Robbie Cavanagh (Solo/This Devastated Fan)

 Singer-songwriter Robbie Cavanagh

Robbie Cavanagh will be known to some as lead singer and guitarist with northern alt.rock band This Devastated Fan (TDF). However, he’s just about to release his debut solo album The State of Maine.  It’s a stunner – heartfelt and poignant lyrics, some beautiful and moving tunes, words and music of the highest order. We were more than delighted, therefore, when Robbie agreed to talk to us about the new album, his influences and experiences, and some of the things that make him tick. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Mr. Robbie Cavanagh. (Back of the net!)

So, Robbie, tell us about the album?
The album is called The State of Maine and is based on the experiences I had when I was out there. Every track on the album was written about either something that happened out there or the path that my life has taken since. I think being in Maine changed my life quite a lot so it seemed to make sense for me to frame it that way.

Why Maine, specifically? What were you doing there?
I went to a camp to teach songwriting in summer 2011 and I was there for about six months. It was an incredible experience and the people I met there were amazing. I’d always wanted to go to America but never really had any reason to go. Finding a work opportunity out there meant I could spend longer than just a holiday and could actually meet people. So yeah, Maine was an option that came up as a job offer to go and work there teaching children and it was a music-based thing as well, so it was nice to get my name out there a little bit too.

Would you care to elaborate on the kind of experiences you cover lyrically?
Well, I’ve put up a couple of videos in the past where I’ve explained certain songs and I’m never sure if that creates a bit of disappointment, because people like to draw their own conclusions and relate to the lyrics, and I think the more specific I am about it, the less people can pull away and do that. But, in general, every track is about being replaced, either by someone else, something else or somewhere else and that’s a common theme throughout. And I was very aware when leaving Maine that although it made a big impression on me, the State and everything about it would exist just the same and I’d just be replaced by the next person who came to do the same job. So that’s the basis of the lyrics in the majority of the tracks – the theme of being replaced.

You say in your promo material that you have a “dark soul”. What do you mean by that?
I’m a very happy person, which is something I like to emphasise, especially over social media, Facebook and the like. I think it’s important for people to know that I’m a happy person, and I think sometimes that’s surprising for people  who’ve heard my music first and then come to meet me or learn more about me because I think the music, lyrically, is very dark and doesn’t have a generally happy tone. I think it’s a very healthy thing, because any sadness or sad thing that’s happened manifests itself as a song, or some work of art, and that’s what allows me to be happy more generally and allows me to be very free from it.  So it’s the soul that’s dark and that’s the part that comes out in the music. I can revisit those memories through performing the songs again and then once the song’s finished I can step out from that. I think it’s a very healthy way of being able to go back and trigger memories without hurting again.

Robbie Cavanagh - mysterious and dark

How do you view what you do as an artist?
I do see myself more as an [all round] artist than a musician, really. I write music but I also paint, I write short films and I like to film and edit. And the same with the record, I’ve designed all the artwork for it. I use things that have hit me hardest and create something positive out of them. I use music to create an image of what I want people to see of experiences I’ve had, and hopefully they are experiences they can relate to. I create a way for people to trigger their own memories and, again, hopefully it’s a very healthy way of them relating to something that they can step out of once the song’s finished.

Is it possible to say what music means to you?
I’ve always described music as being a bit of a religion to me. I’m not a very religious person but I see good music as good music regardless of its origins or its genres. I don’t think there are many moments, in fact there are very few moments, that aren’t enhanced by music in the background or music as part of it. And I think for the few that are, the silence is as important as the music. If there’s silence in a moment, and it’s intentional silence, then that’s almost music itself. So for me, music is almost everything. I don’t think there’s a point where music is not important. And also for me, I focus on music being a passion rather than musical notation and theory – it’s about knowing what to play when it’s needed, and having the ability to not play if it’s not needed.  It’s all about the passion that’s put into the performance, regardless of its genre, and I think it’s the greatest thing that was ever invented.

