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# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Steve Robinson - Interview

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 22 / 3 / 2008

Steve Robinson - Interview


English-born but now Florida-based singer-songwriter Steve Robinson is the former guitarist with the Headlights, who worked in the 90's as Byrds star Roger McGuinn's touring band. Malcolm Carter talks to him about his latest solo album, 'Undercurrent', and his unique brand of melodic pop

Steve Robinson was a new name to me earlier this year but after just one listen to his latest album ‘Undercurrent’ it was obvious that here was a musician who really knew his way not only with those melodies which I hear are going by the name of ‘ear worms’ these days; a tune that gets into your head and won’t leave, but whose lyrics could reach out and touch you. There is a simplicity to Steve’s lyrics that has got lost through the years. He writes songs about love, childhood and even religion which you don’t need a degree to understand. Robinson is one of those gifted songwriters who can write lyrics that hit home directly. There are lines in some of his songs where Robinson uses ten words to convey more feeling than others that take a whole song to say the same thing. Folk-rock or even folkly pop is what, we are told, the type of music Robinson produces. It wasn’t until I’d lived with ‘Undercurrent’ for some time that I noticed that folk-rock thing. For me Robinson was singing songs the likes of what I hadn’t heard for some time. I could hear all the harmony drenched pure pop of the 60's scattered throughout his songs. It was a sound I had missed in contemporary artists. But what surprised me was that when Pennyblack Music interviewed Robinson it appeared that he wasn’t deliberately trying to recreate the sounds of the golden era. The music he makes is obviously Steve Robinson being Steve Robinson which is refreshing. During one of his answers Robinson notes that he went to America with his Jam and XTC records. Now especially with the Jam it was no secret that Paul Weller was trying to create the sound he loved from his youth, he even went as far as to look the part, and Andy Partridge’s XTC spin-off the Dukes Of Stratosphear was a direct imitation of that musician’s love of psychedelia and the sixties. So I was surprised that Robinson wasn’t an equal 60's-freak given the music he is making and as he has had the honour of working with the Byrds' Roger McGuinn he has more right than most to try to recapture those sounds. Steve Robinson comes across as a musician who, given his injections of humour not only in his replies to our questions but in his music, possibly doesn’t realise just how brilliant the songs he writes and sings are. From his answers it’s obvious here is a guy who is modest, not taking himself too seriously and is just trying to get the music he makes across to as many people he can without the backing of a major label. The simple fact that he has made one of the best albums of melodic pop music released in the past year has not affected him at all. PB : An Englishman who has been living and performing in the U.S. for 20 years now; what prompted the move across the water ? SR : I'd visited friends of the family over in Florida, a couple of times back in the early 80's, and I decided that I liked the idea of living in Florida and vacationing in England a little better. So, on my next visit I took my guitars with me, just to see if I could find a band to play with, so that I could stay. On reflection, it all sounds a little naive, but I suppose it was meant to be, because within a couple of weeks of my arrival, I found a band with a departing female lead singer. So, I stepped into a girl's shoes, as it were. Apparently they fit me quite nicely, and I'm still here. PB : During the 80's and 90's you were part of a Florida based band, namely the Headlights. What part did you play in that band and did you release any albums ? I can’t find any ! SR : Yeah, the Headlights were the band I just mentioned. In the band, I was splitting songwriting duties with a seriously talented guitarist called Steve Connelly. It was a funny mix at first, him being steeped in Americana and country-rock and me being fresh from England with an armful of Jam and XTC records, but after a while we developed an interesting and quite cohesive partnership, I think. Although we gigged incessantly, recorded output was a little thin. We recorded an ill-fated album called 'Test The Spirit' for a Nashville label who went belly up before the release date; a 4-song Roger McGuinn-produced EP called 'Earthbound', and later on, a full-length CD called 'Roundhouse'. They're all out of print, so I'm not surprised you can't find them! PB : You toured with some impressive artists during that period which culminated with taking over as Roger McGuinn’s touring band. Was that the ‘Back From Rio’ tour ? (Arguably his best album). With your obvious admiration of The Byrds that must have been a dream gig. SR : Indeed. It was a joy getting to sing with Roger night after night. As a