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Singer/songwriter Robb Johnson has just released an excellent new album 'All That Way For This'.

1. What are you currently up to? (E.g. touring/studio, etc.)

At present I am trying to stay focussed on promoting the new album. As a songwriter, i have this constant anxiety that i'm only as good as my next song, & i have a real terror of being unable to write, so part of me is - as usual - looking for the next song. Desperately. But this album's rather unusual in that i am still very much enjoying the songs on it after having gone through what for me was an unusually long recording period - it was nearly a year between starting to record & the album being released. This was partly due to working with a band, getting musicians diaries co-ordinated, but that's also helped sustain my enthusiasm i think, because i'm very much ennjoying working with the musicians who make up the Irregulars. So, i'm doing gigs, some solo, having fun palying with musicians, and trying to recoup all the money I'm spending on PR, ads & T shirts etc!

2. Could you take us through the songs on the excellent new album 'All The Way For This' (e.g. ideas behind the songs etc)

This is an interesting question. I had a lot of songs that were unrecorded, some of them quite seriously grim, that would curdle the mood of any album they ended up on, so i chose songs that were relatively - for me - subtle, upbeat & suited the band arrangement. But that's what i think i was doing, i'm never sure that what i think the songs are about is how the songs are necessarily understood, which is why i stopped doing album notes (that & it saves trees & costs less too!). Anyway, this is what i think they're about....

Carrying Your Smile started off as my young sons were waving me goodbye from the top of the stairs as i was stumbling out of the house to get the train to London at 5.30am when the day job was still in Hounslow & we weren't. Then i was inadvertently included in the BBC4 concert at the Barbican, about political folk song, "Which Side Are You On?", & i was listening to Donovan singing Universal Soldier, & thought, there are lots of songs about how tough it is for soldiers, but not that many about the universal civilian, who gets up, tries to go to work to feed his family, has to negotiate his or her day through the murderous activities of soldiers, bombers....So while it started off about me, & it can even be a straight forward Love song too, when i sing it now, it's also for the dads in Iraq, who kiss their sons goodbye each morning & don't know if they'll be seeing them that night.

Peanuts was nearly the title of the album, but people thought it was too self-deprecating. The Peanuts Cafe Bar is a lovely old bar in Greiz in the former DDR. We had set the PA up & done the soundcheck, & whilst waiting for the time to pass, i started writing a poem of my observations about the place. When i went back to try to edit the words into a lyric, i introduced Robert Johnson into the song, then - i was reading a biography about him at the time - realised it would be the sort of place Bertholt Brecht might pass through too. I realise i write a lot of songs about the pubs bars i find myself in... i like this one as it has odd snatches of bar-room philosophy in it, as well as Robert & Bert, & the bit about Robert Johnson meeting the hellhound on the hellhound's night off sort of references one of my favourite stories about fate from the arabic tradition. There's an accompanying short story about their meeting on my website, which was going to go in the CD booklet till i remembered what a pain it is to put text on a booklet, plus it costs money & wastes trees.

No-one Wants To Look Like You is a response to the ludicrous hysteria & downright racism engendered by Jack Straw's remarks about women covering their faces. I suspect that most of those people so worried by this don't actually know many people who are muslim. For me the point is that in some cultures, men want women to cover themselves up to keep men happy, & in other cultures men want women to undress & pose on page 3 of the Sun to make them happy.

As a kid, looking like i wanted to look was important to me. it was & is a point of principle. mono-culture maniac daily mail readers used to scoff that hippies & punks or whatever were simply exchanging one uniform for another, but the point is, WE thought WE were choosing how we wanted to look, & we didn't want to look like we went shopping for boring suits & ties at Marks & Spencers. I think the band is really great on this track, aided by Andy's mixing. We asked Saskia to play an arabic style solo just to underline the point, & her playing is simply breathtaking.

The Beautiful Dark sees us back in Germany, & driving along the A4 Autobahn past Jena. I prefer trains as a method of transport, cars being a dubious, poisonous luxury that currently masquerade as a necessity in getting from most A's to B's. But even on the autobahn, the planet still provides moments of beauty. This is the oldest song on the album; i'd played it with Johnny Forrester & previous drummer Andi Tuck, & John suggested we add it to the album. He also was quite keen that his bass sounded like the bass on New Model Army's "Headlights". Despite Paul's impressive riq percussion, perhaps because it was quite an old song, this was the song i seemed to have most trouble with; i couldn't get the vocal right, & it seemed in danger of never actually coming alive. i added the electric guitar overdubs which helped i think give it the necessary impetus, and finally came up with a vocal that worked.

