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Issue 1067

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Feature

ROBIN THICKE: In the Thicke of it

Robin Thicke
Robin Thicke Robin Thicke Robin Thicke Robin Thicke

Having become, in 2007, the first white male solo artist to top the US R&B singles chart since George Michael, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/producer Robin Thicke now goes for a sexy, classic R&B vibe with his eagerly-anticipated new, third album ‘Something Else’ and its string-laden, bass-driven single ‘Magic’.

Produced entirely by Robin and his long-time collaborator Pro-Jay, ‘Something Else’ has been widely acclaimed for creatively melding the retro with the modern while inspired by classic Philly, Motown and Seventies black disco. Indeed, digging into the soul crates with throwback references to the likes of Curtis, Stevie and Marvin, its moods range from the gritty funk of ‘Sidestep’ and bluesily driving ‘Hard On My Love’; to mellower ballad moments like the falsetto-voiced, romantic ‘Sweetest Love’ and gently shuffling, summery ‘Ms. Harmony’.

Born in March 1977 in Los Angeles, California to vocalist Gloria Loring and popular sitcom actor Alan Thicke (of ‘Growing Pains’ fame), Robin had already written and produced for the likes of Brandy and Christina Aguilera before belatedly releasing his own debut album (under the name Thicke) ‘A Beautiful World’ in 2002. Despite its offshoot single ‘When I Get You Alone’ achieving Top 10 success in far-flung territories like New Zealand and The Netherlands, however, the album attained little success in itself. Nevertheless, with the quality of its musicality earning considerable respect from industry heads and critics, it did pave the way for Thicke to sign with super-producer Pharrell Williams’ Star Trak label. For whom his next album - 2006’s ‘The Evolution Of Robin Thicke’ - would eventually prove Robin’s breakthrough release, with both the LP and its sweetly-crooned single ‘Lost Without U’ proving enduring US R&B chart-toppers in early 2007; attaining Platinum sales and winning several prestigious awards along the way.

Today widely heralded as one of the most soulful artists in contemporary R&B, an affable Robin (who is married to successful black Hollywood actress Paula Patton) takes time out from his US tour with hip hop/soul Queen Mary J. Blige to hook up with ‘B&S’ for a revealing chat about his latest album and his long-term career. Which, as a writer and producer alone, has already seen him amass dozens of Gold and Platinum discs with superstars including Usher, Mary J. Blige and Michael Jackson; while currently finding him working on his debut screenplay plus writing a book of poetry.

His soul/disco-flavoured new single ‘Magic’, and its extravagant video that pays reference to Fred Astaire’s ‘Mr. Universe’ and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

“For the song I just wanted to celebrate that feeling that gave people hope and made them feel good on the inside. And, with its vibe being about the endless possibilities in life and with space being the final frontier, for the video I just thought that seeing people lying on the moons and controlling the universe suited that theme of bravado very well.”

Hooking up with Mary J. Blige for a high-profile remix of ‘Magic’, which has also coincided with the two artists touring together

“Well, she’s incredible. I mean, she just gets in there and knocks it out! She’s all truth, all feel... And we actually hooked up through a friend of mine who’d seen her in New York. When Mary told her she was going on tour, she was like ‘Well, Robin’s got an album coming out. So you guys should get together’... So then we got in the studio and did a little remix of ‘Magic’ together, which in turn has helped promote the tour. And so far it’s all been great.”

Titling his new album ‘Something Else’

“There’s so many meanings behind that title. Number one, it reflects what we’re going through as a nation here in America. I just felt, with Barack Obama and the new energy he’s bringing, that it is time for some fresh hope and new attitudes. Then, in terms of me as an artist, because I’ve been singing all these songs about self-reflection - like ‘2 The Sky’ and ‘Angels’ - I just thought it was time for me to start singing about something ELSE! Also, I felt that - with my music being a little different from everything else you can get out there - the music IN ITSELF is also something different and something else!”

How Robin feels about ‘Something Else’ being described as “a joyful and modern tribute to Seventies soul”

“I think people are describing it like that just because I’ve used the live horns and live strings. Because the last time we really heard live music like that WAS in the Seventies! I mean, if I’d produced it with keyboards, people WOULDNT be saying it sounds like something from that era. It could have been the same songs with the same arrangements - but, with different keyboard sounds, it would have seemed more modern. You know, to me a good song can be written in ANY era. But it’s how you choose to musically arrange it that helps define its overall SOUND.”

