Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1073

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Robin Thicke: Interview in session

Robin Thicke
Robin Thicke Robin Thicke Robin Thicke Robin Thicke

Having become, back in 2007, the first white male solo artist to top the US R&B singles chart since George Michael (with the haunting ballad ‘Lost Without U’), Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/producer Robin Thicke now follows up his Seventies-flavoured 2008 LP ‘Something’ Else’ by going for a seductive, sexual vibe with his US Top Three, fourth album ‘Sex Therapy: The Session’ and its Estelle-featuring bass-driven funk single ‘Rollacoasta’

With Robin this time bringing in outside “name” producers like Polow Da Don, Teddy Riley and Philadelphia’s Dre & Vidal, ‘Sex Therapy: The Session’ represents his tribute to the hip hop and soul music that shaped both him and his generation, while boasting a stellar line-up of such high-profile guests as New York rap icon Jay-Z; multi-Platinum-selling West Coast hip hoppers Snoop Dogg and Game; highly-tipped upcoming female rapper Niki Minaj; plus Britain’s own chart-topping urban songstress Estelle. All of which is reflected in tracks ranging from the album’s falsetto-sung, hypnotic US R&B Number one title-track and irresistibly joyous ‘Meiple’; to the Marvin Gaye-referencing, pounding ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and romantically-haunting ‘Diamonds’.

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 (under the name Thicke) his own debut album ‘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 itself attained little success.

Nevertheless, with the quality of its musicality earning considerable respect from the 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. All of which in turn set the tone for the Top Three US success of its follow-up album, 2008’s retro-soul-tinged ‘Something Else’.

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 Paul Patton) takes time out from his US tour with international chart-topper Alicia Keys to hook up with ‘Blues & Soul’’s Pete Lewis for a breezy and revealing chat about his latest album and his long-term career. Which, as a writer and producer alone has seen him amass dozens of Gold and Platinum discs with superstars including Usher, Mary J. Blige and Michael Jackson; while currently finding him also making his first forays into the world of film-acting.

The reasons behind titling his new album ‘Sex Therapy’

“Well, some of it was personal. It stemmed from me thinking about what a woman really needs at the end of the day. And from there I began thinking about my wife and what SHE really needs when she’s frustrated, or having trouble with her family, or her work, or whatever... And I came to the conclusion a little bit of sex therapy goes a long way!”

What Robin wanted to achieve musically this time round

“Well, I’m not a big planner of schemer. I just make music that I like, and then I pick the best songs that I’ve got at the TIME. I mean, I’m always gonna have the influence of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Al Green in my music. But with this album, I also wanted to show my HIP HOP side. I grew up listening to Run DMC and NWA and Biggie and Pac and Jay-Z... So I really wanted to make a record that represented how much that music has influenced me. Plus, because I’d been writing deep and sad songs for a while, I think I was just tired of wallowing in my own self-depression! So, in terms of overall feel, I definitely wanted this album to be lighter on its FEET!”

How, with ‘Sex Therapy’, he’s created an album that tells a story - a connected “adventure” that begins with the romance, moves on to the danger, and then ends with reconciliation

“With the early tracks like ‘Mrs. Sexy’ and ‘Sex Therapy’, the album starts at the point where you’re in love, you’re MAKING love and you’re TRAVELLING. Like on ‘Meiple’ Jay-Z and I take our ladies on a shopping spree through France and treat them like queens! But then the problems arrive on tracks like ‘Rollacoasta’ - which is that real slap-me-on-the-face/punch-me-in-the-eye stuff, about the ups and downs of a relationship you can’t seem to get away from no matter HOW tough it gets - and ‘Elevatas’, which tells of the dangers of partying and living a fast lifestyle. But then at the end comes the love and the connection and the reconciliation, with songs like ‘2 Luv Birds’ - which is about finding love for a lifetime - and ‘Diamonds’.”

Robin’s reasons for bringing numerous outside producers on board this time

“That really just started with me getting bored with my own sound! I’ve been writing songs on the piano and on the guitar for like 16 years, and I was just getting kind of bored with myself! Plus I think it’s always important for an artist to try some new colours on the canvas. So I went to (Interscope Records CEO) Jimmy Iovine, who immediately suggested Polow Da Don (Fergie /Usher). Then Teddy Riley (Michael Jackson/BLACKstreet) was someone I’d ALWAYS wanted to work with, simply because I was a huge fan of his growing up. Plus we also decided to bring some other really talented people on board too. Like Dre & Vidal, who have this Philadelphia soul sound and are kinda like the new (classic Philly soul producers) Gamble & Huff... So yeah, for this album I basically just wanted to kinda mix it up and try to get a few different SOUNDS.”

