Robyn Hitchcock Recalls His Truth

Veteran British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock stopped at Berklee to give a clinic on his way through the area. Hitchcock is touring in support of his latest record, The Man Upstairs.

December 17, 2014

When songwriting professor Melissa Ferrick introduced veteran British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock as "...the self-proclaimed prophet of the unconscious…,” the audience knew they were in for a few good bits of nontraditional advice. Hitchcock is stateside supporting his latest record, The Man Upstairs (Yep Roc 2014) and songwriting chair Bonnie Hayes snagged him for a clinic on his way through town, giving students the chance to get advice from an industry mainstay who's never slowed down over the course of a 40-year career.

Hitchcock was dressed casually, sporting a crisply pressed polka dot shirt, embodying that troubadour-with-pizzazz persona he has carried for decades, yet his full head of white hair belied the wizened air of an elder statesman. As he fidgeted with his acoustic guitar and took in the audience with a pensive expression, it was easy to see that he had some stories to tell. And yet, he began humbly by saying, “I can’t believe anything happened after the 1970s,” suggesting that he’s in awe of the fact that he’s still allowed to be a career musician, despite the fact that the current scene is so hit-driven that it’s like a return to the “pre-‘60s record industry.”

Being a Career Musician: Then and Now

Hitchcock feels lucky to have come of age in the ‘70s, where he could just make records without “troubling the Top 20 with a hit.” From the beginning, all he has ever wanted was “to do exactly what I’m doing now—writing my own music.” It seems he has done just that, with more than 20 albums, countless live records, and even a few film roles to his name. And, without focusing on commercial success, Hitchcock did in fact score a few hits, and singer-songwriter powerhouses such as Gillian Welch and Neko Case have further popularized his tunes. Hitchcock’s wisdom felt hard earned, effortless, and irreverent all at once, his humor eking out mid-sentence. “I’ll never be on a major label again,” he said, “unless my corpse is dug up and it’s a bunch of boy bands.”

A Retrospective Set to Music

As he weaved through stories-turned-advice, Hitchcock played a small selection of songs that spanned his whole career. He opened with “Give Me a Spanner, Ralph” (“spanner” being the British term for a wrench), prefacing the song by saying that, early on, he took inspiration from the psychedelia of groups like Captain Beefheart. Influences like Beefheart "changed my molecular structure," he said, so when he started writing songs, he wanted to make titles that didn’t exist anywhere else. Of the fan favorite “Brenda’s Iron Sledge,” he said, “I knew no one would have that name.”

The stories in between the songs were nonchalant but confident, as if the memories were just there all of a sudden, each one leading perfectly into the next tune without ever feeling calculated. Moving into “Heaven,” he explained that as he got older, he became “less snooty,” and didn’t feel he had to play by his own surrealist rules. Without planning it, he effectively drew the crowd into his story as the audience harmonized with Hitchcock during the song's chorus.

He finished with “Recalling the Truth,” the airy closer to his newest record, saying that it shows a more reflective side. And while he said the new track is “the opposite of ‘Spanner,’” he closed by saying “I still feel magnetized by music,” and that it means as much to him as it did 40 years ago, even if that means fewer iron sledges and more truth.