What he wanted to express lyrically this time round

“With me I think there’s always been a little bit of self-examination, spirituality and love in the music. But, where the last album was more me sitting around my house with my piano writing all these songs to make MYSELF feel better, this time I’ve started talking more about OTHER PEOPLE’S experiences, rather than just my own. The feeling I had while writing these songs was that I wanted to embrace people, and that I wanted to BE embraced. So it was more about me wanting to get over certain things; to not dwell on certain negativities and sadnesses. Even though I did want to acknowledge what’s going on in society, on a more personal level I felt it was time to let go a little bit. And I think that is evident in the lyrics, where I talk about being able to deal with the day in front of me without letting it get to me or letting it DEFINE me.”

How ‘Something Else’ has benefited from writing sessions taking place in different cities like New York and Paris

“I hate being redundant and predictable. You know, I just hate doing the same thing the same way every day. So I always try to get fresh inspiration from wherever I can. And me visiting those cities was all just part of me trying to mix it up and get new influences. You know, New York is the centre of information, and Paris is the centre of romance. And it was just nice to see those cities, and to be able to soak them up without having to work the whole time I was there. I mean, New York has that pulse, it has that ‘boom-boom’ heartbeat. So the couple of songs I made there - ‘Sidestep’ and ‘Something Else’ - all have that driving heartbeat force to them, those heavy insistent grooves. Then what I discovered after visiting Paris is that you really do feel that this epic romance is possible. Which is why you then have this overwhelming positivity in some of the album’s love songs - like ‘The Sweetest Love’ and ‘You’re My Baby’.”

How the spirit of Michael Jackson has impacted on ‘Something Else’

“Well, when it comes to my music, he’s always kinda creeping up in there. Even if it’s just in the Quincy Jones-style arrangements or rhythms. You know, when I listen to some of the music Michael Jackson makes, to me it makes you feel like you’re FLYING! So I guess I just wanted other people to try and have that feeling that they were taking off too! I mean, Michael Jackson was always about pushing forward, trying to understand the world, and trying to HEAL the world. Michael was an idealist, and I think that’s what I share with him - the hope that everything’s possible, and that everything’s gonna be OK in the world. And one of the ways I’ve put his musical influence in there this time is by tracking down the horn section he used on ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’. I discovered one of the guys’ names was Gary Grant, and so I asked him to get a buncha his guys together. And, because he knew what we were looking for and going for with the horns, he was able to help us get our ideas across. You know, musicians are musicians. And, no matter what generation we come from, we all understand each other, We all speak the common language of music.”

The significance to Robin of the early-Seventies soul movement, which is frequently referenced within the grooves of his new LP

“To me that era was all about coming out of the Sixties and turning the struggle into hope. You know, the early-Seventies was about finding the rose in the concrete. So within the music there was now this new celebration of ‘Hey, we’re breaking through! We’re actually making a difference to things by what we’re saying and doing!’... As opposed to just the struggle that the music had previously reflected, I feel that by the early Seventies they were adding a bit of swagger and celebration. Which I guess ultimately began the era of excess.”

His new album’s duet with Lil Wayne, ‘Tie My Hands’ (which also features on said rapper’s own chart-topping LP ‘Tha Carter 111’)

“I wrote that song right after Hurricane Katrina. You know, what happened there greatly affected a lot of us Americans. Because, though we felt like these people deserved to be helped immediately, we COULDN’T help. Instead we were all just watching this debacle happen in front of our eyes. So I wrote the song about not being able to do anything to help myself, or to help the people who were there. Then, when Lil Wayne came to my studio a few months afterwards and I played it to him, he said he wanted to put it on his next album. Because he’s from New Orleans and his family was affected personally, I don’t think he was ready to write about it straightaway. So, I held onto it for a few years. And then, at the top of this year, he called me. So I sent him the tapes, and he put down his part. And it’s just a very important song to both of us, because still nobody is really talking about Katrina in America. A lot of us sent in money for telethons and raised billions, and still nothing happened.”

Growing up in a Hollywood showbiz family - with his dad a popular TV actor and his mum a singer

“It was a plus and a minus. The plus was that they were accomplished. So it made me realise it was possible to achieve in those fields. You get to see how inspiring and how joyful it can be to do something you love to do, to get the accolades thrown at you, and to have people caring about your work. The other side was that they were so busy that I did end up spending a lot of time by myself, playing basketball with my imaginary friend. You know, celebrity life can be very self-centred. Plus you also know that, if you wanna go on to be successful yourself, you got big shoes to fill! So you gotta work your butt off!”

