July , 2012
By David Huff
Down Under Guitarist On Top In America
JAM Magazine Interviews Australian Aritist Joe Robinson
Most boys spend their teen years growing up playing sports, hanging out with their buddies and chasing girls. However there the chosen few who discover at a young age, they need to be chasing something else. In the case, it was a dream. Meet Australian Joe Robinson, from the thriving metropolis of Temagog, Australia. It's a town, a hamlet really, of some 200 people located just outside the city of Kempsey in New South Wales. Joe Robinson's rare talent revolves around a guitar. At age 20, he has a worldwide following and three diverse albums under his belt. And yes, he spent his formative teen years perfecting an art he literally mastered the moment he picked up the instrument.
Music runs in the Robinson family. Joe's mother Kathy was drumming in bands when she was pregnant with her little prodigy. His father played the banjo. So maybe it's not so hard to believe that at age 13, Joe won the Australian National Songwriting Competition. Then, at age 16, this six-string master won the Australia's Got Talent competition and a tidy $250,000. Two years later, and countless tours around the world under his belt, young Joe was off again, only this time to Nashville. He decided it was the perfect town for him to lay down some roots and redefine who he is as a musician. It's wealth of great guitar players would also challenge him as a musician. The move worked out pretty well. Recently, Guitar Player Magazine named Joe Robinson "Best New Talent."
This past year, Smokin' Joe Robinson released his third disc, Let Me Introduce You. The music is quite a departure from his previous all acoustic recording, 2009's Time Jumpin'. The electrified album features the young Aussie on vocals for the first time, and literally transforms his image as an acoustic genius to an electric guitar hero in the making. There's no telling what roads this gifted breakout artist will travel in the future. His current gig opening for Boston on the first leg of their summer tour isn't a bad one.
JAM: In Australia, your talent may be regarded as unique, but here in America, you're just another very good guitar player. I've seen several prodigies come and ago over the many years I've been observing the music business. Does the fact this country has so many great guitar players make it easier for you to grow at a slow, even pace without the pressure of living up to anyone's expectations but your own?
Joe Robinson - That's an interesting question. When I first came to Nashville, I was 15 at the time. It was the first time I had ever been on an airplane, yet alone travel 10,000 miles to a different part of the hemisphere. I came over here and the initial reaction I got from people was they hadn't seen anything like me. I agree there's a lot of young guitar prodigies that can shred the guitar. The thing is I come from a different place musically. That helped set me apart. I have always been a driven person, and I believe people can see my enthusiasm and passion the moment I begin playing. I think that's part of the reason people are willing to help me out. People in Nashville have always reacted well to me. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great young musicians in Australia too! I really don't want to be known as some young virtuoso guy. Relocating to America has definitely allowed me to downplay that.
JAM: Do you ever wonder if people are reacting more to your accent than your actual playing?
I always have people come up and talk to me when they hear my accent, and that's pretty cool. The playing takes care of itself.
JAM: Of all places in the U.S. to move to, I was curious as to why you moved to Nashville. You are surrounded by all sorts of great talent, and it certainly is a difficult place to standout, especially a guitar player.
Well, you're right! It is a tough place to stand out. There are a lot of great musicians. The first time I came to America, I also visited New York and L.A. as well. I found Los Angeles to be too laid back. New York was amazing and I met some really cool people. The thing is, I'm from a real small country area, so Nashville felt like home to me. I have been fortunate to play with a lot of the great guitar players here. I feel that people, when they see me, want to help and give me breaks because they like what I do with the guitar.
JAM: Great guitar players are associated with the great guitar solos, or riffs, they played in commercially successful songs. Do you ever think about that when you are writing songs?
Yes I do. Back in Australia, I played in a rock bands and did all the solo stuff when I was 14. I developed my own style of playing and I felt like it was a better way to showcase my ability. In a nutshell, essentially, this is what happened. I got to a point where I pursued the acoustic side of my playing as far as I wanted to. Throughout the past year, I was playing the electric guitar again and singing. It is reflected on my new album. Musically, what I'm doing is guitar driven, but it's a reflection of the song as a whole. I want to grow in a sort of Eric Clapton direction.
JAM: I learned more about Joe Robinson searching the Internet than I ever could have listening to one of your albums. Has the constantly changing technology that's overtaken the music business been a blessing in disguise for a young artist like your self?
