The delicate charm of Rob St John’s ‘Tipping In’ EP shows that inspiration of New Weird America is far from being just a stateside phenomenon.This is a magical record which I had no hesitation in giving a 10 star rating in my Whisperin’ & Hollerin’ review.
Three tracks and less than 15 minutes left me wanting to hear more and also made me curious to find out more about the man behind the sound.
Rob very kindly agreed to answer some questions.
Good question. I study the ecology of rainforest trees, with particular focus on how they’ll respond to climate change. It’s something I think about a lot, so yes, I guess that feeling can permeate its way into the songs. ‘Tipping In’ actually came about from trying to find a bookbinder to make a book for me, which proved difficult as it’s a dying art. Tipping In is the process where pages from old books can be seamlessly reinserted into the right place. I like the idea of making do and mend, of restoring. It’s intentionally ambiguous, in that not many people are well versed in bookbinding. I try and achieve the same thing to an extent in my lyrics. I think the individual meanings people find and relate to in the song are more important than what I originally mean. I guess to ‘tip in’ suggests a sudden change resulting from a long period of stress. If someone can take something from the song, then that’s far more important than me prattling on about my life.
Your songs have a very poetic quality – is this something that comes easily to you or do you have to work at it? What writers – musical or literary – have been a particular strong influence?
I find it difficult to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and write a song from scratch, it’s a self-defeating process as more often than not it’ll end up pretty one-dimensional. The best songs, in my opinion, are the ones in which you have to delve into layers of meaning in the lyrics. I write snatches of lyrics pretty much every day. I get through loads of little notebooks like this, and I think my songwriting would be scuppered if I lost them, as with them I have the bare bones of a song, I’ll go to these notebooks and try and piece together a song. This can be pretty disastrous and disjointed (there’s dozens and dozens of songs that’ll never see the light of day), but when it works, I hope it gives a depth to the lyrics, I guess with the common theme of how I think about and view things around me. As for influences, I like the economy and poise of Bill Callahan, James Yorkston and Nina Nastasia, and the way Will Oldham is happy to sing out of tune/time whatever, but still put across a million times more emotion than someone classically trained and boring. Bert Jansch is a real influence too, the directness and honesty of his songs. Stephen Malkmus is a fantastic lyricist, I like the way he’ll choose words not just for their meaning but for how they actually sound and can be sung.Writers I like are Hermann Hesse, Ernest Hemingway, Salman Rushdie and, in particular Dylan Thomas. I really enjoy writing about nature from people like Aldo Leopold and Alfred Wainwright as they never really slip into an overtly romanticised, pastoral and picturesque view of nature, instead one which is realistic.
What is the average time it takes from when the muse first strikes to the point when you are happy with a finished version of a song?
It really depends, often an idea will be floating around for ages, and then one day I’ll hit upon some lyrics to suit. Anything from 10 minutes to a year (what a non-answer!!).
There’s a wonderfully diverse assortment of instruments on the tracks on your EP – Louise Martin’s musical saw is a particularly inspired touch – is this backing carefully planned or does it come together spontaneously?
I really admire people like Bill Callahan, Will Oldham and Nick Cave for using each album to push themselves into new territory. There’s a lot of acoustic dross out there, and you have to do something to avoid being part of it, avoiding the uninformed journalistic soma that is the “Nick Drake” or “Jose Gonzales” genre (for the record, I love Nick Drake’s music, in parts, but feel there’s so many poor imitators out there, and lazy journalists willing to lump them all together, that I try and avoid being part of all that).The instrumentation came about a month before the EP was recorded, up until then I had a constant band mate in Rob Waters on the harmonium, but brought in Andy on the cello and Louise on the saw to try and fill out and add texture and layers to the sound. I listen to a lot of Godspeed You Black Emporer, Amiina etc, and think folk music has the amazing (and relatively unexplored) ability to mirror post-rock through jumping from very hushed guitar and vocals to a very loud crescendo. I play these songs live with drums, bass, and sometimes electric guitar, which when you’re playing on bills with dreary acoustic acts it can make things very interesting!!I trust everyone in the band to bring their own parts to the songs, and I’ll suggest changes if I think they need them, but otherwise am pretty relaxed. Everyone’s far better musicians than me, and so parts come together very quickly. The next record is going to be even more orchestrated I think, with more quiet/loud passages, and more obscure instrumentation.