Working with East Coast rap icon Jay-Z for the album’s infectiously hooky, De La Soul-goes-tropical-flavoured ‘Meiple’

“Well, Jay and I have been friends for a long time and I’ve always wanted to do a record with him - but, at the same time, I wanted it to be the RIGHT record. So with this album I was thinking ‘Should I send him a song I like? Or should I bring him in, let him hear the whole album and pick which track he wants?’… So I invited him to the studio; he heard the whole album, picked ‘Meiple’ as the song he wanted to do... And then, when he heard the track ‘Shakin’ It 4 Daddy’, he was like ‘You should really work with this new girl Nicki Minaj on that song’… And, when Jay-Z speaks, I LISTEN! So me then bringing Nicki Minaj on board was all down to HIM!”

Robin’s views on working with Young Money’s highly-touted new female rapper Nicki Minaj on ‘Shakin’ It 4 Daddy’ - the track that represents his Southern-style homage to today’s strip-club and nightclub generation…

“Nicki Minaj is just a very special new artist. I mean, EVERYBODY is working with her right now. She’s on just about every project that’s OUT there! Because she’s offering something very FRESH. She’s very smart, she’s beautiful, she‘s got a lotta spunk and attitude - plus her style is very MODERN. You know, with her obviously coming under the tutelage of Lil Wayne, she’s getting a lot of creative energy right now and she’s a great young talent. To me she’s like the new Lil Kim. I think she’s gonna be doing a lotta damage for many years to come!”

How Robin - as a Californian himself - came to work with multi-Platinum-selling West Coast rappers Snoop Dogg and Game on the tracks ‘It’s In The Morning’ and ‘Diamonds’ respectively

“Well obviously, I grew UP listening to Snoop! Like the first record he put out - ‘Deep Cover’ with Dr. Dre - I literally memorised all the lyrics the first day I HEARD it, when I was 13 years old! So he and I had been talking about doing a record together for a long time. And then, when I was working on the album, Teddy Riley started calling me saying ‘I wrote this song with Snoop and it’s perfect for you! You gotta HEAR it!’... And, when he showed up, it turned out he already had Snoop’s rap on the track! So I was like ‘That’s IT! I’m SOLD!’... Then Game and I actually met in the waiting-room at Interscope Records, while I was there waiting to play Jimmy Iovine some of my new music. We started talking about how much we respected each other, and ended up exchanging numbers. Then a week later, I woke up early in the morning and I was like ‘Oh my God, I have the perfect record for GAME!’… So I just called him, and he came in and put his rap down on ‘Diamonds’. You know, it actually all happened very organically.”

Duetting with chart-topping UK urban songstress Estelle on the album’s first UK single, the irrepressibly funky ‘Rollacoasta’

“Funnily enough, before I had my first big hit - ‘Lost Without U’ - I was actually on tour with Estelle in the UK opening up for John Legend! So we became friends back then. And then, after I’D had a big hit and SHE’D had a big hit (2008’s international Number One ‘American Boy’), we seemed to just keep on seeing each other on the road. So eventually we started talking about doing a RECORD together. And, once I’d written ‘Rollacoasta’, I just called her and brought her IN. And for the track itself I actually worked with Jeff Bhasker, who’s an AMAZING new producer. He’s done a lot of the Kanye (West) stuff; he did Alicia Keys’ new single (‘Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart’)… You know, he’s just super-talented! And, though he and I were only in the studio together for two days, we ended up doing both ‘Rollacoasta’ AND the song featuring Kid Cudi, ‘Elevatas’. He was so easy to work with that the records happened really fast.”

Robin’s own pick track - the album’s sensually loping opener ‘Mrs. Sexy’, which has been described as “Thicke sings Eric B & Rakim lyrics over an Al Green music bed with a D’Angelo-type vocal”

“I don’t know how popular the rapper Rakim was in the UK. But in The States, when rap music was just starting to burst wide open, he was the most highly-respected rapper/lyricist there WAS - and he still IS thought of in that way by a lot of rappers. So anyway, back in the day he released this song called ‘Mahogany’ which sampled Al Green’s music. And, when I started working on the album, I had my band go in and cut a bunch of classic tracks by people like Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Because, at the time, I was thinking of doing like a ‘soul classics’ record. So they went in and recorded some of those classic music tracks. But then, instead of me just re-doing the Al Green song (‘So Glad You’re Mine’) itself, I started listening to it and was like ‘Wait! That’s the same music that Rakim did his ‘Mahogany’ rap over!’... So what I decided to do was take the lyrics that Rakim had rapped, and turn them into ‘Mrs. Sexy’ - which went on to become the first song on the album! And it’s actually turned out really cool. Because all the hip hoppers - as soon as they’ve heard the track - have been like ‘Wow! You’re actually singing RAKIM’S lyrics! That’s CRAZY!’... So to me that track is actually a testament to the talents of both Al Green AND Rakim. And then, with me singing it, it’s like three generations of music coming TOGETHER!”

