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Aitch McRobbie - Interview

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 6 / 11 / 2013

Aitch McRobbie - Interview


Nick Dent-Robinson speaks to Liverpool-born and now Oxfordshire-based singer-songwriter Aitch McRobbie about her thirty years in the music business, working with artists such as Deep Purple's Jon Lord and Sam Brown and her debut solo album, 'Take Off Your Shoes'

It is thirty years since Aitch McRobbie began her professional singing career with a recording session at the age of twelve! Aitch was born in Liverpool and lived in Penny Lane. Her dad had been at the heart of the early sixties Mersey sound, playing bass in a Brian Epstein-managed band that was more popular than the Beatles in the 1961 ‘Mersey Beat’ magazine poll. A generation later, Aitch's brother, P J Andrew, was active in the Merseyside music scene too. He introduced Aitch, aged just sixteen, to her first Liverpool band, the Big Still. Music has been a huge part of Aitch's life since then. Now forty-two, married to bass player Aaron McRobbie and living with their two young sons in an idyllic cottage in Oxfordshire enjoying spectacular views across the Chiltern Hills. Aitch has sung live and recorded with many of the biggest names in music. From Van Morrison to Mavis Staples, Jools Holland to Jimmy Cliff and Joe Cocker as well as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Lonnie Donegan, Robert Plant, Paul Weller, Solomon Burke, Amy Winehouse and James Blunt, Aitch has worked with them all. She also writes and teaches music and has recorded her own album, 'Take Off Your Shoes'. This features Aitch singing her own compositions with support from husband Aaron McRobbie on bass plus a range of talented musician friends. The album is an accomplished production; a blend of soulful yet mellow music, intelligent lyrics with some fine, mature performances from all involved. Aitch talked with Pennyblackmusic about her Liverpool upbringing, her musical career and her life in Oxfordshire. “I love our life here in the Oxfordshire countryside,” Aitch enthuses, when we first meet. “It is great for our two boys and I work part-time at the village nursery school which I really enjoy. I so like being with the children there; art one day, reading another, computers the next and sometimes I take my guitar and we do music. I think Oxfordshire is wonderful. There's nowhere in the country I'd rather live. It is perfect for a young family.” It must be very different from the rather depressed Liverpool of the 1970s/1980s where Aitch was raised? “It is,” Aitch says with a gentle smile. “But you know, my upbringing in a suburb called Childwall was so happy that I was never aware of all the problems in inner-city Liverpool. Life at home with my mum and dad plus my older sister and brother was very secure, and I just have good memories. They called me 'Aitch' rather than Helen from a young age. The name just stuck and with my family, and in the music world I'm always known as Aitch.” “In my childhood home there was lots of music, always,” Aitch recalls. “Not live music – just from a big stereo system which was a hugely prized possession. None of us children was allowed to touch it! Those sounds – mainly 60s music - have been an influence right through my career...the Mamas & Papas, the Carpenters – I always thought I could hear a sadness in Karen's beautiful voice, Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Lonnie Donegan. In fact years later when I did the Lonnie Donegan tribute at the Albert Hall with Van Morrison, Roger Daltrey, Mark Knopfler, Joe Brown, Billy Bragg and others it was great because I already knew all the songs. When we were rehearsing, every time anyone mentioned one of Lonnie's numbers, I already knew it from my childhood! Which was a huge help. And of course most of all, my parents were always playing Beatles music. I grew up knowing virtually the entire Beatles catalogue!” “My dad, Don Andrew, played bass with the Remo Four, another Brian Epstein-managed band,” Aitch affirms. “They were actually more popular on Merseyside than the Beatles at the beginning of the 60s. In fact the Beatles used to come along to sit and watch my dad's band play! But when my parents started a family my dad gave up his musical life and never went back to it.” Did Aitch shine musically at school? “Well I did win a solo singing competition when I was seven,” Aitch recalls. “I also played Nancy in a school production of ‘Oliver’ when I was ten. We lived in Penny Lane, and I went to Dovedale County Primary – where Sir Paul McCartney had gone. I also remember singing ‘God Be in My Head’ at Mike McCartney's wedding when I was ten. I met Paul McCartney that day, and recall thinking rather disapprovingly that he was wearing a tie that was not very 'weddingly'! But I didn't especially shine in music at my secondary school. Very few musicians I know ever did. Music was taught too theoretically back then and just didn't do it for me. I went to King David High School which was quite small, and probably a bit select compared with many in Liverpool. That might be one reason I don't have a scouse accent, though I've lived here in the south longer than the eighteen years I was in Liverpool.” “I was still at school – just twelve, in fact – when I was asked to record a song by a man called Joey Molloy from the Rathbone pub in Liverpool,” Aitch continues. “He knew my brother P J Andrew a bit, and had written the song. I sang the song with him at the Rathbone pub and at various other pubs around the city. After that my brother arranged for me to sing with a friend's band, the Big Still. My first meeting with them was very embarrassing. They were a five piece band, and rehearsed in a room full of knitting and dressmaking stuff. I said 'Hello' to the lead guitarist Noel, and then stepped away and fell backwards into a huge empty tea chest. I had to be helped out. But it broke the ice, and they agreed I could join them.” “From the age of sixteen I was singing in all these dodgy clubs in Liverpool. I have the happiest memories of it, but now I look back and can't believe I did all that so young. Never thought twice about it and never had a problem - ever. I did a session at the Benson Street Studios in Liverpool with Brian O'Hara from the Fourmost, who knew my dad. The engineer was a young whizz kid called Mike Rose who I'm now in touch with again. Mike has had a brilliant career, and produced Gary Barlow plus many more top names. I'm planning to do more work with him soon. Anyway, after that first session the studio kept asking me back and by the age of sixteen I was getting pretty busy, singing.” “Of course my academic work suffered and the