To describe Robert as a national treasure is no glib overstatement. He’s easily one of the most influential songwriters working in Britain today and, over a long and fruitful career, has continually redefined our notion of popular music.
From his early years in psychedelic jazz-rock trio Soft Machine with Kevin Ayres and Mike Ratledge, to his fruitful collaborations with the likes of Bjork, Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield and Ultramarine, Robert has been a truly unique and eccentric voice across many genres and decades.
Alongside his collaborative work, Robert has pursued a successful solo career since the seventies, which is underlined by his idiosyncratic vocals, his weird and wonderful command of melody and his unwavering commitment to socialism.
Below we chat to him about his career so far and cherry pick some of our favourite moments for this week's playlist...
Records - 78s in those days - played by the family. Things like Benjamin Britten by the grown-ups, while my big brother Julian played Danny Kaye. I also remember singing Christmas carols with family and friends.
You’ve been making music since the sixties. How do you think your musical processes have changed over the years?
Not a lot really. But I’ve been continually learning more about rhythm since I was a drummer in 1963 to 1973, and harmonically, ever since then too, especially while recording layers of chords. I look for harmonic effects that might suggest useful tunes. It took me a while to come up with lyrics that matched my tunes in an organic way.
I also learn from other peoples’ songs that most impress me, from songwriters such as Cole Porter, the Gershwins and John Lennon. The words and their music are one. Or at least they feel like that to me.
How do your songs start life?
They usually start as fragments of tunes, but I have found no reliable devices for coming up with them. I just turn on the tap and hope something I can work with emerges. Then, with any luck, words are already implied by the tunes. If not, my wife Alfie makes suggestions. Or the tunes stay as instrumentals.
I don’t remember as it’s at least half a century ago! But as a musician, I wasn’t particularly interested in the voice, except that it was the cheapest and most portable instrument available.
The music I listened to most during my school years, which spanned the 1950s, was instrumental jazz. I started off like many British singers of popular music trying to sing like an African American. The only odd thing in my case was that I was more comfortable learning from women such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Dionne Warwick. But when writing my own songs, the voice started to sound like the way I talk, for better or worse.
Your music flits between rock, pop, folk, jazz and more … where do you feel most affinity?
Oddly enough, mostly with the visual artists of the first half of the 20th century: colour, form, use of space, evoking a certain atmosphere. I am, however, appropriately respectful of the uniquely geometric frameworks on which the music I like is based. There’s a lot of arithmetic in music, both harmonically and rhythmically. Maths is far too hard for me, but it’s clear that, for example, Bach clarifies the relationship between notes in a methodically numbers-based system.
What would you describe yourself as?
I couldn’t possibly describe myself. I’m not introspective enough!
Not really. It just comes out that way because I think about these things. As I write by instinct, my sense of the wider world seems to, on occasion, rise to the surface. If the powers that be were more honest and responsible, I’d be happy to just play in my imaginary garden.
Your solo work always sounds really intimate - has that been intentional or more down to circumstance?
Well, nothing I do is consciously intentional, except to make music that feels real and authentic in some way. My only aim is to make records I could like listening to myself.
You’ve made so many records - how do you feel about them all now and is there one you are most attached to?
I’m most relieved hearing back the records I’ve made this century; Cuckooland and Comicopera.
What’s been the biggest high of your career so far?
Recently singing on stage with double bassist Charlie Haden. We did a couple of old Cuban songs.
What do you remember most about the Soft Machine tour with Jimi Hendrix?
His shy but friendly kindness.
You’ve collaborated with so many brilliant musicians – what do you enjoy most about working with others?
The company – the style or instrument is not as important to me. That’s the great difference from, say, painting or writing texts. It’s the animated buzz of friendship.
Robert appears in conversation with his biographer Marcus O’Dair at The Wire’s Off the Page Festival in Bristol on 28 September.