When Tom Robinson first broke through in the late 1970s he did so as an arch, articulate protest singer whose catchy punk songs addressed racism, inequality and, most famously, gay rights. Twenty years after his last album release and inspired by a new generation of artists encountered through his excellent BBC 6 Music radio show, the 65 year-old firebrand has returned to the studio to, once again, take on society’s ills. He plays 4 Nov, RNCM, Manchester.
After 20 years, what inspired you to make a new album?
Well, after my second child was born in the late 1990s I took a break from recording to focus on radio work. But both my kids are now grown up, and I’ve spent the last 15 years working at 6 Music where I’ve been exposed to a wonderful treasure trove of new music. But although I never stopped writing songs, it took a while to find a producer who could make them sound like the kind of records I like listening to these days. I was an admirer of Gerry Diver’s work, and when we did a couple of tracks together as a try-out, I was blown away with the results and the full album has exceeded my wildest expectations.
Do you think the music industry has changed for the better or worse?
The situation for a new artist with genuine gobsmacking talent has changed immeasurably for the better, in my opinion. What we call the Music Industry at its height was never run in the interests of either the artists, or consumers – and stars like George Michael, Prince and Courtney Love complained bitterly about its iniquities at the time. And without financial backing, insider contacts and the permission of gatekeepers, the chances were your music would never get heard. Today if a gifted DIY artist came up with the next Hey Ya or Crazy the record industry would beat a path to their YouTube. As a matter of fact a DIY artist did come up with just such a song quite recently: it was called The A Team. There’s still no substitute for hard work and persistence – but these days it’s possible to win a worldwide audience with nothing more than a killer song and a smartphone.
Why have you opted to release Only The Now via Pledge Music?
Well, the world was hardly waiting for another Tom Robinson album, as the labels I approached were quick to point out. But actually about 500 people out there were waiting for me to make one, and Pledge Music made it possible for us to involve them in the process. They not only helped finance the record by buying it in advance, but some of them actually came along to the studio and sang on it. I can’t thank Pledge Music enough for their guidance and support through the whole process. For the first time ever, I’ll be releasing an album free of debt and owning the full rights to all the recordings. That never happened back in the so-called good old days of the record industry.
Were you surprised by the brilliant response from fans willing to pledge?
In my experience industry insiders always used to refer to music fans as “punters”, to be kept at arm’s length from the artist and fleeced of as much cash as possible. But from TRB days onwards, I’ve always had a strong sense that the fanbase are actually our single most important resource. One of them, for instance, is at film college and a great video maker, while another is a genius graphic artist who’s designed all our sleeves and posters for the record. Even 20 years ago I actually did a whole tour of Australia organised entirely via email with fans clubbing together to put on the gigs. So although I was gratified by the response to this album campaign, it wasn’t a complete surprise – these people are basically our A Team.
Much of your work has been geared towards social justice – is that a prominent theme on this album?
To be honest I just write about whatever happens to get my interest. Out of 11 songs, only two or three of them actually engage with current social issues, but those seem to be the ones that get the biggest media and audience attention. I’d like to live in a freer and more fair society, and do what I can to help things along in that direction, especially at live gigs. So there are a couple of tub-thumpers on there but most songs on the new album are hopefully a bit more nuanced. I wouldn’t have wanted to make a whole album full of shouty preachy protest songs, and I don’t suppose anybody else would have wanted to listen to one either.