Tom Robinson: From gay rights activist to new music promoter
Songwriter, broadcaster, gay activist and raconteur Tom Robinson plays the Open House Festival next week. He chats to Jenny Lee about playing live again, the power of the internet, politics and his picks from our up and coming musicians
TOM Robinson is a man of many faces – and voices. For many he will evoke memories of gay-rights activism in the late '70s. And just last month he was back at the gates of Downing Street leading a group of protestors in a rendition of Glad to Be Gay against new Prime Minister, Theresa May who has a history of voting with a homophobic bias.
As a musician, Robinson has released 19 albums with various bands and shared writing credits with the likes of Elton John and Peter Gabriel.
He enjoyed more success as a solo artist, not least with his 1983 top 10 hit, War Baby.
For many others he is the voice behind The Tom Robinson Show on BBC 6 Music, which highlights undiscovered alternative music – old and new.
Back on the road again following the launch of his Only The Now album last autumn, Robinson is delighted to be playing two solo acoustic shows in Derry and Bangor next week.
"I like the stripped down format. You've got a lot more flexibility and can be much more responsive to the audience and give them what they want," says Robinson, who will be combining his hits such as Up Against the Wall and 2-4-6-8 Motorway with tales from his four decades on the wilder fringes of the music industry.
A strong advocate of social media and new technologies, Robinson funded his first studio album in 19 years through direct-to-fan music platform PledgeMusic.
Only The Now included many songs he had penned in the intervening years. Once started, it took on a life of its own involving numerous guest appearances including John Grant, Lisa Knapp, Billy Bragg and spoken contributions from Colin Firth and Sir Ian McKellen.
Sixty-seven year old Robinson admits the album would "never have seen the light of day" if producer Gerry Diver hadn't approached him.
"He's a virtuoso Irish fiddler who played with Van Morrison and Christy Moore. He's also a killer record producer, who made a whole album called The Speech Project, where he set folk musicians' conversation's to music.
"He just loves the texture of voices so he got me to raid my address book and pull up as many people as possible to make vocal appearances on the album."
The title track, Only the Now, is Robinson's favourite.
"I wrote it for my kids," says the dad of two about the song, which was partly inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses.
"They are growing up and saying they can't wait to be 18 and go drinking with their mates. I'm saying 'don't wish it away'.
"It's so hard to live in the moment but it's so true that the good old days are here and now."
Having grown up with The Beatles and been signed during the punk years, surprisingly Robinson believes were are currently living through the best decade musically.
"We are much more exposed to the breadth of what people are making out there than in previous decades," he argues.
"Although there was an amazing wealth of music coming out in the 60s, albums cost 19 and 6 pence – which was three month's pocket money.
"Radio One only existed since 1967 and even then it only had four hours 'needle time' a week.
"So many people my age go and talk to music students and emerging musicians and say the music industry has had it, record revenues are falling and they don't know how the next generation are going to make a living from music, blah, blah, blah... 'the good old days'.
"But when you go back to 'the good old days' and look at how good they were, they were bloody awful.
"I would rather be alive now than any decade in the past."
Robinson funnels advice to young musicians through his music blog, Fresh On The Net.
"I honestly believe that for a young musician with an amazing talent there has never been a better time to be starting out – because you will get heard," he continues.
"This wasn't the case in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s or '90s unless a record company agreed to let you make a record and Radio One agreed to play it.
"Now you can bypass all those things by putting your record on YouTube."
Robinson is extremely informed about and impressed by our local music scene – and Belfast band Robocobra Quartet are his top picks for success.
"Chris Ryan, the drummer that leads that band is a genius. It's just insane music. We are going to get him over to do a session for us later in the year," says Robinson.
"We've had Best Boy Grip from Derry over doing a session lately and I recently saw Wood Burning Savages, who are planning a UK mainland tour this autumn.
"There is a really nice little band that's just started out called Brand New Friend who have released the single I Was An Astronaut, and Citizen Nobody are really interesting as they are from the Shankill and the Falls.
"Their whole focus is on transcending the sectarian divide through music."
His other picks include Belfast indiepop quartet Hurdles and the haunting vocals of Ciara O'Neill, who has recently returned from working in Nashville.
Despite lagging behind Britain and the rest of Ireland in terms of the legality of gay marriage, Robinson is delighted by the musical and political progress made in Northern Ireland.
"When I first came over in 1977 to play Queen's, it was still completely illegal to be gay," he recalls.
"I still remember Paisley's 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' address. I think it's miraculous how far we have come and what a change in atmosphere there is in Belfast."
Robinson has also been a leading light in the Rock against Racism campaign, and he still feels passionate about equality for all.
"Since Brexit, friends of mine who were born in this country have had complete strangers walk up to them and verbally abuse them and tell them to 'go back to where they came from'.
"That's just shameful."
In the privileged position where he can already say there is no one he'd like to collaborate with that he hasn't already, Robinson is now looking to turn his focus to the written word for his next project.
"With my touring recently and that intimate vibe I've received from the audience, I've been tempted to write some of my stories in a book," he says.
And you've plenty to tell?
"It's been a bit of a rollercoaster ride," he laughs.
:: An Evening with Tom Robinson at Space Theatre, Bangor on August 12 as part of the Open House Festival. For tickets and full programme details visit Openhousefestival.com. He also plays Live at STA Studios in Derry on August 11.