“Sometimes I just wanna cry…how much I want you, how much I need you
Don’t wanna need anyone this way
Can you ever love somebody, and keep a piece of your heart to yourself?
Can you ever love somebody, without giving it all up, baby?”
It doesn’t take the full one minute and ten seconds before reaching the above lines of ‘Love Somebody’ to realise that Robyn Sherwell is unafraid of baring her emotions. The confessional nature of her music, as exemplified in the brittle sweetness of this sparse electro-soul outpouring, is effortlessly captivating and intriguingly affecting.
“That song is about trying not to lose yourself in a relationship,” Robyn explains. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in the wrong relationship. I think anyone who has been in a similar situation can probably relate to that internal battle.”
Her haunting voice - at once bruised yet brave - is vividly expressive, and it’s this manner of profound penetration that propels Robyn as a songwriter. It’s her own connection to the core of her songs that assures their plausibility, and that can only be established by remaining honest throughout their creation. “I absolutely have to feel it in my heart if it’s going to be meaningful,” she says. “I’m not writing for anyone else when I’m writing a song, so people are either going to relate because they recognise it’s an honest emotion being expressed and it’s something they’ve been through, or maybe not, and that’s fine as well. But if I can put myself back in that moment where I wrote the song when I’m singing it, I hope other people will feel it too.”
Robyn’s technique of exhibiting raw honesty is drawn from a love of forcible songwriters such as Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Foy Vance and Joni Mitchell - artists whose voices alone can break your heart - that she grew up listening to and who infused her earliest attempts at putting down her admittedly melancholy thoughts on paper. “I can’t count how many times I’ve been sat at the piano, noodling around with some sad chords, and then found words coming out. I’d have them written on a page in front of me and think, ‘God, that’s really sad. I didn’t know I felt that way!’” she laughs. “I’d get really upset for a minute, and then that would be it; it would be done. It was out of me.”
The purgative release of music was a lifeline for Robyn, who grew up in the relative seclusion of Guernsey - an island too small for her ambitions: “You can always see your horizon, but you can’t always get away,” she says. That feeling of yearning for something more is palpable in her songs.
‘Islander’ is dedicated to Guernsey, and illustrates the inner conflict Robyn struggled with as a youth, balancing her deep-rooted love for the island with an instinctive desire to escape. Its thumping rhythm and jubilant chorus (“I am not small / I’m an islander”) reflects the defiant spirit she feels in its inhabitants, who endured German occupation in WWII, but a reference to “treading water” suggests her time there was destined to be limited. “I think I knew that I needed to leave the island, I was ready for something different, some new horizons,” she admits, and a History and Politics degree at Warwick University finally provided liberation - in more ways than one.
After years of singing in choirs, playing a range of instruments and writing her own songs, music had taken a backseat as Robyn pursued the academic life she felt was expected of her, especially since the prospect of being successful as an artist seemed a fanciful and likely impossible dream, but her heart said otherwise. “About six months into my course I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ I was finding myself in the music practice rooms, playing and writing songs, and realised, ‘This is all I’m spending my time on when I’m here, so maybe this is what I should really be doing.’ So yeah, that’s when the penny dropped and I ended up making some changes and began planning to pursue music in London.”
Embarking on a succession of live gigs around the capital while toiling away on demos, Robyn also set up a YouTube account, to which she uploaded performance videos, including covers of Ben Howard’s ‘The Fear’ and ‘Hold On’ by SBTRKT, which built up her initial fanbase and brought her to the attention of indie label, Birdland Records.
Her first release, the ‘Love Somebody EP’, found favour with Lauren Laverne at 6Music, launching a BBC love-in that further blossomed when Huw Stephens chose ‘Islander’ (from second EP, ‘Islander’) as BBC Introducing Pick of the Week, and Jo Whiley’s support of last summer’s single, ‘Pale Lung’ saw Robyn invited into the studio to play a live session. Duly besotted, BBC Introducing beckoned Robyn onto their Glastonbury stage. “I’ve just been really fortunate. Different people at the BBC have championed different songs at different points,” she says. “And with that support, it all seems to be unfolding at a pace that feels healthy, feels manageable. As long as things keep moving in that direction I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
This year will see the long-awaited debut album, which has been produced - like recent single, ‘Low’ - by David Kosten, a name that Robyn had long been aware of. “I can’t explain how I felt the day I had a date in my diary to sit with David and talk about whether he would have time to work on an album with me,” she beams, recounting how years before she had studied the liner notes of all Bat For Lashes’ albums and found his name there. His work with Everything Everything further cemented her appreciation for the scope of his work. “What I hear in what he’s done is his insight - a balance between what is intrinsically the artist crossed with a very old school approach to production, but still with a contemporary cool edge,” she says. “He manages to find that balance for the different acts he works with.”
As evidenced in the graceful rumblings of ‘Low’, the pair concoct a soulful minimalism that’s as ethereal as it is seductive. The songs from her previous EPs Islander and Love Somebody are included, alongside the irresistible ‘Pale Lung’ - “a song about guilt, about liking somebody that you’re not meant to” - and ‘My Hand’, a glowing ember of summery pop that celebrates finding faith in love again, and the subdued distemper of ‘Portrait’, which was inspired by “when you’ve been very hurt and betrayed by somebody and you’re saying, ‘This is the end. I‘ve shut all the doors on you.’”
The album closes with the song that’s proven perhaps Robyn’s biggest breakthrough thus far - her delicate reading of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’. Accentuating Stevie Nicks’ ruminations on imminent change, Robyn’s stripped-back reading is nakedly poignant, and proved an impeccably pertinent accompaniment to the trailer for Suffragette, the recent Carey Mulligan movie centered around the explosive fight for women’s rights at the turn of the 20th Century. “The trailer brought me to tears,” Robyn laughs. “Just because they used the song so powerfully, and it’s such an important film about such an important topic. I couldn’t quite believe that my work had married up with something that I felt so strongly about.”
Encouraged by Mulligan’s character’s plight, and firmly committed to her own feminist convictions, Robyn points to the achievements of contemporaries like Florence Welch, Jessie Ware and Adele as powerful women in music who’ve done things their way, but still laments the discrimination that’s rife in the industry. “There’s still a level of sexism that there just shouldn’t be,” she begins. “In my life I’ve had opportunities that not everyone necessarily has, let alone all women, but for me it wasn’t really until I started pursuing music that I came up against examples of just outright sexism or gender prejudice. I was so foxed by it at first - ‘What is this? What is this resistance I’m getting?’ And then I realised what it was, and I was so angry. I think a lot needs to change. I want to see it become a topic that we’re not even talking about anymore.”
Instilled with the fighting spirit redolent of her island roots, Robyn Sherwell sticks to her guns, follows her instincts and constantly moves forward. As her future unfolds before her, what’s driving this propulsion? “Sometimes it’s pure bloody mindedness,” she suggests. “It’s like: I’ve started so I’ll finish, I have to see this through. And at this stage I don’t know what else I would do.”