teachers were concerned because I had a lot of promise, so they said. But I have never regretted it. I never wanted to go to university. I was just too keen to get out and into the real world. Have a life. And I learned so much from those early days of performing to tough audiences and from recording. Invaluable experience, knowing how to handle situations, learning recording techniques.” “Soon I was going to London regularly with the band. I was also singing with some other Liverpool bands, and sometimes playing guitar and piano. I found time to work in a restaurant too. I was never bored. Then a producer called Nick Tauber who worked with Thin Lizzy, Toyah and Marillion asked me to help with other things he was working on. He did a lot of rock material, and I enjoyed that. I ended up doing more and more things in London, and eventually, in 1989, aged eighteen, I just moved there.” Was it very different from Liverpool? “It was great. I had a busy life and made a lot of friends, sharing various flats. Between session work I helped run a clothes shop in Wood Green. But soon, when I was nineteen, I was offered a job by Micky Most's Rak Studios in Regent's Park. I worked on reception, but ended up doing backing work with all kinds of people which I really enjoyed; it was a great learning experience. And I lived in Camden which seemed so cool.” “And then I met Aaron,” Aitch recalls, a slight twinkle in her grey-blue eyes. “I was twenty-one and he was twenty-nine. We met at a gig at the Jazz Cafe. I was singing, and he came to play double bass. We hit it off immediately. He was from Oxfordshire, and was born here near Wallingford. We used to come out of London for weekends. And I just loved being in the countryside together,” Aitch enthuses. “We moved out of London, and ended up in this cottage. For a time I commuted to the studios in London, but with all the unsocial hours that was tough. So, just before Aaron and I married in 1994, I contacted a residential recording studio near here – Outside Studios at Hook End – just to see if they had a job. They did, but only as a housekeeper, looking after the artists so they could concentrate on their recording work.” “I took the job and it was great. I enjoyed meeting all the artists; many I already knew. It was a 16th century manor house with over twenty acres of private grounds, and was run a bit like a luxurious country house hotel. It was one of the world's best residential studios, and had been owned previously by Alvin Lee and then by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. Whenever there was a spare moment I'd shut myself away in the studio live room, which had once been a milking shed, where there was a beautiful piano. And I'd go crazy playing it; really having a good bash. I composed a lot of songs on that piano, working into the night, sometimes. It could get quite spooky in there, all on my own in this huge old place. Trying different keys and chord progressions and finding a melody that way. Then fitting the lyrics. I like a sweet, mellow kind of melody...something relaxing and not harsh.” “Later Trevor Horn bought the studio and I started doing backing vocals for Tom Jones and others. Things quickly took off for me again. Over the years many big names recorded at the studio – Eric Clapton, George Michael, Pink Floyd, the Spice Girls, Sade, the Kaiser Chiefs were all there. In my time I especially remember Gary Moore, the Cure, Deacon Blue, the Pet Shop Boys and Deep Purple. Plus a lot of musicians – like most of Deep Purple - lived here in Oxfordshire so I soon had many invitations to perform.” Aitch has worked with a huge range of people over the years; what were some of the highlights? “There have been so many good moments. It is hard to remember all the people I have worked with. Sadly quite a few are now dead, and I think how privileged I've been to perform with them. One of the most challenging things I did was lead vocals with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the late Jon Lord of Deep Purple at the Albert Hall. John Mortimer was reading poetry at the same event.” “And working on Jools Holland's TV show was great experience. Always a lot of pressure, but with Jools I performed with such a range of people and you gain so much from that. Like Ronnie Wood, Van Morrison, Paul Carrack, Solomon Burke, Jimmy Cliff, Mavis Staples, KT Tunstall, Amy Winehouse, Corinne Bailey Rae, James Blunt – the list goes on. You do pick up so much from others over the years. But I think I have actually learned the most working with my friends Sam Brown and Margo Buchanan, doing backing vocals with them, which I always enjoyed. Thinking about it, Sam's been one of my biggest influences, though she might laugh if she heard me say that. She is very talented as a singer, writer and multi-instrumentalist plus she now runs her very successful big ukulele groups. It is great that Sam and Margo as well as Sam's brother, the guitarist/producer Pete Brown and her foster brother, the top rock drummer Richard Newman, are on my album. Sam, Pete and Richard live close by in South Oxfordshire.” All the songs on Aitch's album ‘Take Off Your Shoes’ are her own. Some are stunningly beautiful – simple and with a blues influence yet a soft and very mellow feel. Throughout Aitch's singing and the supporting musicianship are flawless. “Aaron and I produced the record. Though we had help and advice from Pete Brown, who is a really experienced engineer and producer...one of the best anywhere. And Pete plays guitar on some tracks too. He's brilliant...truly posh playing which always makes my work sound so good!” Is it hard to get the right balance between a music career, family life and other activities? “It's not easy. The children come first, of course. I really enjoy my spare time with them and Aaron – and walking our black labrador dog too. I have no great ambitions for myself, really. Of course it is nice if people appreciate your music, but I've no wish to be rich and famous.The music always mattered most to me, not the chance of celebrity or fortune. And I would never want to leave Oxfordshire. Even if I could relive my life, I can't think of anything I'd change. I'm a great believer in people doing whatever they are supposed to do; you make choices and that leads to other things, good and sometimes bad. But you learn to deal with the bad, and get over it and just move on with life. And you come to appreciate and truly value the good things.I find that music really helps with all of that.” Aitch's album ‘Take Off Your Shoes’ is available through itunes or from Amazon.co.uk. The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Bernard Mattimore.

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