The Family of Things S2 E2 : Robert John Hope (released April 16 2021)
Robert John Hope is a Berlin based singer and songwriter whose debut solo album ‘Plasticine Heart’ is released April 23rd 2021. A Co. Mayo native, Rob is well known on the Irish music scene as the front man for the indie band Senakah, a group that came together in Limerick in 2005, and had two hit albums ‘Sweeter than Bourbon’ and ‘Human Relations’ before the band went their separate ways.
In this episode of the Family of Things Rob, who once worked with Athena Media as a documentary-maker, shares with Helen his decision to make Berlin his home seven years ago and how, he has found his voice, and his music mojo, after a dark period when he thought he might never sing again. His debut solo album ‘Plasticine Heart’ is released April 23rd and was recorded in Berlin and features Rob’s old colleagues from Senakah, bass player Yvonne Conaty and drummer Daragh O’Loughlin.
You can buy find Senakah music on bandcamp senakah.bandcamp.com/ Music featured in this episode includes Senakah ‘Clarity’ ( Sweeter Than Bourbon’ album ) Senakah ‘Human Relations’ (‘Human Relations’ album) Robert John Hope ‘Colorado’ (“Plasticine Heart’ album) Senakah ‘Sweeter Than Bourbon’ ( Sweeter Than Bourbon’ album) Robert John Hope ‘None Other’ ( ‘Plasticine Heart’ album) Robert John Hope ‘Plasticine Heart’ (Plasticine Heart’ album) You can order the new album here: save-it.cc/musszo/plasticine-heart
In the conversation Rob talks about a medical condition, a disease, he had affecting his voice. It is called Aspirin-exacerbated respiratory disease (AERD), also known as Samter’s triad. Find out more about Robert John Hope and his music www.robertjohnhope.com/
I can recall sitting in the car with my dad, actually, when I was in Dublin back visiting at one stage and like, I don’t think I’d ever felt more depressed in my life because literally at this point, my voice had completely gone. I could barely talk at all.
I was thinking, I can play music again, but I’ll never be able to sing, which is probably one of the better aspects of what I do. And so it was a very shockingly depressing moment.
Hello and welcome to The Family of Things, I’m Helen Shaw, and in this podcast, I get to talk to people who are living life on their own terms. And with me today in this episode, is an old friend of Athena Media, it’s singer and songwriter, Mayo man, Robert John Hope. Now to us he was always just Rob, but when he’s performing now, it’s very much Robert John Hope. Rob was very well known in the Dublin scene and across the states and touring with his band Senakah for many years. It was one of the popular fixtures on the Irish music and gig scene. But now Rob is very much settled in Berlin and recording and releasing new work there as a solo artist. So welcome, Rob. And, you know, I think to kick off what’s it like in Berlin? We’re in this world now where nobody travels. I think it’s at least a year and two months since I’ve left Ireland.
Yeah, well, it’s lovely to speak with you again, Helen, but yeah, Berlin is like absolutely everywhere else in the world at the moment, it’s not ideal.
However, there are worse situations, I believe, that I could be in, because when it comes to Lockdowns and dealing with Corona, Berlin is certainly not the worst, I would say.
And what’s your life like there? Because most of us have visited and we have a sense of Berlin as a tourist and the ways in which I know it, it’s a great city to walk through. I’ve been there, I think, from just after the wall came down to perhaps maybe just a couple of years ago. But give us a picture of your Berlin.
Yeah, well, firstly, actually, the whole pandemic situation has in many respects been very good for me, because while I’ve been here for almost seven years, it’s only within the past year that I’ve actually walked pretty much every single inch of the city, I would say.
But for context and anybody who knows Berlin at all, I live in Prenzlauer Berg, which is part of the old East part of Berlin, I would say, and it was
It’s very cool now Rob,
Very much so. Well it’s, many would say it’s a little bit too gentrified, but essentially when the wall first came down, this was the real mecca of artists and people kind of moving into open spaces and setting up their own galleries and kind of art spaces. But as the artists have gotten a little bit older and started having children, etc., it’s become a little bit more gentrified. Yeah, it’s a beautiful part of the city. I love it. It’s great for, in normal times, cafes and bars and restaurants, etc.
And it’s very close to the centre of the city, Alexanderplatz as well. So it’s walkable for me. I can be in Alexanderplatz in less than 20 minutes. So it’s kind of a, it’s a perfect location for me. I’m not the kind of person to be out in the suburbs. And so living in this part of Berlin is really wonderful. And you know me, I’m a huge history buff and so this is a historical city. It’s like a lived in history.
So when you walk around, you see aspects of the history, whether that’s the little tiles in the ground, which name the Jewish families who were thrown out of their buildings during the war, to seeing little parts of the wall around. It’s basically a perfect slice of history and to actually live in it I really do love that kind of aspect of it.
And let’s go back because I was saying you’re a Mayo man, but tell us a little bit about origins and beginnings, because Castlebar is in my head as your place.
But, you know, what was it like growing up and what was your world growing up in Mayo?
And in some ways, Castlebar is a busy place. It’s not particularly rural Ireland, but it’s a hell of a lot different than Dublin or Berlin today. What was home like for you growing up?
Yeah, well, I guess I mean, my entire childhood upbringing was based around Mayo. I come, I was born in Castlebar, however, I grew up in a little parish outside of called Breaffy. So not actually in the town itself, but Castlebar for a kind of a country town that is quite a busy town. It’s the original kind of market town of Mayo. And I mean, I had the idyllic kind of upbringing in Breaffy because as you know yourself, Mayo is quite a beautiful place, like from a scenery point of view in the countryside.
