Robyn Hitchcock | The Urgency, The Vane

Via Issue 184, The Tempest Issue

Written by

Matthew Bedard

Photographed by

Elliott Wilcox

Styled by

Ashley Powell

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MR.P coat, turtleneck, and pants available at mr.porter.com and talent’s own rings.

Robyn Hitchcock has seen his swells, his sleet, his swashbuckling. He’s been both the eye of the hurricane and its focal point. He’s hunkered down and he’s ridden it out. And if not for this extremely pliable metaphor—that of The Tempest Issue—he’d be quite the chap to try and muster up justice-serving words about. See, Robyn Hitchcock is a weathervane of surrealism. His songwriting is both divine and dutifully dubitable, tragicomic and transient. Conscientious of his imprint, yet modest of his granularity in the larger cosmos, the man is self-effacing yet simultaneously self-emancipating in his multitudinousness. His is a legacy quite hard to pin, yet delicious with which to listen. But why the struggle to describe this particular human? Because Robyn Hitchcock makes one feel so many things: that the imagination can tunnel through the molten core of the earth, or the heart, and come out the other side with lapels pressed and revelations liberated; that childlike curiosity is a noun, a thing, not a temporal ascription, and it’s yours if you don’t let the embers cool; that love is a steely sorcerer, all that we’re really made of, and it’s sometimes best unpacked in song. 

Hitchcock is indeed many things. Poet, charmer, singer, writer, painter, journeyman, maverick, trickster, entertainer— and a six decade career, annexed across uncountable live shows and some thirty records, compounds this. And now, we’re fortunate that, after a five year pause in publishing—the longest ever for the artist—he’s dropped a new record on us that’s load - ed with the suspected whimsy and irreverence, and of course, heft and a sort of herculean sincerity we’ve come to know him for. SHUFFLEMANIA! (Tiny Ghost Records) is just under 40 elegantly-laced minutes and includes contributions from a vast swathe of cultural heartbeats, friends from past and present. Here, we talk the characters unearthed on the record, who may or may not possess quite the same ventricles as the album contributors, but who steer the ship with poise nonetheless. We talk forced stillness. We talk adaptation, uptake, AI, shock versus slow burn, and the imperative of quests small and large. 

SAINT LAURENT BY ANTHONY VACCARELLO coat, turtleneck, and pants and talent’s own shoes, rings, and sunglasses.

This is The Tempest Issue, Robyn. How do you feel SHUFFLE-MANIA! was informed by the natural elements? Or was it? 

I think that’s why we’re emotional—we grow up on a planet with weather systems. So you know: the tempest, the calm, the stasis, the sudden gusts, the becalmed moments that sometimes steal across life when you don’t seem to be going anywhere… equilibrium itself, which is really hard to find, and then sometimes boredom—all of this seems to be from weather conditions. 

Would you liken the new record to a ‘weather event’ of some sort, then?

The record itself, the songs themselves, seem to be an eruption of sub-personalities, which came out of me after about three years of not coming up with really much in the way of finished songs. Suddenly, the songs started finishing themselves with some urgency. Whether this was an unconscious intuition of the pandemic coming down, or whether it was something else in the climate…I mean, you could argue that as the climate is now a gun to our head—or the climate has our gun to its head—there’s greater urgency in what we all do, you know? There are so many things that seem like deadlines coming up before us as a species. 

So does today’s creativity then, by necessity, need to become more eruptive?

I think everything does. Even going to buy yogurt in the corner store is going to have to be a bit more eruptive. You can’t say, ‘Well, I might leave it ’til next year,’ you know? Everything has become more urgent. But I’m also 70 next year, so the amount of time left to me is more obviously finite. I don’t spend that much time in front of the mirror, but I see my friends getting old. And I also live a kind of artificially youthful lifestyle. In this business, you need to grow up, but you have to kind of pretend you haven’t. In certain ways, you’re supposed to be forever young. But nonetheless, for me, yeah, I do have to get out what I can get out. 

Is urgency something new to you, or it’s a familiar feeling?

I’ve always been pretty urgent. I mean, everyone I know who writes songs—it’s their kind of quest. In a way, we’re all acting as if it’s still the 1970s. You know, ‘the goal in life is to make a series of albums,’ and most of us have long fulfilled that dream. Whether you’re right up at the top, or just kind of, you know, people like me, or my East Nashville buddies. I mean, they’re all churning stuff out at different speeds. We’re all doing the standard animal reaction, just doing what we do, like birds building nests on doors that are floating down a river or something, just trying to create something solid, even in an incredibly transitionary state. 

