Robin Auld, welcome back to Johannesburg!
Thanks! It’s been great coming back – I haven’t been up here for so long. I’m in town to do some promo and tonight’s performance – 30 years ago I came up more regularly. As a Cape Town-based act you’re never really sure about your reception in Johannesburg, but it’s been lovely hooking up with old friends and I’m looking forward to the gig tonight.
Where do you tour around the country?
I live in Kalk Bay, so In the Western Cape I’ll do tours within striking distance of Cape Town. I tour extensively in the Eastern Cape - East London, Saint Francis Bay, Jeffreys Bay and Port Alfred – a strip I’ve been working for quite a while. So I’ll do six to eight dates at a time and it keeps on building. The venues may change but it’s a solid circuit for me.
Describe your sound and live set
I call it “roots pop” with African guitar, reggae, folk and jazz influences, and my tenor voice. As I’ve gotten older my falsetto has improved. I like using musical stylings that can survive without electricity. I’m a tune guy and a melody with a middle 8 is paramount.
Set-wise I use a loop pedal and stomp board to rock the room in a mostly acoustic set, playing solos with a distortion pedal. I’ve just started using Albert Frost amendments on an electric guitar so I get the loop going and pick up the electric, which adds a different kind of energy.
How has your songwriting changed over the years?
I’ve always had two distinct pop songwriting approaches: simple songs and ones more complex lyrically and musically. If I look at my albums I go from pop hits stuff with obvious, primary colour lyric writing to nuanced ballads about people and situations, which are more unfamiliar to people who tend to only know the hits.
On each album there have been combinations of the two.
Some people want to hear the hits, others warm to the deeper material. When working on new songs I find it harder to come up with the primary colour pop tunes. My output now tends towards the intricate.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been busy with a slow stoner surf album for years but with Covid-19 I want to release something more upbeat. I’m recording in Cape Town with some fine musicians – I’m spoilt for choice down there – without a preset notion of the outcome. It might be a 16-track album or two EPs, I don’t know.
You are well-known for your collaborations
I collaborate with Wendy Oldfield – she’s a singer-songwriter in a similar mould and we have a lot of fun playing live together. She travels light and plays the djembe and guitar so we rock it out as a successful two-piece.
I co-write songs with author Greg Mills that have an African political slant. “Alone Together” was about giving hope to people isolated by the pandemic, which we performed with Bobi Wine, an opposition leader in Uganda. While we were recording there the security police turned off the power in the studio!
At the moment I’m doing a fun collaboration with Rob Nagel of the Blues Broers and Michael Canfield; we call ourselves The Breeze. We cover classic ‘70s rock and roll: Allman Brothers and Little Feet.
You’ve had issues with record companies mishandling your work
My South African repertoire has been an exercise in handing over records which are not distributed correctly and get no radio play. But I don’t take it personally and the exception is Iron in the Sky which was done by SABC 3’s marketing arm. They got the marketing, production and distribution right. But Dave Matthews and Ben Harper don’t sell in SA, Elvis Costello has never toured here. I’ve got a niche market for which I’m grateful.
What do you think of streaming services like Spotify?
They rip artists off. It’s similar to when records were first manufactured. Recordings were made in order to attract audiences to sell out live performances. The recordings were secondary and I think we’re back there again. But if you have successful streaming figures you can leverage it in other ways.
What do you think of sampling in music?
I’ve never heard a sample that didn’t want to make me hear the original song.
What contemporary artists do you enjoy?
Because my 14-year-old daughter listens to KFM I’ve been exposed to Twenty One Pilots who I find creative. Locally I like Sunset Sweatshop and their ilk. I think the SA singer-songwriter scene is pretty healthy at the moment.
Describe a typical day for you
At home my day is still largely ruled by the ocean. From my house I can see the sea and whether or not the conditions permit me to surf. I do the dad run to school. As an independent artist I need to spend up to five hours a day on admin – it’s not like I can just arrive at a gig, get up there and play. Those days are over!
What does the future hold for you?
I’m grateful to be in Africa. With the pandemic and the war going on I’m reluctant to tour internationally. For the last six years, through my label Shoreline Songs, I work with and produce other artists to get their work out there. I’m happy to dig in, record and be creative.
Written by Simon Matthews
Images by Richard Harper and Jo Sudau