Glance through Robjn’s website and you’ll very quickly realise that this man is all about the music. No cheesy bios, vacuous press blurb or cheeky celebrity selfies, just creativity by the bucketload. So, if the music does the talking, what does Robjn’s latest album Post-mortem have to say?
Bringing a mix of aspiration, fantasy and despair, through both musical and lyrical arrangements, Post-mortem is a multi-layered offering. At one level, perky synth-pop with New Romantic retro vibe (and what’s not to love about that?) Go deeper and it challenges comfortable preconceptions, retelling our most cherished stories — without happy endings. As Robjn explains “I didn’t realise it at the time but fairy tales are mentioned twice in the album, both Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk … I like to think the songs are just modern views on gay romance.”
Monolith opens the album with dance-pop energy that defies the listener not to get up and move. You’ll know the person next to you on the bus is listening to this if their head is bopping along, unconsciously, while they pretend to read the paper. Be careful, that could be you too! Describing this track as “optimistic”, Robjn explains his choice: “I think I knew the album could come across a little glum if I didn’t do something to the start; the first few songs lyrically are a bit tense and so I put this song at the start of the record.”
So, expect the next track to provide something glum — and be surprised. Getting Old delivers a military beat — as rallying and uplifting as a marching band in all its Game of Thrones glory. Although Robjn’s stimulus was a reflection of time wasted on failed relationships, this is an inspirational song. If you’ve got something to do, do it now. Time is short. We are all getting old.
Opening with a sustained chord before introducing the slow, pounding heartbeat of drums, Silver asks questions about who we are — “Do you know your name? Are they all the same?” It’s not surprising that this song was conceived while looking at William Eggleston photographs, renowned for presenting everyday mundanity with an edge of menace, as it flows into a phrase that is hard-wired from childhood to send us running for cover — “Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman”. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Here In The Far brings Robjn out from behind the mixing desk, proving the versatility of his musicianship while offering an insight into his vocal range in layered harmonies too. Describing the song as folk-like, Robjn admits “I don’t see myself in that role but it’s nice to show I could do it if I wanted.” As well as challenging himself with a genre-flip, Here In The Far throws down the challenge of consequences, and responsibility for our choices “What did you really think would come of this? What did you really want when you stole that kiss?” Robjn breaks it down succinctly “It’s really about a bastard that will go on cheating, a cheat is always a cheat.” Folk-like it may be, comfy it isn’t.
Just over a year ago, I saw Idina Menzel play Elizabeth/Liz in If/Then on Broadway, which includes a song titled WTF. I’m not sure it was quite what the family a few rows back, with a little girl resplendent in her Elsa-from-Frozen costume, were expecting to hear, but the juxtaposition came flooding back to me when I heard Robjn’s next track, also titled WTF, especially against the backdrop of Robjn’s self-confirmed connection with fairy tales.
But Robjn’s WTF isn’t a fairy-tale song and it doesn’t give a fairy-tale ending either. It’s a getting-dumped song, about carrying on through the pain when, according to Robjn “Acting normal is the last thing you want to do… mostly you just want to pick up a telephone and get answers from that lover that you will never get.” Set to an upbeat electro track, with shades of of Depeche Mode’s People Are People, WTF showcases the richness of Robjn’s lower-register vocals, which express the barely-holding-it-together, edge-of-anger emotion of the lyrics to perfection.
Heart Attack brings us full-circle to the beginning of a relationship but — true to form — Robjn doesn’t bring us happiness and flowers. Instead, Heart Attack explores the terror of telling someone you love them for the first time. In Robjn’s words, “An attack of the heart… it has a casual feel for something that isn’t. It’s an explosion of love that goes slightly wrong.” There is an insistence that propels us over the cliff-edge of declaration without the comfort of reciprocation. Did it turn out well? We’ll never know. But maybe that’s the point.
Back to fairy tales retold with Cinderella, Robjn brings the story bang up to date: “I think it’s what would have happened to Cinderella if she lived now. I don’t think she would have lived with the abuse. She would have got into a glass coffin like Sleeping Beauty… and would have just ended it.” Wow – that bursts Disney’s bubble!
A haunting song that creeps up from sounds of seascapes in the rain, through building strings, pizzicato keyboards and softly-chanted harmonies, supporting a simple vocal rendition, all in minor key. Cinderella is evocative stuff. It’s classy too. As Robjn reveals “The lyrics in the second half are an English translation of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, again, it’s a mythic world, a perfect death… I thought it was so beautiful, as it is in German. I have a slight obsession with perfect deaths maybe. Ophelia by Millais or Tom Hunter’s wonderful photograph from Life and death in Hackney. The idea of the perfect love, perfect life, perfect death… all the same to me.” This is definitely the requiem that Cinderella deserves.
I’ll admit, I’m not always a huge fan of remixes, but I make an exception for Alex Stroeer (yes, THE Alex Stroeer) so finding that Post-mortem includes Silver (Alex Stroeer Remix) is a total treat for me. If you need to know more about him, Robjn explains “Alex is amazing really, full of so many talents, he worked for NASA even. He totally understands the drama of a song.” His reworking of Silver brings an urgency to the track, along with electro-wizardry that proves that, with songs as with fairy-tales, the way you tell them matters as much as the story. Taken side-by-side, what Silver tears from the heart, Silver (Alex Stroeer Remix) fills up again. Don’t be afraid – go dance with that Giant!
Wafting in with gentle emotion and wistful simplicity, Crying and Dying is beautifully crafted from piano, layered, processed and reversed, if you need proof that instrumentals deserve their place, this track gives it all and more. Robjn describes it as the sound of tears, I got plaintive birdsong, what do you hear?
At well under 2 minutes, the final, title track Post-mortem is barely more than an interlude, but what it gives up in length, it makes up for in fascination. How did Robjn make that sound? “It’s a dreadful old harmonium I have, a two peddle church one. I could not record it and the vocals together, the volume wouldn’t stay consistent so I had to sample it being played and also the peddles working the bellows.” Overlaid with Robjn’s rich, laid-back vocal, Post-mortem is a song of goodbye. Not farewell, or see-you-later, but full-on goodbye — “Send me as far as can be… You meant nothing to me.” There’s no rowing back from a sentiment like that, especially if, as Robjn expresses it “it’s a beautiful goodbye and surrender… Maybe a suicide too.”
You’ve probably gathered that I’m rather taken with Robjn’s voice, so I was surprised to find that, although he has been making music for a while, he has only been singing for three years. He confesses that he doesn’t know why he didn’t sing before. “I like to think I had fooled myself into the Brian Eno idea that ‘if music was translated into art as a painting’ then a landscape painting (instrumental music) normally has a lot more going on in it than a portrait (being anything with a vocalist), how your ear hears only the vocals and you don’t pay attention to the background of a painting when figures are painted in the foreground. Mostly I think I was worried about how people would react to the lyrics, you can get personal and leave yourself exposed.”
In Post-mortem, Robjn writes himself into the story with a fearlessness that compels his audience to join him. Whether writing from experience or re-telling a myth of old, Robjn projects a deeply personal connection with his material. His authenticity resonates at a visceral level, stripping away the armour of narrative and exposing the feelings below. Whatever our story, we can all find our “me-too” moment here.
First published on Angry Baby