And running in the fields and up and down hills all over the place. It’s kind of, and going into turf with my uncles or whatever it might have been when on the farm. I mean, I didn’t grow up in a farm myself, but obviously that, like most of my family were farming at that stage. And so that was a huge part of my life.
And your extended family is so musical because in some ways I’ve come across many of your cousins through music like David Hope and Grainne Hope and Ciaran Hope. There’s a stack of them. So is music just in the DNA of the Hopes?
Well, it’s interesting because as my parents would say, they really didn’t have the opportunity to play instruments as children growing up. They both grew up on farms out in the countryside. My mother in Kilkenny, in Northern Kilkenny, near the Tipperary border in a place called Tullaroan. And my father in a place called Sraheens, which is near Balla in county Mayo.
However, my mother said she had, I think it was two uncles, both who played the fiddle or one played the flute and one the fiddle. And yeah, it’s only really in this particular generation of my family that the musical side has really come through, especially on the Hope side. So, yeah, Ciaran, as you mentioned, ironically enough, I only met him for the first time in my life in my late 20s when I was touring in the US and we went to L.A. He ended up coming to see us play a show. And that was the first time I actually ever met him in person.
Because Ciaran, at that stage was writing music for cinema soundtracks and was really established in that. He’s doing quite other things now with things like the Web Summit. And then Grainne and David, obviously both musicians from very different genres of music, but working in that great charity and NGO around children and hospitals and music.
Yeah, both myself and David were very, very close. We’re almost like brothers, to be honest with you.
You kind of look alike.
Don’t tell him that and don’t tell me that. But yeah, funnily enough, I think it was a similar situation for him. He didn’t, Ciaran and Grainne are brother and sister, and we didn’t really know them growing up. Well, I certainly didn’t anyways but David, I don’t think too much either.
And now David works with Grainne all the time with Kids’ Classics, as you mentioned, which is a really amazing kind of organisation. I did one session with them in a hospital in Crumlin. And I mean, really, my hat’s off to them. It’s very
It’s remarkable work.
It’s very humbling work, I must say. It really is.
And so growing up, though, as you say, not so aware of those musical Hope cousins, what were you thinking about your future and where did you think you were going in music? And when did that all start for you or was it later, like when you went to college?
Well, funnily enough, I was the stereotypical child being forced to learn piano when I was a kid. Mum and dad made sure I went to learn it and I was kicking and screaming, wanted to get rid of it. But it was always a situation whereby the teacher would, I remember Mum telling me that she said, like, Rob’s has a serious knack for this, but then I just didn’t want anything to hear about it. I was a bratty teenager, so I unfortunately, I gave up the piano for a few years.
But then at 16, I picked up the guitar and immediately I gravitated towards particularly songwriting, not so much wanting to be the next Jimi Hendrix or somebody like that, but songwriting itself. And from the very beginning, from the age of 16, that was what I wanted to do. And to be honest with you, it became more or less an obsession to the point where it was like, unfortunately, my poor parents were trying to force me to make sure I actually concentrated on doing things like getting your leaving cert and all of these kind of things.
Because I was just, music was all I wanted to do. So it’s kind of, it’s never an easy scenario for a parent when that happens to your teenager in their later teenage years, you know.
And were they worried? Were they wanting you to go for civil service or teaching and that security that many of us often feel our parents would really prefer that we’d opt for?
Yeah, well, I mean, they’re both hugely supportive of me doing music, but at the same time, they were very disciplined in that they said, listen, go for music, but you’re getting a degree, you’re going to college, you’re going to do something to fall back on.
And thank God they did that. I would say like, Mum would have given anything to see me become a teacher. That’s exactly what she would have wanted me to become.
And what did she do? What were your parents?
Yes. So my dad was a finance guy up until he retired and mum was originally a nurse then moved over to Liverpool and then London and then my parents met in London. And so, yeah, she was a nurse.
And when you were writing then at 16 and this fever, you almost felt to start writing songs. Who were you listening to? Because, you know, I remember talking to Glen Hansard about that similar phase when he started to do it and he was utterly obsessed with Dylan. And that was the the remarkable thing that one day he was busking on Grafton Street and who walks down the road, literally, but Bob Dylan. So who were you listening to?
Well, around the same time I was picking up a guitar, I was kind of, what are these, I wouldn’t say Emo, Goth kids or whatever, but I was obsessed with, like, the Smashing Pumpkins, that kind of thing. And then that kind of moved on towards Jeff Buckley. And then I very much got into the whole blues side, especially when I picked up the guitar. I was very much into the blues so B.B. King, Nina Simone.
Then, as I grew older, kind of into my early 20s, my cousin David, who I mentioned earlier on, really got me to say Tom Waits and Bob Dylan and obviously
Yeah, absolutely. And you can’t but be hugely influenced by say The Beach Boys or The Beatles. I mean, that’s kind of I mean, what I was listening to.
In terms of rhythm.
Yeah, it’s just, and songwriting. That’s the enormous aspect of it for me and what I was always interested in and kind of learning how to structure songs and do things. And I mean, there’s no better way to do that than learn from the masters. So, yeah.
When you went to college, you ended up in Limerick. And it’s always funny because I mentioned Senakah, the band that you fronted and toured with for over a decade. Great band. But, you know, whenever you see Senakah described online, it’s always Limerick Band. And I think the first time I met you, I obviously in the beginning thought you were from Limerick, but Limerick was seminal, that a group of you came together and you created music and Senakah was one of the things that grew from that.
But give us a sense of that, about how important Limerick and that gang that you began to hang with was.
