With thought-provoking and politically charged folk music, singer-songwriter Robb Johnson is the personification of the genre English Chanson. These days he is releasing two new albums, a Vinyl LP recorded with only voice and guitar and a CD recorded with his long-standing rhythm section, The Irregulars. Questioned about where he takes the chutzpa to release an LP and a CD with the same title but different songs and recordings, Robb is looking down at his cottage industry and rejoices: »I am lucky, because although it is so ramshackle as to almost be a piece of fiction, Irregular Records (basically, me and the cat) has established a space and a praxis where I am able to be creatively independent.«
Brexit or no Brexit... I guess it's no coincidence that your latest output as been named "Eurotopia", is it?
Yes, obviously British political discourse has been utterly deformed by the issue of Brexit, but there is a degree of coincidence in that the majority of these songs were written in and about Europe. "The Carnival Song" was written the day after the 2019 Ilmenau Carnival, the last day of a "Before They Close The Borders" mini-tour of Thüringen. When I decided that these could form an album about Europe, I then found myself writing some new songs to add to the picture: "Once Upon a Time on the Road to Eurotopia" about migration, "Old Magicians" about playing in bars in Belgium, and "Stalingrad", which is probably the bleakest song, about what happens when you hand democracy over to far right populist charlatans.
Do you have any notions in what way the Brexit will affect musicians in Britan?
Brexit is a disaster. The European Union has many faults, but the Brexit campaign in the UK has been cynically organised by the exhausted politics of privilege that have been running the UK since 2010 on behalf of neo-liberalism. It is likely in the foreseeable future to ensure the continuation of Austerity, which will continue to shred lives and communities.
On a simple economic level this is bad news for musicians because people don't have money to spend to go to gigs or buy CDs afterwards, so more benefit gigs rather than paid work. As with everything else, no-one really has bothered with the details of exit, so the extent of the disaster and how this will work in practice - how possible or easy it will be for musicians to travel and play abroad, for example - remains unclear.
"Eurotopia" has been released on both CD and Vinyl LP. However, one label but different content. How come?
Originally I started recording voice and guitar demo versions, partly because I enjoy working with engineer Ali Gavan in his Brighton Road Studios. This first set of recordings sounded really good, so I asked Fae Simon to provide some of her superb vocal magic, and I came up with the idea of releasing them separately, and because I prefer listening to music on vinyl, I chose those songs that were a) the more successful recordings and that b) would provide the right length for each side of an LP. Coincidentally, both sides last 19.39 minutes, which is a significant number in European history!
I think the arrangements on the vinyl - at most 2 voices and 2 guitars - ensures the vinyl has a really good warm clear sound, very intimate and very present. It would have been lovely to release the later recordings - where songs are recorded with the Irregulars - on vinyl, but economically completely unviable. I'm really happy with these recordings too, and think that - although only 4 songs appear on both the 9 track vinyl and the 13 track CD - recording the demos helped lay the foundations for the way the CD developed.
I have the overall feeling that it is to some extent much more jazzy than what I heard on your previous releases. How would you describe your current musical output?
I have always loved particular jazz artists. I probably have two main subconscious musical choice default settings: I'll either listen to The Velvet Underground or Billie Holiday. I'm also conscious that jazz is very much a European musical tradition too, so it seemed appropriate to have jazz as one of the reference points on this album. My last album "Ordinary Giants", based on my father's life and times, gave me the opportunity to write some songs that used mid 20th century popular jazz structures, and I wanted to use a guitar that would sound authentic, that sounded neither too American or too English folk, so I started investigating archtops.
For "Ordinary Giants" I used this brilliant archtop with no name that I bought on Ebay. It was advertised as made in Germany in the 1940s. The body is beautiful, a delicate, curved and very elegant - but also very cracked and battered - f-hole guitar. The neck is a bit chunky but surprisingly good, while the headstock looks like it was carved by a sixteen year old in a woodwork class. It's a wonderful instrument, possibly my son Arvin's favourite guitar, but too unreliable to take to gigs.