The point you just made about knowing what not to play … I’m thinking of the contrast between the TDF albums and what you’re doing now. Will you be running TDF and your solo career together or do you see your solo career as a development along the lines you just described, learning to present your material in a ‘less noisy’ environment?
I’ve been very aware during TDF’s career that in a band you get the chance to hide behind things. Everything that was written had its purpose in TDF, especially on the records where we very much recorded so that you could hear every instrument and hear exactly what was going on. But at the same time, live especially, it does become a wall of sound, which helps with the power and making it a kind of force that hits you, but it’s very easy to hide behind that if there’s a wrong note played or I sing a flat note or sing the wrong lyric. It’s very easy to hide behind the noise and that’s the one thing that’s hit me playing on my own. I’m very aware that every mistake is highlighted and you’ve not got things to hide behind. Even if there are other instrumentalists, as you say it’s a much quieter sound that I’m trying to put across and everything’s a lot more delicate.

And in terms of the future for TDF?
I’m not really sure. Over the process of this album I’ve taken a break from it. I haven’t got the time to focus on both and I know the other members are very busy as well. Will [Rogers] the guitarist has been very influential on this record, actually, and quite involved with it. So yeah, it’s been time to take a break, and it’s freed me up and given me the space to focus on my solo record.  And we’ve no idea how one could help the other one. It could be that this album really boosts back catalogue sales, whereas it could be that it takes me further away from the ability to get back with TDF. But we’ve not made any announcements. Nothing is final. We just know that for the time being it’s time to ease off the pedal a little bit with TDF.

Who was the first artist to make an impression on you?
Kinks album - Lola album coverThe Kinks, it has to be the Kinks for me. My Dad was a big Kinks fan and the first time I picked up a guitar was to try to play ‘Apeman’ by the Kinks. I didn’t know chords at this point though, so it was all just strumming open chords, but yeah, that was the first time I heard a song and wanted to reproduce it myself. My parents have definitely influenced me a lot musically through stuff like the Kinks, David Bowie, Donovan and T-Rex – those are the four big artists I was really into as a kid.

So, you grew up with a lot of music around you?
Not instrument-wise but both my mum and dad were very much into music. I remember lots of car journeys, going on holidays, where there was all sorts of music being played. So it was inevitable really that it was going to make some sort of impression on me.

Tell us about an album, song or lyric that means a lot to you?
It has to be an album – it’s all about albums for me. You can have individual songs, but that doesn’t really demonstrate an artist properly. An album shows how someone can creatively put something together and frame a piece. You can have albums with great songs on, and great albums. The first one that comes to mind is the second Bon Iver - Bon Iver album coverBon Iver album called Bon Iver, which works in so many different scenarios. It can be a travelling album, or something you really sit and listen to. I’ve seen it played live, which is another thing, and it’s just an incredible album. And then there are three records that are really the top three records for me. One is Kick Up The Fire And Let The Flames Break Loose by The Cooper Temple Clause, one is The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me by a band called Brand New, and the other one is August And Everything After by the Counting Crows, and I think those three bands and those three records are just something else. I couldn’t listen to just a couple of tracks off them, I have to listen to them from start to finish. I couldn’t pluck out any of the tracks and put them on a mix-tape for someone, I’d have to just give them the whole record. I’d feel like picking a track to put on a mix-tape would do it a disservice. And if you pushed me for another one, I’d say the Mystery Jets album Radlands. The Mystery Jets are an underrated band. They’ve got some incredible songs. I think they’re one of those that released a commercial track to begin with that gave them a platform to release more music but I don’t know if they got the acknowledgment that they deserved, for Radlands especially. It’s an excellent album.