Like absolutely enormous. I mean, when I think back, I spent I think eight years of my life in Limerick. Basically, I lived there from the age of 18 to 25, 26. And I mean, the way the band came together, like I was still playing, I was playing throughout college. But in the later years of college, I met Daragh, who played drums, Yvonne, who I was actually in college with, and then Brendan as well. And ironically, none of us are from Limerick at all, but we just all happened to be in the city and it kind of, it just grew from there.
And to be honest with you, I think a lot of people maybe don’t know the Limerick music scene around that period of time, it was 2005, 2006, 2007, I mean, there was some amazing bands in Limerick and there was some great venues as well, kind of independent, real indie kind of clubs. And so it was just a really amazing kind of place to be part of a music scene where everybody knew each other, if that makes sense. Because I mean, it’s not a big city.
There was a great vibe there. There was a sense in which it was small enough that you got to know people. And then, you know, it was big enough to actually have a lot of energy around it.
Yeah. And the bands were very supportive of each other, you know, and like it ended up being a scenario where there was a couple of bands from Limerick at that time who also ended up in the U.S. and we’d meet them over there. Yeah. So it was like, there was some real serious, talent in Limerick at that particular time. But it was just, it was a great place to basically do my school of how to be in a band and play kind of rock and roll and properly be a singer songwriter.
Clarity by Senakah plays
And, you know, Senakah and the albums that came out and you had at least three songs that were top 20, you had a huge range of songs that had that catch that they did become radio friendly. And that Clarity in the first album had enormous success for you from the Sweeter than Bourbon album. And then Human Relations, which really, what was it? 2013 or so?, Human Relations the song itself, I just listened to it the other day, and it’s what we’re listening to now is such a catchy tune.
It still just gets you into that vibe of get up and move. And I suppose your music was rock and roll, but there was a sense there was just that great beat around what you were doing.
Yeah. As I mentioned, I see myself first and foremost as a songwriter, and I saw myself as that before a singer and kind of I developed as a singer as the band was developing. And so what was good about that band for me as a learning experience was the fact that, like, the way I wrote the songs is not the way the songs would have developed in the end, as they did, particularly with that band. But because you have Loughy and because you have Yvonne and Brendan bringing their own ideas and bring their own kind of sensibilities as to how that particular composition should kind of end up being, that’s why you had songs like Human Relations.
I mean, like sounding as it did because I mean, it wouldn’t have sounded like that most likely if I just was let free reign to do it as I pleased, you know. And then we were very, very, very blessed to have the opportunity of Noel Hogan from The Cranberries producing it. And so obviously he, I mean he’s a library of knowledge when it comes to, OK, this is like this is how we really make this pop.
Human Relations by Senakah plays
Because that was the remarkable thing, and I suppose it came from the Limerick anchoring as well, that you got to know people like Noel Hogan from The Cranberries and The Cranberries were very good to you.
Yeah, well, I mean, obviously we knew Noel by far the best and Fergal and Mike to a lesser degree. I never actually, unfortunately, got to meet Dolores. But I mean, my experience of them is they’re the nicest, most grounded people on Earth. So it’s a very Limerick, kind of grounded, no nonsense people, you know, and supremely talented as well. I mean, who’s not influenced by those songs, you know?
One of the things about that period was how much you travelled, that you spent a lot of time in the States as well as doing mainland Europe and obviously travelling in Britain and Ireland. But, you know, you always get the sense that that time that you guys spent in the States was, again, really a turning point for all of you. You know, you’ve had a great time and it’s reflected in what you’re doing now. I mean, I see that song you have from your 2018 work, which is Colorado.
Colorado by Robert John Hope plays
And, you know, there’s always a sense in my head that when you talk about that period and the stories that come out of your touring, that it was a bit of a magic period for you.
Absolutely, especially back when I was younger. I mean, it was always the dream to go and play even one gig in the US and so we can tour around Europe and we have done and everybody tours in Britain and Europe from Ireland. But I mean, America was always this kind of far away thing that was almost impossible to achieve.
And by just sheer happenstance and luck, we happened to get in contact with a guy who brought us over for a showcase in Denver, Colorado. And out of that, he ended up managing us and then going through the whole visa scenario.
And it just, through hard work, kind of worked out for us, took longer than we expected to get the visas. But once we got there, we hit the road.
We were playing five to seven nights every week. We did, I think, four tours. In one of the tours, for example, like we drove by the end of it like forty six and a half thousand miles and played 98 gigs or something over six and a half months. So it was just, it was completely intense.
Thats a lot. Yeah.
I know. Like yeah. Like, I mean I remember us meeting a lot of people on the road there and them going like, how the hell are we doing it? But it was a necessity because we didn’t have a specific home there. It’s not like we were renting a house that we could have actually gone back to at the end of the day. And so it was literally a case of keep driving around the entire country, keep moving, playing, kind of making enough money to get onto the next place. That was literally how it was. I mean, we were playing gigs, finishing up because gigs tend to finish later over there for some reason.
And so we’d maybe get out of a venue at 2:00, 2:30 in the morning and then get two hours sleep, get up and drive 300 miles to do a radio breakfast interview the next morning or something. I mean, that happened on numerous occasions. It was like I mean, it can be dangerous. I mean, there’s a lot of bands who end up in crashes and things like this because it’s just you’re exhausted all the time. However, we were young enough to get away with it.
Colorado by Robert John Hope plays
And, you know, that whole period when, it must have been quite electric, the touring in the states and doing that level of gigging and the attention coming from Ireland and getting to that point, there must have been a sense in your head that like we’ve made it.
