Robb Johnson has found a unique niche in the realm of English singer/songwriters. He is recognised by many as "Britain's finest songwriter of the last decade" for songs that are "incisive and clever and witty and you can sing them on your way to work". Furthermore, Robb's own label has issued several albums of fellow artists. I set out on a quest for an entirely new genre: English Chanson!
Robb: I started playing in the usual teenage rock bands; like Lou Reed, I mistakenly thought rock'n'roll had the same potential for wit and intelligence combined with mass communication that other art forms - film, the novel - once enjoyed. Then accidentally I went to a folk club to see Pete Atkin, and thought - again mistakenly - that folk clubs offered even more opportunites for singing songs covering a wide range of subjects (not just pop and rock's preoccupation with trouser action or daft elves and fantasy nonsense) and an even greater democracy in the relationship between performer and audience. At Sussex University I ran the folk club and started playing solo acoustic gigs. I also found a shopfull of old Chess LPs in Brighton, and became deeply impressed by the blues. I bought a dobro, the dobro had a pickup in it, so when I moved back to Hounslow I started a band called Grubstreet, that was supposed to be a blues-ish band, but which quickly evolved into a Hounslow version of Bruce Springsteen with odd bits of sub Clash white reggae [-> FW#25]. We played most of the toilets on the London pubrock circuit, to no great effect.
The band sort of collapsed about 1983, and I made my first LP using drum machines and synthesisers in 1985, and that's how Irregular Records was started. To try to sell the bloody thing, I started going to folk clubs again - I tried playing with backing tapes, but hated it. I found I enjoyed folk clubs, and having met like minded musicians Mark Shilcock and Graham Barnes, we formed The Ministry Of Humour, an agit-prop trio. This was the depths of the Thatcher years, and we played lots of benefits and rallies and pickets. Folk clubs either loved or hated us - usually the latter; we would heckle hunting songs and sexist/racist shanties etc. In 1989 I started another electric band, in 1991 we were featured on a Channel 5 TV programme about contemporay English roots music, largely because I lived in Southall, a predominantly Asian area, and my mate Jaspal had played tabla on a couple of songs and I knew a bit about Bhangra. The band limped on in various and decreasing formats till about 1997.
What made you abandon the band format and going solo?
Well, mainly the band abandoned me, quite understandably. It's hard to find gigs for a band playing original material. When the band was down to a trio, we played - as usual - a benefit up north; no-one offerred us expenses or a place to stay. Halfway home, we stopped at a service station and filled up with petrol out of our own pockets and Hug the bass player said: I don't think I can keep doing this. We all agreed. Hug could play in a covers band nearly every night and earn each gig what we'd be lucky to get between the three of us. Paul the drummer also moved to Brighton, so... It was a bit like when the dog dies: do you rush out and buy a puppy, or grieve for the faithful old beast?
In 1997 I wrote "Gentle Men", a song suite about my grandads and the first world war, which was performed at the Passendael Peace Concert. In 1998 I co-ordinated the release of an album of new versions of Jacques Brel songs, to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, and this helped focus the concept of English chanson. I have worked with Leon Rosselson since 1998, and recently with Miranda Sykes [-> FW#29] and Saskia Tomkins.
Do you have any role model?
Well, as a child I could, I recall, bore people with a full accappella version of "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" As a teenager, it was David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust then Lou Reed & the Velvets that first got me very excited. But role models? I have to say the idea of the classic blues singer appeals, you travel around, you play away in the corner, people listen, or not - it's no big deal, it's work - that's why I like playing with a PA: I don't have to raise my voice and people don't have to not talk! I like folk clubs, but I also am very happy that by and large I can play anywhere.
I wonder if you really see yourself as a blues singer!?
I always avoided singing in an American accent, and I don't think I ever pretended that I would be riding a freight train to the next town etc. However, the more I read about the vicious social conditions that produced the blues, the less I felt comfortable possibly appropriating this music. I remember reading an interview with some old guys who still played the blues in the US south, and they were talking about how the local pond was drained and there were about 20 bodies in there of black people who had been murdered. I felt that my existential angst had better find its own language rather than glibly using someone else's very real experience of repression as a metaphor. I now enjoy playing several blues songs, because blues is something of a universal language. But I now feel happy that I am playing these songs because they are great songs, that I am not simply annexing them.
