Robyn Hitchcock spent a good chunk of his life in England, including his tenure with the psych-rock band Soft Boys and through his solo career with and without the Egyptians. These days, however, Hitchcock’s living in Nashville, where he’s working on a new album.
He’s been living in Nashville since last August with his partner, Emma Swift, an Australian singer-songwriter who is touring with him and sings harmonies on the new album. But Hitchcock says living there hasn’t necessarily rubbed off on his songwriting.
“This record is very much my old template,” he says. “Two guitars, bass, drums and harmonies, which I had in the Soft Boys and comes from the great beat groups: the Beatles, the Byrds, Velvet Underground, Big Star. All that stuff. And a bit of pedal steel.”
Hitchcock says the album, which he hopes to get finished later this year, looks at life in his world in Britain through the Nashville lens, but he claims he hasn’t “gone heavily twangy or anything.”
“It’s much more embedded in the old sort of psychedelic sound, really,” Hitchock says. “But the Byrds kind of mixed psychedelia and country nearly fifty years ago, so I can’t claim there’s anything new about it at all except it’s got my voice on it.”
Brendan Benson, who’s released a number of solo albums and played with the Raconteurs, is co-producing the new album, and Hitchcock has recruited some Nashville-based musicians, including guitarist Anne McCue, pedal-steel player Russ Pahl and Wilco’s Pat Sansone (who’s a neighbor of Hitchcock’s) to sing harmonies along with Swift.
Although Hitchcock’s new album might use his old template, his last album, 2014’s The Man Upstairs, was much more of a stripped-down recording that was manned by renowned producer Joe Boyd, who’s worked with Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention and a slew of others. The album, which includes covers of Psychedelic Furs, Roxy Music, Grant Lee Phillips, I Was a King and the Doors, only includes a few instruments: piano, cello and a couple of guitars.
“It was a very sparse record, but it sounds quite rich,” he says. “There’s very few of my usual tricks on it. There’s no double tracking. No backwards guitar. No sheets of reverb or all the sort of stuff I like to put on records if I’m in charge of them, which is why it’s good to work with somebody else.”
Hitchcock says he’d always wanted to work with Boyd, who produced Pink Floyd’s first single, “Arnold Layne,” which was written by Syd Barrett, one of Hitchcock’s longtime heroes.
“Well, I was just magnetized by him,” Hitchcock says. “The way that people get magnetized by who they really like, especially at a certain age — you’re just drawn to things. I always adored Bob Dylan, but he was very much from Minnesota. And Syd Barrett was closer to home. He’s another sort of fairly middle-class character from the home counties like I was, so I kind of identified with him. And I still think he was utterly original. And as I’ve said before, I think he just squeezed the whole tube out in one go. He didn’t dilute it like most of us do. It was very vivid. But..he used it up. He used himself up very fast with the aid of the drugs, no doubt. Then there was nothing left, and he became Roger again.”
When Hitchcock and the Soft Boys formed in 1976, they were embracing Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Byrds, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, while groups like the Clash, Sex Pistols, the Jam, the Damned and Buzzcocks, who helped fuel the British punk explosion, didn’t want to have a lot to do with what had been going musically for the previous ten years.
“But we weren’t interested in trying to demolish what had been built up in the ’60s,” Hitchcock says. “We were very reverential about the Byrds, and some of the guys were into the Beach Boys. I was into Barrett. [Artists] beginning with B. Bob Dylan. All those B people meant a lot to us in different ways.”
Though Hitchcock started writing poems that turned into lyrics when he was fifteen and began writing songs with a friend from school at seventeen, he says he didn’t write anything good until around 1979, when he was 26. He says he spent about a decade just getting the whole songwriting thing going, and by the time he started work on Underwater Moonlight, the second Soft Boys album, he’d come up with quite good material.
“So even if I hadn’t given myself a long apprenticeship, at least I did get something decent in the end. But I think of all those people who kind of fell out of the egg perfectly formed, like Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan or Syd Barrett, my musical hero. There they were, at 21 or less. You know, [John] Lennon and McCartney both wrote songs on their own, I think in their teens, like ‘There’s a Place’ or ‘I Follow the Sun.’ Some of it is great.”
"I spent a very long time chiseling away at it. But it’s been my great act of determination. I was creative and I had no musical ability. I guess I inherited my dad’s lack of it [his father was an author and painter]. But I just so wanted to do i,t but in the end I became it, and now I have a songwriting habit. I do shows and I travel around the world, and it pays for me to sit at my kitchen table when I’m home with a guitar and work on this stuff.”
Robyn Hitchcock, with Emma Swift, 8 p.m., Friday, June 3, at Swallow Hill.