Interview with Robin Proper-Sheppard from Sophia - London's Bush Hall - May 2009

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Sophia I spent twenty minutes with Robin Proper-Sheppard before Sophia’s London gig at the Bush Hall on 13 May 2009, two years after their previous London gig at the Spitz. Two years after my previous interview with Robin. We were sitting at the terrace of the Bush Hall, upstairs, and down on Uxbridge Road it was a fine evening. A rather mild and sunny spring evening. I guess it was business as usual for those people walking to wherever their destination might have been, but for me it was a rare and very special moment. I was meeting with one of my favourite artists.

I am now in the comfort of my own home, listening to There Are No Goodbyes and reading Robin’s blog. And I’m thinking: What is the point of my life? Well I guess you might not be so interested in whether I have an answer to that question, let alone the answer itself! What I’m also thinking is: What is the point of writing an article on Sophia when Robin himself says it all in his blog?

Robin writes about love, the feeling of not belonging, the desire to belong, his family and his latest album among other topics. He gives a true insight into the life and mind of Robin Proper-Sheppard. In his blog, Robin is reflective and self-critical in a very honest, humorous and humble way. He gives tips on travelling first class on Eurostar at a modest price, briefly recalls holidays in Italy with his daughter Hope, mentions his friend Malcolm Middleton (when does he not?) and the lovely carrot cake that Malcolm’s partner bakes. He writes so movingly about his mother passing away; and he always has kind words for his readers, like “See you all soon and please take care”.

So here I am. What is the point of writing my article? What is the point of writing at all? This reminds me of George Orwell’s essay, ‘Why I write’. I decide to read it again and go straight to my favourite line: “I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write”. I breathe in deeply. This sentence is a killer for me. It reaches out to every corner of my brain and insides that tries to forget that I am indeed a failure to some degree. And yet, I write, and it looks like, I guess, you keep on reading. Great game isn’t it?

Another favourite passage of mine taken from this essay is when Orwell gives out motives for writing. “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc, etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition – in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individual at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money”.

‘Sheer egoism’? Perhaps, with the caveat that I do not consider myself a serious writer. So what are my true motives?

Self-gratification? A fair amount... There is something exciting about getting to meet one of your favourite artists and sharing with them for a few minutes, thoughts about music, life, death and anything else worth talking about. I tell Robin that the article on Sophia I wrote back in 2007 was the best article I have ever written! I go on to explain that it always helps when I write about music and people I’m very passionate about. I must have said this with a very special kind of sparkle in my eyes because Robin smiles back at me and in a cheeky way says: “Oh! So it was more than an article at the end of the day!” We both laugh and I try not to blush.

Punishment? Oh yes, most definitely but a lot of pleasure too (aren’t the two linked?). It takes me ages to write anything decent. And I love it. And I hate it. Picture this. Here I am sitting on my sofa, listening to Sophia’s Storm Clouds, captivated by Robin’s voice delivering his lyrics: “Let the storm clouds pass and the tempest fade; Dry your eyes my dear and don’t be afraid. No don’t be afraid; because the daylight is coming”. My mind wanders. Images of my life pass by in front of me: Images of love, images of pain. Painful images I would rather forget, but in a self-punishing way images I cannot shed. The more I listen to this album, the more I realise that this album is as much about Robin’s life as it is about mine, and probably many of yours out there, being in love and being hurt for it.

“What I was expressing in the record was literally happening at that moment. When I started writing the record, that relationship was in the past. I had spent a year working through some of those things and letting go. The songs are so absolutely of the moment. For instance, the song, There are no good-byes, the first verse was written during that year when I realized I had to let things go and that it’s a part of life. But the second verse is based on as if she was next to me. That’s why the album is so dark because everything that is going on and going through my head, I was expressing at that moment through songs. And that’s what was so hard about it. Take a song like Leaving, that’s not a masculine kind of a song! You don’t hear men using that kind of language when talking to each other”.

“I sat there, as I was working on it and I was trying to think about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I don’t use the kind of language that a lot of men use and I thought: do I want to hide that away from people or do I want to open myself up and say this is exactly what I’m thinking right now and this is my life? That’s why it was so hard. That’s why it was so dark. My life at that time was so dark. It was so filled with pain”.

“Listening to the record was so painful. When I finished recording the album, I could not even think about it. It made me so sad. When people asked me to write about it, it hurt so much. But I can’t expect other people to see that because people will take what they need to take out of it in their lives, and how they relate to it. It is probably a good thing that people think that it is more hopeful than it is. It is still a complicated thing to explain right now.”

Aware that Robin has done most of the talking about a subject that is clearly still painful to him, I sympathetically suggest that perhaps it is one of those things that is complicated to explain! To which he follows with: “And may be you never really figure out the way that you are feeling right now. You only figure it out by retrospect but by then your whole life has changed anyway. I know it’s going to sound like a cliché, but I had never felt like that before. It was a different type of relationship for me.”

I need a break from transcribing Robin’s words or I’ll start crying. So to exorcise my own clichéd and failed very special relationships, I go back to listening to the album. How does the old adage go? Fight fire with fire? I listen to the song, There are no Goodbyes. I listen to the lyrics, and I think about my own life as the lyrics unfold: “And sweetheart you know that I don’t blame you. How can I when I know the pain you hide? And I’m sorry. Can you forgive me? I wish that I was stronger but I tried”.

