The award-winning radio presenter and musician Tom Robinson is a great champion of eclectic music, especially by fellow songwriters, as Jo Frost discovers when she catches up with him over a cup of tea
Although the singer-songwriter first came to fame with hits such as ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’, ‘War Baby’ and ‘Glad to be Gay’ these days Tom Robinson is more likely to be heard presenting one of his three weekly shows on BBC 6Music. The digital station was launched in 2002 and Robinson was one of its founding presenters. He could boast about having hosted programmes on all eight of the BBC’s stations but Robinson is far too modest to talk about his achievements or awards. It turns out though that he’s very happy to chat at length about music and artists he’s enthused by. One such person is Gerry Diver who produced Only the Now, Robinson’s first album in nearly 20 years. It was a chance meeting with Diver – who Robinson describes as playing Irish fiddle with “a punk attitude” – at the English Folk Expo in 2014 that persuaded Robinson to get back in the studio and tour again. “I’ve been 30 years on the road and it was as I got older and more tired, the physical strain of it was starting to take its toll and also the audiences were dwindling… I ended up playing to 50 people a night in pubs who were just coming to hear songs from 30 years previously.”
It was Diver’s fresh, alternative approach to Robinson’s songs that proved to be the game changer. “Suddenly these songs started sounding sparser, leaner, cleaner and much more attuned to what I wanted to hear. He gave me my own music back… even the old material came to life in a new way.” There’s an impressive list of guest appearances on the album, such as Billy Bragg, Lisa Knapp, Nitin Sawhney, Martin Carthy, John Grant and actors Colin Firth and Ian McKellen.
Given Robinson’s own talent with a lyric, it’s hardly surprising he has a huge admiration for other gifted songwriters. Top of his list is Chris Wood. “I knew of him but I didn’t really see him performing in the flesh until The Imagined Village. What’s beautiful is that we know Chris is a traditional musician with very strong principles, and that the idea of writing something commercial would never occur to him in a million years. He is a man of utter integrity so to hear somebody with that kind of traditional background writing songs that are fresh and bang up to date and sharply observed… he puts a knife between the ribs of contemporary society and gives it a good old twist.”
Robinson’s next choice is the duo from Yorkshire, O’Hooley & Tidow, and a track from The Hum, their Gerry Diver-produced album. “I think they represent a real message of hope for today’s musicians starting out careers today. They have a cottage industry that it is just the two of them in an estate car with a piano in the back of it and a few amplifiers. And they can just go out and drive to a gig, play a blinding show with the two voices and the piano accompaniment, sell a fuck ton of CDs afterwards, and come home and put the kettle on – job done. It bypasses all of the shenanigans that my generation had to go through to earn a living from music. And they sing together in the way that families do. Normally you only get that kind of closeness in the voices with family bands like the Coppers or the Watersons.”
Another musician and contemporary of Robinson’s who he gets reverential about is Richard Thompson, “a regular and welcomed guest” on his 6Music show. “Richard is unique, not just as a folk artist, as an artist. There’s nobody in rock’n’roll who has been making records since 1967 through to 2016 in an unbroken line of breathtaking quality. He doesn’t have bad periods, it’s just absolutely steady. It isn’t done with anything other than extraordinary talent and unremitting hard work. You’d never get the feeling that he’s worn out by the slog; there’s a joie de vivre in his work.” The chosen track, ‘Dad’s Gonna Kill Me’ is about the Iraq war. “Richard heard about how the soldiers in Baghdad call it ‘Dad’ and the horrors of actually being there where you’re just a sitting duck for the civilian population. You’re trying to keep the peace and you’re there with the best will in the world not to try and hurt anybody. There’s a tang of acid to everything he writes, even when he’s being funny… it’s as sweet as a razor.”
Deviating from British singer-songwriters he’s chosen a track by American band Carolina Chocolate Drops. “I think they’re amazing. I came to them through Joe Henry who produced the album [Genuine Negro Jig]. He’s a real name to watch – he’s Madonna’s brother-in-law apart from everything else! I’ve had him as a guest and I got him to curate a playlist of stuff that he’d produced. And the Carolina Chocolate Drops was one of them. It’s lovely that they’ve taken an instrumental line-up that dates from the early part of the 20th century but still make music that’s fresh, modern and interesting.”
To finish, Robinson chooses something completely different: The Dhoad Gypsies from Rajasthan. “Henry Lopez-Real, a long-standing 6Music producer, used to produce my show, and he’s got such eclectic tastes and brings a lot of that to whichever show he’s working on. It’s entirely thanks to Henry that we booked them. They set out cloths on the floor and sat down to play. They turned the 6Music studio into this kind of desert caravan… it was fantastic. They had things like castanets that were just like two bits of railway line. They were doing these polyrhythms with these ridiculously brilliant sounding instruments. It was a real, life-affirming, joyful, uplifting thing.”
Robinson doesn’t just love talking about music, he also seems to have rekindled his desire to perform again. “I suddenly rediscovered my own life story… and how much music was associated with it and how many stories. Some of them that make people laugh and some of them make people cry. I just realised that I’ve got to tell some of these stories. So I thought a storytelling tour where I’m still playing a song every five minutes but you’re actually stringing it together in a narrative. It’s such fun to get a chance to tell some of those anecdotes and put in some of that background and surprise people, but at the same time give them something to think about. It is nice to actually give a bit of context to it and take people on the journey.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #118 (May 2016). Subscribe to Songlines.
One of the tracks Tom Robinson selected for his playlist was Richard Thompson’s ‘Dad’s Gonna Kill Me’.