Technology is an incredible thing. What the Internet has done for me is I can go to Japan and sell out shows, go to Europe and sell out shows, without ever having been there. That's because audiences have discovered me through YouTube. There's an amazing network of people the Internet has exposed me to. It has definitely been a wonderful thing for me.
JAM: Sooner or later you're going to have to deliver commercially on all the accolades that have come your way.
I am going through a real transition period right now musically. I've traded in the acoustic guitar for an electric one and turned my situation more into a band thing, a singing thing.
JAM: I interviewed another guitarist named Joe who started out much like you, Joe Bonamassa. He was highly acclaimed at age 13, when he was discovered by B.B. King and invited to tour with him. His career took off from there and is still thriving almost 20 years later. What's interesting about his situation is this. Because of the Internet, he decided to ditch his own record company, form his own label and release records in digital or physical copy formats. His company has two employees, his manager and record producer. This philosophy not only gave him more control over his future, but gave him this immense freedom to take his career in any path he chose. I found that approach quite fascinating?
Record labels have little incentive to invest in an artist's career unless they can make money off them quickly. Joe is an example of a real talent that people are drawn to. He doesn't need a label to further his career or ambitions. In a way, I feel like I fit into that category as well. You really can make a better living, and create a longer-lasting career, if you do it with an independent kind of attitude.
JAM: Your generation has grown up with the Internet, where everyone thinks music and movies are free. How does that attitude among your peer group affect you, or have you already learned to adapt?
Right now the music world is flooding the Internet with content. When I was a kid, the Internet wasn't happening like it is right now. Today, because of it, I have a career. The Internet allows an artist like me, who would never be accepted on radio, an outlet to play my music. It's a cool kind of thing. In fact, I learned a lot about guitar playing watching other guitarists perform on the Internet when I was starting out.
JAM: Without the wired world we live in, would you be where you are at right now?
I think so, but it would have taken much longer. It's funny, before I went on the talent show, I was 15 years old and I had played over 1000 shows. I had paid my dues so to speak, and this is before anything I had ever done was posted on YouTube. Basically I built a performing style, and a fan base in Australia before technology discovered me, or vice versa. Essentially, I followed the same concept with bands in the '60s. They played countless numbers of shows wherever they could and paid their dues. What the Internet did was level the playing field so people like me would get a real chance to be discovered.
JAM: What has life been like the past three years since you were rediscovered Down Under?
It has been amazing really. My parents have supported my playing since I was eleven years old. I started traveling, playing the guitar when I was 11. During those early years, my family, particularly my mom, played a big part in facilitating my dream of being a successful musician. They have seen me continue down a path they helped started.
JAM: When you were a finalist on the Australia's Got Talent competition, you said you wanted to buy your mom a really good vacuum cleaner if you won. So did you buy your mom a really good vacuum cleaner after winning the contest, or did you hire a maid instead?
After I said that on the show, she had a few vacuum cleaner companies contact her. She picked one, and they put out an advertisement that said, "Smoking Joe cleans up with so-n-so." It was pretty funny.
JAM: With so many options available to you, and various directions your talent can take you in, is there too much going on in your life right now, and is it becoming a problem?
That's another good question. I'm always attempting new things, and trying to do what I feel is right for me. When I was on that Australian TV show, I kind of went from being Joe who always played the guitar to becoming a nationally known person. That kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. It made me think, really think, about what I like and what I need in life. When I won the grand finale, three days later I was in a Nashville recording studio working on my album. I was honestly happier there than I had ever been. Back home, surrounded by the hype of it all, I was thinking to myself, "What in the hell am I doing? This sucks! I want to be playing music." That experience taught me a lot about who I am, and gave me perspective on what I need to do as a musician.
JAM: You have literally played all over the world. When you get a chance to think about how far you've come at the ripe old age of 20, are you ever amazed that the sounds coming out of your guitar can communicate with people far better than words ever could.
Absolutely, it's an incredible thing, especially instrumental music. For instance, when I went to a country like Bangkok and I'm not playing a private show, but for a bunch of kids like a state school in Thailand, the children love it. I can do the same thing in Australia, America, Europe and people have the same reaction. It's just a really incredible thing.
