Speaking with Robyn Hitchcock back 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 while 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) emails requesting some of his time. "I have stopped having time for gardening since I started doing email -- I do emails instead of gardening," he says, by email of course, from his London home.
But somewhere amongst the cyberspace demands -- he has also 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, echo-y, almost haunting acoustic track features the willowy voice of KT Tunstall, who was also on board.
"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 explains. "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 who 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.
Amazingly, despite these collaborations and the fact Hitchcock has released more than 30 albums dating back to his forming the Soft Boys in the 1970s, he is still considered something of a cult or underground artist. That's somewhat hard to fathom, but for the average music listener, 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."
Perhaps Hitchcock's closest brush with mainstream success -- actual radio airplay and album sales above 50,000 units was his early- to mid-1990s major label days of Perspex Island, Respect (both with the Egyptians, the band he formed following the Soft Boys) and Moss Elixir. But by the end of that decade he was once again almost invisible, though he never thought of giving up on music. It would just be a matter of time before people would come around to him again.
"There is something about rock musicians in their 40s which makes them harder to see," he says. "Once you are over 50 people start noticing that you are alive (if you are still alive) and they realize you won't be there forever." And like many artists are wont to do these days, Hitchcock agreed to a brief reunion of the psychedelic-edged Soft Boys.
"I didn't really want to be a Soft Boy again at 50. I didn't want to be a Soft Boy at 30, so I was happy to be in the Soft Boys again for just a brief period. I enjoyed playing with them and having them play my songs. I thought it was really good musically. But in terms of a career, I didn't want to be a Soft Boy again. ... I'm happy doing my own thing."
Now a little closer to 60 than 50, people are noticing, calling him in to produce (he just finished work on the latest I Was A King album), collaborate or play All Tomorrow's Parties, while others have begun to cite him as an influence. It's all deserving of course, yet these days, Hitchcock chooses (mostly) to fill the stage by himself, and the reality is, with witty stage banter and playing that often sounds like several guitars on stage at once, he doesn't need a band. His music can come from or go to anywhere, depending on his whim. Newer songs sometimes appear, but mostly he sticks with older material.
"Sometimes I play new songs, if I know them well enough," he says, "but people always like to hear old songs on tour."
And if he can't decide what to draw from his own catalog, Hitchcock will borrow from someone else's, such as Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beatles or Syd Barrett. His version of the Byrds "Eight Miles High" can be stunning.
"Well, you only write songs of your own through learning to play other peoples songs. Once you have learned to play them, it is always fun to play them!" he exclaims. "Songs in a way are public property, somebody may put their name on a song but once it's out there anyone can sing it and make it their own. A lot of songs Bob Dylan did come from much older songs that he took and developed into something new. It is all part of the currency."
Hitchcock has also appeared in several documentaries and films, one being Jonathan Demme's Storefront Hitchcock, where 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 alright?" It only seemed right, seeing that tomatoes were no longer valid subject matter, to ask that question of him.
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"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."
Robyn Hitchcock is scheduled to perform Thursday, October 4, at the Musical Instrument Museum.