Nashville phoneline: Robyn Hitchcock on his new records and misinterpreted instagrams
Robyn Hitchcock - singer, songwriter, musician, artist, actor, philosopher, music critic, cult figure, and “last egg to hatch out from the 1960s” - has just released a new single with Australian songwriter, Emma Swift. “Love is a Drag” b/w “Life is Change,” produced by Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, is available through Hitchcock’s website on their Tiny Ghost label, named after their dear, departed Persian kitty, Tiny Montgomery.
If you are reading this, chances are you are already a fan and need no introduction. If not, here’s a quick synopsis: During the U.K. punk uprising of the mid-1970s, Hitchcock’s band, the Soft Boys, went against the tide by playing mid-60s-inspired songs featuring clever lyrics, musicianship, and harmonies. Think Abbey Road meets Trout Mask Replica. His influences were wide ranging - Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, and Bryan Ferry, for starters (and that’s just the letter “B”!) - yet his vision remained unique. Since then, he’s carried on with the Egyptians, the Venus 3, and as a solo artist. He has collaborated with Gillian Welch, Grant-Lee Phillips, Tanya Donelly, R.E.M., Nick Lowe, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, and now Swift, among many others, and has appeared in a handful of Jonathan Demme movies, including the concert documentary, Storefront Hitchcock. Robyn Hitchcock is one of the few artists around who is at least as good now as he was when he started, four decades later.
I recently spoke with Hitchcock by phone from his Nashville home about the new single, and his upcoming album. It’s always a delight speaking with Robyn. He is alternately insightful and hysterical, expounding analytically one minute, funny and surrealistic the next. His humor follows in the tradition of Monty Python and the Beatles, and I always look forward to what he has to say next. Just like his music.
This post features outtakes from the main article, which can be found on Blasting News. Outtakes from Swift’s interview were also
Swift generously squeezed me into their schedule soon after I contacted her, and I spoke with her first. After Emma handed the phone to Robyn, he greeted me thusly:
Hi! Welcome. How are you?
I’m fine, how are you?
I’m still here, and that’s for sure. Yeah, let me just turn down some lights. Sit in a cool, dark spot. Um, yeah, good.
OK, I know you have somewhere to go, so let’s get started. One song on the new single, “Love is a Drag,” features Emma singing solo, then you join in. How did you work out all of the harmonies, and so on? How was that decision made?
When you sing through something as a duo harmonizing, that has to create its own dynamic and it has to create its own air holes in it. You have to find some way of breathing. Otherwise the harmonies could be a bit airtight. Well, maybe by the time you’ve added three or four (voices) - (laughs) probably not Emma and me single tracked, but … I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of breathing room in that recording which I like that probably wasn’t there originally when we first composed it. Yeah.
There’s a video you recently posted of an interview you did at Largo at the Coronet (in Los Angeles), and you were comparing and contrasting your voice with Emma’s, you were saying - I’m paraphrasing, of course - that you had a thinner voice and she had a fuller voice …
And that reminded me of something Paul McCartney said about John Lennon having a thin voice, and Paul having a fuller voice, when doing harmonies. This was when the surviving Beatles reunited to record new songs for their Anthology documentary in the mid-1990s. I was wondering if you ever thought of your harmonies in that way?
Well, I always try and compare myself to the nearest Beatle, Harold! I never make any piece of music that I don’t think one of the Beatles might have done. I’m extremely cautious about producing anything that wouldn’t have made sense to the Fabs.
Emma’s voice is warmer, richer, more honeylike, and also female. Mine is the sort of male, piercing, a little dot arrow - It’s a beak. Once it gathers a voice, it sort of sticks into things at 600 yards with no warning.
I don’t know. I don’t think John’s voice was thin, but he definitely had that nasal beak. Obviously our man Bob Dylan is where it all comes from, set the tablature for vocalists, with the exception of Nick Drake and Jim Morrison who withstood it, but everyone else … or many others … their phrasing and the way they used their sinuses and adenoids and everything comes from Dylan ... Me, too. So I have what I call a “beak” of a voice, and beak voices are good at cutting through shitty P.A. systems.
But Emma and I both have loud voices, and I probably sing more dynamically with Emma. We take it up, and take it down. We listen very instinctively to what the other one is doing, so if one of us starts to get quiet, the other one does, and then at some point it gets very quiet and it builds up. If you could see our voices on a graph, it would be perfectly matching each other in a way. And she’s a great harmonist, just as I am not.