Yeah. One thing with touring in America, which I found I’ve never experienced it really in Europe to the same degree, is this aspect of your touring all of the time, you’re playing venues in different cities every night and you just come across these random, like musical legends from over the decades over in the U.S.
Like as an example, we ended up doing a tour with Bernie Worrell, who unfortunately recently passed away. But he was like, he was one of the founding members of Parliament-Funkadelic, Flash Light, all those classic funk songs. But then he was in Talking Heads for 10 years, and it ended up being a case where we were opening for him, but he would come down and play with us every night. So
Oh that’s cool.
And other people like from Parliament that we came across and say Mac Gayden, who wrote Everlasting Love, hanging out with him in Nashville, and other total legends who are just the kind of session musicians scene who are like off with Aretha Franklin and people like this. And it’s just it’s crazy because you just randomly come across these people because that’s their general everyday life. The one thing I found is like when we were in America, it’s just you really up your game.
I mean, you’re playing every single night and really trying hard to improve our performances. Because when you’re watching American acts, the one thing you could never say about them is that they’re not highly professional. It’s like they’re just so slick, it’s incredible and that we’re kind of this haggard band from Ireland, we’re just like a garage band to a degree. And so you’re watching this and you can’t but be influenced by it. It really makes you up your game.
And actually, I think the best example of it I could mention was I remember we saw Arrested Development, the hip hop band, Mr. Wendel songs like this.
Mr. Wendel by Arrested Development plays
We saw them play at this kind of festival thing to about 25 people in a thousand capacity room. And I don’t know what, there was like nine or ten of them on stage, and it was the most amazing gig I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just it blew my mind. The professionalism was just outrageous.
They gave it all, even though there was only 25 people.
I mean, these guys are legends, you know, Grammy Award winning like legends, and they just give absolutely everything, regardless of who’s in front of them, you know, and it’s a lesson.
I mean, we were a very amateurish band in many respects. And I think by the end of it that had turned around a lot. We were quite a professional band, I would say.
And what’s great about where you are now, you’re working as a solo artist. You’re in Berlin and recording, writing, new album about to come out under your name as Robert John Hope, but you’re still playing with the guys from Senakah, like Yvonne and Locky in that.
I mean, that’s such a credit to to yourself as well, that you have remained tight as friends and as collaborators and that they’re very much part of the sound that you’re creating now in the new work for the album Plasticine Heart.
I mean, it’s almost when you’ve done so much with people like this and kind of experienced so much with people like that they’re like an additional limb, you know what I mean? You really feel like it feels strange not to be working with them. Yvonne is a supreme musician, musical mind and Locky, as well is such a great drummer. And they think of things I never do. And it’s this aspect of if I do this all myself, it’s not going to sound as good as it will if I have these people working with me and I know them so well. We just when we get together and play, it’s just everybody slots into their own. It’s totally comfortable.
And of course, I should name check them, Yvonne Conaty and Daragh O’Loughlin, they’re all somewhere else. I mean, they’re still in Ireland, not in Berlin with you jiveing and jazzing no?
No, Yvonne. But like Locky is living, Daragh, Locky is still living in London and Yvonne is living in Athenry in Galway.
So they fly in once in a while and we do some work and I play with other musicians over here as well. So if there’s gigs, etc. that the guys can’t make. But when it comes to the creative process, I always want them to be involved as much as possible where possible, because obviously living in different countries it’s not always that easy. But yeah, for the most part, I always insist on getting them over whenever I can.
What was also remarkable about your work as Senakah and say some of the tracks from those two albums and Human Relations was that you were really good at hitting the ground in licencing your work and putting it into shows which often were big hits in the U.S. and playing globally, that while, as you say, you came out of almost amateur garage band from Limerick, you had a very strong business sense about the music business.
And in this world where we know how difficult it is for a band in a digital environment to make a living and, live gigging, as you say, is exhausting as a way to generate revenue, that you were really good at seeing connections, that you met along the way and licencing your work, particularly, you know, some of the tracks I remember ended up on big U.S. shows.
It’s kind of a slight differing aspect of the U.S. music scene back then, I can only speak about back in those days, about 10 years ago as opposed to now. But it’s such an integral aspect of the music business over there in terms of just gaining popularity, et cetera, as well, because, say, we had a song in The Hills and The Kardashians, these things.
But over in the U.S., they actually place the name of the song and the artist on the TV while it’s playing, or they did back then, and they weren’t doing things like that in Europe. So this is how you get onto the kind of college scene as well. And so you start getting booked in college gigs.
Sweeter Than Bourbon by Senakah plays
And then as a result of that, say we’ve reached, at one stage we were in the top 100 of the college music journal, kind of most played college radio bands or whatever at one stage there.
And that was literally just because we were getting onto some of these TV shows and then the students could see the name of the band playing as it goes by. But that’s something that we never considered or thought of before we went there, if that makes sense, it’s just by learning and talking to people, once you’re there, you know,
And making the connections, making those connections, which is what you were really good at doing, was almost connecting with people and then becoming collaborators, becoming friends with them as well. And that was almost, as you say, that you met somebody who became your manager, but people who started to open doors as well. And I suppose with the Human Relations album, you know, when you were touring an awful lot with that.
Yet in a sense, it is always that thing, the challenge of keeping a band going and it having a long life within it in the end for you Senakah ended.
Yeah, well, it’s kind of I mean, it’s never one thing. I guess, like, the unfortunate thing is, obviously, as people get older as well, your focus is kind of changed to, do I still want to be going around in the bus 15 years from now, this kind of thing. Like, while we can keep pushing at this, I need something else in my life as well. So it wasn’t this big break up kind of thing where we just said, hey the band is no more. It was just kind of a gradual
You started to to do other things.
Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And yeah, that’s often how it goes with bands, unfortunately.
And I guess like a lot of bands, you were the primary engine for writing within the band. So once you moved your headspace, that also dictated what was going to happen with the band. And then the others were doing other things themselves and also living in other places.
But for you, Berlin obviously was a big shift and moving there, as you say, about seven years ago, many, many Irish bands and artists have moved to Berlin. Particularly, there was that point maybe 10 years ago when it was the hottest place for Irish musicians and bands to shift to. And then for a while afterwards being Iceland, I’m not quite sure where it is now. Well, nobody can move anyway. So there’s a lot of Irish bands and musicians in Berlin. But that really wasn’t the reason that you ended up there, because it was more about, Cherchez le Femme. There was love involved.
Yes. Well, yeah, my partner, Katrin, she’s Bavarian originally, but we both kind of made the decision that we wanted to try someplace different. And like, I mean, we both love Berlin. And she wanted to be closer to home as well because her mother and brother are here. And so it’s a city we both love and we could see ourselves living in. So we just kind of made the decision and made the move. And I really I do not regret it. I absolutely love living here.
So, yeah, but as you say, I don’t think it slowed down too much, well pandemic besides, because there’s certainly an Irish mafia of artists and cultural folk living here now.
Yeah like so, Wallis Bird, Nina Hynes, I know and we’ve worked with them before. But there’s a rake of people and there’s opera, there’s every genre of music coming from Irish artists around Berlin. I mean, is that something you’re very aware about, as you say, this Irish mafia, but this network of Irish talent and artists who’ve come to congregate in Berlin.
Very, very much so. I mean, like Berlin is an enormous city in many respects, I don’t know, four million or four and a half million. It’s just,
It’s like Ireland.
Yeah, pretty much. Yeah. It’s just it’s a very insular music scene as well with the people in the indie singer-songwriter circuit, we all kind of meet eventually because we’re all going to each other’s gigs.
And so there are a lot of cultural, Irish cultural, kind of nights that are on here. And just I mean, when you meet one Irish musician, you meet four other Irish musicians, that’s just the way it works. Like we all kind of introduce each other to other folks who are here. And through that, I know so many Irish musicians here. It’s scary. I mean it. I know far more Irish people than Germans, I would say.
And I know that you and Katrin met here and she was obviously working in Google, I think, at that stage. And you both have had a strong life in digital media et cetera. Music, for all its joys and wonders, is not 100 percent of your time or your life now. I mean, you’re also working for a digital company, I think, and working across Europe.
Yeah, I work for a Swiss company called Doodle, not Google, Doodle. It’s kind of like an online scheduling portal. A lot of businesses use it. I basically act as an internal diplomat between various departments.
No better man.
I think they like the Irish aspect of me because I can talk the hind legs off anybody that needs talking to. So that kind of helps, I believe. Yeah, to be honest with you, I find it really rewarding in many aspects.
And the fact is, I actually prefer being able to compartmentalise music from other aspects of my life because I think it actually frees up my brain in many ways to go and write again, because the one thing I found when I was a full time musician is that the stress of the everyday life as being a full time musician takes away from your enjoyment of what it’s supposed to be. And at the end of the day, enjoying music is, I mean what’s the point of me doing it if I don’t enjoy it and I didn’t enjoy it for periods of time and it’s the worst thing ever.
Like, if you actually don’t have any appreciation for picking up guitar and writing songs anymore, like, that’s the last thing that I ever wanted to happen to me. And it did happen to me because every other aspect around being a full time musician just took over and just causes anxiety and you fail to enjoy it anymore. And so having this other side of life, whether it be when I was working with Athena Media, or now with Doodle or Vimeo before Doodle, basically, I think it frees me up to enjoy music a lot more and to view it the way I always wanted to view it when I was in my early 20s or when I was a teenager, you know.
And to keep yourself creative, like it really has that sense. And within that, I mean, because it’s amazing the number of pieces I’ve seen written about you and your voice. And they compare you to so many different people and Eddie Vedder comes up quite a bit, you know, as being the sound.
Plasticine Heart by Robert John Hope plays.
And one of the things I do know is that probably around that time when you shifted to Berlin or sometime after it, not just that sense, as you say, of the loss of joy in the music business, which, as you say, can become a bit of a chore when it’s a business, but you also had to deal with, confront and overcome challenges around your own health and your own voice as well. Which at some level, I know as a singer and as a performer, that had to be so disconcerting that there was a sense at times you maybe had to wonder, where is your voice and how do I find my voice again?
Well, this is it. I mean, I can recall sitting in the car with my dad, actually, when I was in Dublin back visiting at one stage. And like, I don’t think I’d ever felt more depressed in my life because my voice had completely gone. I could barely talk at all. And there was no sign of it getting any better because nobody happened to know what was wrong with me at that point.
But essentially, I had major sinus issues that I had to get surgeries on. And what that was causing was basically my lungs to fill up. And then I was coughing, say I couldn’t sleep at all and couldn’t breathe because I was also asthmatic. And so I was coughing so much that I ended up stripping out my larynx. And so nobody knew what was going on. And I was getting chest x-rays in case it happened to be something I don’t even think about. And like eventually
It’s pretty terrifying.
