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An interview with Tom Robinson

Tom Robinson is a genuine trailblazer. Across five decades Tom has spoken up for causes and beliefs that have won him countless friends and admirers. Fighting and singing for justice and fairness wherever he saw injustice and unfairness. More recently, Tom has become an award winning passionate supporter of new music, promoting unknown, fresh artists to a wide, national audience.

In 2020, Tom will embark on two live tours, both of which take in very different venues in the North East. We questioned Tom recently about the many aspects of his life in music.

We’re looking forward to welcoming you to the Old Cinema Laundrette, Durham in February and to The Cluny, Newcastle in May. What can we expect when we come to see you play live in 2020 and how has life on the road changed throughout your career?

“Well those will be two very different shows. Playing solo at a small venue like the Laundrette allows for a lot of subtlety and dynamic range when singing. It also gives you a very intimate atmosphere with the audience. You can stop songs, tell stories, change the set list on the spur of the moment - and reach for some of the dustier shelves of your back catalogue - as well as playing the songs people know well. The Cluny show will be a lot tougher and a lot louder. I've got a hard rocking band these days who've been playing with me for the best part of 20 years, so I'll be strapping on my trusty 1962 fender bass and giving it some serious welly. With a band show, your mates are up there with you on stage. With the small-scale solo one, your mates are the audience.”

“One vital way that life on the road has changed since the 70s is that these days club venues tend to have a house PA system for bands to use. Back in my day groups had the huge expense of having to rent or buy their own PA and the huge inconvenience of having to schlep it to and from every gig they played. It also meant you needed a truck big enough to carry all those bass bins, amp racks and mixing desks in addition to your own backline. These days my band and I can travel with all our equipment in a couple of rented estate cars at relatively low cost and in relatively high comfort. The other big change is that I've had a day job with the BBC since 2002, so I don't have to tour to pay the mortgage anymore. It makes an enormous difference to only go out and play the gigs you want to play - when you feel like it - and be able to stay home when you don't.”

Gigs at the Laundrette are intimate and unique. Can you please tell us about some of the more unusual venues you have played and what it was that made those venues so special?

“When it comes to unusual venues, Chelmsford prison back in 1977 probably takes the biscuit. It was particularly weird because of all the paranoid security checks taking the equipment in and out. Was there somebody hiding in that bass bin? And the sound of the whole audience - many of them big, tough men - joining in on "I shall be released" is something I still remember to this day. Actually morning assembly at Eton in 1994 was also well weird. Like the prisoners in Chelmsford these 600 teenagers wearing tail coats and wing collars were only there because they had no choice and none of them had any idea who the fuck I was. As mentioned, with a solo gig you have to try and turn the audience into your mates, so winning over the sons of Britain's ruling elite in my early forties was a bit of a challenge. The hardest thing was persuading them to join in and sing on the chorus of Glad To Be Gay, but I pulled it off. Actually that's probably an unfortunate choice of words, in the circumstances.”

The Department of Sociology at Durham University recently caused a stir by advertising for a Protest singer-songwriter in Residence to work with staff and students. You have always been a strong campaigner and a fierce defender of rights -would you consider yourself to be a protest singer and how vital (and for what reasons) do you think it is still important to protest in song?

“Well it is admirable for Durham Uni to be encouraging musical talent in any shape or form, but the proposition of a Protest Singer In Residence does seem to be putting the cart before the horse. In all likelihood there must be enough fine, angry and inspired musicians out there for them to end up with somebody really good, but to me it seems like starting out from the wrong premise. With a few honourable exceptions, most self-styled protest singers in the past have made pretty dull music. The greatest songs of dissent and opposition tend to be made by artists known as great writers and performers, period. Names like Bob Marley, Bessie Smith, Stevie Wonder, Ani Di Franco, Nina Simone, Stormzy, Eliza Carthy, Marvin Gaye, Bruce Springsteen, RATM, The Killers, Sam Lee, Ange Hardy, Yungblud, Amanda Palmer etc spring to mind… Protest Singer conjures up a very specific kind of dated 50s/60s image of white do-gooders with acoustic guitars. Nobody ever calls Public Enemy a protest band though that’s exactly what they are. I'll probably get lynched for saying this but for my money all the aforementioned make waaaaaay more effective musical protests than Ewan MacColl, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger ever managed in their heyday.”

You give many new artists the opportunity to have their music played to a national audience for the first time. What is it about new music that draws you in and how crucial do you think it is to continue to be a champion of new music?

“It's more satisfying to support unknown artists, rather than just play stuff the record industry puts under your nose. With every single play, you can be sure it's going to make a measurable difference to the artists concerned. Whereas when you play a record from the station playlist, or buy some established artist who's already well known, one play here or there (in the middle of the night on a DAB radio station) will barely get noticed.”

“To me it's a scandal that in 2020 (sixty years on from the birth of the modern music era) music artists are still having to pay pluggers to get their music heard and considered by BBC Radio stations. At least with BBC introducing – and particularly with my blog at Fresh On The Net – absolutely anybody can send us a tune and we'll listen to it. No cash, no expert knowledge, no inside contacts needed. Of course the competition's fucking ferocious - from those two sources I usually get sent 200-300 artists a week, and don't get enough airtime to play more than 20 of them. But although something like 280 artists are bound to get disappointed every week, at least it's a level playing field and everyone's music gets judged purely on what comes out of the speakers. I wish it had been like that for my own band, forty years ago.”

You have worked alongside many of the top names in music over the last 40 years. Can you tell us about some of your favourite collaborations and what it was about those artists that made working with them so memorable?

“Peter Gabriel and Elton John were both extremely easy to write with - in their different ways they are consummate professionals who know exactly what they're doing. But I also did some work co-writing lyrics with Manu Katché for his solo album It's About Time. He already had first drafts for many of the songs, but since English isn't his first language I was able to come in and help him focus up the lyrics to nail exactly the nuances that he wanted to hit. That was a challenge, but very satisfying.”

Who continues to inspire you and what is it about them that you find inspiring?

“Kate Tempest has consistently hit the mark over the past few years, as has her producer and collaborator Dan Carey. The music always sounds taut, fresh and up to date, with some killer grooves. But above all it's Kate's fierce passion and eloquent lyrics that slay me every time.

If anyone's a proper protest singer in 2020, it's her.”

Tom Robinson plays Durham's Old Cinema Launderette on 11th February and The Cluny on 23rd May.

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