Songs in the key of Louth

The trombonist Annie Whitehead has arranged a suite of Robert Wyatt's tunes, spanning 25 years of his off-beat career. Nick Coleman talks to them in Wyatt's Lincolnshire home
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Robert Wyatt's parlour - just how you pictured it. A homely temple to 20th-century Modernism, with lots of floor space. Egg-yolk yellow walls. Art book-lined shelves. A Picasso print by the door to the kitchen (or is it Braque? No, not brown enough). There's a Complete Miles Davis/Gil Evans box gaping next to the Technics and a vinyl copy of The Band's Music From Big Pink standing up behind it, possibly to include Bob Dylan's dotty cover painting in the artistic topography of the room, possibly just because Wyatt plays it a lot.

Robert Wyatt's parlour - just how you pictured it. A homely temple to 20th-century Modernism, with lots of floor space. Egg-yolk yellow walls. Art book-lined shelves. A Picasso print by the door to the kitchen (or is it Braque? No, not brown enough). There's a Complete Miles Davis/Gil Evans box gaping next to the Technics and a vinyl copy of The Band's Music From Big Pink standing up behind it, possibly to include Bob Dylan's dotty cover painting in the artistic topography of the room, possibly just because Wyatt plays it a lot.

Robert himself is in the front room singing. He's recording and having trouble with the word "asked". He's always pronounced it without a "k" but that won't wash nowadays, not since "can't be arsed" entered the language. He's running late as a consequence. I can just hear him through a crack in the parlour door, his strange, reedy, choirboy's voice rising and falling like something in the pipes.

So I have the time to survey my surroundings in detail - an open copy of Susan George's study of Third World debt; an opened envelope stamped on the back with the home address of Didier Malherbe (known in France as Bloomdido Bad de Grasse; known to me as the flautist who played on a Gong LP I bought in 1973, entirely because it cost 50p). Then there's the trombonist sitting on the other side of the table.

This is Annie Whitehead. She's small and regular-featured, and has a slightly sad look in the corner of her eye, which is compensated for by her hair, a blonde post- Diamond Dogs Bowie stook. We've been talking about how, when you're young and super-alert, records enter your system by different means, and how every detail of them is then hard-wired into your senses forever. You retain the sense-memory of certain records like you retain the feel of conkers in your fingertips, dormantly but cogently. We're discussing Bowie's "Life on Mars" and how, when you hear it now (we're in our early forties), you know every single note before it arrives; and then, when it does arrive, the feeling goes beyond simple gratification. It's a bit like being there again.

Wyatt appears in the doorway in his wheelchair, beaming and babbling apologies. It ought to be hard to square this picture of Father Christmas-like bonhomie with the figure that he must once have cut, as a post-war grammar-school hipster-scallywag - but it isn't.

He liked Eddie Cochrane, Ray Charles, Miles, Bird, Bud and Coltrane. Jazz he got from his elder brother's record collection, Eddie Cochrane he got down the local café. He says he'd "rather have escaped into the girls down the café, but they were much harder to get into than records".

He got into his political consciousness because of the sight on television of blacks being beaten up by South African policemen. "My feeling was, 'Leave Coltrane alone, you f*****!'" Analysis followed, but jazz underlay everything. He probably hears "Naima" in the same way that Annie and I hear "Life on Mars".

We're not really supposed to be gassing about that sort of thing, though. We're here in Louth - a comely if remote Lincolnshire market town - to pick the bones out of Soupsongs, a bouillabaisse of Wyatt tunes shaped by the trombonist into a fray-ended suite, then toured and recorded late last year, and now toured again this month. It's a pretty exhaustive account of the Wyatt solo oeuvre, from the beauteous 1975 album Rock Bottom to the elliptical Shleep in 1997.

Jazz underlies everything in it, partly in consequence of the float of Brit-jazz voices Whitehead enlisted to perform the thing, partly because it is in the nature of Wyatt's songs to be slippery like jazz.

Some people admire Wyatt entirely because of his voice, others because of his Marxist politics, some because of his language. I like him above all because his best songs are as hard to nail as a bar of soap in the bath. They're amorphous, fluid structures, full of irregularities (missing beats, unresolved cadences - what Wyatt calls "my tripwires") and unchained by the usual harmonic anchors you get in normal songwriting. You can hum them, but not without getting stuck. They are, as Whitehead astutely puts it, completely unstable.

" Shleep was going to be called 'Short Tunes with Long Wiggly Bits on the End' at one stage," says Wyatt, grinning through his facial fronds. "They're like tadpoles, my tunes." This suited Whitehead and her band, who enjoy pondlife themselves. Songwriter and arranger just sat down and listened to the records and sorted out between them how the thing would function: what songs would be sung by whom (chiefly Julie Tippetts and Ian Maidman, who sings, incidentally, like a cross between Wyatt and the young Bowie) and so on.

True to the spirit of the songs - and, it should be said, to the spirit of the trombonist's own singing way of playing - Soupsongs unfolds in untethered, cloudy, Gil Evans-ish style. Wyatt says he gets his tunes when he sits down to work at the piano, not epiphanically in the bath or on the bus. He finds "a harmonic layer, maybe just a chord, then populates it with notes". He then "looks at the notes and they become words", unless they're words by his wife Alfreda Benge, which have tunes in them already, he says, mostly. It's songwriting by disciplined instinct. Wyatt says he works like an animal. "When I'm doing it, I have no idea what I'm doing. What I'm doing emerges."

Later, after potatoes, eggs and onions, Annie and I emerge from the Wyatt parlour into the chill of a Lincolnshire evening. There's wind in the Wolds. Maybe it's that frigid blast which is putting the water in the corner of her eye, and the flush on Wyatt's cheek, as they say goodbye. There's Brazilian music playing indoors in the yellow room. Louth is quietly swinging.

'Soupsongs Live' is on Jazzprint Records. It will be performed tonight at the QEH, London, then in Leeds, Coventry, Brighton and Oxford. Annie Whitehead's new album 'The Gathering' is on Provocateur Records

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