band we felt very much in tune with the whole sensibility and dynamic that McGuinn and the Byrds had going on, so it all felt quite natural. He'd already been in the studio with us, and had seen us play live, so I think he knew it'd be a good fit. PB : Your first solo album, 2005’s ‘Away For The Day’, received some good reviews. It’s been said the album was a DIY home-recorded affair. Was it actually recorded at home? SR : Yes. It was all recorded and mixed on a Korg all-in-one recorder in my front room. It was a bit of a primitive affair really, but it has a certain charm to it I suppose, and I'm quite proud of some of the songs on it. PB : On ‘Undercurrent’, your latest album, there is more of a collaborative feel. One of the co-producers, Ed Woltil apart from playing guitars and bass also contributes an array of other sounds. Did he and the other producer, Brian Merrill, have much input as to how the completed songs should sound ? Or did you have the arrangements pretty much fixed before entering the studio ? SR : Ed and Brian, who are in the band the Ditchflowers, certainly had a big say in how the record sounds. It's a little complicated, but what happened was that I'd contributed some vocals to their 'Carried Away' record, and I was about halfway through my album at the time. Since Brian runs his own rather well-equipped studio, Studio Bee, the two of them invited me to finish the project there. So, although my parts had already been done at home, drum tracks and Ed's lovely bass and guitar overdubs and orchestrations were done there, as was the mixing. I suppose it could have turned out sounding a little hodge-podge, but I felt very in sync with the two of them, and they had free rein as producers. They painted it up and glued it all together quite nicely I think. I'm lucky to have had them involved. PB : A number of the songs on ‘Undercurrent’ could have been pulled off any number of long forgotten albums from the 60's by the Hollies, Turquoise (if they’d made one!) Forever Amber and the like. There’s an innocence to those originals and also in your writing; it’s rare to hear that in newly composed songs. Are there any songs that you strive to emulate when you are writing ? SR : I'm not really aware of trying to emulate anyone when I write, but I've always been drawn to harmony-fueled music--bands with great vocal blends-- the Beatles, Beach Boys, and later on people like the Finn Brothers and XTC, so their influence is bound to show through I think. I only really know the Hollies through their singles, but I do love the sound of them, so I'll take that as a big compliment, thanks. PB : ‘The Best Days Of Your Life’ is a prime example of a 60's influenced song. The first time I heard it I was taken by surprise that a contemporary artist had nailed that sound and feeling so well. Who are your favourite artists from that period ? SR : Well, that one was written about my childhood back in the 70's, really, but I suppose it does have a 60s-ish bounce to it. When I wrote it, I viewed it as a folky track and dressed it up with mandolin runs and a whistle, but by the time that Ed brought in the tuba player, it began to take on more of that late 60's Small Faces/Kinks vibe. Fine by me; I love both of those bands. The Small Faces' 'Ogden's' album is a massive one for me-- for Stanley Unwin's narration as much as for the music, truth be told. PB : You’re now billed as a solo artist. Do you prefer leading an occasional, changing group of musicians in the studio and on tour or do you miss being part of a more stable band like the Headlights ? SR : I think that when you're in a band for a long time, it's easy to get lazy with each other. You can get very comfortable knowing that others are there to pick up the slack for you, so things can get a little stagnant. When you're by yourself, it's all up to you, and it can be a little daunting. You get all the credit and all the blame. It can be quite liberating, but it also helps you appreciate all that the other guys in the band brought to the table. I guess that's why we do reunion shows. PB : Do you write from personal experience ? ‘Wooden Hill’, for one example, is a touching tribute to a departed mother and other songs with a personal touch like ‘Please Emmalene’ (which are the opening two songs on ‘Undercurrent’ ) are so effecting that the listener feels you must have gone through those experiences. SR : Often I do, yeah, although they don't usually start off that way. I usually start with random phrases that I simply like the sound of, whether they seem to make sense to me or not. Then, if any of them stick, or resonate with me somehow, I'll try to make sense of them later; fill in the gaps as it were. I think that if the imagery is strong enough, it'll take you where you need to go anyway. 