Robyn Hitchcock, Winner of the SXSW Career Act, Says He's "Not a Particularly Empathic Person"

On April 21, Robyn Hitchcock will release the first self-titled album of his four-decade career. "If you don’t like this one, you won’t like anything I’ve done," he says.
On April 21, Robyn Hitchcock will release the first self-titled album of his four-decade career. "If you don’t like this one, you won’t like anything I’ve done," he says.
courtesy the artist
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Robyn Hitchcock
Opened for the Psychedelic Furs
Granada Theater, Dallas
Thursday, March 30, 2017

The first track on English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock’s new, self-titled LP — his 21st full-length, out April 21st — is called “I Want to Tell You About What I Want,” though Hitchcock says the song’s original title was “My Vision of World Empathy.”

“I think humanity is reaching a moral crisis,” he tells the Observer. We’re sitting in his dressing room backstage at the Granada Theater, where’s he just opened for longtime friends and touring partners the Psychedelic Furs.

“Are we actually going to care and be responsible for other life forms and live empathically,” he asks, “or are we going to stay as warrior pigs, where the most savage and most forceful characters win?”

Hitchcock pauses, reflects. The Furs are playing “Pretty in Pink.”

“I’m not a particularly empathic person, and I’ve always lived for my own appetites,” he admits. “But I also accept my limitations, and I would like to improve them. I would like to be a more evolved, empathic person.”

Thoughtfulness and introspection are what drive Hitchcock, who describes his artistic progression as helical, to continually create. Though he says he was “surprised” and “touched” to win the Brent Grulke Prize for Career Act at this year’s SXSW, it’s clear that, at 64, he’s still untangling what it means to be an artist and a humanist in a rapidly changing world.

“You’re not necessarily aware of changing inside,” he says about getting older. “You’ve just been around longer, so you see life through more layers. Time becomes thicker, almost like a varnish. You see things more straightforward when you’re younger, because you haven’t been around so long. And when you get older, you just see the complexities in things.

“It’s probably good that time is marked in some way,” he notes. “We’ll find out when iPhones mutate into humans, and when we replace ourselves with androids. They won’t age. They’ll just suddenly wear out. Whereas right now, we have this perceptible aging and slowing down. I know I play my songs at half the speed I used to play them.”

The crowd that gathers for Hitchcock’s nearly hour-long acoustic set doesn’t seem to notice. On average, they’re middle-aged: most of them would have been kids when Hitchcock started out with his neo-psych band the Soft Boys in the early 1970s, and teenagers when he formed his backing band the Egyptians in the '80s.

Hitchcock’s set list is reliably eclectic, ranging from “My Wife & My Dead Wife” off Fegmania! to “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox,” the Beatles-esque fourth track on his new record, to a crowd-pleasing cover of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue.”

Halfway through he mentions that, “37 years ago today,” the Soft Boys were opening for the Furs in Britain.

“It was a different world back then,” he quips. “You could smoke.”

Afterward, Hitchcock tells me that, in a sense, “time is moving too fast for everybody.” In East Nashville, where Hitchcock has lived for the past 18 months and also recorded his new album, "if you go into bars, the most likely thing you'll hear a musician playing is a Neil Young song." And yet, he confides, it's "comfortingly retro."

"Here I am in my mid-60s," he says, "surrounded by the music I used to hear when I was 19 in a flat in West London."

Hitchcock describes his songwriting process as "dreaming in public," an expression he credits to Paul McCartney. He also says that how ideas come to him hasn't changed much over the years. "Things will bubble up, odd remarks, and they go into the general Hitchcock soup," he explains. "And then they appear in what you might say is a surreal way — but that’s just the way the dreaming mind starts positioning what it’s exposed to during the day, and rearranges it. ...

"I think we need dreams to make sense of things," he elaborates. "The ability to glide between worlds is quite important.”

I ask him if there is any significance to Robyn Hitchcock being the first eponymous, non-compilation release in a career that spans four decades.

“In a way,” he replies, “because it’s a kind of summary of what I do. If you like this one, you’ll probably like the others; and if you don’t like this one, you won’t like anything I’ve done.”

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