The album’s blood-red cover motif, which depicts Robin as a James-Bond-style sex therapist (!)

“Well, you see, that’s the kinda doctor I’d BE - James BOND! Heheheh!... Nah, what actually happened was, we were doing the first shoot and then we had this great art director come on board who started giving different looks to different types of shots. And, when we saw the James-Bond-type cover, it just kinda made sense to USE it! You know, it was like the NAUGHTY doctor!”

With his last album (2008’s ‘Something Else’) finding Robin expressing his ongoing love and respect for Michael Jackson, how he feels about the King of Pop’s tragic death last year

“Well actually, the amazing thing was that I was scheduled to open up for him for four shows at The O2 Arena by his request. Which, when I heard that, obviously became one of the most flattering moments of my career - just as actually opening up for Michael Jackson in London would have been one of the BIGGEST moments of my career. But unfortunately , as we all know, the shows didn’t HAPPEN. So that was a real bummer for my own PERSONAL reasons, let alone for me as a major fan.,. Where my reaction to his death has been the same as I think a lot of OTHER Michael Jackson fans. Which is we’re still kind of in denial. You know, it’s similar to the Elvis fans. We still don’t wanna really believe he’s gone.”

How he feels about many of his male R&B vocal contemporaries currently moving musically into electronic Euro-dance territory

“Well, the club scene today is bigger than it’s ever been BEFORE. You know, today people want their music fast, and they want it pumping! So obviously in turn artists want to get their music into the clubs, and they want to make people dance - especially with the economy being the way it is. Because the worse the economy gets, the more people wanna let go and be set free with fun, uptempo MUSIC. But, as to whether I’D make a record like that… Well, I think what I make is more SOUL music really. And so it never seems as natural to me to make those more pop/dance/electro-beats kinda records. I guess I have done that just a LITTLE bit with ‘Rollacoasta’. But then even that is more of a FUNK song really - you know, with the funk guitar and the funk bass-lines.”

Robin’s writing/producing work for other artists, who in the past have included the likes of Usher, Mary J. Blige and Michael Jackson

“Well, I really don’t write and produce for other artists any more... Well, let’s just say it’s very RARE - unless somebody really special calls. Like, for example, on this new ‘Sex Therapy’ album we did a lotta trades. You know, because they feature on MY album, I’m gonna be doing a record with Game for HIS album; I’m gonna be doing something with Snoop for HIS album; I’m gonna be doing something with Kid Cudi for HIS album... But, while in that way I’m always gonna be in the mix with these artists, for the most part what I’ve found is that you have to compromise your art when you work with other people. So, you know, I try not to compromise any more than I HAVE to.”

Why Robin - whose parents both acted, and whose wife is successful Hollywood actress Paula Patton - is now himself finally making the move into acting

“Well, I don’t wanna disrespect actors by saying that what I’M doing is acting! Because these days I’m just trying to enjoy life and not take it so seriously. I mean, when I was getting started as an artist, I always wanted do be like Bob Dylan - and I was basically just taking myself TOO seriously. Whereas these days I’m just trying to say ‘Hey, let me have some FUN!’!... And this movie I’m doing at the moment is actually an ANIMATED film, where I’m just using my VOICE. So, you know, I’m starting slow, taking baby steps into acting right now! And all I can really say about the movie itself at the moment is that it comes out in 2011, it stars Anne Hathaway, plus (Black Eyed Peas leader) and I play friends in it.”

Current activities and future plans

“Oh man, I got a baby coming next month! So at the moment I’m just really focused on taking care of my wife and the baby. Plus I’m also on tour here in the US with Alicia Keys right now, which is all going tremendously well So I’m really enjoying that, and then of course I’m very happy - and a little relieved - to have a Number One song (the album’s title-track ‘Sex Therapy’) in The States! Because at least now I know I’ll be able to make ANOTHER album! I mean, a baby on the way, a Number One song… Things could be a lot worse!”

Robin’s single ‘Rollacoasta Featuring Estelle’ is released April 19. His album ‘Sex Therapy: The Session’ follows April 26, both through Star Trak/Interscope

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