I would say that what I write now is more aware of the possibilities of including jazzier elements and chords and attitudes in my songs, but also that recording the band songs on "Eurotopia" has got me playing electric guitar again, and most of the songs I have written lately tend to be - perhaps unsurprisingly - quite angry, and more punk-oppositional than jazzy. At this very minute my friend Hans-Karl Gispert is making me a Max Maulauff Telecaster, as I think these songs are going to need that bridge pick-up KERRANG you only get with Telecasters.
The songs on "Eurotopia" are about present issues such as the widespread jingoism or historical phenomenons such as the anti-Nazi youth movement of the German Edelweiss pirates. Is there any personal favourite?
I think the songwriter is the last person to ask about favourite songs... I hope that the albums I make contain songs that are worth listening to. I am aware that I write many songs that are difficult, or about challenging and serious subjects, and that isn't particularly what songs seem to be supposed to do nowadays, so I am genuinely happy when I manage to write a vaguely positive, cheerful song.
I find that I play "Tuesday Night Community Bingo" at most gigs and it goes down well; it's about the disintegration of rural life, but it's got some funny lines, it runs on traditional post-Chuck Berry rocknroll riffs, and the solo ends swith a jazz chord that usually elicits a round of applause!. I also like "The Work is Never Done", which is a cheery upbeat noisy song sort of based on the garbage collectors clearing up Sacre Coeur in Paris every morning (with a passing reference to Rimbaud). The recording features a thunderous bass break by John Forrester and a lovely string section part too, played by Bethan Prosser and Elona Hoover.
As you mentioned, "The Carnival Song" is set in the city of Ilmenau in the German federal state Thüringen. Probably most of our readers know Ilmenau only of passing by on their way to the Rudolstadt world music festival. What is your Ilmenau connection?
I have had the very good fortune to have played on a pretty regular basis in the Thüringen area since 2001, thanks to my friend Christian Daether, who books tours and lives in Ilmenau. I owe this connection to the late great and very lovely Alastair Hulett. Christian had booked a tour for Alastair, and Alastair thought we would get on okay, and introduced us. This is actually the second of my songs to have been set in funky downtown Himmelblau Ilmenau; the first one is called "A Sunny Afternoon in Ilmenau", and I think the local Linke may have used it in an election once.
"The Carnival Song" is primarily a short story. I had never been to a Carnival before, so on one level it's a description of Ilmenau Carnival: a grey sky raining confetti and sweets, free sausages a free beer from the splendid Gasthof Zur Post (where over the years I have worked on quite a few songs with the help and encouragement of a bottle of Jaecklein beer), tractors full of young women happily (again, drinking beer) and singing a song about propellers going faster and faster.
I started thinking about the story that provides origins of the festival; Jesus is about to enter the desert, and after that he's heading into Jerusalem. I imagined how Jesus in that situation might be echoed in the popular narratives and characterisation of current story-telling. Maybe it would be a little like planning a heist, planning some sort of raid... So there's Jesus, working out his plans, and - because this is after all a song and anything can happen in a song if you imagine it hard enough - suddenly time dissolves, and the Ilmenau carnival erupts outside his window, so he can't concentrate, so he goes for a walk, meets the devil who is surprided to see him there then, and possibly never gets round to working out his getaway because he gets distracted by the sheer absurd beauty of life as represented by the Ilmenau carnival...
Well, and who are the Kreuzberg Sisters?
I worked for 35 years as a teacher, mainly in Kindergarten schools (a choice I made after visiting a Kindergarten in East Berlin in 1987). Now I work one day a week for the education charity Persona Doll Training. This charity promotes using life-like dolls with young children to challenge bias and exclusion and support inclusion and diversity. In January 2019 Situationsansatz, an organisation that promotes this method of working in Germany, organised a Europe-wide Persona Doll conference in Berlin.
Situationsansatz have their offices in Kreuzberg, so there were all these wonderful early-years workers, commited to ensuring all children are valued and grow into empowered and empathetic citizens, meeting up in Kreuzberg which has a history of autonomy and progressive politics. And of course, as this is about working with young children, all the other practitioners were female. So the song contrasts the monumental stupidities of patriarchy with the steady determined work of these women, who you could say are a little like contemporary Truemmerfrauen too, I think.