'Wooden Hill', sprang from a simple phrase -- "the house where we lived, is not looking very well, here it stands an empty shell". It quickly became apparent that it could only ever really be about how shell-shocked we were, as a family, when my mum passed away. PB : Are you touring at the moment or have you toured to promote ‘Undercurrent’? SR : No touring, I'm afraid. I'm just starting on my next recording project right now, but I'm looking to do a few sporadic shows this summer(hopefully with a band) but the idea of leaving my family for extended periods holds no real appeal for me at all. PB : Any plans to tour Europe in the future ? I can imagine your music going down a storm in some of the festivals this summer scattered around Europe. SR : That's nice of you to say, and I have to confess that the idea of playing in Europe does have certain appeal. I think it's because I haven't played there in so long, and there's a part of me that wonders if maybe, just maybe, there might be a nice little niche audience there for what I do. Like I said though, I'm not keen on leaving the family, so I'd have to bring them with me. Maybe a working vacation might be the way to go! PB : As you have lived in the States for so long is there still anything you miss about England ? SR : There are the usual things, like going down the pub; getting fish,chips and mushy peas from the local chippie, and being able to get a decent cup of tea in a restaurant, but the longer I'm here, and the more of a nostalgic old git I become, it becomes apparent that the things I miss are really things of my youth. It's an England that no longer exists, I suppose; a time more than a place. I miss my grandparents being around to regale me with tales of life in their time (and now regretting that I didn't ask more questions) ; I miss being a little kid standing on a train platform with the smell of steam all around; I miss 'Morecambe and Wise' at Christmas, and I miss watching England put penalty kicks away. Pass me a hankie, would you ? PB : Your music and vocals have been compared to many others from Ron Sexsmith through Crosby Stills & Nash to Crowded House. I heard that one comparison you might not be so pleased about was Peter Noone. Vocally there is little to compare between you and the former Herman Hermits' front man but we should remember that many of that bands songs were composed by some of the best songwriters ; Graham Gouldman, Goffin/King, Barri/Sloan, John Carter, even David Bowie and Donovan and the band was produced by Mickie Most. Surely to have your music compared to such legends can’t be all bad ?In 1965 they were as big as if not bigger than the Beatles in Britain ! SR : Very true. Actually, Peter Noone still does very well over here; tours quite a bit, and audiences still go nuts for him. More power to him I say. Hope I look and sound as good as he does when I'm his age. I don't mind being compared to anyone really; I just found the Herman's Hermits comparison rather humourous, because I was really going for more of a Freddie and the Dreamers sort of vibe. PB : The closing song on ‘Undercurrent’, ‘I’m In Trouble (Again), is simply one of the best love lost songs I’ve heard in many a year. In a few short lines you sum up what everyone who has loved and lost has felt. Do songs like that take an age to write ? The melody is sublime too! SR : Songwriters often go an about how having someone somehow connect with a jumble of personal words that you've written down and sung is so rewarding and humbling, and it often sounds a little twee and self-serving, but it really is something I savour. Who knows how it happens; but you have to appreciate it when it does. So, sincere thanks for the kind words. This one didn't take an age to write at all-- most of it spilled out very quickly as I remember--but it did take a while to get recorded. It sat around for ten years or so before I actually finished it. It's one of the most overtly folk-sounding songs I've done and I was a bit concerned about it coming off like a bit of a parody. But, in the end, I kept the arran sweater on, stuck my finger in my ear, hoisted a pint on the choruses and just went for it. Hell, I even threw on a bodhran. Thanks for not mentioning it. PB : Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Steve.

Picture Gallery:-
Steve Robinson - Interview

Steve Robinson - Interview

Visitor Comments:-
114 Posted By: Gerry Coogan, ManAtTheWindow, Glasgow, UK on 15 May 2008
Great interview, Steve. The best of luck to you with the album - it deserves every success. Ever since I first heard "Love Is Real" (which I'm listening to right now), I marked you down as a real talent. I hope that "Undercurrent" does really well for you and that there will be plenty more albums to follow. All the best, Gerry MATW

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favourite album

Away for the Day (2008)
Steve Robinson - Away for the Day
In the latest in our Re : View series, in which our writers re-examine albums from the past, Malcolm Carter looks at British-born, but American-based singer-song writer and recent Pennyblackmusic interviewee Steve Robinson's debut solo album, 'Away for the Day'

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Swallowing the Sun (2021)
Classic folky-pop with Beatle touches. on first album in five years from former Headlight and Roger McGuinn sideman Steve Robinson
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