That's also why I have been influenced by the French chanson tradition, and to a lesser extent the kabaret tradition of Germany - harder to find because German music is very much dominated, it seems to me, by US fashions due to the years of occupation. These are great songs, literate, witty, dramatic, narrative, and these songs come from the European urban experience, which is my experience of life, and is a continuation of the type of song that in the UK was the music hall tradition, the songs that my parents and grandparents sang as part of my background childhood soundtrack. In the UK, partly because we share a common language with the US, it was easier for rock 'n' roll to colonise British popular music. English chanson as a concept is partly a reaction against that colonisation, which since punk ended has seen a relentless dumbing down of the content of popular music, and partly a reaction against the trend of folk to define itself primarily in terms of the past and the rural, pre-industrial experience.
Once you sang "We Hate The Tories," your latest album targets the Labour prime minister. Is it the "triumph of experience about hope"?
Still do hate the Tories. Well, to be honest, I didn't think New Labour would be Jerusalem overnight, but I didn't expect it to be quite so awful, just more Thatcherism, only without the handbag.
But music a powerful weapon? I mean, an army of US rock stars couldn't overthrow George W.
Well, what happened in the US is a bit like what happened in the UK when Thatcher kept on getting re-elected. We couldn't believe people could be so stupid either. There were armies of musicians trying to overthrow her too. And well, she's history, and some of us are still writing songs and making CDs! The army of US musicians did help mobilise a huge anti-Dubya vote - I think Kerry got more votes than a lot of US presidents - it's just the moron vote was even bigger. And anyway, everyone know Dubya cheats at elections.
Music is an important communicator, and nothing is neutral - even boring old fart Rod Stewart recently garnished an Albert Hall concert with Union Jack flags and a song dedicated to "our boys in Iraq". At certain times it is apparent that everybody has a "political" opinion, and every creative work carries, explicitly or implicitly, a political meaning. However, whilst I have consciously written politicised songs, I prefer to view it more as - to quote Steve Biko - I write what I like. I have nowhere near the courage of people like Biko, or Victor Jara [-> FW#27], but I think it is important that an artist, like any other worker, has certain responsibilities when doing the work they do, and one of those responsibilities is being honest. I don't think songs of themselves overthrow regimes, but they do provide an alternative voice, they present alternative perspectives, and they support people who are engaged in the process of dissent. It's interesting to remember how, during the first Gulf War, the BBC effectively banned a very long list of songs from being broadcast.
How does it feel anyway writing songs in "Cool Britannia", where - as you said - "no-one writes political songs anymore" and "folk music's all about light entertainment"?
Well, the glib answer would be "ignored". Cool Britannia has long ago ceased to be a credible fiction; outside of the glittery constructs of the media and celebrity, the poor old place is pretty much falling apart. Nonetheless, there is still the pervading value-system that all that anybody wants is "To Have A Good Time", and this is being replicated in folk music with its emphasis on "The Tradition", "Big Festivals", and the importance of "Young People Carrying On The Tradition", and the denial that the last couple of hundred years ever happened. Folk music has been re-invented as some sort of living museum, or "Merrie Olde Englande" theme park full of "Nice Olde Tunes", with its own aristocracy, with inherited wealth being passed down from generation to generation. Folk now seems to have succumbed in its own way to the cult of celebrity.
It's not that I would want folk clubs and festivals to be entirely composed of songwriters: what I dislike is the current orthodoxy that has defined folk as "very traditional". This has largely been effected by people who are professional tradition merchants, and obviously this is very much to the advantage of these people to promote a view of folk that is essentially anti-democratic, non-eclectic, that enthuses about big names and big festivals where the audiences are much more consumers than in the more intimate and participatory folk clubs. My favourite traditional singers are Shirley Collins and Savina Yannatou. What I liked about folk clubs when I first started going to them was you could see Shirley, guitar genius Martin Simpson, songwriter Bill Caddick, blues singer Joanne Emery, all very different in style but all equally part of the spectrum of folk music. And it was also very much considered "The People's Music", so politics were not a problem, and intelligent, challenging song was welcomed.