JAM: When did it dawn on you that what you are doing with your fingertips is pretty amazing? Not only does that talent set you apart from other people, but it gives you self-confidence, swagger and who knows, it may even change the course of someone's life simply because of the way you pluck a guitar string.
It's an amazing thing. I've never really played music for any other reason than I love it. For me, what I'm always trying to do is allow that passion and enthusiasm I have for the guitar to kind of be eminent when I play. When I see my favorite musicians or performers on stage, I can feel their energy and passion. To me, those emotions are what hit me the most, and that's what I hope comes through in my own playing.
JAM: Why did you decide to introduce vocals into your music after ignoring them on your previous two recordings?
I didn't really ignore them on my last two albums, I just didn't sing. I always sang when I was younger, but I didn't pursue it. I got so invested in guitar playing, I felt like that's what I needed to do. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror until I could play the way I wanted to. So, I kind of locked myself in my room and devoted myself to playing. After I made my last album, I went on tour and played about 200 dates that year. I came to the point where I wanted to explore something different, jump into the deep end so to speak. That's when I decided I wanted to sing and take a band out with me on the road. Listen, I can play the electric guitar, as well as the acoustic, so I wanted to pursue that part of my playing again. It's been a really wonderful thing for me in the sense I felt really inspired making my new album. If I wasn't pushing myself in a different direction, if I wasn't forcing myself to understand a new side of me, I wouldn't nearly be as excited and happy as I am right now.
JAM: Can you turn off Joe the musician when you want to, or does that switch inside you always remain on? I would think if you can't turn it off, it could be bothersome at times.
Well, another interesting question. I'd have to say yeah, it sort of does. To me, the musicians and performers I really idolize truly live their music. Their personalities as performers and singers - that's who they are. As for my situation, sometimes it is hard to be the person you want to be up there on the stage. It's like you can't separate your personalities at times. For example, I love going to concerts and listening to other musicians. I try to see what they're doing from their perspective musically because otherwise I'd drive myself insane, especially if I don't like the music.
JAM: When you go home to Australia and your mom goes, "Honey, I'm locking your guitar up for a week! Don't even ask me about it." Would that bother you?
Well, I'd find a way to get it. (laughs) Actually, I've done that sometimes. I've gotten to the point where I wanted to stop for a minute. Sometimes from a technical standpoint, it's good to reset your fingers and start over from a fresh perspective. Then again, if I don't play for a week, it will take me that much more time to get back to where I was when I stopped. If I'm at a point where I don't have my head together, and I haven't been playing, I am compelled to practice and keep my fingers moving.
JAM: I asked Joe Satriani one time how he keeps his fingers and hands in condition because he holds his guitar in an unusual manner to get the sounds he likes.
Well, I have a good technique for holding the guitar and I have conditioned my hands over the last ten years to play. I know Joe uses gauge eight or nine strings, which are impossibly light, but I know when he was younger, he used much heavier strings. I used gauge 16 up to 56, so it is a real physical thing for me to play sometimes, but if you have good technique and you're healthy as a person, it doesn't hurt to condition yourself for the instrument.
JAM: Are you getting tired of being referred to as the winner of the 2008 Australia's Got Talent contest?
Don't get me wrong, being on that progream was a wonderful thing. I'm proud of the fact it happened to me, and I'm definitely not ungrateful for what that show has given me. With that said, I feel winning the contest was a lifetime ago. It's funny, for the last year, I've been away from Australia working on a new project that's going to be a really wonderful thing for me to release to the world. It represents me the way I want to be seen and heard today. In the past, I've kind of been modeled on other musicians, always writing my own stuff to be different in that perspective, but still being too similar to other people that I was comparable with. This album is really going to set me apart. People will think of me less as the contest winner and more as a musician.
JAM: Is that why you introduced vocals to your arsenal of musical weapons?
I like to think of it as expanding my range as a musician. To me, talking about music is like the stupidest thing to do. If you hear the music and like it, that's great. If you don't like what you're hearing, fine. I feel this new album has really captured the sound that I'm proud of. It's unique musically, vocally and production wise. Again, I'm proud of my past, but my musical DNA is much stronger now, and it is evident on the record.
JAM: You are living in a town, Nashville, where the words are more important to a song than the actual music itself. Rather ironic, don't you think?