It was awful because I remember that time like I was sitting in the car with my dad and I was like, this is the worst thing ever. Because I was even at that point, yes, I was working, say, in another job. But I at that point was thinking I can never really, I can play music again, but I’ll never be able to sing, which is probably one of the better aspects of what I do. And so it was a very shockingly depressing moment. But yeah, by some turn of events, that was very, very lucky I happened to meet a doctor here in Berlin who was doing a study on what it turned out I actually had, which is quite like a reasonably rare syndrome of such. It’s called Samter’s Triad. But yeah, what I actually have
It sounds like the name for a band. When you get stuck for a new band. You know, in your latter years, that could be the name of the band.
Exactly. And so the funny thing is, like that particular syndrome is not, maybe it is now, but at that time wasn’t recognised in Ireland or Britain as a particular actual thing where they found a combination of health issues and combined it into one particular thing that had a connection between them all. And so she was doing a study and so I ended up being on this study, taking this drug for two years. I happened to be on the placebo, unfortunately, so I wasn’t getting any better.
But then luckily, eventually the drug was approved. And so that’s what I take now and it solved all my problems.
Plasticine Heart by Robert John Hope plays.
Such an incredible story because it did have that sense that at that time that you felt that whole part of your life was over. And as somebody who’s not a singer, it’s hard to fully understand how devastating that is. But it was part of who you were.
At the end of the day it was, when you fall out of love with music, it’s not about wanting to gig or do anything like this it’s just like sitting down and playing and writing songs. I mean, I’m happiest when I’m making kind of progress on a new song or like a composition that I’m working on.
And so to lose that as a part of your life is just devastating. But like I mean, I cannot complain because it’s not permanent. It was a temporary blip along the road. So I can’t complain.
Plasticine Heart by Robert John Hope plays.
That was a period which was a number of years, so for you, where you still writing while not performing or singing at that stage, what got you through? What was clearly a dark time?
Yeah, I mean, work, funnily enough, actually helped, it was a nice distraction. But yeah I mean, I didn’t, I did go through quite a long period where I didn’t write very much at all because I was just like, what’s the point? I know it’s a terrible way to look at it, but that’s how I was feeling at that point. But then when things started to get better, I mean, I started picking up the guitar again. And like, I mean, it’s the best thing in the world. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.
Plasticine Heart by Robert John Hope plays.
But at the same time, doing the other things within my life, whether that’s working in my normal job, I mean that actually I think helps focuses me with music now because it’s compartmentalising the kind of the two different aspects.
And I don’t have to worry about, like, how am I going to pay for this next record? I already owe so much and I’m on the road and I’m not earning enough and the pandemic hits or whatever. Because, like I mean, I consider myself very lucky because I know obviously a lot of artists now who are full time and it’s tragic.
It’s a devastating year.
I mean it’s, there’s no other way to describe it. I mean, it’s really it’s brutal what’s going on for the past year or so.
June 2018, you bring out your debut solo EP, which is The Unravelling. And tell us about that because you recorded it on a ship in Berlin.
Yeah. Actually recorded this entire album on the same ship. So it’s basically this place called the MS Heiterkeit. And I’m not sure if you’ve ever been there. You probably would have been. But if you were in Berlin, it’s in a park called Treptower Park.
It’s where you find the old Soviet monument. This like enormous, yeah. And so it’s basically it’s moored there at the docks on the Spree River. It was basically set up by an old promoter years ago, it’s two boats connected, a residential boat and then the studio. Basically being on a rocking boat like recording and then say if the boats go by, I mean the waves come over and crash against it. And actually, funnily enough, the other kind of group from Dublin who are working there at the moment, they rehearse there, I believe is Wyvern Lingo.
Those wonderful women.
Yeah, incredible. What a band. But it’s an incredibly inspiring place to work, because say if you’re underneath in the studio and you’re recording and you want to take a break, you come up in the summertime, watch people in the park, have a barbecue on deck or a beer or whatever, and just kind of sit in the river for a while and relax. It’s a really, it’s a really great place to work.
And The Unravelling and getting that EP out, and I suppose now that’s been, they’ve been the stepping stones to the album that’s coming out now in Plasticine Heart. There’s a real sense, I suppose, of joy, of rediscovery, growth in both your voice being back, but also richness of songwriting again. So talk to us about that, because the songs within the EP and now within the album, how would you describe them?
One thing I feel is that obviously I’m a little, a little bit older now, and so just the experience of having written songs for so long since I’ve been 16 years old, after a certain period of time, you really kind of focus in on what you do well when it comes to writing. And I feel like I’m at a place now where I really have a sense of how I want to write songs. And I think this is the first time I’ve really been able to get that across on record.
And so, yeah, hopefully other people feel the same. But yeah, like, I’m really happy with it. I love the record. I think it’s really nice. And I mean, I’m writing I’ve got most of the next album written as well, so I’m not slowing down.
So None Other which came out in January there, which is great, has such a beat and a bite and a really eerie, spooky video.
Very David Lynch.
None Other by Robert John Hope plays.
So in a sense there’s, as always, a combination of genres of sounds in it, I think. But you had a sense in which that really strong beat is there. And again, like a very tight sound within it. But obviously, you’re going to be bringing out the whole album now and we’ll begin to hear more of it and hopefully also in Ireland.
For me, I’m somebody who gets very, bored is not the word, but I tend to kind of zone out if I’m, say listening to an album and each song, it sounds like one song built on top of another, like there’s not much variety within it. And playing that kind of way, it doesn’t interest me too much. And so I like writing in different styles. I mean, the title track of the album Plasticine Heart is just a pure folk kind of acoustic song with strings, etc.
In comparison to None Other, which is like an electronic pop song. So they’re worlds apart, but I think they connect quite well in the album itself.
None Other by Robert John Hope plays.
