STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Listening to the unpredictable music of British singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock is like looking at life through the lens of some bizarro, and decidedly interesting, alternate reality.
Preparing at home for some U.S. concert dates, including one Jan. 28 at Sellersville Theater, he chatted by email about his 20th album — 2014’s “The Man Upstairs,” his intriguing country music opening act, the recent death of actor Alan Rickman, his old band The Soft Boys and much more.
Is “The Man Upstairs” your first proper record (meaning, not a rarities compilation) with cover songs?
It has more covers on it than usual; but I’ve included versions of other people’s songs going back to “Cold Turkey” (by John Lennon) on the first Soft Boys LP.
It was (the album’s producer) Joe Boyd’s idea to contrast my songs with other people’s. I discovered recently that I played a wrong chord in the “The Crystal Ship” (by The Doors) though. Boo.
A Google search for “Robyn Hitchcock” leads one to your version of The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You” right away. Is it true that you’ve been performing that song since 1985? What do Richard Butler and company think of your recorded version?
I first played it in 1988. Richard Butler actually sent me an email — he said he liked it. Yaysville! Great songs like that can be played in many ways. I wanted to liberate it from the digital sonic prison of the 1980s.
My wife observed that your accent on “The Ghost in You” sounds Northern/Mancurian, but you’re originally from London, correct? Do you find yourself toying with your country’s various accents a lot on the vocal delivery of your songs?
Really? I thought I was still imitating Richard Butler. He’s a distinctive app. that I enjoy applying to my voice from time to time. I like the idea of applying regional Brit accents to my performances. Maybe I was using a Morrissey app. there; or channelling a little Lennon? I wonder … Is your wife from Up North?
What can the audience at Sellersville Theater expect from you at this show on the 28th? You’ve been here with Venus 3 in the past; will this be a solo acoustic set from you?
Yes; that’s how I mostly work now. My partner, Emma Swift, opens the show, and usually joins me on harmonies for the last few songs to bring the show into colour.
My songs — some of them are 37 years old now. There’s plenty to chose from these days. I always include some old “favourites” in recognizable form. The longer you’ve known a song, the deeper it resonates with you; hence some of the covers.
Will you and Emma Swift be playing the “Follow Your Money”/“Motion Pictures” single that night?
If you like…
Tell me how you and Emma met.
At an Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell show at SXSW.
What’s your take on Emma’s music?
She has a gorgeous voice and writes songs of exquisite melancholy. She’s as old-fashioned as me, musically, I think. I’m happy to be Gram (Parsons) to her Emmylou any time.
Were you satisfied with the “Sex, Food, Death … and Insects” film (A 2008 documentary on what he was recording at the time, which aired on Sundance TV in the U.S.)?
I think so; haven’t seen it for a while. I’m probably starting to look quite young in it now (Hitchcock is 62). Glad we got the chance to do it; (the film’s director) John Edginton’s a good man.
What’s Jonathan Demme like? Do you think you’ll work with him again (Demme directed the 1998 concert film “Storefront Hitchcock” and Hitchcock acted in Demme’s 2004 version of “The Manchurian Candidate”)?
I have no idea, really (if I’ll work with him again). He’s a music lover and he’s interested in people; two good qualities in a movie director.
Is there still a glut of your unreleased material? The Audio Bus playlist on your website hints that there is.
Probably. Music is recorded in so many ways that become obsolete; who knows if any of them will be there in 20 years time? Or if I will? I’m really sad to see my old friend Alan Rickman’s just left this life.
What are some of your all-time favorite songs? They can be songs you’d consider covering, or not.
“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (Bob Dylan). “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harum). “The Famous Flower of Serving Men” (an epic folk ballad dating back to the 17th century). “Drive” (The Cars). “I Dream a Highway” (Gillian Welch).
What inspires your songwriting these days?
As always, the shock of existence; and the terror of un-being.
Can your mad, surrealistic lyrics be considered a tribute to Syd Barrett and/or John Lennon?
Don’t forget Dylan and Captain Beefheart! Nothing in my lyrics is as mad or surrealistic as the prospect of President Trump.
Have “Balloon Man,” “The Man with the Light Bulb Head” or “Madonna of the Wasps” shown up in your paintings?
I don’t think so. My paintings are in the next compartment from my songs.
In retrospect, were The Soft Boys reunions worth it?
We — The Soft Boys — played some really great shows, so yes, I’m glad we did it. In retrospect, the material on the reunion album needed editing; and I think I let the band down by supplying songs that were OK but not brilliant.
What’s coming next from you musically?
A lot of new songs, currently being recorded.
What’s it like working with (REM’s) Peter Buck, (The Church’s) Steve Kilbey (there’s a YouTube video of you guys playing together), (Led Zeppelin’s) John Paul Jones, (XTC’s) Andy Partridge, and Nick Lowe?
Well, they’re all different; all men of a certain age; all sensitive; and all, I hope, alive and well.