“My producer, Livingstone Brown, always tells me that albums never get finished, they just escape,” says Robin Trower, who managed to let Something’s About to Change [Manhaton/V12] dash out the studio door earlier this year. The 70-year-old guitarist drew heavily on his R&B roots for the project, played all the bass parts, and, for the first time ever, he wrote every song for his own voice.
What’s the difference between writing for yourself as the singer, and composing songs when you know you’re going to hand it off to somebody else to sing?
I work quite hard to get the keys right for me, because I don’t have any range at all in my voice. If I’m writing for another vocalist, the key is less of a worry. There’s also the personal angle when you’re writing songs knowing that you’re going to sing them. I can be more open to writing about my personal life.
You’re a very melodic guitar player. Do you find that your approach to vocals is heavy on phrasing—like, “I’m going to jump on this note, but I’m going to lay back on these notes”?
No. There’s nothing musically conscious in terms of putting emphasis on certain notes.
So you don’t overthink it?
Not the initial idea. In a way, it’s much like I play guitar—which is, “Right. Let’s go for it and see what happens.” My guitar playing is seldom worked out—it’s responding to the music in the moment—and I’m always aiming for something genuine. Now, I’m not that technically adept as a singer, so the off-the-cuff stuff can be difficult, but I do establish the right feel for the vocal very early on. Feel is the most important thing to me.
Do you have a basic approach to composition?
I play guitar every day, so ideas just come, and if I get something I think I’ll enjoy playing lead over, then I continue working on it until I get a song. The next things are the vocal melody and the lyrics. The sound of the words is extremely important.
When you’re initially writing, are you singing things like, “Hey, the table is brown”—just anything to get the words out?
Yeah. It’s pretty much just sounds—making sounds to go along with the notes, as it were. Later, I may go out walking with the melody in my head, hoping that real words with the right sounds will pop into my head. Sometimes, I think about lyrics for three days almost non-stop [laughs].
How do you know when you’ve got a winner?
The entire song has to have potency, and I have to respond emotionally to it. If it’s not soulful, I drop it.
A bit off topic, but I’ve always loved your thick, silky, and organic sustain, and I’ve often wondered how loud you record in the studio to get that tone?
I run the amps almost to the maximum level they can handle. They’re not full up, but they’re running at the point where the amp just can’t give anymore—usually around three quarters—and I’m standing right next to it. I think it’s important that the speakers and the guitar are in cahoots, as it were. That’s why my hearing is going. But this is the only way I know to get that kind of sustain. I find the tone sounds forced if you’re doing it through pedals or or whatever.