Back to the interview. I ask Robin how it feels to play the new songs live. But Robin, in lieu of a response, asks me how the new songs sounded during sound-check. And I freeze; I don’t know what to say. So Robin prompts me: “Different or good or bad or what?” I am still freezing! I don’t know what to answer. I wish I could come up with a big fat lie and say something that sounds spontaneously upbeat along the lines of “they sounded grrrreat Robin!” But I come up with a very conservative, flat and evasive: “They sounded good”. Robin, if you’re reading this, let me explain what was going through my head when I was freezing. For starters, I heard some parts of the sound-check behind the main doors because I did not want to intrude and only came in the hall for the last couple of songs. Also, I am not usually the most upbeat or extrovert of people. Lastly, the band sounded good (just good) during the sound-check and not awesome as you do during your gigs.

Robin’s response to my “they sounded good” was a disappointed “yeah?...” Silence and awkward smiles ensue, which Robin breaks with “because this is actually the first time we’ve played them. A song like Leaving, I’m not sure how it translates live. Is there a good ambience?” To which I reply, “well there’s mmmm…..” And I know Robin is waiting for a better answer than that. So I add “Well, it reflects the mood of the album. What I like about Sophia’s music is the power and the rawness of the electric guitars behind the emotions. The new songs have more of an acoustic sound. But they sound great.” Now you’ll all think that I’ve played the big fat lie card to extricate myself from an awkward situation. There’s probably as much awkwardness from both sides, so we decide to laugh it off and move on to the Valentine’s Day concert.

“I had only finished the album only two weeks before. Signs, which is on the new album, a song in which I talk about something that happened on Valentine’s was played and recorded at the Valentine’s session. It was a great concert but it had an extra kind of gravity because of the day that it was."

I then ask Robin whether he prefers the acoustic or the electric Sophia. “I prefer the songs I relate to emotionally and sometimes the electric Sophia tends to focus more on volume and it loses a little subtlety. But both of those sides are a big factor in the way that I relate to music. So I can’t say if I prefer more acoustic or electric. I can’t imagine doing an all electric Sophia record for instance like the May Queens. It’s just not the way I relate to music”. So I hasten to ask why the May Queens has never toured. “It’s something that I enjoy making and I have fun doing, but it doesn’t strike an emotional chord in me. You know a song like Leaving, it’s so slow, it’s so sparse, but my whole life is wrapped up in that song. And when I’m singing the song, the fact is that nothing else exists except what that song is about, and the fact that this person lost her faith in me. Do you know what I mean? Rock music has the capacity to express existentialist ideas and questions much better than quiet music. Quiet is much more emotional and personal. Take the God Machine. There was little real romantic emotionalism expressed in that music. It was much more about this quest and the greater meaning and it was quite young and naïve as well. We were only 18, 19, 21. But what preoccupied our thoughts at that time wasn’t so much where we were going to end up in ten years time, or what is this person meaning to me or to my future or how will I relate to them when they become a part of my past. It was much more, where do I fit in the great scheme of things. As you get older, I think, your focus changes. The God Machine was summed up in this kind of almost spiritual quest in a strange kind of way. Austin and Jimmy and I had a very spiritual relationship. And now I’m on a much more personal journey”.

The personal and painful journey of Robin Proper-Sheppard has given birth to his finest album to date: There are no Goodbyes; an album I listen to over and over again. “Life itself still remains a very effective therapist” [Karen Horney] and so is genuine music that comes from the deepest and darkest places in our heart and soul.

I ask Robin about the swimathon he did to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer. “I came number 188 out of the 2600-and-something that took part. That’s pretty good for an old rocker! I swim a lot, I’m from California, I grew up in the ocean, I’m used to swimming, but I’d never swum 5 kilometres at once before! I was scared, but it was a great thing to do”. Robin talks about his sporting achievement with a well earned sense of pride and goes on to say: “You know my mother died of cancer. She passed away quite suddenly”. He then explains how relieved he felt that his mother chose to stay in the hospital surrounded by people who could help her.

“This is what Marie Curie does. They help people feel comfortable”. “I felt really close to it”, he adds. “Without getting too dramatic or too morbid, I think that’s one of the main things we lack in life, is that comfort, and especially when you are facing an illness like that and maybe you’re on your own. It is scary, terrifying”.

This reminds me of the lyrics from If A Change Is Gonna Come on the People Are Like Seasons album: “I guess I gotta get a grip yeah life’s a bitch and then you die, don’t waste your time and wonder why”. This brings me back to my original question: What is the point of my life… You might think I’m getting a bit obsessive about that one question. You see, with Sophia there is a song for every shade of my depression, that’s probably why I like it so much. You think I’m kidding?

The warm voice of Robin Proper-Sheppard delivering his sad lyrics comforts me. I’d like to call this compassion and sympathy rather than schadenfreude (I sincerely hope it is not the latter)! This may be because, on a more serious note, his lyrics have the capacity to help you ride that stupid wave until you find better days.

“I breathe deep and let the warmth fill my lung”. [excerpt from the closing track on There Are No Good-Byes]

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Photograph © Aline Giordano 2009