If the chipper twenty-year-old from backwoods Temagog, New South Wales, Australia were two or three times his age, his sheer six-string ability and compositional insight, which have already earned Robinson a world-wide following, would be no less astonishing. That fact is underscored by his winning TV’s Australia’s Got Talent in 2008, and the Australian National Songwriting Competition at the tender age of 13.
But with his new album Let Me Introduce You, Robinson has made a daring quantum leap. The gifted young virtuoso has redefined himself as a budding pop-world visionary, deftly walking a tightrope between the instrumental music that’s put him in the spotlight and a unique fusion of vocally based rock, blues, jazz, country and R&B that’s entirely his own.
“Let Me Introduce You was a dive into the deep end for me,” Robinson confides. “It would have been easy to make another instrumental album, but I crave being inspired. When I am, music and ideas just seem to pour out non-stop. So I decided to challenge myself by writing mostly vocal tunes for the album, which I’d never done before.
“That meant I had to transform myself into a songwriter in the classic sense and learn how to make my guitar and my vocal performances compliment each other. The 18 months it took to write and record the album were like riding a runaway train, but as it turns out that’s exactly what I needed to do to find my own style as an artist.”
That style, as the 13 tracks on Let Me Introduce You reveal, is upbeat, elegant, soulful and stinging — often all at once. Numbers like the beautifully textured debut single “Out Alive” balance daredevil guitar with percolating grooves and soaring vocal performances.
“That song mixes the R&B base I wanted to weave through most of the vocal tunes with a heavy jazz-fusion approach that really lets me stretch out on electric guitar,” Robinson explains. “But melody is the most important thing for me, and has been since I began playing.”
The romantic “Adelaide” twines the graceful acoustic six-string that has been Robinson’s signature sound with his equally wistful and melodic singing over a breezy groove to create a work of marvelous pop élan. In contrast, the opener “Lethal Injection” is a potent blast of powerhouse electric guitar — a jazz-blues-rock explosion that displays Robinson’s ferocious picking technique and timeless six-string filigrees like a firestorm of wah-wah and vintage Les Paul-style echo.
“I wanted to display all of the aspects of my artistry not only to satisfy myself, but to keep my fans happy,” Robinson notes. “I appreciate that they’ve been so supportive and have allowed me to play music for a living. I don’t know if I’d survive if I had to do anything else. That’s why the album has such a broad range, from a pretty save-the-world ballad like ‘One Heart At a Time” to a be-bop number like ‘Uli’s Jump,’ which is in there” — he laughs — “to show off how fast I can play.”
Although it seems like Robinson was born with a guitar in his hands, his first instrument was piano. “But I was bored playing piano and hated reading music,” he says. “I just wanted to make up melodies.” So he switched to electric guitar at age 10 and formed a band with some school chums in Temagog, a town he describes as “40 miles from the nearest streetlight.”
“I didn’t have my own guitar. People in my mom’s band let me borrow theirs,” he continues. Nonetheless, he was soon assimilating the styles of world-class six-stringers via YouTube. “Anything that caught my ear — Steely Dan, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Mark Knopfler — I’d get on the computer and figure it out. I was voracious, and I still am. But I’ve never tried to copy anybody else’s style. I was looking for inspiration.”
Robinson truly found his calling at age 13 after meeting the Emmanuel brothers, Phil and Tommy, widely considered Australia’s two finest guitarists. He was particularly struck by Tommy’s dazzling acoustic finger picking technique and turned to the acoustic guitar as his primary instrument.
“When I saw Tommy, I immediately thought, ‘I’ve got to be that good!’ ” Tommy was also taken with Joe’s blossoming talent and became his mentor.
A few years later — after Robinson had already won his first Australian National Songwriting Competition — Emmanuel introduced him to American audiences, taking him on a tour of the States that included an important stay in Nashville, Tennessee, where Robinson currently lives. On that trek he met Frank Rogers, a top Nashville producer who’s made smash records with Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker and many others.
“I played one song for him and he said, ‘I want to produce your album,’ ” Robinson recounts. “He was an award-winning producer, so I was quite surprised.”
It was the beginning of a musical partnership that continues on Let Me Introduce You and began with Robinson’s second album, 2009’s dazzling all-solo-acoustic Time Jumpin’, the sequel to his 2007 made-in-Australia debut Birdseed.
In 2008 Robinson went home at the invitation of the producers of Australia’s Got Talent, handily winning the competition. “That was a pretty unbelievable experience,” he says. “It was a lot of fun and a huge amount of people got to see me play, which allowed me to begin touring on my own as a headliner.”
Recently Robinson’s been traveling the world with his own trio featuring a drummer and bassist headlining tours across Europe, Japan, North American and Australia, displaying his virtuosity on acoustic and electric guitar and honing many of the songs on stage that appear on Let Me Introduce You.
“My goal was to keep my musical DNA as a thread through the whole album while evolving my electric guitar playing, songwriting and singing,” Robinson says. “I think that along the way I created a new style for myself, with room for me to continue to grow as an artist. The truth is, music is something you do because you can’t stand not doing it. Like Frank Zappa and Miles Davis, I’m interested in continuously reinventing myself and seeking new directions.Let Me Introduce You sets me on a course that I’m thrilled to keep exploring.”