How Robin first got into black music while growing up

“I don’t know why, but I guess that music just connected with me. You know, people don’t always know why they connect with things. Like some people wanna be a fireman when they’re young. And for some reason hip hop, gospel, R&B and soul music just always felt like home to me. I was listening to (early old skool rapper) Kurtis Blow at eight; NWA at 12; Jodeci and Mary J. at 14; then Boyz 11 Men and Babyface soon after. I didn’t really get into studying rock & roll, because the rock that was on the TV when I was growing up was stuff I couldn’t identify with, like Megadeth. Which, in my opinion, seemed to be too much about anger. And even today the only rock music I like is not the loud stuff, but more the SOULFUL rock like The Beatles, The Stones, and Jimi Hendrix.”

Getting his first record-deal at 16

“I appreciate now all the things I achieved at that time as being stepping stones to where I am today. You know, it was nice to be able to have money in my pocket, to be making music and move out of the house at 17, and become a professional very early. But then, having said that, it also brought with it a lot responsibility. But, while sometimes looking back I wish I’d have been a kid for a little bit longer, overall I wouldn’t change it. I mean, by the time I was 20 I was already producing for people like Brandy, Christina Aguilera and Brian McKnight!”

How he looks back on the lack of success of his first album, 2002’s ‘A Beautiful World’

“More than anything else, I was devastated by the result of its poor sales not making me any MONEY. Because that in turn meant I was having trouble getting any money to make ANOTHER album. I actually became borderline suicidal. I was drinking for breakfast, and the only thing that kept me going was the piano in my house - I’d go over to it and write every day! But, while I was looking at myself as a failure, at the same time I was getting calls from people like Lil Wayne, Usher, Pharrell, Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige... You know, all these incredible artists that I’d been wanting to work with were now calling and asking me to write and produce for them, because of that album which didn’t sell! So, you know, I guess pluses and minuses come in funny ways.”

Robin’s eventual 2007 breakthrough with the enduring US R&B chart-topper ‘Lost Without U’
“After even the Pharrell-featuring song (the 2006-released ‘Wanna Love U Girl’) hadn’t happened, everyone had pretty much written me off and given up on me. So they just decided to try this one last song - ‘Lost Without U’ - because many people had thought that was the best song on the ‘Evolution Of Robin Thicke’ album to begin with. So, when we did the video to it, I actually thought that was the last video I was ever going to make! But, you know, sometimes things can just catch a wave! The lyric of that song was about something everybody can relate to - being lost without the one you love - and the music just had that little guitar riff in it that made it stand out. So sometimes you just get lucky! You know, just over a year earlier I’d released the Pharrell song. And, though we spent a year-and-a-half and three videos trying to get it away, it didn’t even pierce the charts AT ALL! Yet ‘Lost Without U’ was Number One for 16 weeks!”

Problems he’s encountered as a white artist doing quote-unquote “black music”

“Media-wise it’s really just a reversal of all the white magazines that won’t put black artists on their covers. You know, in society the playing-field isn’t balanced. So sometimes things happen on the other side to make up for it. Though I do understand the actual reason (US urban publication) ‘Vibe’ magazine didn’t put me on the cover recently was because I don’t have enough accomplishments yet, and not because of the colour of my skin. But while, in the past, there have been negative reactions to me being a white artist doing black music, it’s not something I’ve ever really worried about. Because I’ve always felt it was my music too. You know, people put all these colours and boundaries on things. But, at the end of the day, Stevie Wonder is no more a black person’s music than it is mine. And when Prince brings out a new album, I’m always going to be one of the first in line to buy it.”

How Robin sums himself up as a musician

“When I was young my mum listened to soul singers like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. My dad listened to rockers like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger, while I was listening to rappers like NWA and Kurtis Blow. And, somewhere between all of that, emerged Robin Thicke and his music! So, to sum it all up, I guess I’d say I’m a soul singer who loves the freedom of rock & roll, but is inspired by and lives in the hip hop generation.”

The single 'Magic' and the album 'Something Else' are both out now through Star Trak/Interscope
Words PETE LEWIS

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