The Day After Valentine's Day also took a few vocal takes; i still think it may well be in the wrong key for this song for my voice, plus i had to change the 1st line cos "you've finished eating all your favourite chocolates" when sung sounded like it was saying "You finish sheeting". It is a song about love the mornings after, after the love at first sight situations that most love songs focus on. & - with the economics & the other details - it's trying to talk about the sort of relationships most of us have, the circumstances that aren't glamorous, but to the people involved in them, just as magical as those set in four-star palaces. The actual hotel in question is the Hotel Nord-Est near the Gare du Nord, where they serve you watered down orange juice in plastic cups & a rather asthmatic looking croissant ona paper mat for breakfast.

Almost The Homecoming Queen got started, like Peanuts, as a series of observations when i was bored on the long haul flight from Detroit to Seattle. I watched the air hostess working, and wondered about how she came to be where she was, doing what she was doing. At university i had a lecturer who insisted The English Novel was all about The Sad Acceptance Of Second Best... i suppose you could say "second best" is something of a theme on this album too, but i prefer to think of it more, like this song, as the proud acceptance of second best. Audiences are starting to find this chorus good to sing along with.

Moronland is a self-explanatory guide to all the reasons this particular bit of the planet can be a deeply depressing experience. It makes audiences chuckle & dance in pretty much equal measure. I wrote it during the last world cup, but it sadly applies equally well to the state of things here pretty much on an everyday basis. I love Roger's ironic introduction, & it's really nice for me NOT to have to be providing the rhythm instrument all the time.

The Blue Sea Says Yes came from an observation my wife made when we were on the island of Lemnos. Everyday, many of the residents of the town would go to the town beach & swim in the sea...all ages, from boisterous kids to sedate mums & dads & stately, tottering grandparents. She said how the sea accepts everybody's body. I got the song started with some of the people we saw walking to the beach, & i recast them as protagonists from the Iliad. We were really proud of this song, one of the 1st ones we recorded, with drones from Roger & Saskia & a gong & then an overdubbed full kit at the end from Paul. But it's never quite worked so well since, so we don't usually play it at gigs.

Zapatista Coffee was written pretty much as it happened one morning. I like it cos i think the lyric starts off misdirecting you in one direction & then turns out to be about something else entirely. There's a photo of me & Sophie on the website too.

Pink Shoes is about sex, really. Or watching "Come ancing" if you prefer i don't). A lot of people think that what i write about is Capital P Politics, so this mildly fetishistic song about looking forward to having sex with someone (or watching "Come Dancing") is probably a bit too "lightweight" or downright frivolous for their tastes, but i think it's quite a knack to write honestly & sensuously about sex - most songs about sex strike me as awful, whether it's pompous Rock or arrogant rap, it all seems stuck depressingly at the fantasy level of a very inexperienced teenager. Up to you whether you think this succeeds, but it does manage a neat rhyme of "pylons" & "nylon" that references Stephen Spender's bizarre poem that says pylons look like nude girls (says volumes about a public school education i always think) & feature Roger & askia at their township jiving best.

Back to Germany for Sunny afternoon In Ilmenau. This was the other song that caused us a bit of a problem in the studio. I'd imagined it as a noisy 3 chord electric guitar thrash, cos it's partly about drunk German punks, but largely cos when we came to record it none of us seemed to be in the studio at the same time - & probably cos originally i played along to a clicktrack that i got Andy to set at too slow a rate - it just sounded a turgid wall of sludge for a long time. Then Andy tried a couple of remixes & looping Paul's drums & we decided to focus not on the punk but on the sunny afternoon aspect of the song, & we came up with this more cheery, acousticky - jingly singalong version which works pretty well. As a song, it's either lightweight or subtle, i suppose; the famous poet Goethe used to hang out in Ilmenau, & one day i'm standing at the window of his house which is now a kunsthaus & where i've played the night before, looking out at a gaggle of punks drinking beer & hanging out in the sunshine.

So it's really about how strangely things turn out, how we end up passing through all these unexpected places in our lives, plus it has a little bit of a philosophical statement there too, how what we make & do makes us what we are, although you can't always be certain how these things will turn out either... & how many songs do you get about Ilmenau anyway? It's a word you wouldn't necessarily associate with rocknroll potential, but it does nonetheless give you a great nah nah nah chorus....

On Highway 5 was written in Berkely, which was as far away as i was going to be from my family on that particular tour. My friend Dave Rovics had the only guitar, but it was in his bedroom, & he was as usual otherwise engaged, so i had to wait awhile to start putting the lyric to a melody, but this one happened very easily once i got my hands on Dave's guitar. I usually try to resist the urge to whinge in song about how i'm lonely, sitting on this railway station with a ticket for my destination ooo ooo, but on this occasion, the scenery obviously overcame my better judgement, and i'm actually rather proud of several lines in this song.