A lot of things have happened since we talked to each other back in 2005. Personally I appreciated the "Gentle Man" album, i.e. the 2013 re-recording of your World War I family history originally from 1997. There also had been a very edgy Christmas album, "The Ghost of Love", in 2009...
Thank you! Very glad you appreciated "The Ghost of Love"; I think it generally confused many people.
What highlights in these past fifteen years come to your own mind? Under the circumstances that you've given up a teaching job for a career in music...
The most obvious highlight would be the "Ordinary Giants" song suite that continues the family history narrative of "Gentle Men". I always thought it would be logical - having written about my grandfathers and the First World War - to write about my father and the Second World War. In 2017, finding myself coincidentally opposite the school where my dad worked as a headteacher, I thought I have to start writing this at some point, why not now? Not working as a teacher meant that I was fortunate enough to have the time to allow ideas and even characters to develop, and eventually the song suite emerged in 2018 as a 3 CD album with over 60 songs and spoken word pieces performed by over 30 different voices.
There probably were flops as well. What do you think about the present music business?
Well, my whole progress as a musician isn't necessarily what you might call a success story. I suppose the electric band albums always puzzle people because they are too unruly and noisy for folkies, and too complex and adult - and downright old and terminally unfashionable - for the rock pigeonholes. But I am lucky, because although it is so ramshackle as to almost be a piece of fiction, Irregular Records (basically, me and the cat) has established a space and a praxis where I am able to be creatively independent. I can't imagine any sensible record label allowing an artist of my obscurity to release an LP and a CD both with the same title and each containing different songs and recordings. Or even a triple CD about the last 100 years of social history....
But audiences... I would say that audiences diminish... This may be a generalisation, but observing the progress of my son Arvin's band, I think this holds generally true: musicians love music forever, but audiences love music until they find something else that takes over their time. Arvin plays drums in the Irregulars, but also plays in a young person's indie-rock band, Tigers and Flies. They are very good, and superbly engaged in doing what young bands ought to do, tour Europe in a van, playing and staying in youth hostels. Arv likes Koeln, really likes Leipzig, and isn't at all that fond of Frankfurt.
But listening to him talking, I get the impression that already, back in the UK, audiences that used to consist of partners, peers and friends are starting to consist of partners and friends. For me, there is still a brilliant bunch of friends who steadfastly support what I do, and I also still manage to find and meet and make new friends too, which is lovely. But generally you realise that those for whom loving music means forever, those for whom this is a priority, those for whom the latest album by ... Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, (trying to think post 60s acts I get excited by) Francis Cabrel, Zaz (oops they're all French!), Bastian Bandt (heard a CD of his last time I was in Thüringen, but couldn't find it in Dussmann's on the way back to the UK), even Green Day, Idles, Sum 41, ... is a really significent event, these people are few and far between.
Particularly, the music business thing - as popular music is so unpopularised and devalued at the moment... That - of course - is the fault of the music bizz, who - after a period of gargantuan commodification and greed - have to face the consequences of their policy of pursuing profit over art, which is a raidly shrinking market (who wants to buy shit records you have no cultural ownership of anymore, where your only relationship is one of passive consumption?). The bizz responds by exerting even greater control over what is consumed, which in turn leads to terminal stasis. Luckily, there WILL always be those romabtic fools who - whether forever or for a couple of nights only - will fall in love with what music does, and with what songs can do, but the Great Days of the people's Popular Music are pretty much over. Streaming and downloading is of course the ultimate devaluation or your art, music becomes so disposable it no longer has any physical artefact to testify to its existence.
Last but not least, is there any chance to see you over here in the near future?
Hoffentlich! At the moment sadly nothing is planned. I very much enjoy being in and playing in Germany - anybody wants a songwriter please get in touch! I would LOVE to play Rudolstadt. Maybe - Christian? - one last "Before They Close The Borders" tour of Thüringen?
Photo Credits: (1) Riverboat Records presents: Brexit Blues, (2)-(4),(7)-(9) Robb Johnson, (5) Alistair Hulett, (6) Roy Bailey, (10) Leon Rosselson (unknown/website).