Just prior to his 70th birthday in March, Robyn Hitchcock is taking stock of his creativity. “I feel like there are some things that I can do that I couldn’t do 30 years ago,” the British singer-songwriter and guitarist says. “But maybe I’ve just forgotten what it was that I could do.”
After a brief pause, he elaborates— ticking off his attributes one at a time, self-comparing Hitchcock 2023 with the younger man who first found recognition in the late ‘70s with the neo-psychedelic band The Soft Boys. “I think I’m better at dealing with an audience,” he says. “I’m more engaged, rather than just firing random thoughts out of my head and over their heads.” He pauses yet again, then qualifies his statement by saying, “But maybe I’m not.”
Those qualifiers keep Hitchcock from puffing up his chest and patting himself on the back too hard. His musicianship is one aspect that earns a doubt-free thumbs up. “I think I’m still refining my solo acoustic guitar technique to play not exactly lead and rhythm, but a full guitar part that isn’t just a strum,” he asserts confidently. “A lot of it involves picking with finger and thumb and messing around a bit with tunings and drone strings.”
At other times though, he may sell himself short and out comes another “or not:” He balks at assigning his recent compositional output a higher grade than the music that originally earned him acclaim.
“As a songwriter, I may not be getting better,” Hitchcock ventures, a surprising and not wholly convincing admission considering the raves he receives routinely from the music press and the level of loyalty his fanbase has demonstrated for decades. “Is 25 a better age than 63? They’re just different ages and you produce different art. Was early Picasso better than late Picasso?
“It’s endlessly fascinating,” he continues, describing his songwriting process. Of his own recent output, he adds, “In some ways, it’s got less wisdom, although in some other ways, my songs have always been wiser than I am. They seem to come from a part of me that knows more than I do. It’s rather like the brain’s telling you something in your dreams. You don’t necessarily know what it is. I suppose my brain’s telling me something in my songs and maybe I’ll figure it out later.”
Like almost everyone else, Hitchcock spent much of the COVID lockdown in relative isolation. Ensconced in the Nashville home he shares with his life partner, the Australian singersongwriter Emma Swift—and their beloved felines, brothers Tubby and Ringo—Hitchcock was unable to interact directly with his fellow musicians. The unnatural situation, it’s easy to surmise, forced him to focus the microscope on himself.
But though his ruminations might make it seem as though he’s hedging— unsure of where he finds himself today— don’t let Hitchcock’s seemingly tentative musings stop you from listening to Shufflemania, his latest album and 22nd in total. Recorded at Nashville’s Tiny Ghost Studio—with additional sessions at London’s Abbey Road Studios—and featuring guest submissions from artists hunkered down in various places around the globe, the album was released last fall on the couple’s boutique label. Its 10 songs—co-produced by Hitchcock and Swift—mark both a return to Hitchcock’s trademark technicolor sensibilities and a step forward into ideas and places he has not previously explored. And Shufflemania is every bit as crucial to Hitchcock’s canon as any of the landmark albums he released during the ‘80s and ‘90s, his highestprofile period.
None of those recordings, it’s worth noting, ever graced Billboard’s Top 100 LPs chart: The closest he ever came to commercial success in the States was a pair of late ‘80s titles cut with his then-group the Egyptians, Globe of Frogs (No. 111) and Queen Elvis (No. 139). But Hitchcock has never been about mass adulation. Although he sits somewhat above cult-hero level, his music—among his best-known songs are those with titles like “Uncorrected Personality Traits” and “My Wife and My Dead Wife”—is not devised with sold-out arenas in mind. That lack of a sizable audience holds true in the U.K., where he still maintains a home as well but has yet to bask in a sea of platinum records. He knows that it is more important that those fans who do fall under his spell often stay with him for life—and Shufflemania, his first since a self-titled 2017 album, is already being hailed as one of the finest works in his long career.
“My life, or certainly my creative career, is very much a spiral, as far as music goes,” Hitchcock says. “I just go from loud to soft and right back again. It’s a windshield wiper, if you want to use that analogy, or a corkscrew. It goes ‘round, but it goes forward and that’s my vision of time. It’s not exactly a circle, but from a certain angle it would be a circle. I work with other people, and then I do something all by myself, and then I work with other people.
“I know which sounds I like, and I suppose I keep going back to them with slight variations. In one way that makes me unadventurous, but in another way it makes me consistent,” he continues. “And my voice has held up, so I sound younger than I look. My face is moving with time, but my voice is still quite youthful.”
Shufflemania leads off with “The Shuffle Man,” a title track of sorts that features only Hitchcock—on vocals and guitars—and The Raconteurs’ Brendan Benson, who handles bass, drums, organ and more guitars. In his own track-by-track notes, Hitchcock says of the opener, “The Shuffle Man is the imp of change—the agent of fortune. He throws the cards up in the air and leaves you to cope with where they fall. He is the exhilaration of chaos, with fast hands and a stovepipe hat.”
Benson is one of several guests Hitchcock called on to help flesh out his latest set of tunes. Charlie Francis, who mixed the album, contributes keyboards to several selections. Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Hitchcock’s one-time Soft Boys compatriots Kimberley Rew and Morris Windsor, and Sean Ono Lennon also weigh in at various points. The latter practically takes over the album’s final number, “One Day (It’s Being Scheduled),” playing drums, bass, marimba, vocoder, bells, vibes, clavinet, celeste and mellotron.
