Robert Holmes’ musical journey is particularly meandrous and fascinating. ‘80s music lovers might have heard his guitar playing in “Voices Carry”, a big hit in the USA for the new wave band ‘Til Tuesday, with whom Robert found success as a founding member, songwriter and guitarist between 1982-1988. After ‘Til Tuesday disbanded in 1988, Robert went on to form a bluesy rock quartet called “Ultra Blue”, then in 1996 he moved to Vermont and formed another band called “Love Bomb”. After his return to the UK, Robert started his freelance career and is now experimenting with melodic pop joy rides infused with a contagious sense of possibility, taking inspiration for the lyrics from his day-to-day life.
We caught-up with Robert at his music studio in the Cotswolds and found him in a sunny disposition, his watchful and feisty Chihuahua dog alongside him. Carrying an aura of openness about him and still retaining a trace of his childhood English accent, Robert invited us for a walk around the town and told us about the landmarks of his sinuous musical voyage and the ideas and inspirations that are occupying his mind at the moment.
Robert, what were you like as a child? What did you want to be or become?
I was a sensitive and well behaved child. My family emigrated to the USA when I was 7. I was always the smallest person in school with curly red hair and an English accent and was bullied a little as a result. I avoided sports even though I was agile and fit, as a way of staying away from what I experienced as overly aggressive males. I played a ukelele until I was 10 when I switched to guitar. I often went for laughs with my family. I have three sisters and I think I’m known for being the quiet one. I played with my sisters but I also remember spending a lot of time alone. I always wanted to be a popular musician, be in a band and make records. I played guitar a lot, listened to a lot of music and messed around on the family piano.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I have many vivid childhood memories. The first record I ever owned was a 45 rpm single, called “Message Understood” by Sandie Shaw. Shortly after getting it my father took me to see her perform at the London Palladium where she was the headline act on a variety show. Just him and me. My father was a fast and purposeful walker and I remember holding his hand trotting along to keep up, taking the train up to London, then a bus to get to the theatre. I found cities very exciting. She was famous for performing barefoot which she did at this performance. It seemed exotic and rebellious.
What about your fondest musical memories or epiphanies?
Many of my epiphanies around music probably have to do with recording it but there have been countless memorable musical moments and probably most of them would be witnessing great performances from other artists rather than an experience that involved my participation. A fond memory would be something like in the mid 80’s ‘Til Tuesday opening for the original line up of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers for a few weeks. We’d be watching and listening side stage to these songs that I was so familiar with and hearing the band just kill it. To be in close proximity to a really good live band is a thrill for me.
An epiphany might be when I was about 14, already in a band, first time in a pro recording studio to do one of our originals. We were particularly interested in vocals; basically we wanted to sound like Queen. The engineer, Joe Chiccarelli, had us go in and sing our chorus vocals as a band around the mic and then record them again (double track) to be played back simultaneously. Listening back to the doubled three part harmonies for the first time was an “Ah ha, that’s how it's done” moment. I remember the band leader who was 18 at the time telling me, in the way of preparation for going in the recording studio “they got shit they can plug you into, make you sound just like Rod Stewart”. This was a period in time when nobody we knew had home recording equipment beyond a mono cassette recorder, before boom boxes even.
A slower epiphany was making the 2nd ‘Til Tuesday record around 1986 with producer Rhett Davies. I began to grasp the standards that top professional people with serious “ears” had and I also realised that I wasn’t at that level yet. I was flabbergasted by the attention to detail they paid and the whole experience was thrilling and highly educational.
When and how did you get into music? And what turned you on to the guitar in the first place?
There was always music in our household. Both parents were actors and my father had leading roles in a few musicals professionally. As far back as I can remember I wanted to play guitar and it was just a matter of working on my parents until they got me one, which finally happened at Christmas when I was 10 and we had already moved to the USA. I got a ukelele at age 7 in England. Pre uke, I clearly remember being in a music shop in Surbiton, England where you could first listen to a little bit of a record in an enclosure with speakers to see if you liked it. My parents bought The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper there. A salesman was selling a customer a nylon string “folk” guitar. He strummed across all the open strings with his thumb to demonstrate the superior sound quality and I exalted “Mummy!!!” to draw my mother’s attention to it, to clearly indicate that this was a keen interest. She nodded and smiled as if to say, yes we get the point, you want a guitar.
You were a founding member, songwriter and guitarist for the new wave ‘80s band ‘Til Tuesday. Can you paint a picture of the music scene around the time you were performing with them?
We were all living in apartments in Boston, me about age 23, them 20ish. We took it seriously. We all worked disposable day jobs and were otherwise trying to make it in a band. I had already been in a band from age 13 to 23 and ‘Til Tuesday was my second band ever. The other three people in ‘Til Tuesday were from elsewhere in the USA and were only in Boston as a result of attending the Berklee College of Music. My general feeling around the Boston music scene then, was that I was on the outskirts of it at the end of the 70’s glory days. I didn’t go to music school but that’s where my ‘Til Tuesday band mates knew each other from. They more came from punk and new wave and I from classic rock.