What are the stories Rob, what are the stories, do you think you’re telling now. Because as you say, you’re a little bit older than Sweeter Than Bourbon or Human Relations and obviously those albums do have elements of how you, you and the group, but particularly how you saw the world and things that were happening around you. How much do you feel this work and what we’re seeing in the current releases is reflecting you and your take and what you’re seeing in the world? And that growing older aspect?
Very much so. I mean, I was asked this question recently by somebody here, as is there an overarching theme of the album? And I actually had to think about this and then come to the conclusion that there actually is, because within each song, I’d say the overall topic, in a sense, is time and time moving on, because the vast majority of songs on this record are me looking back on things that I did wrong, that I did right, what I fondly remember, whether it’s in the song, Colorado or like, the aspects of it which weren’t so good.
And it is that because, like, obviously it’s been an interesting 15 to 20 years. And so I think a lot of what has happened during that period, whether it’s in a more allegorical sense within the songs and the way they’re written, it’s very much I think about me looking back and the time. I know that might be a little bit kitschy or cheesy, but it’s the reality of the way I wrote the songs, I would say.
And also the power of what songwriting is to you, that you can unravel, that you can work through things.
You know, I know that a few years ago, is it three years, that your own mum passed and I know myself like, you know, my dad was the first to go and I think when he died, when I was 30 or so, it completely shifts your take on the world when you lose a parent. And there’s a sense in which there’s grieving and there’s loss. But there’s also a huge layer of maturing and growing up and actually moving into the space of understanding with empathy other people in the world. And I always kind of think that these are no matter what age they happen at, they are the huge defining moments in our life around our parents.
Yeah, I mean, it’s like an enormous thing. And like, by sheer luck, well not luck, it was on the cards, unfortunately, but
She died of cancer, didn’t she?
Yes. Yeah. Stomach cancer. And I’m just so thankful that I was able to be at home and with her when she passed. So, yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things. It never leaves you. Obviously, I don’t think it fully hit me until I was back in Berlin after a few weeks. But then unfortunately, say for my sister Karen and my father, they’re kind of still there for weeks and weeks and the months afterwards and the kind of, they have the empty house and having to deal with that, I think I was spared that in many respects by coming back to a completely different environment.
But as a result, I think it probably hit me a little bit later than it did for them. But yeah, I mean, it’s not nice, but unfortunately, this is life and it makes you appreciate life as well. I mean, she went into hospital on the same week that she retired officially. And so she was very much looking forward to that whole being retired, getting the pension and being able to relax finally after all these years, if that doesn’t inspire you to live your life to the fullest.
And she absolutely did. But I also know she would have very much appreciated her retirement and time off, you know, but
Yeah, this is it, don’t postpone. That’s the one thing we learn, whatever stage we encounter grief and death is don’t put it off. If something’s there, try and do it. And your dad always has been a great adventurer, from what I know is that he loves to travel. And obviously that still is part of his identity.
But for you, Rob, I mean, being in Berlin, as you say, we’re in this funny year where, as I said, I haven’t left Ireland since January 2020. So you’re in Berlin.
What’s your connection back home? Has it been weird with this idea that we’re a little bit more cut off, or have you been able to keep that sense of connectedness with Mayo and home?
To a degree? I mean, I have a very close group of friends like, who was in school with at home. And so I’m literally in touch with them on WhatsApp every day as an example. But like, I have regular Zooms with my father and my sister and my cousins as well. David, I talk to him quite a lot and like other people, so I don’t feel too disconnected. But at the same time, it’s not the same.
I was very, very lucky that I managed to come home in December, the correct way I’ll have you know, test before test after I arrived. So I wasn’t one of these people who was running around the place. But yeah, I mean, four tests later and I was over and back, so I managed to get home for a full month, which I’m very thankful for.
It made me really appreciate the west coast of Ireland again, as well. Being able to go to the wild Atlantic.
And for you then this year, because, as you say, you do have the fortunate baseline of having a job that you can do from home and so you’re not dependent on live gigs. But it also has meant that a lot of your plans and your projects and ambitions were postponed or put on hold, whether it was touring or gigging or even getting your music out there. So how has this year in Covid-19 land been for you?
A lot better than for most people, I would say, thankfully. Because I have Katrin here with me in the apartment, which I mean, if I didn’t have that, I would really struggle, I think. But I have a lot of friends here who are say from Ireland, or from England or from other countries, and they’re confined to their apartment, not able to meet other people or anything like that. And that’s, that’s quite a struggle, I’d imagine. If I was to be honest, I would honestly say that Covid hasn’t been as brutal for me as it has been for most people because of these lucky aspects of my life.
And so, I mean, I can’t really complain. Sure, it’s an absolute hindrance. But then there are aspects of it that have been positive. For example, I used to have to commute to the office every single day, but now, even after Covid they’ve decided that they like the whole home work aspect of it. So I’ll be taking advantage of that, too. But yeah, I mean, having Katrin here has been the saviour in that respect for me.
So I, I don’t like to complain about things when there’s nothing to complain about. So I can’t really.
And Berlin now, as you say, you love it, it’s really home and will remain so. As somebody who’s out of Ireland and sometimes the more you’re out of Ireland, sometimes the clearer you can see Ireland as well. Why is Berlin so wonderful for you?
A lot of people actually say when they first moved here, it’s just this feeling of Berlin. It’s such a close knit community, even though it’s such an enormous city, you don’t feel like say you’re at rush hour on Tottenham Street in London, whereby it’s just like a sardine on the tube or whatever. Yeah, like Berlin, as you know it’s like, it’s wide open avenues. There’s plenty of space. There’s so many parks. Yeah, there’s parks everywhere. There’s water everywhere.