Is there a lyricist who’s been a particular influence on you or that you particularly like?
Yeah, I think Michael Stipe. REM are a band I’ve followed all my life. My brother was a big REM fan, so as soon as I was old enough to go to gigs he was taking me to REM concerts. As a frontman, as a performer and as a lyricist, Michael Stipe covers so much. He’s got songs that are so poignant, and then there are tracks that are really metaphorical and really unusual. For the track ‘Country Feedback’, he went into the studio and he’d just drawn an arrow and an Indian head on a piece of paper and he took that in as his influence. He recorded the song as it was and the lyrics that he sang stuck – he just used those triggers to relay what he wanted to say and express that mood in his head without writing too much. So yeah, he’s influenced me as a lyricist, for that really. He has an arsenal of so many ways of portraying what he wants to say.

Dylan or Morrison?
I’d say Dylan every time. I’ve never really put Morrison in the same category.  I’ve never really cared that much for him. I don’t know a massive amount but what I’ve listened to never really inspired me hugely. But for me Dylan is a poet. His voice was never that good, but it was good enough to relay what he was trying to do. Bob Dylan- Street Legal album coverHe’s released so much music, and his voice is maybe a bit ropey in places, but that meant that when he released something like ‘Señor’ [from the ‘Street Legal’ album – Ed.], for example, you just get all this passion from him and it’s something that perhaps he hasn’t done in every track. I think Dylan is just such a poet and his use of English is so powerful that he’s another lyricist who inspires me a lot. He knows exactly what he’s doing with his words. I suppose Bob Dylan’s at a point where he can do whatever he wishes now, and people forgive him for it. He did release a Christmas album recently, which, you know … Bob’s probably not got the best voice for singing about Santa Claus!

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – jaded stereotype or the meaning of life?
It’s a great song, by Ian Dury! I think every musician’s got a choice. When you tour the world and you’re playing a show night after night you’re running almost entirely on adrenaline, and as soon as your gig finishes that energy level drops. And you have two options. You either use drugs to kind of falsify that energy or you go to bed and rest. And the latter was always the more appealing option for me. You know, you’re always put into situations, especially in Europe, there’s a lot of it in Europe, where you get offered all sorts of drugs, and you get offered these parties, and you can see how it’s very easy to say yes and become part of that lifestyle. And for us, it wasn’t even a case of knowing that it’s bad or that it’s a dodgy way to go, it was just so much less appealing than a couple of cans, go back to the hotel room, watch some Alan Partridge and go to bed. That always just seemed like it made more sense. People underestimate how fit you need to be to go on tour, and I think although drugs can perhaps help you for a week or so, if you’re doing 30 or 60-date tours it gets to a stage where that’s going to take it’s toll. You need to eat really well and stay fit and you need a lot of rest or you’re not going to be able to put on the same performance. And at the end of the day, it’s a job. It’s the best job in the world, but you’ve got duties to perform as well each night. We’re very lucky. There are very few jobs where people applaud you every three and a half minutes and you need to bear that in mind. On your night off, if you want to go and take drugs or whatever, that’s fine, but you’ve got to consider that if you’re on a tour you’re doing it for audiences, so you can’t allow your body to get out of control.

You mentioned gigs a lot in your last answer. Tell us about some of the most memorable gigs you’ve played?
Can I split it and give you two – one for TDF and one solo? The first huge gig that TDF played was supporting Public Image Ltd. at Academy One in Manchester, which, as a venue is a place that I’ve been going for years watching some of my favourite bands – it’s like my local venue. So, to be able to play on that stage was incredible and an amazing experience. And I remember it was kind of a last minute thing. There’d been rumours of it for a couple of weeks but we’d not really heard anything, and it was the day before when we got a phone call saying “yeah, it’s on, here’s the details …” So rather than there being a build-up for months, it was very much last minute, a case of announce it on Facebook and go out and play the gig. It felt unreal because in the space of 24 hours it was over, but it was an incredible experience. It was a special anniversary tour for PIL and people packed the venue out before we’d started playing. Normally if you’re a support act you’re going to be playing to maybe 50% of a crowd but it was absolutely packed and it was an amazing, amazing show.

And the other one, as a solo artist … I’ve always been a big fan of American punk, and the kind of music that comes out of that – The Movielife and a band called I Am The Avalanche. And the singer for both of those bands is called Vinnie Caruana. He did a little solo tour and he played a show in Liverpool in this basement venue called The Shipping Forecast and I got to support him there. It was a great show because it was just the both of us with guitars, no backing band or anything, and it was packed out. It was a little sweaty venue with a great atmosphere, and we spent the next day playing table football all day. We’re really good friends now. He’s out in New York, but we meet up whenever we can. He comes to my shows, I go to his shows, and it was really nice to progress from a stage of being a fan of those bands to him respecting me as a musician and us becoming good friends. The show itself was great, and what came out of it was really good too. To make a friend like that was fantastic.

I’m sure people will wonder after the first part of your answer, how was John Lydon?
We didn’t really see much of him but he seemed like a very nice man. The first time we saw him there was a bunch of people chanting “Rebel!” walking down the backstage corridor and he was just walking behind them. He was a man of very few words. And then when he got onstage, he was a gent, really. He performed the songs, he talked about his experiences, he was fantastic. He even referred to the butter commercial that he did, and he said, if you’re gonna laugh at that then you’d better bear in mind that it’s funded this tour. It was quite fascinating that he wasn’t remotely embarrassed about it, he was saying, you know, that it’s given him the money that he needed to put on the tour so we should be grateful that it happened. And I remember he got a man thrown out for throwing a beer. But yeah, he was a very nice man and he came across like he was in a situation where he wanted to play music and he wanted to tour with his band and that’s what he did. It was great, it was nice to see, really, because we didn’t know how we were going to be treated and how the show was going to go but it was a very respectful audience and he was very respectful in return.

Robbie Cavanagh performing

What’s the best gig you’ve been to as a fan?
There’s too many again! Can I have three? I saw Bon Iver play in Manchester at the Manchester Arena, which was just amazing. Justin Vernon has about 20 musicians on stage, and there’s times when you’re watching them and you can hear everything that’s being played. It was such an experience to see all these musicians play with such passion with their eyes closed because they were so into what they were doing. And I always like it when a band is kind of led by one person, and Bon Iver is essentially Justin Vernon’s music and he chooses the musicians that go around it. It’s fascinating to watch how much respect they have for him. If they’ve got their eyes open they’re all watching him for their lead. It’s fascinating to see, to have that much control over what you want from your music and for other musicians to have that much respect. So that was an amazing gig for me.

I went to see Prince twice at the O2 when he did his 21 dates at the O2 Arena. Though I’m currently in a sulk with Prince because he played in Manchester recently, and it was these secret shows where it gets announced last minute and there’s only 2,000 tickets available and so it’s sold out pretty quickly. There’s also some rumours about some other secret shows he’s doing, so I’m keeping my ears peeled, if that’s a phrase! So, I got to see him twice at the O2 and that was just amazing. Again, he’s a man who has such control over his band. And the tone he gets out of a guitar is insane. He’s just an incredible composer, performer and conductor almost as well.

And  a final show – I saw Iron and Wine at the Opera House.  I’m a big Iron and Wine fan and, again, Iron and Wine is Sam Beam’s music. He’s an American and it’s very kind of folk-based really. His first album was just him playing a guitar – I think he recorded it in his kitchen – and then each album has progressed a little bit until he’s got to a stage where he’s got a full band on there. He played the show at the Opera House with a full band, and again, it was him conducting his band, showing people what he wanted from it and it was a very humble setting as well. He didn’t have a very big screen show or lighting, it was just him and his musicians on stage.  It was the kind of show where you forget to breathe for the entirety of it and then afterwards you have to take a minute to settle down before you can move.

What do you say to a ‘rock star’ after you say hello?
Eric Berne - What Do You Say After You Say Hello book coverI think the thing you have to remember is that if you meet a rock star and they’re being a rock star then it’s intimidating to say hello anyway, and I don’t think that rock stars should be rock stars once they get off the stage. And if they’re on the stage, don’t say hello when they’re trying to play a gig! So as far as I’m concerned, a rock star is just another person off stage. So if you say hello to someone, presumably you’ve got a reason for starting that conversation, so hopefully they’ll say hello back, and if they don’t, tell them where to go! And if they do say hello back, you’ve got to explain why you started the conversation. If you haven’t got a reason to say hello, then don’t say it!  And if you have, just start a conversation as normal. It should be just standard fare, really. I don’t think it’s any different to speaking to anyone else.

Have you had any notable experiences yourself, in that respect, as either an artist or a fan?
Well, as an artist, I really like when someone can tell you that they recognise you or that they know who you are or that they enjoy what you do and then you can just talk as people. I feel really awkward when someone comes and starts complimenting what I do and just keeps complimenting me. It’s very nice to receive the compliments, but you want people to say it once and then move on and talk about other things and have a conversation. And so, when I meet artists that I’m a fan of I take that into account. I very much want to just chat as a person – I’d hate to come across as a silly fan girl or whatever!

I have had the chance to meet a couple of artists backstage at various festivals. I’m a big Editors fan. I got to meet the Editors at Leeds, and it was weird. We just talked about music. Me and Tom Smith [Editors vocalist/guitarist] are both big REM fans. So it was a very quick “great new album, enjoy it, let’s talk about REM!” You know, it’s a much more friendly thing than being a fan and asking for photos and autographs and stuff like that, and it’s a nicer experience. Having a piece of paper with Tom from the Editors’ autograph isn’t as good as being able to say that we sat and we had a beer and we talked about all these artists and I’ve learned this stuff about them. The same happened with Jamie Cullum. I’m a big Jamie Cullum fan and backstage at V-Fest we had a good chat about jazz music and our experiences. And what I find, actually, which is really interesting, is that as soon as I mention that I’m an artist, they’re as interested in me as I am in them, because as a fan I already know a lot about them and for them it’s a completely blank canvas and they ask as many questions back. So for me it’s really interesting to meet other artists for that reason. But yeah, as a fan, it’s nice just to be a person and just chat to them.

I met a number of people at the Wireless Festival, but I wasn’t overly familiar with a lot of the artists who played there. We were backstage just chatting to a lot of people, and then we went out to front of house and realised the people we’d been chatting to were the big artists that were playing! And once we realised that they were the artists playing, it made sense how much they appreciated someone just chatting to them normally, and I think you do find that all artists appreciate that.

I think it can be quite intimidating for artists sometimes, in that, all of my life is essentially online. You can learn everything about me from Twitter and You Tube and things like this. It’s a very strange thing sometimes, when you have a fan who comes over and knows everything about you … and you know nothing about them.  It’s quite a difficult thing to get used to and it can be quite intimidating that someone can reel off these facts about your life, or ask how your holiday was. It’s really bizarre.

But yeah, as a fan, I think you should just be down to earth. Not treat the artist as more than they are. If you treat an artist like a rock star, they’ll be a rock star. But if you treat them as a person they’ll either be a rock star, in which case they’re not worth bothering with, or they’ll become a person.

You mentioned ‘the album’ earlier and said it was all about the album for you. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there’s been much in the rock press recently, and certainly in the classic rock press, about ‘the death of the album’. What’s your take on that?
I don’t particularly see it as an issue in rock music. I certainly think in more popular commercial music people now have the ability to just download a track when they hear it, but as I said earlier, I don’t think that being able to write one good track shows that you’re a good artist. To be able to write numerous tracks and have the same theme running through them and have them fit into a framework as an album is something that shows a lot more artistry than just being able to write a song. I think that real music fans still really enjoy being able to pick up the physical album and look through the booklet and appreciate it. And as an artist, I know how long it takes just to decide what order the songs are going to go in, or what it’s like to have to take out a great song, even though it’s a great song, because it doesn’t fit within the ten, and that’s a process artists have to go through and it’s a real shame that it gets torn apart by people picking out just one or two tracks.

I do think it’s a shame that the idea of sitting and listening to an album is not as appreciated anymore, but I’m at a stage in my career where I’m still able to decide what I do, which is nice because it means that I can say that I’m going to release an album and if it doesn’t work that’s fine, people can still download individual songs. But I’d like to create a platform for people to be able to buy the physical CD and go home and play with it and listen to it. Because I don’t really understand the reason why you wouldn’t. Why would you download an album when you can buy a physical version, often cheaper, because you can upload that to your PC and then you’ve got it digital, it’s not like it’s one or the other, the CD gives you both, and you can still take it to your car, and you can lend it to your friend. And I find it’s so complicated to upload something and put it on your iPod and plug it in somewhere else. If I’ve got a CD and a CD player, that’s a tried and tested method and I know it’s going to work!

Robbie Cavanagh - man with a dark soul

So, do you think the state of the industry is a help or a hindrance for an artist like yourself?
I don’t think it’s very different. There are different ways of it working now, but I don’t think it’s any easier or harder, because I don’t think there’s ever been a tried and tested method to become successful. Because as soon as one person uses some clever, inventive way of becoming famous, everyone goes “I’m gonna try that” and it’s just saturated and it’s not going to work again until someone finds another interesting way of doing it. Everything gets saturated very quickly and I think that’s always been the case. Unless you’ve got a lot of money and intelligence behind you and you get signed to a label who knows what it’s doing and has a platform to put you out there, I don’t think there’s any rule as to how to make it. And I think that’s always been the case. I don’t think it’s any more difficult now. I think it’s possibly more difficult to remain in control of what you do and make it. And sadly that’s a choice musicians have to make.

It’s very difficult for a musician to write music that isn’t for himself. So, when I’ve written an album, it’s because that’s the music I want to make. But you’ve got to pause and consider what you want to do with it and if you want to become really successful with it. Some people say it’s unfair the way the industry’s going because music has to be a certain way, but I think it’s always the same – it’s pockets of fans who like certain styles of music, and what you’re trying to do there is to get across borders. If you’re trying to be commercially successful you’re trying to make music that reaches rock fans, pop fans, jazz fans, dance fans, you know, and that’s very difficult, and then you’ve got to compromise and you’ve got to adhere to making music that people want to hear rather than the music that you want to make. So I think it depends what you want out from it. I could ‘make it’ releasing the music that I write for people who like that style of music. I could make a career out of it, but I wouldn’t be globally successful. But if I wanted to make it as a big thing, I’d have to steer my music in a certain direction. It’s the constant battle between integrity and success, isn’t it? And finding a middle ground between them.

What plans do you have for the new album?
We’ve put a plan together and a timeline of what we’re going to do with it. We’re in the process of storyboarding a video for the lead track, which I think is going to be ‘The Willingness to Move’, and that’s going to be filmed in March. We’ve been putting up a few bits of videos on You Tube to try to add a bit of interest with some behinds the scenes footage from the studio and little teasers to get people interested and they’ve been going really well with some very high views on the videos, and it’s really starting to drum up some excitement for it. So I’m hoping to release the album on a platform where we’ve got people waiting for it. The intention is to do three release gigs – one in Manchester, one in Liverpool and one in London in church type venues. I just wanted to do something a little bit different, and we’re hoping to get some industry people down there as well, so rather than just a gig we wanted to make it a bit more special. To some extent it’s playing it from there really, and maybe get on the back of a tour supporting someone or book some more gigs.

So, when will the album actually be released?
I’m hoping the last week of March though we’ve not given ourselves an absolute deadline. There will be a limited number of physical copies, so I’d like to make quite a big deal out of that, but we’ll see how it goes. The first week of April is going to be the church shows. So, yeah, that’s where we’re at.

Robbie Cavanagh - The State of Maine


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  1. Robbie Cavanagh: ‘The State of Maine’ Album Launch | Words and Music
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