“I’d met him in real life briefly,” Hitchcock says about his relationship with Lennon. “But we really connected on Twitter and I went to see [his band] The [Claypool Lennon] Delirium, in New York. They started with ‘Astronomy Domine’ by Syd Barrett, the first track on Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and they ended with [The Beatles’] ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’ I thought, ‘Wow, these are my boys.’ I used to play ‘Astronomy Domine’ in my art school band 50 years ago, and we used to do it with Soft Boys. I love that song. So anyone who actually has the chutzpah to start the whole thing off with that, I thought, is making a good statement of intent. It was very nice that Sean was able to [contribute to Shufflemania]. He had nowhere to go for a bit, so he was captive.”
All of the tracks on Shufflemania arrive with their own backstory—from “The Sir Tommy Shovel,” the tale of a fictitious British pub that Hitchcock conjured in his mind while all of the real pubs were shuttered, to “Noirer Than Noir,” which was inspired by Venezuelan film director Sebastián Gutiérrez and sports a bossa nova rhythm, and “The Feathery Serpent God” and “Socrates in Thin Air,” two songs featuring Swift on harmony vocals. The former also includes Wilco/Autumn Defense member Patrick Sansone on keyboards and baritone guitar as well as singer-songwriter Kelley Stoltz on Indian sitar and shruti. “
All I have to do is find the right guest for the right track. There’s about five different drummers on the record,” Hitchcock says, explaining that the inability for his musician friends to tour during the lockdown allowed them more time to add parts to his album remotely. “It just shows how many ways there are of working. Allegedly, John Lennon managed to write a lot of songs for ‘The White Album’ because he was stuck in India for three weeks with hardly any drugs and nothing else to do. So he finished a lot of songs. Me being grounded in Nashville helped me complete the project. The last song was written here [in London], but by then we already had enough material. This is not about surfing chaos or taking chances or whatever. It’s basically making the most of your circumstances, whatever the Shuffle Man hands you.”
John Lennon and the previously name-checked Syd Barrett are perhaps the two prototype artists most often associated with Robyn Hitchcock’s brand of music-making, which is frequently described as surreal. “I like color,” he says, before noting that Bob Dylan was another early inspiration.
“I wanted to be Bob Dylan, but Bob Dylan was a Jewish guy from Minnesota, and I was a middle-class kid from the home counties,” he says. “But you could view my career as a love letter to Dylan and The Beatles or a postscript to Dylan and The Beatles. If you like ‘The White Album’ and The Basement Tapes, you’ll probably like something that I do. If you like Revolver and Highway 61 Revisited, then my ideas should make sense. Not that I’m trying to copy them, but that’s the template for the attitude in the songs that I like to have.
“I came in from that window when consciousness was wide open, 365 degrees,” he adds. “It was a narrow window, and it was where things like [Captain Beefheart’s] Trout Mask Replica happened—and, of course, where Syd Barrett happened. Even though it was a very brief sliver of that door being open, it was an extraordinary door. He was, in his own way, a visionary. I couldn’t say exactly what it was that he envisioned, but there was some kind of view of life that was miraculous. As I’ve said many times before, he was raw talent, and he squeezed the whole tube out in one go and there was nothing left after that.
“Certainly, when I got Soft Boys going, I was still very enthralled with Barrett’s sound and attitude,” he continues. “And to this day, there are chunks of what I do that are pure Syd, or 57 percent Syd—just as there’ll be big chunks of John Lennon in there. I think in terms of sound. The Beatles is the enduring influence. It was an academy. Somebody like [XTC’s] Andy Partridge is similar. I think he writes to those rules—probably Elvis Costello and the Squeeze people, too. Once you’ve attended The Beatles Academy, you can never really unlive it.”
Now, as he lands on another round number in his own life—and with a rather sizable body of work to show for it—Robyn Hitchcock can rejoice in knowing that he has long served as an inspiration to numerous artists on their own way up. Some zero in on his relatively small but potent Soft Boys output. Others cite peak-era albums like his 1981 solo debut, Black Snake Diamond Röle, 1984’s I Often Dream of Trains, the following year’s Fegmania! and 1990’s Eye or 1999’s Jewels for Sophia. Side trips like The Venus 3, a band that also featured R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, and the 1998 Jonathan Demme-directed concert film Storefront Hitchcock certainly lured new travelers into the artist’s orbit as well. He may not be a superstar in terms of record or ticket sales, but the loyalty that he commands from his fanbase is up there with the big boys. They like what he does and accept his choices, no questions asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever recorded anything radically different from what I did in, probably, the first seven years of my recording career,” he says. “All the templates were there.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to stop creating. Hitchcock spends a good deal of his non-music-related time drawing and painting—he’s done a sketch for each song on Shufflemania—and he and Emma have begun posting newly recorded songs on Patreon. He’s also got several tunes set aside that didn’t make it onto the new album. “I’m not planning to retire,” he says. “Even if I don’t tour, I will continue to write and draw and record— until the very last moment, if not beyond. I’m happy to be made into an app. I’d like to see what a Robyn Hitchcock songwriting app produces.”
Until such a time, Hitchcock plans to spend this year supporting Swift on her two forthcoming album releases—one is a covers set and the other is original material—and reissuing Underwater Moonlight, The Soft Boys’ second album. “So there’ll be quite a lot of old stuff coming out in between whatever the latest projects are. Do tell the world,” he requests in closing, before heading off to feed Tubby and Ringo, whose visages grace the cover of Shufflemania. “It should be fantastic.”