It's been kind of an amazing thing being in the Nashville community. Really, it has been perfect for me because if I play in a club here, people don't really care how well you play; they just listen to the song. It has really helped me become a better songwriter. There really is no city like Nashville. People in this town actually come out to listen to the music, not how dazzling you are on an instrument. That's definitely been a very interesting transition for me. I've come across, and played with, some of the most prolific songwriters in the business. It's really a bizarre thing to know there is so much talent concentrated in one area. There is an incredible, amazing network of writers that Nashville has become the home to. It's really cool.
JAM: You sound like you'd get along with Vince Gill if you ever met up with him. Not only is he an amazing and versatile guitar player, his songwriting is brilliant too.
Every Monday, at a place called the Station Inn, Vince plays acoustic and bluegrass music there. I was able to sit in with him, which was really fun. He's a cool guy, and one of those Nashville musicians's that literally everyone has immense respect for in the business. He really commands himself in a way that is really kind great. I admire him a lot.
JAM: How do you teach yourself to play the guitar by watching the Internet? You either have the talent or you don't. Exactly what were you searching for when looking at other performers play the guitar?
Well, let's say I saw Eric Clapton playing a song. I would feel compelled to learn the song the way he played it. By doing that, I learned something different on the guitar. I did the same thing with other videos I saw. I'd watch the guitar player and then try to copy the song. I'd hear a song by Eric Johnson and think, "Wow, the sounds coming from his guitar are incredible. I've got to learn how he does that." I'd start playing around with the guitar, playing the song until I figured it out. Players like that have had a real strong affect on me, not only by their playing, but in the way they were able to extract these different sounds from their instruments.
JAM: Tommy Emmanuel seems to have been the biggest influence on you as a musician.
When I heard Tommy Emmanuel the first time, I just had to learn to play like him. I'd watch his videos over and over then listen to his interviews. I researched him as much as I could. I was a big fan and tried to copy his style. It's one thing to copy a song note for note that's already been written. However, to wrap your head around how those particular notes came about it is an entirely different matter. When I write a song, all the influences from the people I just mentioned, Clapton, Eric Johnson and Tommy, will end up in the song in one form or another.
JAM: The one thing that always struck me about Eric Johnson's playing was the amazing sounds he was able to pull out of a guitar. To this day, I'm still fascinated by the things he can do with his instrument. Does a musician like that inspire you to really explore all the possibilities you can create with the guitar?
For me, it is all about the emotion the instrument creates when it's played a certain way. I've seen Jeff Beck twice this year live, and his playing just floored me. It's nothing flashy, nothing technically intense, it's just power, emotion and it's all raw. It was really an amazing moment when those feelings overcame me watching him perform. Sometimes it's the melody, or the energy, or the technical things in a performance that will hit me like a sonic beam. Jeff Beck played with fire and was relentless in the vibrancy of his playing. Django Rienhardt is one of my favorite guitar players of all time who I also try to emulate.
JAM: Would you be insulted if someone called you a "shredder"?
I don't know how to really answer that. Let's just say musicians who shred have never left an impression on me. Yngwie Malmsteen for example is known as a shredder. The thing is he plays with so much fire and so much passion his timing is impeccable. Yngwie is charismatic with a forceful personality. To me, he's really not a shredder.
JAM: The reason I asked is simply because the electric guitar, which you use extensively on your new album, and the acoustic guitar that dominated your last two efforts, are technically two entirely different instruments.
Obviously the two guitars have unique sounds associated with them.
JAM: In my generation, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page are often referred to as the Holy Trinity of guitar players. Jimi Hendrix, well he just stands alone. You just turned 20. Who has been an influence for your generation?
Well, this is going to shock you, but to me the Holy Trinity is Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian.
JAM: The three jazz music titans in the '50s.
Yes, and honestly, I would rate them higher than anyone alive today. Those three really played with more integrity and feeling than anyone you could mention. That's my feeling and perspective on your question. As for Hendrix, the whole 60's movement pushed music sideways and his guitar playing symbolized that. But if you go back to the '50s and listen to those guy's records, their playing is impeccable. For instance, go back and listen to Django's records. No one alive today could touch him. It is timeless and you wonder if anyone could ever be that good again.
Well, you better hope you can.
(Laughing) The greatest players move you and personify what the instrument is all about. I try to live that some way because I feel those examples are the only way to do it. I guess time will tell.