You have declared a healthy (and understandable!) disregard for Jack Johnson – if challenged, how do you distinguish what you do from what he does?
Where to start? To me he typifies all that is wrong about seemingly ‘alt‘ mainstream bands, so dreary. There’s no wit or invention or any sign of spark in his lyrics. It’s wallpaper music of the lowest order.
A multiple choice question : if someone calls you a folk singer do you: a) Punch them b) Smile condescendingly and change the subject c) Agree wholeheartedly and exchange a list of trad songs you both love d) None of the above?
A mix of b) and c) i think. I have a real love for folk music, but am constantly aware that every generation should be charged with making progress in whatever they do. James Yorkston is fantastic at playing old songs (for example “the snow it melts the soonest”) but playing them as if they are Can or Faust with folk instruments. For me, that’s so much more interesting than hearing the same old reels being played like a broken record.
What are your thoughts on the New Weird America label?
In general, a brilliant thing. When it reached Britain a few years ago, it was a real inspiration to hear so much interesting and new music. Joanna Newsom is another who is great at taking elements of old folk songs and totally reinventing and updating them. I’m a little dubious of how that generation has in some ways sold itself to TV advertising, but I guess if you’re a full time musician, you’ve got to pay the bills one way or another.
I get the impression that there’s a very positive and supportive community based around The Forest Social café & arts space in Edinburgh – can you describe how this works and say how you (as a non Scot) came to be part of it?
I don’t really have that much to do with the Forest Cafe. They were kind enough to grant me some money to make ‘Tipping In’ – which I’m very grateful for – but I think in general, our musical views and ethos diverge. They’re generally good people though, and are definitely trying to do a good thing.
Is downloading killing music?
No way, it’s invigorating it. For artists like myself, the main way you’re going to make any money at all, and keep going, is by playing gigs, and selling merchandise there. People are unlikely to come to your gig unless they can hear you through the internet. There’s a real backlash with so many artists finding it viable to release 7 inch vinyl, as listeners now crave something tangible and permanent, which can only be a good thing.
Why is the record label called ‘Fife Kills‘?
The people who run it are from Fife in Scotland. I think it lends itself to great puns…for example: Fife Kills: London (a tour we did) and Fife Kills: hippies (a gig we played). Everyone’s very supportive of each other, which leads to a great environment from which to do something interesting and new. We all help out on each other’s songs as well. I would suggest starting with artists like The Great Bear, Tisso Lake, The Wee Rogue, My Kappa Roots, Eagleowl and Randan Discotheque if anyone’s interested. No one has any masterplan for being in the NME or famous or anything like that. Once you crave fame and success, it becomes too easy to take yourself too seriously, which can only be a bad thing. That there’s so many people doing interesting and worthy music outside of the public eye, with no regard for getting there, can only be a great thing for the state of music in general. I think this stems partly from a disillusionment with the state of the major record industry, and the mess it’s in.
Do you have any plans to tour outside the UK? (My token Bob Harris question!)
What I hope is to be mildly famous in a small European country with good weather (Macedonia/Croatia/etc) where I can tour in the sunshine for the rest of my life.
Finally, a culinary closer – What would you recommend from the Forest Cafe’s current menu?
The food there is hearty, wholesome and cheap (they pay me, literally, to say that). I always go for a delicious Burrito washed down with a tasty Zapatista coffee. Fantastic (and superb value!).
You can hear tracks off Tipping In and more at Rob’s My Space .
Two tracks (Domino & Rainy Day Parade) are available to download for free from Last.fm