Forget about balloon man, the lightbulb head or the globe of frogs, Robyn Hitchcock says he’s really a romantic songwriter.
Oh, he acknowledges he’s known for his wordplay, those brilliant early albums that gave a bow to Dylan and The Beatles. He’s the man with the lightbulb head who turns himself on all the time. He’s the guy who says “being just contaminates the void” and “the line between us is so thin I might as well be you.”
But subsequent discs have shown his emotional side. His spare, achingly beautiful cover of Bryan Ferry’s “To Turn You On” from Hitchcock’s latest, “The Man Upstairs,” is only the most recent example.
While perhaps best known for his dreamy, smart pop made with The Egyptians in the 1980s, Hitchcock has continued to be prolific, releasing a stream of fine discs solo and with the Venus 3 over the past 15 years.
He makes his first return to the area since a show at The Boathouse in 1989 (if his memory is right) with a duo show at the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club with his partner, the Aussie songstress, Emma Swift on April 7.
“I had already been known for something else and people’s first impressions always stick,” he says from Nashville, where he’s lived the last few years.
He says about the time his group, The Soft Boys, ended he got deeply into late Roxy Music, “Flesh and Blood” and “Avalon.”
“That had an enormous impact on me,” he says. “I could write something a bit more delicate. The diet I brought myself up on was quite brutal in a way. Dylan was harsh. I loved The Beatles. They were almost like children. But there were romantic nuances in Bryan Ferry. He was very agile, very sophisticated. He probably processes things very thoroughly. There’s nothing raw or primal.”
“As I got older, it just kicked in, a more delicate, wistful approach, which to me opens the door to being a romantic songwriter,” he adds.
He says he plays all the old songs fans want to hear although not all of them are personal favorites these days (“Madonna of the Wasps,” perhaps a perfect pop song, is, however, a fave). He likes songs like “Swirling” from Queen Elvis, “I’m Only You” from “Fergmania,” “Autumn is Your Last Chance” from “I Often Dream of Trains” and “Chinese Bones” from “Globe of Frogs.”
“Those sorts of things,” he says. “The kind of more hypnotized songs. The songs where I seem to be staring off in the distance in some way rather than getting upset about something or making a joke out of it. But I’m not really known for that.”
“Balloon Man,” perhaps his biggest radio hit, was not originally intended to be a Robyn Hitchcock song. Kimberley Rew, who was in The Soft Boys, had written “Going Down to Liverpool,” which was covered with great success by The Bangles. “I thought, well, if they’ve done it with Kimberley maybe they could do a song of mine,” he says. He sent off a tape of the tune to the group. He never heard back.
When he signed to A&M, he played a demo for label executives and they loved it. “It became a radio smash.” he says. “It didn’t sell a lot, but did very well on the wireless. I have a very anti-commercial instinct.”
He laughed recalling hearing REM’s “Losing My Religion early in the 40 Watt Club in Athens. “It just sounded like a dirge,” he says. “I thought gentlemen, what have you done? All these minor chords. I shook my head and stared down into my beer. (It was) their international hit. If you’re thinking about having a hit record, don’t bring it to me.”
Hitchcock says as he’s gotten older, the melodies have come more easily and the words often languish. He has plenty of tunes awaiting words. “Maybe melodies appear instantly,” he says. “We never know exactly what suit this stuff comes out of, whether it’s the part of the brain that dreams. But then I think we each have an individual narrative that is going on that is in our subconscious. Things that appear in our dreams. Because my dreams seem to make so little sense. But then life makes no sense. So really it’s perfect.”
He says he wants to just keep on working, keep on producing material. “I’ve always churned out as much as I could,” he says. “That’s my priority while I’m here because I can’t do it afterward.”
He does not buy the idea one age is better than another.
“Are you any more real at 7 than you are at 60?” he asks. “Life is the journey, not the destination. We all know the destination is death, no life. It’s not like maturing is necessarily a good thing. It’s just what happens. Even as a kid I could see artists would get older and mellow out. Some people get angrier with time. I think it’s best to smile as you get older. It gives you a facelift.”
His latest, “The Man Upstairs,” acknowledges the march of time. It’s a mesmerizing collection of five covers and five originals, some older songs that haven’t previously found a home. He opens with s spare take on The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You.” He says he took that 80s sound, the height of artifice, music with shoulder pads, and chiseled away at that and the other covers, which include The Doors’ “Crystal Ship” and neighbor Grant-Lee Phillips “Don’t Look Down.”
“I just wanted to play them really simply,” he says.
The idea to split covers and originals came from producer Joe Boyd, known for his work with Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, 10,000 Maniacs, REM, and dozens of others. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together. In appearances over the years, Boyd has read from his memoir, Chinese Bicycles, and Hitchcock has sung tunes.
This was their first studio collaboration, though they’d talked about it for years. “We inched towards each other,” he says. Boyd is known for his Brit folkie roots. Hitchcock says he has his own roots. He made a record with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Nashville neighbors, some years back. But way back when he lived in Cambridge he’d go to the folk club on Saturday nights, where they were into bluegrass. That was where he first heard Gram Parsons. The Egyptians, he says, used to do “Hickory Wind.”
“It’s funny how it all swirls around,” he says.
“I’d like to be made into an app, put on the iPhone 12 or whatever,” he says. “It would produce stuff that was like mine through the ’80s and ’90s. I think it would write something that would be on “Elements of Light.” We are replacing ourselves, whether intended or not, with artificial intelligence. What’s interesting is we’re putting something of ourselves into another form. “
He imagines the new medium will not necessarily know where it comes from. There will be legends about coming from the flesh world. There may be even a few specimens left over in a compound somewhere.
“We’re rather tragically over-achieving homicidal apes,” he says. “Our great legacy will be to translate the fleshly into the mechanical, maybe with the same problems and the same gifts, but without mortality.”
Robyn Hitchcock at the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club, April 7.