another band I would probably take the same people and work with Brendan but I don’t know what I might do next but they’re great.
You talked about Joe working quickly, and it sounds as though Brendan likes to work relatively quickly too, but do you still take an old fashioned approach making records, by working in proper studios rather than in home studios or wherever? Some of your heroes, like Dylan and the Beatles and Pink Floyd were the first to really immerse themselves in the recording studio in a meaningful way.
Maybe that type of recording isn’t made for these times, given the economics of the music business nowadays, especially since project studios are so economical. But there is something about being in a proper recording studio, on a creative adventure of sorts, isn’t there?
Robyn Hitchcock: Oh, it’s lovely. It’s just whether you can afford it. As I’m your readers will appreciate, making records is an expensive hobby. And I never know if I’m going to make another one. You know, on the scale of this thing, my new album wasn’t cheap to make, and you don’t get record companies coming in and paying for them like you used to.
But it’s a great record and I’m glad I made it. So yeah, I love studios. I go into a studio anytime I can. And being non-technical, I don’t particularly want to fill the house with recording gear. So I just make things up, and if I remember them then I can go and record them. I gave up trying to record my demos about 20 years ago when the technology changed. My home demos ended with the cassette era!