Robyn Hitchcock, 2014

Robyn Hitchcock photographed in 2014 by Grant Lee Phillips.

Grant Lee Phillips

"I am effectively a folk artist. I’m just not a traditional folk artist."

Pick up the phone to interview Robyn Hitchcock and you might get an unexpected lesson in history and geography.

“I’m staring at the sea on the south coast of England, the Isle of Wight, just where Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix played their last show in 1970,” the sagacious songwriter opens. He’s renting a house for a little while, the same one Charles Darwin rented in the summer of 1859. “There’s a grey sky meeting a grey sea, which is beautiful… you can just about make out the horizon. There’s a white cloud on the grey; it’s a beautiful collection of somber colors.”

When the conversation turns to The Man Upstairs, Hitchcock's 20th solo album, he’s similarly transcendental in discussing its themes of life, death, and the passage of time. When people get older, Hitchcock says, “they want to put themselves in a historical context, like a picture looking for a frame.” In that spirit, The Man Upstairs (out Aug. 26 via Yep Roc) features the alternative music veteran expressing himself through both original songs and the songs of others. The covers date as far back as the 1960s and one of the originals was itself comprised of lyrics written over 30 years ago. It’s a new album, yet the artist behind it isn’t trapped in the present moment.

The themes of life and death are all over The Man Upstairs -- in the title, the art, the lyrics -- how did they influence the album?
Life and death are hard things to avoid, really, even with the rise of social media. I’m here and I’ve been here for awhile… I’ve been here before, back on this island that I’m staying on for the time being. I’m in a kind of time spiral. I don’t think time is a circle. I do think it’s a kind of spiral -- so you find where you were further down the road. If you look at a map of time, it might look like a spring, spiraling around. I’ve been revisiting my ghosts. Or I’m a ghost revisiting myself; I’m not sure which.

Do you think that spiral of time was shown on the album?
Oh, I’m sure that’s in there. That’s one of the themes of the music.

Since many of the songs are covers and older songs you’ve written decades ago, do you think that all ties into the spiral?
Yes. One of my songs -- the one called “Comme Toujours,” (it’s half in French) -- I actually started that in 1980. I wrote down the words, but I never wrote the music. Then I found the notebook 20 years later. i finished the words and put a tune to it. That had been a very slow gestation. [The Doors’] “The Crystal Ship” came out in 1967 and I’ve been singing it for years. I remember playing the piano in the dark in the early 70s and singing “The Crystal Ship” with my girlfriend. The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You” I recorded in 1985, 1986, something like that. It’s a slow harvest.

Do you think any cover songs are “off limits”? Or are they all out in the open for everyone?
They are yours to interpret. If you’ve been singing a song your whole life, it becomes your song, even if you don’t get the publishing on it. It grows into you. It becomes part of you. I’m sure that I am the kind of songwriter I am partly because I’ve been listening to those songs for so long. The Doors song and the Roxy Music song [”To Turn You On”), are songs I’ve known for a very long time, so they’ve got my musical DNA in them. And how much do you really invent anything? A lot of stuff is borrowed and adapted. Nobody knows who made up certain melodies. A lot of Bob Dylan songs were what they call folk songs, traditional songs. He adapted them in a way that nobody else had ever done. Most of the words we use are words that come from other people. Like in Britain, most of the houses were built by people who are long dead. We didn’t create what’s there. We simply adapted it for ourselves.

You covered the Roxy Music for the album and you mentioned how you pictured yourself as Bryan Ferry years ago. Do you still do that?
I used to, certainly when I was younger. I had a pair of leather pants. I wasn’t a lizard king, but I was definitely a Jim Morrison fan -- enough of a Morrison fan to have a leather outfit, but I kind of ruined it by having a beard.

In the Bryan Ferry song, I’m picturing myself as Bryan Ferry, who is picturing himself as Humphrey Bogart. It’s all kind of wannabes, isn’t it? Everybody’s there because they wanted to be somebody else. Michael Stipe wanted to be Patti Smith and Patti Smith wanted to be Arthur Rimbaud or Keith Richards. There must be a few people who want to be me, or did at some point. We adapt other people to ourselves, we build ourselves out of others.

I think when people get older, they get more interested in their history because they realize they’re not going to be around for very long. They want to put themselves in a historical context, like a picture looking for a frame. 

In collaborating with Joe Boyd, do you think he’s on the same page?
Yes. But Joe’s never been Tin Pan Alley. I’ve always been involved in what’s now called roots music. But back then it was called “folk” or “rhythm and blues.” He was a midwife of British folk rock. he brought it to birth -- Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson. Nick Drake wasn’t really folky, but he was in that acoustic crucible.

Joe was horrified when I called it a “folk record” in the press release. He was like, “You’re not going to say that!”

I was never much of a rocker. I’ve never gone for a big, overdriven sound…. I’m much better on acoustic guitar than I am on electric. I occasionally play with a rock band; I occasionally play with those lovely American guys occasionally -- the Venus 3, the R.E.M. people. I am effectively a folk artist. I’m just not a traditional folk artist.