In a career as unscripted and surprising as his songs, Robyn Hitchcock keeps moving forward, plumbing the depths of the human psyche and marrying what he finds with melodies vaguely reminiscent of those pouring out of the transistor radio playing in your dreams.
Whether as a solo artist, with bands like The Soft Boys or the Venus 3, or with a string of impressive collaborators, Robyn’s songs always remind you there’s a lot more going on around you than meets the eye.
Robyn emailed with us ahead of his show with Emma Swift on June 3 in Daniels Hall, his first Colorado appearance in over a decade.
While you might seem quintessentially British to some American ears, you know the United States rather well, and recently took up living in Nashville full time. How has the transition to living in Nashville gone? How has your perspective on the States changed since you first came here as a touring artist early in your career?
I was homing in on the States since I was 10 and became fixated with DC comics. Then with Bob Dylan and those who followed in his wake: characters like Captain Beefheart, Lou Reed, Arthur Lee and the swarm of mini-Dylans. I used to dream of landing at JFK and one day I did. The gap between everywhere has narrowed: you wake up in one place and go to sleep in another, until you wake up one night and have no idea where you are.
The emphasis is a little different over here from what it is in England. People are more positive here but more lonely. It’s harder to listen over here – people have more noise in their heads. But there’s a sense of possibility still, no matter how hijacked the US can become by bland horror and fructose corn syrup. In Britain history weighs a ton, and it can force you to your knees: ‘Know your place, child!’
I know my place and I think it’s here, now. But I remain totally English and I eat a lot of Marmite. It’s all the same world everywhere: time keeps running out and the drains keep filling up.
You appear to have developed an observational approach to songwriting early on. At that time, in the late 70s and early 80s, a lot of your contemporaries in punk and post-punk were celebrated (or reviled) for being more visceral or direct. Was it difficult as a young songwriter to embrace your style amid popular trends of more confrontational music?
It wasn’t hard to embrace my style although it was hard to help it take root in the cyclone of punk. But that may have made it tougher in the end, more weatherproof. That said, there were plenty of observational writers launching off then: Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, Difford & Tilbrook, Andy Partridge…all Beatle kids, like me.
You recently appeared as part of the Big Star’s Third concert in California, and more famously gave a reprisal of Bob Dylan’s 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert. How does immersing yourself in the works of other artists give you new or refreshed perspective on your own catalog?
The deeper your roots, the broader your branches. Punk fed on a fairly shallow compost bed, which may be why it didn’t grow so far. But it’s a perennial and an intense one at that. Every songwriter expresses feelings of a particular hue, and you can broaden your emotional palette by singing their song.
On a related note, have you ever written a song and only understood what you meant years later?
Frequently! My unconscious overview is trying to tell the narrow beam of my conscious mind to look up, look around, watch out: but my conscious mind is too preoccupied with rooting in the earth for truffles to notice. ‘Look out, kid!’
Your career has moved between working with bands and as a solo artist. How do you decide when a project will be with a band – or collaborators like Joe Boyd or Emma Swift – or as a solo artist?
It’s mostly a matter of chance. Depending on whom I meet, who tears down the bamboo and breaks into my cabin. Could be Joe, could be Emma. Great artists in different ways, like everyone I’ve worked with from Kimberley Rew to Gillian Welch.
As a young man, around the time you wrote the songs for I Often Dream of Trains, you played with this idea of retiring, or at least semi-retirement. What do you think you would have done had you chosen to leave music?
I get tired sometimes, and it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself in public. Sometimes I need to test myself: is my greatest compulsion to make music, or should I be painting or trying to write? It always comes back to music, and songs. I can paint and write, but nothing beats playing the guitar and watching the words evolve.
You’ve written about wasps, locusts, frogs, chinchillas, are there any insects or rodents or amphibians on your shortlist to write about next?
Hmmm. They’re all good-looking creatures. Sadness is magnetic, ugliness repels. I had a song called “Salamander” once…and don’t forget the bees: they’re in peril and we will be too if we let them die. These days the creatures in my songs are mostly human. but it’s still a zoo in there 🙂
(Bonus Question!) How are Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus these days?
(Bonus answer) I think they’re going to be wanting their morning tea any moment now, thanks for asking.
This interview was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Marketing Manager Barry Osborne.