Between his organically thick sustaining guitar tone and ear-catching note selection, Robin Trower is one of a few guitarists whose signature can be identified within a few seconds of hearing him play. He’s never been one to follow the obvious route in his soloing, choosing to energize his blues phrases with unexpected twists and an emotive quality that wrings the most from every single note.
His career has been long, starting with the British R&B band the Paramounts in 1962 and continuing in 1967 with Procol Harum, the progressive-rock act with whom he made five albums before launching his own successful solo career in 1973. After hitting pay dirt with 1974’s Bridge of Sighs, Trower and his band racked up three more Gold albums, and he’s been going strong ever since.
But as the guitarist explains, he’s now closer to the end of his career than the beginning. That accounts for the title of his newest release, Coming Closer to the Day (Provogue/Mascot Label Group), a set of songs with very personal lyrics. It’s the third of his recent albums on which the guitarist handles lead vocals, giving his tunes a singular character every bit as distinctive as his unique guitar voice.
“Back in the day, I was lucky enough to stumble across [the late Robin Trower Band bassist] James Dewar,” Trower says. “He had such a wonderful voice, and with a singer like that, you know you’re not going to do a better job. But recently, as my songs have become much more personal lyrically, I feel that it’s better for the words to be sung by me, as it’s my life and experiences that I’m relating.”
Between the new album’s title and some of its songs, it sounds as if you’re pondering the end of your career. Is that the case?
I hope to keep going while I can, but being on the road is becoming a little more difficult now, because of my age. I still love playing live — it’s the bits in between gigs that I find difficult. I enjoy the studio as well, and I do think the two are interconnected — one feeds into the other. If you were just sitting at home and practicing and then going out to play live, you wouldn’t reach the same level as a guitarist. I think each medium informs and improves the other.
The new song “Ghost” sounds like it’s about regrets. Do you have any in particular?
That’s a song about those things that come back to haunt you. I find I’ve learned to live with that and take things in my stride as I’ve gotten older. I think age gives you a perspective on life and helps you see and reconcile things in a way that might have been more difficult when you’re younger.
“Coming Closer to the Day” is definitely a heavy statement about passing on. Have you been thinking about mortality?
I think it’s really me saying I’m nearer to the end than the beginning, basically. It’s a general thing: I think the older you get, the more you can almost feel the end rushing toward you. You still feel the drive and enthusiasm to keep working at your art, your music, but you can see that there’s something up ahead that can bring all of that to a sudden stop.
You’ve described songwriting as plucking songs out of the air — kind of like Keith Richards’ notion that our internal antenna picks up signals from the universe. Do you find it easier to knock those inspirations into songs as you’ve gotten older?
I’m finding it easier to come up with ideas for songs because I’m working more at it. I set myself a target to play the guitar every day, and the more I play, the more ideas I come up with. I find ideas which go into my lead work. I never work something out in advance, but I’ll come up with ideas that will go into the memory banks. I find that I’m stockpiling riffs and musical ideas, but as for lyrics, I wait until I’ve got a specific piece of music before I write the lyrics. I can spend days working on the lyrics, but I’m making a lot of personal statements in my music, so I think drawing on that deeper level takes more time.
Are there any things that you’re exploring that might be unexpected?
Well, I’ve got an album coming out with [British reggae vocalist] Maxi Priest. I’ve written the music for it, and we’ve both come up with the lyrics, so that’s an interesting side avenue. It might not be a total shock to people who know my stuff, but it will probably be surprising to many. I met him through Livingstone Brown, who was my producer and mixed my last album. He was working with Maxi at the same time, and Maxi suggested we get together to see what we can come up with, and it went on from there.
Have you changed up your rig in any way?
I’m still using Fulltone effects exclusively and playing my signature Strats. They’re a perfect mix of all the elements I’m looking for in a guitar. They are great instruments, and I could happily pick one off the shelf and gig with it once I’d put my preferred string gauges on there. I like a .012 on the top E and a .015 on the B string. I’m tuning down a tone [sometimes even a whole step, reportedly] to give the fattest sound that I can get, so even though they’re quite heavy strings, I can still bend them easily. The rest of my strings — .017, .026, .036 and .048 — aren’t as heavy, but I like a high action, so they don’t feel too loose, even though they’re probably more of a medium gauge by most people’s standards. Amp-wise, it’s still a variety of Marshalls for live and studio work.
Now that you’re singing your own songs, do you find your vocal lines affect the phrasing of your guitar fills?
I find that singing does have a bearing on guitar arrangements because you’re consciously leaving spaces for the vocal and thinking about the way the two elements weave in and out of each other.
A few years ago, you said that you thought there were no great white blues players. Can you elaborate on that?
I think all the great blues artists have African blood in their veins. What I tend to think about us Brits is that what we’re doing is “blues influenced.” There’s a depth to what I call “real blues” that none of us can really achieve. The British blues guitarists are all great players, but I think the music they’re playing generally is rock and roll that’s blues influenced.
What do you think has helped you to sustain such a long career?
I think I’m very fortunate to have a strong creative drive. There’s a well of creativity there to draw on. I’m always working on ideas, and I’ve always been someone who works hard. I think that in music and in playing the guitar, you get back what you put in. The more you work at things, the better you get, and if you can continue to improve and find inspiration, you can make music that people will continue to support.
What are you happiest about in your career, and what do you feel you still have left to achieve?
I’m happiest with what I’ve been doing with the last two or three albums, really. I think I’m really starting to find my feet creatively. I like the way I’m playing now better than ever. I’m always trying to improve. That’s my ambition. You always think the next batch of stuff you produce is going to be your best. I hope I can continue to produce music that tops what I’ve done previously and that I can continue to express myself musically and lyrically and keep drawing on the well of creativity that I’m lucky enough to possess.