Photo by Andy Ellis
Once in a great while, a young guitarist captures the attention of music lovers early in his career and manages to sustain this interest as he matures creatively and sheds the “prodigy” label. Joe Robinson is one of these rare talents: At 21, Robinson has been building a buzz for almost 10 years, first in his native Australia, then in Europe and the UK, and now in the US.
For those who’ve been following Robinson’s career, stories of the flattop-wielding teenager winning first place in major televised talent competitions are old hat. More relevant to PG readers is that fingerstyle master Tommy Emmanuel has mentored Robinson for years, often bringing him onstage for fiery duets. Though Robinson only began playing guitar a decade ago, he’s already a seasoned veteran, having done thousands of shows all over the world. He developed his jaw-dropping chops by getting up at 4 a.m. every day to put in a four-hour practice session before going to school. After school, he’d grab another four hours of guitar time. Dedication? Robinson has it in spades. This nearly freakish drive allowed him to hit the road at an age when most kids are thumbing through comic books or absorbed in video games.
“When I was 12,” he says, “I went on tour with an Australian country artist named Texas Rose. He lent me an electric guitar, which I didn’t have at the time. It was a Yamaha SG-700 and I borrowed it for two years.”
Robinson’s 2009 US debut—the all-acoustic and instrumental Time Jumpin’— earned him immediate respect from the thumbstyle guitar community, and now he regularly performs at the annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention alongside such top-tier fingerstyle players as Emmanuel, Thom Bresh, Martin Taylor, Doyle Dykes, Muriel Anderson, and Steve Wariner. And consider this: Time Jumpin’ was produced by Frank Rogers, who, as Brad Paisley’s producer, knows a hot picker when he sees one.
With Let Me Introduce You—Robinson’s latest album, which was also produced by Rogers—the soft-spoken Aussie recasts himself as a singer-songwriter. The album features plenty of blazing guitar (both fingerstyle and flatpick), but the poppy vocals and carefully crafted production may leave some ardent fans of Robinson’s solo acoustic fretwork scratching their heads.
“I’d never done a commercial- sounding electric guitar album before,” he says. “So it was a huge learning experience making this CD. I got to work in some great studios with first-class musicians, producers, and engineers, and now I feel like I just graduated from college.”
Recently we spent a rainy afternoon with Robinson at his manager’s Nashville office, discussing this crash course in studio craft, as well as his creative process, favorite gear, and what he sees as the next step in his musical odyssey.
Where did you track Let Me
Introduce You and how long
did you work on it?
We started tracking in March last year and ended in October. It took a while because we did it in sections. We recorded the bass and drum tracks over a weekend in a studio called The Castle, just outside of Nashville. Then I went on tour and when I got back to Nashville, I started recording my guitar overdubs in various local studios. Frank Rogers, the producer, had to work on another project at one point, so he was out for a month. We kind of piecemealed it until everything came together.
Did you cut your rhythm guitar
with the bass and drums?
We recorded as a trio to get really good drum and bass performances, but we replaced my tracks later. And before we went into the studio we had three days of rehearsals because I wanted us to feel like a band when we started recording. I wanted to avoid learning songs in the studio.
Keith Carlock on drums and
Michael Rhodes on bass—
what a rhythm section! How
did you connect with them?
I’ve been a fan of Keith’s drumming for years—all the stuff he has recorded with Wayne Krantz, Oz Noy, and the whole 55 Bar community in New York. He was the guy I dreamed of having play on my album, so it was really cool that he said yes when we reached out. I knew he’d played with Michael before, so we asked him to play bass and he was really excited about it. Hanging out with those guys and hearing them play my songs was like a fantasy come true.
Were you intimidated at all?
These guys have played with
James Taylor, Steely Dan, Sting,
Vince Gill, John Mayer, Keith
Urban—the list goes on and on.
I wasn’t nervous about playing with them—that was the fun part to me—but I was nervous that my charts were wrong. I knew what I wanted on pretty much all the songs, so articulating that to Michael and Keith in a way they could understand was really important to me. Otherwise I would have walked away with something that was different from what I wanted. But it was really easy to work with such high-caliber players. You can make one little suggestion and they take it onboard so quickly and easily. I gave them charts when we first dug into the music in those rehearsals, and that’s when we all got a sense of what the project would sound like.
Give us an example of the
kind of direction you offered.
Well, it was really quite detailed. For instance, I knew the exact feel I wanted on the hi-hat and often I wrote out the bass lines. I handed Michael some notation at one point and he was like, really? But on “Lethal Injection,” I had to. It’s a part—not just chords—so I had to show him that. He liked a lot of the lines I came up with, which was cool, though he felt he needed to de-literalize some of the parts to make it more of a feel thing and less of a mechanical performance.
What were some of your
biggest challenges making
A big part of it for me was learning how to sing and play at the same time. On the acoustic songs, I wanted it to sound like a fingerstyle guitarist accompanying a singer, so I had to learn to play the guitar with a good feel and execute the parts I wanted to hear, yet also sing without thinking about the guitar playing.
I used James Taylor as a model because I love the way he plays and sings. His phrasing is so good on both the guitar and vocals—the two fit so well together. I wanted the guitar to play an integral role in the song, so I essentially took the same approach with counterpoint that I use in my solo acoustic guitar pieces and applied it to the context of singing and interacting with other musicians. My instrumental concept involves a constantly moving harmonic structure—a bass part going one way and a melody part moving on top of it. The challenge was to add vocals to that underlying structure.
Robinson’s Gretsch Country Gentleman is one of his main stage guitars, but he mostly played a ’60s Gibson E-335 on Let Me Introduce You. Photo by Ethan James Photography
Did you record home demos
to work out your parts?
I did guitar-and-vocal demos of all the songs. I played all the songs on acoustic—even the ones I knew would be electric on the album—just to hear them in their most basic form. I demoed a lot of songs to determine which ones felt right for this album. I lived with the demos for about a month, so by the time I was at rehearsals, I had a grasp of the material. I really focused on these work tapes, trying to hear if the lyrics were solid and if they were communicating what I wanted to say.
I was nervous that I’d never really sung on a record before. And, although I’ve written a lot of songs, I’d never really written any for myself as an artist. So once I knew I wanted to do an album of vocal-based songs with a band, I decided I needed more experience in this area. I went through a process of co-writing songs with people on Music Row [the historical area on 16th and 17th Avenues in Nashville that’s home to dozens of music publishing companies]. Five days a week for six weeks, I churned out a song each day. Each week I’d get a better handle on the songwriting process and write better stuff. It was interesting to explore that world—some of those writers are just geniuses.