Robyn Hitchcock has spent 60 years on the planet Earth, during which he’s released countless records, both as a solo artist and with his old band The Soft Boys. We asked the celebrated British singer-songwriter about his latest album, Love From London, channeling Nick Drake, what he plays when no one’s listening and more.
What’s the key to writing abstract or surreal lyrics that are effective? Or does it not matter — a good lyric is lyric whether it’s “direct” or not.
Lyrics need to fit naturally in the song, and on the tongue, and then in the ear of the listener. What you sing doesn’t matter much, as long as the words blend with the tune, or the music. A story always works best if it’s believable, and songs are no different. Go from what is to what could be, and maybe back again.
You’re on the new Nick Drake tribute album. Why did you choose “Parasite?” What are your thoughts on Nick Drake as an artist? Was he an influence?
I discovered Nick Drake quite late, so he wasn’t an embryonic influence like Beefheart or Syd Barrett. Performing in the Way To Blue tribute shows really steeped me in his work, and I’m sure that will show eventually. “Parasite” was chosen for me by Joe Boyd, I think – I’ve grown into the song, for sure.
He made a world of his songs, though they fit surprisingly well on other people’s shoulders. A lush, doomy, English summer evening world, where nothing is dealt with directly and the cast all wither from lack of love. But it’s exquisitely beautiful so their fate is worthwhile. Good art is closer to truth than reality.
I grew up loving my cassette copy of your album Queen Elvis. Why can’t I buy it on Amazon or stream it on Rhapsody?
It belongs to Universal, who swallowed Polygram, who swallowed A&M, who originally paid for it. They as yet have no interest in making it available again. But I do have a spare cassette if you want it . . .
You said of your new album, “rock and roll is an old man’s game now, so I’m staying in it.” What did you mean by that?
Does rock and roll seem like it’s for kids now? The top-grossing rock acts (R&B and boy bands aside) are over 50. The surviving flowers of the 1960’s are over 70, mostly. So I don’t feel disqualified at 60, obscene though the thought of that once was.
When your at home playing for yourself and no one can hear you, what sort of stuff do you play?
Ragtime, blues, ragas, and “romantic” arpeggios, which sometimes turn into songs and sometimes don’t.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
The Beatles and all who sail in them, and Bob Dylan, the serpent who handed them the apple of knowledge and exiled pop from childhood, into a land called rock, where a bunch of old men (and increasingly women, although they’re not encouraged to show their age) can still play it.
What’s your typical approach to songwriting?
I write titles down in a book, and eventually some of these heads grow into full-bodied songs. Or the song begins to appear when I start playing the guitar or piano. I’m not really aware of when they appear. I just realize there’s a song there and I’m working on it. It’s an involuntary process now, I make no effort. It’s best not to try too hard with songs. They are what they are, not what you want them to be: like dreams, or other people.
When did you start writing songs?
About 1970. I didn’t write anything good until 1979, although I came up with good elements in songs. I don’t sing now anything of mine from before 1979.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
My school friend Martin and I made up a song one overcast summer evening in 1970 called “Baby.” It was like something off Nashville Skyline crossed with a discarded cover from Let It Be. A classic, really. Then I tried to write one called “1-2-3-4 It Must Be Fun Living In Basingstoke,” but it wasn’t.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
About 39%. But I don’t record them all.
What’s a song on Love From London you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Harry’s Song,” as I spent ages working it out. “Be Still,” because I wrote it very quickly. “My Rain,” because I think it works as an instrumental without words.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
I believe that life goes through us, rather than us going through life. When it’s all passed through us, we are dead. But it’s not really us that dies, it’s our discarded form, lovely though that form once was. Life is an eternal river, of which we in our time are briefly the banks. The song “Death & Love” touches on this.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
Easier! The more you write, the more you can write. Like any exercise that gets better with repetition. Get a couple of average songs out of yourself to make way for something special.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is . . .
All the great ideas that slip away like fish un-caught.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
That I truly don’t know.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
There are songwriters who are unfamiliar to the ears most of music lovers: are they underrated, though, or just under-exposed? Krystle Warren, Frode Stromstad, and Chris Cox are all worth checking out.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“Waterloo Sunset” by Ray Davies is a short story in a miniaturized world set in the snow-globe of 1967 to a haunting tune that resolves in triumph without bombast. Words + tune = magic!