The Madcap Laughs

Why onetime Tucsonan Robyn Hitchcock is a two and a half trick pony

More and more, Robyn Hitchcock says he feels like "an Englishman who's been marinated in America."

Settled–for the time being, at least–in Nashville, the London-born singer-songwriter has logged significant time in Tucson and Seattle as well, soaking in the regional musical quirks as he's traveled and recorded.

A sense of place has always carried significance for the 63-year-old, who's followed a long, spiraling road, through his years with The Soft Boys, The Egyptians, The Venus 3 and solo. And rather than trying to claim he's followed some sort of master plan, Hitchcock says "the coincidence factor is quite high for me."

"When I was a boy I lived in Weybridge in Surrey and three of The Beatles moved there when they made their money. So by the time I was 11, The Beatles were living up the road in the posh bit," he says. "When I was a kid, I was on a kibbutz and Bob Dylan turned up there one day. I missed him by 20 minutes, but he went to have a look at it. I lived for ages in Cambridge where my old hero Syd Barrett was based. I don't know if I'd recognized him if I'd seen him. And now I'm in Nashville and I feel like I'm here at a very good time."

What Nashville affords Hitchcock is great music venues (three within walking distance, he says) and an "all locally sourced band.

"There is a bigger concentration of musicians in Nashville than there is anywhere else," he says. "When I lived in London, there were musicians, but you had to go around the place to find them. Down here, I just walk down the road to the bar and I'll find the guys who are doing my session the next day."

Even when Hitchcock was staying in Tucson in 2004, he'd commute back and forth to Nashville, recording his Spooked album with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Still, he keeps up with the changes in a Tucson (mentioning that he's excited to see KXCI build a new studio in the Hotel Congress), a city that's been strange enough to capture his heart.

"It's small enough that you can feel anchored there," he says. "I like the look of Tucson, the saguaro, the Catalinas, the redness of the ground, going down to the barrio. It's on the border of the states, you're getting down towards Mexico and sometimes it's good to be on the fringes of things."

Hitchcock's latest project is a 7-inch single release with Emma Swift. They are a couple, she the angelic-voiced Australian steeped in traditional Americana, and he the psychedelically inspired English singer who relies more on a bit of character in his singing voice.

"She has a very rich voice and mine is sort of nasal and piercing," Hitchcock says. "We're both loud singers, but we're extremely different. The songs go into color really because of the harmonies. I think it works. We phrase well together and people seem to like it."

Out this month, "Love Is A Drag" b/w "Life Is Change" is their second release as a duo, recorded last summer at the home studio of Norman Blake. Hitchcock and Swift sing and play guitar, with Blake contributing some keyboards and glockenspiel. 

"This is just our own project and we were very pleased with it. Emma and I play quite a lot, but it takes us quite a long time to get material," he says. "The record with Emma is joint songs, written between us. The sound we have in that is quite ethereal and quite minimal. It's all under-dubbed, if you like. We've left a lot of space in it, which I like."

Since wrapping that project, Hitchcock has been busy with a new solo album, his first since the 2014 covers project The Man Upstairs.

"My album on the other hand is much denser," he says. "It's descended from the records I used to make, which is descended from the records I used to listen to. It's the old template, two guitars, bass, drums and harmonies, fairly up-tempo for a man of my years, not too many long, droning, sprawling tracks. I hope there's plenty of hooks and choruses. It's not pop music of course, but it's disguised as pop music, or disguised as what pop music was, a vehicle for these ever expanding ripples of 1960s consciousness, which have now probably reached the edge of our galaxy."

That project has been taking shape in Brendan Benson's studio, with a fuller cast of guests, including Swift, Pat Sansone of Wilco, Grant Lee Phillips and Gillian Welch.

"It's sort of looking at mythical Britain, looking at my mythical Britain, from overseas. None of the songs were written on the English mainland. There's a little bit of cello and a bit of pedal steel, but it's not an American album at all," he says.

A record that's a bit louder and rowdier following one that's more somber and acoustic is something that by now feels natural for Hitchcock.

"I go 'round in cycles. I'm not repeating myself, I'm spiraling towards infinity and oblivion and transformation. I set myself up to write songs when I was 20, 21 and it took me a few years to write anything good. Probably by my mid 20s I was writing decent songs, sort of the latter days of The Soft Boys. Really I just continued to do that, in different parts of the world and with different musicians. I don't think there's necessarily any progress. I think I spiral between quiet and loud and quieter and louder.

"Every so often there'll be spangle rock with harmonies and electric guitars and then there will be an acoustic one with cellos and then there'll be a very quiet one with just a piano and guitar. I'm a sort of two and a half trick pony." 

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment