If there’s a lot of half-finished, semi-fulfilled, vaguely unsatisfying music around these days – songs that say nothing to you about your life – then maybe it’s because the people who make it haven’t lived much of a life themselves.
Not so in the case of Robert Vincent, the searingly honest Liverpool singer-songwriter whose mix of folk, rock and country is like a Mersey Van Morrison or a Scouse Springsteen.
Born into a house that rang to the sounds of Johnny Cash, The Beatles and Pink Floyd, Robert knew before he was five years old that he wanted to be a musician. When he became a father at 17 he had to balance the hard graft of life in a working band with the responsibility of providing for a family. He’s seen setbacks and false dawns, he’s come near to success only to have it snatched away, but he’s never lost his faith in his music. And now that faith is coming good.
“I’ve done the whole thing of trying to be what people want me to be,” Rob explains in his warm and good-humoured Scouse drawl, “And in the end I just thought I’ve had enough of this. The songs I’ve written now, some of them sound like Johnny Cash and some of them like 50s rock’n’roll – but they’re what *I* wanted to write. And the funny thing is, the more honest I am the better people like it.”
The result is Rob’s debut album ‘Life In Easy Steps’: a set of songs that are alternately as open and empathic as ‘Second Chance’, and as raw and righteous as ‘Riots Cry’ – all held together by a singular lyrical vision and a voice that can soothe, comfort or tear down a wall. In a sea of plastic pop, this is real rock and roll.
“There’s no smoke and mirrors about it,” Rob says with a smile. “It’s like a good old fashioned country record. Sing what you mean – and sing it like you mean it.”
It all goes back to that house in Crosby, north Liverpool where, alongside country and The Beatles, his older brothers initiated him into the mysteries of Pink Floyd. ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ taught young Rob that a song could be cosmic and mystical – but it had to be a proper song too. He became fascinated with lyrics. “It wasn’t just what Roger Waters wrote but why he wrote it,” he says. “That really interested me as a kid. And then I started meddling with the guitar…”
Rob left school at 16 to dabble in local bands, growing mildly frustrated that his mates only wanted to play standards and not write their own songs. A job as a roadie for a covers band earned him a few quid and a chance to get up and sing a couple of numbers – ‘All Right Now’ and the inevitable ‘Wish You Were Here’. “You’ll give anything to get up and have a go at that age,” Rob recalls.
Then his girlfriend became pregnant. “It was a massive, massive thing to happen when you’re so young,” he admits.
For a while music had to take second fiddle to providing for the baby. He worked in catering jobs and even as an Estate Agent – but there was always a band too.
One of them, a group called Boa, won Rob the chance to represent Liverpool at a festival marking 50 Years of Rock’n’Roll in Memphis in 2004 and to record at Sun Studios, Sam Phillips’s fabled Birthplace of Rock’n’Roll. But just as Boa seemed about to happen the band fell apart. “After that,” Rob says, “I thought, I’m doing my own thing from now on.”
By 2007 he promised himself he’d never be left high and dry again. His band ‘Night Parade’ recorded a debut album but management wrangles kept it from being released. More setbacks, more refusal to give in. But Rob was now in the rhythm of writing his own songs and more convinced than ever that he knew what he was doing – and why he was doing it. He’d also started working with one Pete Smith, Grammy award winning co-producer of Sting’s ‘Dream Of The Blue Turtles’. Together they recorded ’Life In Easy Steps in Brighton.
The years of hard work put grit and insight in these songs by an artist who’s still barely in his thirties. When you’ve worked in a band for four or five years and the rug gets pulled, it can feel like you’re left with nothing, he thinks. But that’s not really the case. You’ve got all that experience, that practice. It toughens you up and focuses you. You find you can write about people as they are – the good and the bad.
So Rob Vincent’s songs are compassionate and perceptive. There’s a wild evocation of the fact that every life is lived in the eye of a storm on the blues-blazing ‘Riots Cry’, and forgiveness for former friends who’ve let you down in ‘How Do You Sleep’. There’s an elegy for the wasted opportunities of a dead relationship, where your partner can’t change, in the plangent, Lennonesque ‘Second Chance’.
And he’s not frightened of getting a little cosmic either. The intimate, gently strummed ‘Stars’ takes that familiar spine-chilling moment when you look up into the vastness of the night sky and realise your insignificance, and then flips it. We might be tiny, the song says, but what matters is what we are to one another. “I’ll be here in the light of the stars,” sings Rob, and in the end that’s all that matters.
“Having a kid so young gave me a way of looking at how people act towards each other, especially with children,” he explains. “There’s a song on the album called ‘Heaven Knows’ that wonders if maybe we were happier when we had more social boundaries, not fewer. I’m not religious but you wonder if some things – not everything, but some things – might have been a bit better in the days when we all went to church on a Sunday, dealt with all the grief and misery of the week, and came out feeling better. I think people are missing those boundaries.”
“The record is about trying to be the best person you can possibly be,” he continues, “And I think that’s what most people want from themselves. You want to be a better human being. I write from the point of view of being a dad, and worrying about the world my kid is growing up in. The world focuses so much on the individual – iPhone, iPad, I, I, me, me all the time – and there’s something unhealthy about it. We feel cut off from other people. But if music is good at anything, it’s reconnecting us.”
Rob’s mum likes to remind him of a tale from when he was perhaps four years old. They’d got off a train in comfortable Freshfield near Southport, where footballers and businessmen reside in spacious houses near the woods and the beach. Little Rob pointed to one of the big houses. See that, mum? he said. When I’m a rich rock star I’ll buy you one of those.
“Daft, isn’t it?” he says, laughing. “I was only four. But the thing is, I didn’t really want to be rich. I just never, ever wanted to do anything else but this. It’s been hard work getting here but I’ve never, ever wanted to pack it in. I know what I’m here for – to do this. It’s always been music for me. One hundred per cent.”
Written by editor of Q magazine, Andrew Harrison…