Great public transport.
Exactly. I mean, from the apartment here, we can get anywhere in the city within 40 minutes, you know. So it’s really, really great from that point of view. And it’s such a strange city. It has three downtowns like Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz. And the Kurfurstendamm, so it’s just this weird hodgepodge of a crazy city that’s just amazing. And it’s a bunch of crazy artists and cultural people who’ve just come together and made this really beautiful city to live in.
You know. Whether it’s in the summertime going down to parks, listening to, watching street artists do their thing, like amateur street artists, professional street artists, artists, musicians all over the place. It’s just you’re never far from culture and arts here.
And I mean, if you want to go to a gig randomly on a Monday night, you’ll find a great gig somewhere. And so it’s just the thing of being a global city it’s just really easy to live in.
That idea of a global city. And it’s very intermixed and lots of different cultures. It’s almost not like the rest of Germany. And even, you know, most Germans would say that as well. It has, like New York, a real sense of its own world and freedom. And I think Nina Hynes, the Irish singer songwriter who’s lived there for some years, and is raising her children there, she says, she just finds it a place where it’s much more open. She always feels like people take her on whatever way she presents herself.
You know, yourself, if you’re in London, like you see just the most random, crazy thing on any given day or a person dressed as whatever, it doesn’t matter. And nobody bats an eyelid and it’s the exact same here. I mean, you can be what you want to be. Not that you can’t be in Ireland. Of course you can be, but it’s just here it’s kind of just built into the furniture almost. It’s just the city’s DNA has been wild for decades and decades. So it’s good.
And as you say, it is an island in the middle of Germany. It’s not like any other part of Germany. And I love Germany like all of the other parts as well. Katrin’s from Bavaria, I love going down there. It’s an amazing country. But Berlin is it’s own strange island within the middle of of Germany. And I love it for that reason.
And on the opposite side, has it changed your relationship with Ireland? You were saying when you go back or you went back, even at Christmas to your dad and Karen, you appreciated that wild Atlantic coast and those Mayo beaches. Being now out of it for so long and settled somewhere else and really that citizen of Europe, as you are, you know, working in Switzerland, driving to Belgrade, that has it changed your your vision, your telescope back on Ireland.
I think so, because a lot of the aspects of Ireland, which would frustrate me to a degree, are no longer there, they don’t exist. And so whenever I go back, it’s literally just all appreciation. I mean, it’s the things that I miss and enjoy. The aspects of Ireland that I love the most are what I see the most now when I go back and that’s kind of the major aspect of it for me, because you learn after an amount of time being away that home is actually amazing. And I have such a huge appreciation for Ireland whenever I go back.
So as you were saying, the busy person that you’ve been, is that while there’s an album coming out now, you’ve one that’s almost precooked and ready to go.
So you’ve been very busy. So what’s coming down the line? Because in some ways you’re like the novelist whose book has taken a few years to appear and he already has one that he’s quite excited about it and it’s much fresher in his mind that he wants to get out. So what’s the second album that you’re likely to bring out?
Yeah, well, it’s not fully cooked yet. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of work to be done.
Simmering. It’s simmering.
It’s simmering. Yes, it’s on the hob. Most of it is written and I’m arranging a lot over Zoom with Yvonne and Daragh and working with two other musicians, brilliant musicians here, Damien Giambazi, from Perth, Australia, and Yusuf Sahilli, who’s he’s a Berliner with Syrian Turkish heritage. But he’s been an enormous friend for my entire time over here. And he’s been very much an influence on me.
So I love working with him. So this album is currently being arranged and put together, but I’m very lucky that I have a deal with a company who happens to own Hansa Studios. And so that’s where I’m going to be going into record this album.
Yes, that’s where Bowie did the Berlin three and U2 did Achtung Baby, etc. So, I mean, it’s kind of bucket list type stuff. So I’m really, really excited to get in there because
There’s atmosphere coming from the walls in that place. I was lucky enough to do a tour of it one time when I was there, and it was the time when the Bowie exhibition was on up the road. It’s not like a studio because where they record it, you’ve windows, it’s an old concert hall.
So it has that incredible mix where you can see that where U2 worked or that the windows on both sides were also opening out.
Oh it’s a special place. I mean, even going up to the office where Visconti was, apparently Bowie was looking out the window and saw Visconti at the wall or whatever and got the inspiration for Heroes and other songs. It’s a mind blowing little studio, so I really cannot wait. I love the boat. I really, really do. But I think for the next
But you’ve done the boat.
Now you’re moving on?
Yeah. It’s just pure luck in many ways. Like, I really am excited about music. Very much so at the moment, which is a great thing.
It’s also great to talk to you at a point like 2021. Whatever is going to happen this year in Covid-19 is that you’re excited about music and you’ve so much creativity coming out in music in this album and in the one, as you say, that’s simmering away. And going to benefit from some of that atmosphere in the Bowie walls.
So, Rob, it’s been great to talk to you and want to wish you the absolute best of luck with the work, but also with joy and happiness in Berlin. Thanks so much for talking to us. Thanks for having me.
And that’s all for this episode of The Family of Things. I’m Helen Shaw. So thanks for listening. And if you’d like to find out more, do check out our website, TheFamilyofThings.com. And if you like what we do, do support us on our Patreon there and share our podcasts with your mates on social media and give us a review.
Thanks for listening!
The Family of Things is an independent podcast production by Athena Media. The digital editor is John Howard, and the producer is Helen Shaw. The theme music is ‘The Old Haunt’ by Ana Gog, composed by Michael Gallen.
If you like the series and want to support the creation of Season 2 why not become a Patreon supporter?