“Smokin” Joe Robinson’s rise to fame has been nothing short of extraordinary. A true child prodigy, Joe ditched his guitar teacher at aged ten, deciding to teach himself via the Internet. Within a year he would find himself touring his native Australia. By age 13 he was winning national songwriting competitions and at aged 15 he already had his first full album under his belt; the expansive and acoustic Birdseed.
Joe exploded onto the world stage in 2008 when he won Australia’s Got Talent with a series of blistering acoustic pieces that left the judges and the live studio audience utterly transfixed. Unlike so many talent show contestants, Joe’s win never became a black spot on his record, and he’s not merely known as “that guy from Australia’s Got Talent.” Instead Joe has set about winning more awards, recording more albums and earning the respect of the guitar community at large.
A feat which he achieved in 2010 when Guitar Player magazine named him the “best new talent” in their reader’s poll. In between tours and competitions, Joe also found time to release his second full LP, Time Jumpin’; a gloriously lyrical record, full of short but spacious acoustic instrumentals, rich in character and imagination that blend genres and influences effortlessly.
As 2011 draws to a close Joe is working on the much anticipated follow up to Time Jumpin’. The as yet untitled work will be Joe’s first record with a full band, it will be comprised of electric and acoustic elements, and Joe will be singing and writing lyrics for the first time on record. It’s a big step, and it’s where we started today’s discussion:
So you’ve been working on new material with a more traditional band format, how are you finding the transition; do you feel comfortable being the driving force behind a group of musicians?
I’m loving playing with other musicians! Playing solo can be very liberating but it can get old pretty quickly. The whole collaborative aspect of music is something that has always really excited me, so playing with a great rhythm section and writing music for that kind of ensemble is like a breath of fresh air for me, I’m loving it.
Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a long time and does it mark a permanent change in direction?
Well I guess in the scheme of things, I ultimately want to establish a distinct musical DNA that is unique to me, and then apply it to as many different musical situations as I can. I absolutely want to keep evolving, and I’m so excited by the fact that this album marks introduction of a vocal and lyrical element to my music. I have a bunch of new colours on my palette.
We were speaking with Paul Gilbert last week about the importance of finding balance, respecting melody and containing the impulse to just let rip when trying to craft what are essentially pop or rock songs.
That’s the whole game. A lot of people see me playing very technically involved songs and assume that I like complicated music. But I actually cannot stand it. Haha...My favorite songs have real melodic, harmonic and rhythmic integrity and I try and keep that in mind always.
Now you’re working with vocals, how is this affecting your playing, are you still finding room to express yourself on guitar?
Yeah, it can be a real challenge to maintain technique on both the voice and the guitar, especially since I’m still very green as a vocalist, but I’m loving it. My approach to writing music hasn’t changed at all, the elements of it are still the same, there are just lyrics added. And I guess for me actually learning to write lyrics has involved a very steep learning curve, but again it’s a new skill I’ve acquired, and I’m loving the process.
Your music has always had a wonderful narrative quality; your playing creates unmistakable moods and invites the listener to attach their own personal sentiments to the music. And there is this genuine sense of freedom and space on Time Jumpin’.
Can we still expect an open free feeling sound moving forward or will you be moving towards more rigid verse-chorus structures?
Well I guess the lyrical element dictates a more specific emotional quality than a melodic idea does sometimes, and maybe leaves less to the imagination, but it can potentially connect with people in a way that simply isn’t possible with instrumental music.
Structurally the songs on my new record are in more of a traditional verse/chores format, but my approach in terms of melodic and harmonic composition is just as open and free sounding as Time Jumpin, perhaps even more so, to me anyway.
We’ve got to ask, even though we know everyone hates being pigeonholed by genre, but what kind of sound can we expect from your new material?
“Barely Hangin’ On” sounds delightfully smooth, soulful and electric, but I’m sure our readers would love to hear from the horse’s mouth what kind of sounds you’re experimenting with.
Thanks…well its hard to say as every track on the album has a different pool of influences mixed in, but I’d say it sounds like the same guy on Time Jumpin… he just grew up a couple years, started singing, wrote lyrics to some of his instrumental ideas, and surrounded himself with a bunch of R&B musicians.
So we hear you’ve co-written every track on your album, tell us a bit about that process, because the transition from guitarist to songwriter is one that many of us attempt to make.
Well as a guitarist, I rely on a fairly broad technical vocabulary to compose and perform music, so I felt that if I was going to sing I had to come from the same place. So its really been a challenge rising to the bar, but I’ve really enjoyed it!
I wrote every note on this album, and really collaborated for lyrical input only. Writing lyrics was a real challenge for me, as I wanted them to sound personal, but at the same time good. They say you have to write 100 bad songs before you write a good one. And with lyrics, I really found that to be quite accurate.
We always like to know what’s inspiring today’s great guitarists. What kind of sounds and artists are capturing your imagination right now?
Well I feel it’s impossible to ignore the amazing catalogues left by the likes of Django and Wes, those guys are on another level. I try to listen to mainstream stuff for production ideas, to folk stuff for lyrical ideas, a little bit of modern jazz for improvisational ideas, and some indie stuff to keep me humble.
You’ll be back on tour in Australia in the not too distant future, and we hear you’ll be coming to Europe in 2012, what have you got in store for us and will the balance of your show be shifting more towards the electric side of things?
Yeah, I’m SO excited to get back on the road again! The album is such a mix of acoustic, electric and vocal, so the live show will reflect that. Having said that I really don’t ever work with a firm set list, so I usually treat each show differently and just play what I feel. It’s such a luxury to have three albums of repertoire to pick from.
And finally, what’s your favourite bit of musical gear in your collection and what’s the latest edition you’ve made?
I’d say my favorite bit of gear is my Custom Shop Maton Acoustic; It is totally the best guitar I’ve ever owned. I carry it everywhere with me.
The latest addition is a bunch of T-Rex stomp boxes I just got. They sound totally badass. Their Reverb, Trem and Gain pedals are amazing.
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