The production is very effective, it serves the songs well. I understand you recorded it in Canada with Norman Blake, and it has this glacial, icy atmosphere that really adds to the song, I think. It kinda sounds like a country song without any country in it, if that makes sense?
(Laughs.) Well, yeah, it doesn’t have any of the shibboleths of country. You know, there’s no banjo or pedal steel or fiddle or any of the conventional lights that flash on and say, “Here is country!”
Gosh, we were about an hour out of Toronto. Norman said that in the winter, every householder has to clear the path outside their house. So he sort of has to shovel through three feet of snow, which seems like hard work after a certain time in life. But while we were there, it was July … and it was all very serene, really. But it was very nice, he just set everything up. Yeah, he’s good, it was definitely a sort of collaborative sound, I think.
Norman and I, when we recorded (the band) When I Was A King in Norway, produced a much thicker sound, and we kind of double tracked everything but the drums, which was probably a mistake. So it’s slightly blurry. Everything is shimmered (laughs), that effect that you get from double tracking everything, which I love. It’s a quick way of making something sound good. It makes the vocals sound in tune, it makes guitars shimmer, and so on. But I think this one’s very clear. We didn’t double track anything. There’s no drums, even. There’s some sort of percussion … It sounds like Norman is standing on something, every kind of eight bars, but I can’t remember what …
I think there’s a glockenspiel somewhere on there …
There’s a glock - Yeah, the glock! That survived intact from Norway. If you listen closely to the I Was A King record, there’s lots of little glockenspiels chiming. And that’s Norman! He pulls it out after a while like a box of chocolates after supper or something. “Here’s your glockenspiel!” Yeah.
Emma was saying since neither of you were natural collaborators, I was wondering: What were the dynamics like writing together, since you’re close, yet you may have to criticize each other.
Well, it’s very difficult. Nobody likes being criticized, and if you’re in a couple, it’s extremely difficult. I would say we’re more like John & Yoko than like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, in terms of the way we work. But we sound great, and that’s the thing, and we love singing, so we just sort of have to thicken our skin (laughs) and go in to work with each other. And actually once we have agreed on what we’re doing, it’s lovely, because it sounds so good.
It’s just initially agreeing on what to do, and deciding, and both feeling enthusiastic about something for a sustained period. All of that is just difficult, I think, because we’re a couple, it’s harder to get away from it, than if you were a John-and-Paul or something, where you return to your separate houses and partners and lives. Emma and I are in the module. We’ve blasted off from Canaveral and we’re there shedding retrorockets as we plunge forward … or outward …
I’m very much looking forward to your next album. I particularly like “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” and “Raymond and the Wires,” which I’ve heard you perform live. You’ve said in other interviews that the album was almost finished, except for the vocals. Where are you in the process?
It’s all done, all recorded. Got pretty good vocals. Some of them, yeah, I think from flying so much, I just sounded too congested. There’s still a little bit of congestion on some of them, but it’s definitely “me.” And it sounds really good. Brendan’s (Benson) almost finished mixing it, but we haven’t really sorted out the artwork yet. It’s definitely got some of those songs on it. I think it’s sounding extremely good ... I’m glad you like those songs. Thank you, that’s really good.
This is something Emma already answered, but she thought you might get a kick out of it. When you posted a picture of an avocado with a small grape inside of it, on a polka dot background on Instagram …
People thought it might have been symbolic of something …
They thought we were pregnant?
(Laughter) No, no! Nothing could have been further from my mind or my unconscious. I think we liked the idea of putting one green thing inside another green thing on top of some polka dots. These are all thing I love, and the opportunity to do them in one go came up - (laughs) I love the idea of people interpreting my Instagram. No, God. I love that as a misinterpretation. Oh God, no. Certainly not. The world needs no more humans, especially not from us. We’re artists, man!
Well, I know you have a dinner engagement, so I’ll let you go. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
Thanks very much, and we will see you on Twitter (@robynhitchcock), as ever. Keep us posted, and look after yourself. All right, thanks very much, Harold, take care, and we’ll speak to you soon …
It’s always a pleasure, Robyn. Take care.
(Whispers) Bye ...
Photo credits: Top (photo booth): Emma Swift. Middle: Lyndal Irons. Bottom: RobynHitchcockOfficial Instagram.