And how about these sub-personalities on the record you speak about?

Oh, there’s a whole bunch of them. There’s The Shuffle Man himself, who is sort of trickster, possibly a Gemini, sits at both sides of the table at once, deals cards—take three, throw them up in the air, and then you have to figure out what to do with them, the sort of extremely capricious nature of fate—which of course we saw happening a lot in 2020. And then there’s this feathery serpent god who was based on a Mexican Mayan deity. A winged serpent who’s actually, interestingly enough, god of storms and rain, but also life—the way that those old gods sort of almost have arbitrary portfolios, you know? ‘Well, I’m rain and storms, but I’m also life.’ I think the serpent god represents basically the life force, whatever it is—the urgency of existence. One set of circumstances driving another set of circumstances off the map and saying, ‘Okay, this is what it’s like now.’ In a way, they both have to do with adaptability. 

Shuffling the hand they’re dealt so to speak… 

There’s also a Scorpio detective. Scorpios are meant to be good detectives, surgeons, spies, apparently, psychologists. You know, they go deep into the intricate, dark side of things and people. And then there’s the sort of noir person who isn’t really a detective. They’re more on the run, but they’re in a crime scene. They might even be hunted by the Scorpio Detective. Then there’s the Raymond Chandler figure in “The Man Who Loves the Rain,” which is titled after an unwritten Chandler story. I mean, there’s obviously a lot of detection stuff going on there. And then there’s the sort of posh Old English Lord—Sir Tommy Shovell —definitely my sort of ancestral posh British archetype. Very distinguished. And then there’s Socrates, who is put to death for not toeing the party line, and thinking too far out of the box. I don’t know if they’re all my sub-personalities—they’re sub-personalities that I found.

They’re maybe not you, but you’ve unquestionably encountered them. What did you emotionally encounter in that time of incompletion, when the songs weren’t finishing? Was it depressing?

I think it was frustrating from an artistic point of view. But personally, I was busy, I was touring. Me and Emma [Swift; partner, musician, and Tiny Ghost Records lead] seem to have been everywhere in the world, twice a year. That may have affected my ability to finish things off. I think also, unfortunately, to bring politics into it again, the British Brexit vote, and then the 2016 US election, and the way that went, were both things that would have seemed impossible—even six months before—and they were terrible. To me, I felt rather dwarfed, you know? 

You felt a futility in the face of what was happening?

I thought Mondo Hitchcock really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the overall picture—and I’m pretty self-absorbed, I’m in my own ‘me sphere,’ my ‘me—osphere,’ whatever. And so, they say write about what you know… so basically, my psychological landscape is where my songs are largely set, because that’s the thing I’m most likely to be true about. But I just felt rather insignificant, but not up to writing protest songs. I wrote one song after a particularly egregious shooting incident in an American school. I don’t know if it was any good or not. It came out as a B-side. But I was relieved to actually just be churning out whole songs again, because it’s what I know. It’s what I will myself to do. 

That’s your fluency. 

Yeah, it is my fluency and my currency. 

SAINT LAURENT BY ANTHONY VACCARELLO coat and turtleneck and talent’s own ring.

And how about touring? Are you noticing a marked difference in reception to live shows than you were before shutdown?

I think people who make it to shows absolutely love it, and I really appreciate it. I was traveling insanely before I was stopped. So it was quite something to be catapulted back the opposite direction and told, ‘Well, you know what, you’re not going to cross the street for three months. And if somebody comes running past the house, you’re going to go in, you’re not going to stand on your balcony with a cup of tea.’ And it shows how fast we can adapt. 

Is that herd mentality? The kind of speed with which that adaptation can occur?

I think it’s human nature and maybe herd mentality, but during the pandemic, we were not—at least physically—part of the herd. I mean, we were all connected to the outside world in a way more than ever, because everybody was on the net the whole time, talking to people who weren’t there. So it accelerated our dependence on the internet. And also our corresponding inability to relate to people who are actually in front of you, because there wasn’t anyone in front of you. But I think it’s adaptability—a human adaptability. And it means we can probably adjust to other things. Unless they’re too extreme for us to do it physically.

How do you mean? 

If everybody had to live underground for 20 years, well, you’d have to have a lot of underground dwellings prepared for that to happen, or you’d have to have the time to prepare them. But perhaps it means if there is a gradual rise in water level, rather than a sudden, apocalyptic, ‘Okay, the seven meters as prophesied is happening tonight’… if it was to come slower rather than fast, if it was more like Waterworld or something, then we probably will be able to adjust to it: ‘That was the time before the stilt houses. That was the time before houses floated, we still got footage of all those cities, which are now underwater.’