The band I had been in for the 10 years prior had all sorts of ideas about how to “make it” that didn’t include building a local following so we didn’t play out at many of the usual places and consequently weren’t well known or even particularly friendly with other bands. In that band we saw other bands as rivals and competitors, not friends. It was a different vibe with ‘Til Tuesday. We shared rehearsal spaces with other bands, they had other friends in bands we could open up for etc. so there was more networking. Everyone we knew in bands at that time seemed focused on writing songs, recording them, performing them at local gigs with hopes of getting signed by a record company.
What is the most significant thing that stayed with you after performing with ‘Til Tuesday?
The most significant thing is probably the amount of doors it opened in the USA, even decades after the fact. Our hit “Voices Carry” is still played on the radio there, so if I tell someone of a certain age I was in ‘Til Tuesday there is often some awareness. It doesn’t count for much in the UK because ‘Til Tuesday didn’t make a dent here.
After ‘Til Tuesday broke up you went on to form Ultra Blue in 1988. What did you feel like around that time and what did you want to put into the world?
I really wanted to rock out. I wanted to play psychedelic effect drenched guitar solos and write fun hooky songs with fat guitar riffs. I thought we had some good songs and we had loads of material but I didn’t believe deep down our vocals were strong enough, though some bits were charming. My wife at the time really didn’t want me to tour. She was very creative, could sing a bit and had a knack for song ideas so frankly the best way to keep her sweet was to put her in the band. I felt I really needed to work with a star lead singer but I didn’t have that person in my life. We managed to get a bit of major label interest and got some money out Epic records on a couple of occasions for recordings, but never sealed a deal. Other people cited weak vocals too. I was desperate to try to capitalize on the ‘Til Tuesday momentum and create new footholds in the business. Pitching songs to music publishers, producing other artists, trying to write with other artists, playing lots of sessions, but not willing to join another band. I tried a bit of everything to make money at original music and introduce myself as a force in my own right. I was also on a steady diet of motivational books, motivational cassettes, hitching a ride on the new age power of positive thinking train. A positive attitude that haunts me to this day. It’s not a time period I look back on fondly.
In 1996 you left Boston for Vermont. Can you tell us how your musical self evolved in Vermont compared to Boston?
By the time I moved to Vermont I had given up trying to get attention as an original artist and really just wanted to make some sort of living chiefly from playing music without touring. I wanted to achieve something basic and buy a house for starters. I’d had another sort of epiphany while working as a singer with a doo wop acapella group that actually made money doing corporate gigs, weddings, parties etc. I’d seen a really good wedding band, one you wouldn’t be embarrassed to be in, a well rehearsed band with a proper percussion player, a male vocalist, a female vocalist, horns, everybody sang and they played dance music. I had only ever seen bad wedding bands before then. I thought, hey I play guitar too, we could do our own version of a great wedding band and finally make some money. I did put together a function band and we played successfully for over a decade based in Vermont.
What was your perception of the British music scene when you returned to England?
A whole lot of different bands and songs have come and gone that I completely missed. More than once I’ve found myself in a situation where the entire room is singing a song together that I’ve never heard before. Also, professionals have been pretty elusive. I suppose most professionals at my age are normally already known in their circles and have decades of history built up with each other. It’s not really a scene easy to break into as an old new guy. I think any American and British cross pollination between musicians happens on a grander level than I’m operating on. Initially I went through some uncomfortable jams and well intentioned but fruitless introductions trying to meet people to play with.
There also seemed to be a greater sense of apathy, an acceptance of the folly of courting mainstream success. I’m not the right person to take the temperature of the original music scene though as I am usually focused on trying to get paying gigs which largely excludes original music at this level. You meet the occasional self financed original artists, but that’s everywhere. My reintroduction in the UK music scene has been one of steadily lowering my expectations. You’ll be able to stick a fork in me the day I join a tribute band. I feel like there must be a hidden fold in the time-space fabric that once passed through, reveals a parallel world of amazing singers and players playing tight world class music to vast appreciative audiences. I haven’t found a way in yet, though I sometimes think I catch glimpses. I’m happy with many of the people I’m playing with now but it’s not been easy to find them.
What metaphor would best describe your identity as a musician since your return to England?
I’m late to the party. I’ve showed up at the front door, I have a bottle of wine, a bunch of flowers, I’m all dressed up like a dandy wearing a loud floral tie and smelling of cologne. The door opens revealing just a few people who seem to know each other talking loudly, holding cans of cider in the kitchen with their coats on. There are a few younger others slumped on the sofa fully involved in video games ignoring me. Upstairs I can hear an acoustic guitar, sounds like a singer songwriter jam going on quietly. Half a mile away there is surely a huge party in full swing I wasn’t invited to and didn’t know about.
You’ve been writing new songs in the past few years. What inspires your lyrics and how do you come up with song titles?
The inspiration for the lyrics and titles of my more recent songs are drawn from my regular life. They’re imaginations, impressions, memories and quandaries I experience and I just exaggerate, obfuscate and amplify to taste.
Who are your musical heroes?