It started as a finger-picked ballad, but then i felt it could work well cranked up too. i wanted it to sound like it's about endurance, like it's nearly exhausted, but not quite, & not going to be, the sort of song you bash out at the end of a long set.

I think the recorded version is just great, John says - approvingly - the instrumental break with Roger & Saskia sounds like they're having a fight falling out of a pub. It's a good way to end the album too, which has a theme of journeys running through a lot of it. This wasn't a conscious decision, i don't travel a lot, it's just that these songs happened to be written whilst i happened to be in these places & happen to work well together, i think, so in retrospect that helped us find the album title "All That Way For This".

phew - that went on a bit!

3. How easy/hard is it to get a decent run of gigs together in the UK? What gigs have been the most memorable for you and why?

A decent run of gigs????? What's that?

Without wishing to go on, & on, & on.... ep, very very difficult to get anything approaching a tour together. There are various reasons - partly, it's the dayjob, but it's also a lot to do with being independent - it's cos i don't fit anybody's pigeponholes, and also cos i'm crap at self-promotion.

I hate ringing up for gigs, i dislike all that stuff like smiling for the camera, being nice to important arseholes, posters & photos etc. But i have some great gigs nonetheless. last sunday, i played for over four hours in the Duke of wellington in Shoreham. Great crowd, great beer, & i got a few quid too! But generally i think - even if i haven't played 'em - a lot of good venues are getting closed down - arts centres seem to be losing their funding (a process i think about to be accelerated by the Olympics) - a parrallel symptom of this decline in the musical infrastructure is the number of retail chains & small independent shops closing down. The media fuel this by trying to convince people that what they used to get from live music they can get by watching "Come Dancing" instead.

Memorable gigs... well, some great gigs in pubs - i like these cos it's really what live music is all about, at a very basic level; i'm proud i can bash away in a corner of a pub, rather like the old blues guitarists used to do, & if people listen, they'll like what i'm doing. It is nice to be reverently appreciated i'm sure, but... come on, one of the reasons i wanted to be a singer was to avoid all that precious crap that goes with self-conscious capital C culture.

Otherwise, memorable gigs...The Barbican concert was actually really good, & ten years ago we did the song suite "Gentle Men" about my grandfathers & the first world war for the 1st time in the church at Passendale, & that was utterly unforgettably moving. I recorded an album with the late, great Russel Churney on piano; he was an amazing musician, & i felt very honoured that he worked with me, & the concerts i played with him were brilliant, & followed on from the English chanson concerts i put on at London's Drill Hall, which were also really good. And then there was etc etc etc etc

4. You run your own label Irregular Records. What do you look for in an artist to make you want to sign them and release their work on your label? Which releases have been the most successful so far (not only sales wise but reviews, public reaction etc)

Irregular Records, by and large, more or less, tries to concentrate on literate songwriting, and is more interested in the european rather than americana.

Basically, it's me & what i like at the end of the day, & albums have come to irregular through all sorts of circuitrous routes - Barb Jungr pointed Carol Grimes in my direction, Sean McGhee of RocknReel did the same for Swill...We're very lucky to have the understanding attitude of Proper Distribution, who don't seem to mind too much that several of our albums haven't sold... very many CDs at all. But conscious of not wanting to try their patience too far, we created a subsidiary called UNLaBELLED which Proper distribute through their access scheme, for artists that fit our literate song criteria but who aren't quite ready to have people in Hull, Aberdeen, Barnstaple, Tunbridge Wells etc storming HMV demanding copies of their albums.

I think the best things we've done is release albums by Maggie Holland & Barb Jungr at quite significant points in their careers, that have been of use to them in career terms. We've also helped Tracey Curtis & George Papavgeris get established; they both started out on UNLaBELLED & then moved onto Irregular cos their albums sold so well. i really ought to stress "we" is just me & whatever the hamster is at the moment of writing (it used to be the cat but he's retired now)... it's just that it sounds better than saying "i" & "me me me me" all the time.

5. What/who made you want to take up singing and songwriting? Do you think music has the power to shape the political and social agendas in countries?