Where is the learning curve?

There’s limits to our adaptability. If things change too fast via all that the conventionally anticipated apocalyptic means, then it wouldn’t be so good. You know, I don’t think we would do too well after any kind of even vaguely large-scale nuclear war, and I don’t think we’d survive a big tsunami. You know, will we survive artificial intelligence knocking us off the number one spot? Will we survive the inevitable merger with our phones, which is going to have to happen, because if you lose your phone, you cease to exist. There’s an awful lot of, like I said before—putting it politely—‘deadlines’ coming up. 

Where do you see example of resistance to adaptation? 

Definitely in the division between town and country, you know? But you know, a sort of understanding of multiculturalism, and LGBT, all that stuff, the developments that have happened in the sexual and gender world in the last 60 years… legalizing abortion, just where it all moved. Civil rights, all of that, moved too fast for a lot of people. And there have been lots of counter-attacks ever since. You know, that was Margaret Thatcher and Reagan in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. And, you know, the blue meanies 1 keep coming back. That’s a really insightful remark on the speed of uptake, you know? So, in a way, maybe those things never sank into begin with.

What about the upside, or the beauty, in our herd behavior?

You know, we are sort of herd animals, and there’s some times where that’s a wonderful thing to see—when people are helping each other, rather than when it’s 10,000 people in jackboots saluting some power-crazed individual in a stadium—then it’s not so nice. Any totalitarian display of strength is repulsive. But there’s this domino nature that power has, which I think is the most dangerous factor in our makeup, and that’s why the world is still largely run by bullies, rather than by enlightened people. You know, the ‘one rotten apple spoils the barrel’ thing. A couple of thuggy individuals, who are well-armed, can dominate 1,000 people who have no way of defending themselves. Of course, the NRA says, ‘Give everybody a gun.’ Maybe it was good 50,000 years ago for alpha folks to be able to take over the tribe and say, ‘This way up the hill, we’ll slay the weak, and we’ll slay our opponents, and we’ll take the stone tablets,’ but those sorts of people aren’t helpful now. What we need now is a telepathic shoal of people who come together because they sense each other’s needs, and we don’t really have that yet, but I think we need an injection of mild telepathy. Some people are empathic. I’m not particularly, which is why I probably keep banging on about empathy, because I’m a very solipsistic individual…but it seems like whether you could get it from microdosing, or whether you could get it from opening everybody’s third eye…I don’t know. 

‘Enlightenment’ beyond the buzzword?

I think so. And I think it might have to happen rapidly, actually, like a physical form of evolution. The way that supposedly—I’ve never understood this—did reptiles keep jumping to their death off cliffs, and then suddenly grow wings? Did they just suddenly glide? They kept leaping over longer and longer chasms, and then their arms began to grow membrane? Did this happen over hundreds of thousands of years? There must have been a lot of lizards with vestigial wings, you know? 

And what happens at that half way point of the leap… 

You know, we’ve reached a point where we need a drastic evolutionary leap. And it’s possible that the iPhone will provide that when we start to merge with it, but you know, far be it for me to be a prophet of the phone. It’s just really interesting that Artificial Intelligence is coming up at the same time as we realize that we’ve set forces loose that we can’t control, and we’re making our planet uninhabitable. 

Are you prepared for Artificial Intelligence? 

There’s a thin line between hope and denial. Personally, I can’t wait to become a songwriting app in a second-generation i-droid. Everything I wrote will be subsumed into the cultural bloodstream of the world, even if there’s no blood involved. 

Regarding adaptation and uptake, would you agree that things that take longer to absorb, or settle in, are arguably easier to process? Is that like a storm you can see far away in the distance, versus a flash flood? 

Well, it’s harder to deal with sudden shocks. I’ve delivered and occasionally received some awful news regarding love. To your point, the human heart can turn like a weather vane in our psychic storms. Nothing and nobody is safe from the deluge of emotions once the downpour begins. But love is a resilient flame that can rekindle endlessly, given enough oxygen. If robots mimic us properly, they, too, will learn to love… 

And one must ask: is the robot us or did we find our way to the robot? It’s a bit like the sub-personalities on SHUFFLE-MANIA!… 

They might have just come to me. You know, you never know what comes out of you and what’s coming into you, I suppose. That’s the story so far.

Photographed by Elliott Wilcox at Making Pictures
Styled by Ashley Powell
Written by Matthew Bedard

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Robyn Hitchcock, SHUFFLEMANIA!, The Tempest Issue, Tiny Ghost Records