I have so many musical heroes I couldn’t begin to start naming them. I tend to be particularly struck by writers, singers and producers. Obvious old school big names like Prince, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, Bowie, Van Morrison, Burt Bacharach; non obvious ones like Mel Torme, Julie London, Jimmy Webb, Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam (just kidding about that last one).
Who is a lesser known local musician or band that people should know about?
Aron Atwood is properly talented. I love his songwriting, singing, production, he’s a really solid guitar player too. People seem to know him mostly as a drummer. His last record, done by him at home is called Magic 8 Ball. I play with him too. I don’t really know too much about many people I don’t play with. I definitely chase down hearing the original music by artists I meet. Unfortunately I’m not often that titillated.
What is your favourite ’80s song?
I don't have a favourite anything, but one that I like is “It’s My Life” by Talk Talk.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
Walking around big cities with my wife or going on trips with her always inspires. I think I’m more interested in being wound up than unwinding.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
I’m certain I ignored the best advice I’ve ever been given and so I don’t remember it but I have a getting good advice story.
Years ago I had a friend who was an art dealer and he had as a client, a very successful independent record promotion guy who started up a vanity record label. My friend introduced us and set up this man coming to see my original band (Ultra Blue) and the guy showed up with a small entourage. He told me after the show he liked it, he smiled and was positive and said we should speak in the coming week. My friend and I met up shortly after this gig and he asked me how his client liked it. I said “He liked it! I tried to call him the week after but he was away and his secretary assured me he’d be calling me back but he hasn’t yet. Basically she says he’s absolutely slammed”. My friend said matter of factly, “he didn't like it”. I protested “no, he said he liked it but we just haven’t managed to talk yet”. But he persisted “if he liked it he would have been on the phone to you the next day or Monday morning at the latest. He didn't like it!”.
The upshot is: people say things they don’t mean. Especially, when they’re faced with you after you’ve just played or performed or to fill up the silence after your recording has just ended or they’ve just looked at your art in front of you. They feel obligated to say at least something nice. They don’t want you to fail. They instinctively know the words you want to hear and they’re ready to do their part and say their lines, jam on it and exaggerate. They might ask questions about how to hear more or declare their interest in coming to see you live. Casual fans will tell you they’re your biggest ever fan. I’m regularly surprised at how many fellow artists and musicians take the things said to them in the moment, to heart. It’s easy to want to believe it, but unless strangers actually seek you out or are willing to part with hard earned money and time, you’re not working.
To finish the story though, my friend said “Here’s what you do. You drive to his office and just wait in the parking lot until you see him arrive however long it takes. Then jump out of the car and confront him, say as if pleasantly surprised “hey Jerry, I just happened to be in the neighborhood and took a chance to swing by in case I might run into you. If you have a minute I can play you this new track we have I was going to send you!” So I did exactly that. I wound up waiting in this car park for about 6 hours until I saw him finally pull up. 6 hours of psyching myself up. My heart was pounding but I jumped out and followed the script my friend outlined. Jerry was a little surprised but invited me up to his office for a “few minutes” and we listened to my track. He played me a brand new track by Sting, one that he thought was going to be a big hit (it was). He pointed out how it immediately sounded interesting within the first few seconds and said it was something I should try to do with my track. Have something, anything, of great interest happen immediately. Spoken just like a businessman speaks about music. I then asked him directly for a little demo money in order to try this and so we could record it properly. He offered $1000. I never followed it up as I felt like it was just guilt money and I wasn’t sure I knew what to do differently to be honest.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Is there life after death?
Is it better to be loved or feared?
Which is more important, skill or luck?
What creatures, voices or sounds appear most often in your dreams?
Pets of mine make appearances in my dreams, usually some sort of stress around looking after them. My dogs, past or present are running around near traffic, that kind of thing. Voices would be the voices of the people I’m interacting with but I don’t seem to actually hear them, I just have an understanding of what is said. Only occasionally is there any music. I don’t think my dreams are very aural although dreams with gig situations are plentiful.
What new ideas are occupying your mind at the moment and where do you think they will lead you?
I’m always coming up with song ideas, types of songs I’d like to write, styles of playing and singing I’d like to try, subjects I’d like to put to music. Lately I’m attracted to melodic pop joy rides with twists and turns all done in as short a time as possible. I’ve been thinking about songs with tempo and/or feel changes right in the middle of them as I haven’t written one like that before. When I finally like something enough to finish it in demo form, I will become fully absorbed in recording it all the while fantasising wildly about all the wonderful things it will lead to, someone will fall in love with it, just as I am, enough to put it in a movie, or cover it, or decide it needs to be recorded by me properly. I get crushes on songs, my own and other people’s. Some I get over, some I don’t.
If your life would be a song, what would you name it and why?
The ballad of Robbie. Robbie because that’s what my wife calls me. The Ballad of, because it’s a song about my life so it seems like the right title.
And now a question from Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire: What goes on in tunnels?
Unusual acoustics, graffiti and possibly illegal dealings
Can you recommend us:
A book: Flight three USA, Ladybird book of Travel Adventure
A song: 2002 a Hit Song by Free Design
A film: Tango by Zbigniew Rybczynski
Thank you, Robert for the insightful conversation and for sharing with us your fascinating musical journey.