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Speaking with Robyn Hitchcock in 1996, the conversation quickly diverged from music to the difficulties of growing tomatoes at high elevation. It was not his issue, but mine, as he lives in England, where growing tomatoes is much easier, and I was in Colorado.
Still, that conversation made it clear that though Hitchcock is an acclaimed musician and songwriter with an acerbic wit and slightly twisted vision that manifests via his astute insight into the world around him, talking about his music is secondary to simply having a good conversation.
These days, however, even his tomatoes have taken a back seat to the more immediate global demand of "be here now" that circumvents such conversations in favor of incessant reporter (and other) e-mails requesting some of his time. "I have stopped having time for gardening since I started doing e-mail — I do e-mails instead of gardening," he says, by e-mail of course, from his London home.
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But somewhere among the cyberspace demands — he also has caught the Twitter bug, mostly as an outlet for his paintings and photographs — Hitchcock finds time for his latest passion: environmental causes.
"We need songs about the collapse of the environment, but more than that, we need to take action to stop the collapse of the environment!" he says.
His latest release on his Phantom 45 label (available only at www.robynhitchcock.com), "There Goes the Ice," follows this lead as he addresses the obvious effects of global warming. Written while traveling on a Russian ship off the coast of Greenland at the behest of Cape Farewell, an organization that takes scientists, filmmakers, writers, and artists to visit endangered environments, the spontaneous, echoey, almost haunting acoustic track features the willowy voice of KT Tunstall, who also was onboard.
"KT was in the cabin next to ours, and her husband had a recording studio in his briefcase. I wrote the song as our ship was drifting past the broken glaciers and recorded it immediately with Kate singing harmony," he says. "The way we have to live is at a terrible cost to the environment. You can fly around the world telling people not to fly. I don't know what to do about this. So far all I've managed is to write that song!"
That song, however, won't be on Hitchcock's upcoming album slated for a spring release. Titled (for now) Love from London, the album will find Hitchcock neither with band nor solo, but in mysterious collaborations with friends. Though he did not divulge whom he might be working with on the nearly completed album, past efforts have featured R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Fresh Young Fellows' Scott McCaughey, Deni Bonet, John Paul Jones, The Smiths' Johnny Marr, Nick Lowe, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings.
"They are all distinct players — I love playing with all of them any chance I get," he says without revealing more.
The peculiarities of Hitchcock and the strange subject matter he often sings about—like cheese police, dead wives, where you go when you die, goblins, ghouls, and aliens can be something of a turnoff if you don't quite get where he's coming from.
"My songs have to have a sense of humor, a sense of irony, a sense of humanity in the good sense of the world, and imagination," he says. "My records have always been dark, but usually there's something to laugh at as well."
Hitchcock has appeared in several documentaries and films, one being Jonathan Demme's Storefront Hitchcock, in which he performs quite literally in a storefront window the entire film. Just as Hitchcock starts the first song, he stops suddenly and asks, "Is my hair all right?" It only seemed right, seeing that tomatoes were no longer valid subject matter, to ask that question of him.
"My hair is sideways at the moment," comes his reply. "It is a little bit twisted as if there was a snowstorm coming in from the east, but I am hoping I will have my hair straightened out by the time I reach Phoenix."