Many recent songs have been written while touring in eastern Germany. Is there any special relationship (apart from the good Jaecklein beer)?
German is the only language I can really nearly speak, apart from my not very good English. My French becomes very exhausted very quickly without a dictionary, and my ear is not very good at accents (too much feedback electric guitar). Also, I visited East Berlin in 1987, and found it very interesting, and in many ways very inspiring, so I was very interested to visit a part of the ex DDR to see how much everybody was enjoying Western-style Freedom now. And I like Ilmenau very much, and my friend Christian, who organises the tours, too, and the Jaecklein beer. Also, it gives me the opportunity to be the travelling blues player, playing in the corner, where people listen, or not, as they want to. Plus it gives me time to write songs, which I find increasingly difficult to do at home since becoming a father. I'm not complaining; my sons are the best thing I've ever done, but I also think that, as well as being a dad, part of me will also always want to write songs.
What do you think of German music?
Oh yes, German music; very interesting to listen to German radio when I'm in Thueringen; so much more intelligent than British radio (of course) and you are possibly introducing a quota system with regard to German language songs. Good idea in theory, however I heard a politician arguing in favour of this by playing Springsteen's "The Rising" and saying this is about the US experience of September 11th and had no relevance to German experience, which is something of an oversimplification. Springsteen is a very good songwriter willing to engage in social issues, whereas most of the German language pop that I heard on the radio was crap songwriting in German with nothing to say about anything over cliched US musical forms. My favourite German band is Pankow, by the way, and I like Scarlett O very much too.
Tell me something about the other artists on Irregular! How did you choose them?
Irregular Records was started so I wouldn't have to try to be polite to stupid haircuts who run the A&R departments of proper record companies. I can do pretty much whatever I like, finances willing. Artistically, no-one tells me what to do.
They all tend to be people I like as people, as well as admire and respect as artists. There's Maggie Holland, who is just the best interpreter of songs and a great folk singer (as opposed to folk celebrity) and a fine writer too. Des De Moor, who runs Pirate Jenny's, London's only regular kabaret event. Miranda Sykes, who's both a bass goddess and a great singer[-> FW#29]. George Papavgeris, who writes very intelligent, literate songs that anybody on the Home Counties folk scene who can hold a tune in a bucket seems to be singing these days [-> FW#29]. As well as famous names like Andy Irvine [-> FW#23] and Roy Bailey. We've just released an album by Fastlane Roogalator, who are the late great John B Spencer's sons doing an album of their dad's songs. Next year we are putting out an album by blues legend Carol Grimes, and hopefully an album by chansonnier Phil Jeays and one by Swill from The Men They Couldn't Hang [-> FW#25]. Cabaret diva Barb Jungr has had a great album out on Irregular.
And what's next?
Well actually, I was hoping to spend a less time putting albums out for other people, and concentrate on my work for a while, but I'm not sure that will happen. There's a possible album of new translations of Brel's last songs, with Barb, Des and me. I am possibly going to the US with singer David Rovics [-> FW#29], and I would like to record two albums next year, one a noisy electric band album, and one with piano (and not a lot of guitar at all). I'm 50 next year, so I think the electric album should be called "Growing Old Disgracefully". I am happy that there seems the prospect of a band again. Although I earn more money on solo gigs, I also like the sheer stupidity of at my age, being old enough to know better, nonetheless playing electric guitar noisily and not particularly well, but enjoying it immensely as well.
Robb Johnson Reviews at FolkWorld:
The Triumph of Hope over Experience (2002)
Clockwork Music (2003)
Tony Blair: My Part In His Downfall (2004)
Irregular Records Reviews at FolkWorld:
Tracey Curtis "If The Moon Could Talk"
Steve Hughes "The Love You Shared"
George Papavgeris "Ordinary Heroes"
Miranda Sykes "Don't Look Down"
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