Robbin Thompson Feelin’ Real Fine
By Jeff Maisey
Six years have flown by since Richmond-based singer-songwriter Robbin Thompson released his last studio album titled Just a Blur in the Rearview.
Now, at age 64, Thompson returns in fine form with an uplifting 10-song recording appropriately called A Real Fine Day. Eight of the tracks are new originals by Thompson and convey where he is now in life. Having battled off-and-on health issues in recent years, he has newfound reasons for positive reflections, whether the title track, or on songs like “I’m All In,” “Ain’t Love Crazy Like That,” “All Along the River James,” (co-penned with Steve Bassett) and “That Was Then, This Is Now.”
As for “then,” Robbin Thompson has had a long and winding road of a musical career, having played in Steel Mill with Bruce Springsteen, and finding regional success with his Robbin Thompson Band in 1980 with the Two B’s Please album that sold some 200,000 copies on the strength of songs such as “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” “Brite Eyes” and “Candy Apple Red.”
I recently talked with Thompson to learn more about his new album.
Can you describe your songwriting process?
A lot of it is just inspiration based on what’s going on around me.
Steve Bassett and I were thinking about doing a CD together so we wrote a few songs and then I said, “Steve, I’ve got to do a CD on my own before we work on one together.” We wrote three or four songs together. I took “All Along the River James” and recorded it, and he took a song and recorded it for something he’s doing. So now were starting over again to write an album together.
I never go into a room with a blank sheet of paper and say, “Let’s write a song.” It doesn’t work for me that way. If I have a chorus and half of a verse and can’t finish it, then I’ll bring that to the table.
You and Steve Bassett have a special working relationship. You collaborated on “Sweet Virginia Breeze” and did the Together album. Do you guys seem to generally be on the same page when it comes to songwriting?
The similar page that we’re on is that we co-wrote “Sweet Virginia Breeze” together. So it seems every time we do get together the obvious road to go down is a Virginia road. Both of us live here and have such a love for where we are.
He’s more from an R&B influence. I’m from a California, Eagles thing with some Springsteen stuff thrown in. When we come together both of us make concessions to come up with stuff that has some soul and things from my side.
You are almost branded as “the voice” of Virginia. Do you see yourself that way?
I will take that in a heartbeat. Steve and I write these songs about Virginia, and it’s not because we’re trying to market anything. It is because we’re influenced by our surroundings. What kind of baffles me is Randy Newman can write something about how much he loves LA and Jimmy Buffett can write something about Florida, and it goes national. I guess because of who they are. And the things that we write come from that same cloth but they don’t go further that the state lines of Virginia.
“Sweet Virginia Breeze,” like the title track of your new album, is very uplifting.
This Real Fine Day album is very positive to me and uplifting because I needed to be very positive. I’ve been a cancer survivor for 13 years. I had a very serious operation in 2000. I had been on a very specific drug to keep these cancer cells at bay. It was very successful; I’ve gone on with my life. Then I had a little episode about a year ago where the drug I was on stopped working. I had another surgery and they took everything that looked tumorous out.
So “A Real Fine Day” came out of not having a real fine day and really needing one. A lot of the uplifting things on this record have come from that.
Can you talk then about the lyrical inspiration for “Heaven’s Gonna Call You Up”?
It has a lot to do with several things.
One is the issues that I had in that it doesn’t matter who you are, as Richard Pryor said, you’re not going to survive death. Rich or poor, one of these days that’s what’s going to happen. When you’re of the age I am, and you have friends that are passing away due to cancer or old age, that’s how that was inspired.
It was also from fooling around with a strange Asian instrument that I picked up from Thailand. It’s a strange 3-stringed instrument called a Phin.
The last track on the album is title “That Was Then, This is Now.” How do you see this as it relates to your music career? How has Robbin Thompson evolved?
A lot of these songs come from the way I feel at time. That song came out of when the Robbin Thompson Band got back together to do a show at The NorVa and The National a few years back. I had the intent of at least recording it both audio and visually. I wanted to do a live CD and DVD, not only for us in the band to document us being together, but also to have the songs on Two B’s Please done 30 years later.
“That Was Then, This is Now” came out of looking around during rehearsals at that show and thinking how different things were for everybody in the band. How things looked back stage; our demeanor and personalities had mellowed. Fewer everything. We didn’t get crazy anymore. Instead of a case of Heineken and a bottle of whiskey and smoking whatever…things had changed.
When you get into this business it’s not because you don’t want to be successful. You enjoy what you do and the response from the people who are listening. Those are the reasons you get into it. Besides that you hope you can make a living doing it. Why not do something you love to do and be able to survive? I’ve managed to do that. Not on the level that when I started I wanted to be, but it ended up being just fine. And probably a hell of a lot safer. I was full of fire and rage, big news looking for the front page. That was then. And now I’m doing my music and knowing that people enjoy it.
Friday, August 2
Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center Courtyard