The Telegraph OCTOBER 18, 2007 - by Andrew Perry


Andrew Perry talks to the much venerated Robert Wyatt.

"It feels funny, Robert being so venerated," Robert Wyatt's wife, Alfie, tells me, as she ferries me from Market Rasen station to the couple's house in Louth. "I mean," she adds, "he's such a child!"

Ever an intriguing figure in British rock, if never a mainstream one, Wyatt has come to be seen as something of a national treasure in later life. He is best known for his cover of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding from 1982, which relayed a savagely bitter picture of exploitation of soldiers and dock-workers in the Falklands War.

His sporadic album releases, tinged with jazz, folk and an almost extraterrestrial beauty, have prompted a Mercury Award nomination here, a Meltdown Festival curatorship there, and no end of favourable media coverage.

This month, at sixty-two, he shows a rare ability to cross generational boundaries with Comicopera, his debut release for Domino Records, home to such hip young chart-toppers as Arctic Monkeys.

Though there has always been a child-like openness in Wyatt's high-pitched, conversational singing voice, I am still a little anxious about meeting a man who has never hidden his often extreme political leanings.

After leading me through to the front room, however, he talks engagingly about his latest batch of songs. Most were written on the baby grand piano behind him, and embellished using the brass and percussion instruments scattered underneath.

Fittingly, given its homespun genesis, the album kicks off with songs about domestic conflict. Several were co-written with Alfie (her full name is Alfreda Benge), whom Wyatt calls "the dark side of my moon".

One, Just As You Are, was composed in Kilburn, at Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music's studio.

"Brian Eno dropped by," he recalls, "and said, 'Let's write a country song.' For that type of music, we worked out that the lyrics had to be very straight-talking - no deviousness, no irony, straight from the heart.

"Alfie wrote this stuff about her exasperation with me drinking in the daytime and trying to get away with it. She'd been wrestling with this for some time, and out it came."

The finished piece is anything but generic country, marked instead by Wyatt's downbeat, jazzy piano chords, and with his wife's accusations sombrely yet exquisitely intoned by the Brazilian singer, Monica Vasconcelos. Wyatt, meanwhile, has since sobered up.

For all the heavyweight subject matter, it's the most sublimely melodic album of Wyatt's career. The accessibility, he believes, comes from his collective attitude, whereby illustrious guests from the rock world such as Eno or Paul Weller are gathered alongside jazz and world musicians.

"For me," he says, "music is company. I like the idea of the record as a meeting place, where friends wander in and out."

Wyatt rose to prominence in the hippie era, as the drummer with prog-rockers, the Soft Machine. In 1973, he fell from a window during a party and broke his back. In hospital, he mapped out his first solo album, Rock Bottom, which he released the following year, to great acclaim, on the day that he married Alfie.

Since then, wheelchair-bound, he has ducked in and out of the shadows, pursuing his own curious pan-global muse.

The beating heart of Comicopera is an instrumental track called On The Town Square, on which Gilad Atzmon, a tenor saxophonist of Middle-Eastern extraction, plays alongside the Afro-Caribbean-flavoured steelpans of Orphy Robinson.

Wyatt's community-mindedness becomes apparent when he leads me around Louth to spend money in his favourite shops. I begin to see the child that Alfie spoke of, as Wyatt wheels himself precariously through the middle of the road back to the house, waving at oncoming traffic. His idealism, too, is boyish, energetic, fabulous.

"I love sitting in the town square here," he tells me, "by Stan's Van. Stan puts out a couple of tables and dispenses cups of tea for 40p, and wonderful sausage sandwiches. All kinds of people come past. There'll be the woman from Oxfam, who goes on hunts, sitting next to a biker. And we all find things to chat about.

"That feeling I like" - he smiles, yes, rather like a child - "and in music, too: real people with their own turn of voice, all joining in, in their own way."