Blimey, if we're not careful this could turn out into a really long answer. I'll try to be restrained. i always enjoyed writing; i have a long list of writing heroes whose imaginations inspired mine, & i also always enjoyed popular - rock - music ( i wasn't really aware of a folk tradition, beyond scottish country dancing at infants school & Rambling Sid Rumpo on the radio). As noted above, i thought that if you wrote poetry or plays or novels you would end up in some sort of cultural ivory tower.. i reasoned that shakespeare wrote plays cos that was the most vibrant artform of his time, dickens wrote novels cos they were the most vibrant art form of his time, so i was going to write rocknroll songs for the same reason. plus it seemed like a surefire way to meet Girls. So while i was deeply excited by King Lear, Bleak House, the Wasteland, Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler, Sylvia Plath i was also deciding that the way i wanted tto do this was like Lou Reed & the Velvets.

Does music have social influence? well, yes, otherwise i wouldn't be here doing this! Personally a lot of what i am & do & think has been affected by Victor Jara, The Clash & Chumbawamba, to keep the list really short! However, the relationship between music & wider social change is ostensibly more complex (how long have you got?). It's become very fashionable to have a good sneer at "protest" songs & "political" songs, because - goes the received revisionist orthodoxy - the left "Failed", if we have to admit Uncle Sam lost in Vietnam, it was down to the Viet Cong, not Bob Dylan. & anyway, the sneering continues, where are all the protest singers now eh, singing about Iraq? The short answer is song assists & fortifies social forces - by spreading ideas, & by bolstering morale - but very rarely brings down the walls of jericho on its own. however, it can & does both soundtrack & accelerate social developments - look at the countercultural developments of the 60s & the autonomy of punk. T

That's why since punk, the media & the business have been very careful NOT to get caught with its pants down again, & manufacture cultures to a much greater extent than previously. That manufacturing process involves both propaganda - sneering at dissent - & censorship - control of media access. There has been a great outpouring of "protest" music against the war in Iraq - check out the 2 double CDs & the website of Stop The War - only - you don't get to hear it. And that's without me having to get anecdotal too! My favourite story - briefly - is how i eventually get onto the Andy Kershaw Radio programme as a "protest" singer, & we talk about what's happened to "protest" songs, & i sing some songs, & then the BBC censor one of my verses when it was broadcast.

6. Do you have any plans to write your memoirs at any stage?

I have already written a sort of a part one, which is in the form of a songbook, with words & chords & notes in chronological order, covering the years up to 1994. it was ok, but it took forever, so when people occasionally ask when part 2's coming out, i'm less than enthusiastic about the idea.

7. If you had to recommend a piece of your music (or an album) for a new listener to try what would it be and why?

It would be this album, i think, because it's quite... accessible. You don't have to like Jacques Brel or want to feel like saving the world to understand most of the reference points. it listens well... otherwise people could start with "Robb Johnson: A Beginner's Guide", which is just me & the acoustic guitar & a lot of songs, & is probably what i sound like most of the time.... People should try to hear "Gentle Men" because that is a very very good album both in terms of the writing & the performances. & "The Night Cafe", which again is just me & the guitar, is also an album i am very proud of (i was even more pleased when someone gave it back to me saying, disapprovingly, it wasn't political)... but it's a bit bleak, & also deleted, so maybe just stick with the new one.

8. How do you view Brentford's chances this season and what are your initial impressions of new manager Terry Butcher?

i think the main thing is Brentford recover some kind of confidence & equilibrium this season. it would be great to think that Terry Butcher could work the same kind of magic that Martin Allen did, but if we're being honest, Brentford's chances are always limited by their finances. Allen worked wonders getting us into the play-offs (again) but i think it was significant he then immediately left, because that level of achievement is very hard to maintain with our level of available money! Terry Butcher has a very good record in Scotland getting a club back on its feet; i kind of hope we will have a season where we end up in the top half with a squad that has some degree of sustainability to it. Longterm, might be better to think about going up again next season. I saw Terry Butcher outside the ground day of his first match, politely signing things for the fans. he wasn't making a big deal out of this, & it looked promising. Dedicated. For me, a good season is also one more we get to stay in Griffen Park.

9. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

i don't really have any spare time. i've had to go back to a fulltime dayjob in teechin, which is somewhat time-consuming, & i am A Dad, which is also very time-consuming (but also entirely enjoyable & i wouldn't miss a minute if i ccould hhelp it), & i watch Brentford whenever i can (which is not always as enjoyable as it could be, but again strangely unmissable...) & i read, novels & biographies mainly, & ever so occasionally i paint, usually watercolours cos oils take too long.

10. Message for your fans?

I am not very comfortable with the concept of fans. Warren Zevon apparently preferred the term "customers"... erm... perhaps i prefer the term "friends that i connect with on an irregular basis"...well, that would be: thank you for your kindness, go well & see you further down the river.

Interview © 2007 Jason Ritchie. All rights reserved.

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