Robyn Hitchcock is thinking a lot about change these days.
In the video to his song “Sayonara Judge,” an image of him as a young musician morphs into something closer to his sixty-six-year-old self over the lyrics “Losing my face, losing my friends, losing my temper./Losing my place on the map, losing my home.”
He was in a similarly reflective mood as he spoke on the phone while watching the rain falling in Nashville, where he lives with his partner, singer Emma Swift, and his cats, Tubby and Ringo. I asked him about another line from the song: “I can’t keep it together, but together isn’t all it seems.”
“Well, it isn’t, is it?” he said. “The longer you live, the more you know about loss. Life is made of loss, really.” Then he shifted to a more pragmatic outlook. Or tried to.
“It doesn’t pay to be too sentimental or too nostalgic, and I probably am. But I think that’s probably because I like to mythologize things. So even when I was very young, I mythologized what past I had or mythologized the time before I was here. I can easily now mythologize times when I was younger mythologizing times when I was even younger. It doesn’t take much.”
That sentiment suffuses his new single, “Sunday Never Comes” (released as a 7-inch vinyl single and featured in the film Juliet, Naked). “Come tomorrow, yesterday is going to look so cool,” he sings. “You’ll be into everything you sneered about at school.”
Hitchcock grew up in England in the 1960s, which accounts for his love of psychedelia, and founded The Soft Boys before going solo (although he often collaborates). His songs rarely made it to mainstream radio but got lots of play on college stations and MTV. His tendency to go off on quirky streams of consciousness between songs at his concerts was captured by the late director Jonathan Demme in the 1998 film Storefront Hitchcock.
His lyrics have influenced many songwriters, and Uncle Tupelo and Neko Case have covered his songs. Hitchcock gets variously categorized as punk or post-punk, English folk, or rock, but regardless of how people slot him, his often surrealist lyrics illuminate the pathos and humor of life. “He wrests inspiration not from ordinary life but from extraordinary imaginings,” Rolling Stone noted. The New York Times once characterized his lyrics as “deadpan, off-the-wall, funny-strange phantasmagorias of protoplasm and its discontents, where ordinary life offers no refuge from organic processes or disruptive visions.”
He described his 2017 self-titled album as “an ecstatic work of negativity but with nary a dreary groove.”
“The music has to have a joy to it. You can’t simply tell it like it is and make it sound like it is,” he said. “I mean, you know, you’ve gotta celebrate. My view of humanity is really nothing to do with me. It’s just humanity, how it is. We survive by selective denial. We start by denying our own age and death and then we kind of spread outwards from there. We deny what’s happening in the house next door to us. We deny what’s happening to the people on the street. We deny what’s happening to our own family, very often simply in order to keep going because you can’t take it all in. You’d implode.”
Hitchcock’s pessimism is tempered by his joy in what he does. Music is a way of saving his soul, he said. “It’s a way of turning experience into sanity. It’s a way of processing life.”
As for humanity, he figures it will take an “evolutionary lurch” for us to survive. For him, that would be some kind of telepathy that would allow us all to have more empathy for our fellow humans. “Then the world would no longer be a place where [expletive] people reached the top,” he said. “But meanwhile, you’ve got this fascinating race between extinction and artificial intelligence which we’ve embarked on.”
Hitchcock has a love-hate relationship with technology, but he was sanguine about the changes it has always brought — to music and to our lives. That led to a long exposition on self-driving cars, automated houses, and bicycles offering therapy.
Hitchcock was joking, perhaps, when he said he’ll have himself made into an app. “Well, not me so much as maybe my songs.” But he’s unlikely to stop touring and doing live shows. He added that if he reaches a point when he can no longer perform, he’ll probably die not long after. “There’s just no other way of making a living. This is what I do. Fortunately, I love it. I enjoy playing live more than ever.”
Condensing 40 years and 500-plus songs into a set can be a challenge. He often takes requests and doesn’t like playing the same set night after night. Sometimes he plays nothing from the 1990s, and sometimes those songs dominate a performance. It was a decade that resonated for him. He was in his forties, a time when he had neither youth nor the “vintage patina” of an elder rock star.
“If you make it up to fifty as a recording artist, people begin to look at you as you become more of a museum piece. You nudged your way towards Matisse or Picasso or the Rolling Stones. People go, ‘Oh blimey, look at that — he’s still here. Let’s check him out!’ ”
His show in Santa Fe, initially slated for Gig Performance Space, sold out quickly, so AMP Concerts moved it to the larger venue of SITE Santa Fe. Hitchcock performs a solo show, although Emma Swift will join him for some harmonies, he said. “Em’s got a very rich, honey-like voice and very different from mine in timbre, but I think it works.”
Tubby and Ringo will not be there, but the merch table will include Tubby tote bags. Fans can find the kitties on Instagram, where they have their own accounts. The Robyn Hitchcock album cover also features a cat in his arms, but in keeping with his recent meditations on passages, that cat is no longer with us. Tiny only lived six months, he said, but the cat was the inspiration for his indie label name, Tiny Ghost.
Hitchcock said it took him a long time to “get” cats, but they’re now a habit.
“They’re like songs. They will come to you when they want. You can’t really herd them. You can’t exactly predict them. And they don’t need us in such a direct way as dogs, but they still do. So they’re also kind of like us. They’re really cute, but they’re lethal.” ◀
▼ Robyn Hitchcock
▼ 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 31
▼ SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta
▼ Check for ticket availability. $37 in advance, $43 at the door; all-ages show; 505-886-1251, ampconcerts.org