Bouncing on a trampoline in the yard of the home his father built outside Temagog, Australia, nine-year-old Joe Robinson gleefully started playing air guitar while Eric Clapton’s “Layla” was blasting from his parents’ stereo inside. At that moment, he decided it would be “really cool” to be a professional guitar player.
A year and half later, he was touring with Phil Emmanuel, and at 17 he won the “Australia’s Got Talent” finale, playing Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas.”
Robinson’s latest album is The Prize, 10 original songs co-written with Grammy-winning producer, engineer, and songwriter Brent Maher, who discovered The Judds and has worked with The Supremes, Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, Duke Ellington, and has more than 20 #1 singles to his credit. Early in his career, Maher was mentored by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote the Everly Brothers “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie” and whose compositions have been recorded by everyone from Tony Bennett to The Grateful Dead.
“Brent is a very deep well of musical experience,” says Robinson. “He would direct the songs in a way that was exactly what they needed.”
Robinson met Maher at a tribute show for the late slide player Mark Selby. Maher was impressed with how Robinson played all the guitar parts that night, and in 2019 they started writing for what would become The Prize.
Two seasoned Nashville session players were called in for the recordings – bassist Glenn Worf, who tours with Mark Knopfler, and drummer Nir Zidkyahu, who appeared on Genesis’ Calling All Stations and John Mayer’s Room for Squares. The recordings were done at Maher’s studio, The Blue Room, in Berry Hill, just outside of Nashville.
“They have songwriting rooms in the publishing part of the building,” said Robinson. “We would sit with two guitars and I’d have a riff and a title and he’d have a few title ideas. We would write for two or three days, come up with two or three songs, then call Glenn and Nir and arrange a recording date, often the following week.”
The sessions were engineered by Maher and Charles Yingling, and recorded on a vintage Trident console.
“We all recorded live and I played and sang at the same time,” said Robinson. “We brought in R&B singer Wendy Moten as a background vocalist and added strings and horns on certain songs, but the core group was always playing live.
“Part of the reason for not going into the studio and recording 10 songs at once was I was on the road a lot and I was paying for the whole thing, so it depended on when I had the cash. I like to pay the musicians more than union scale because I’m a musician myself and I like to work with the best people I can. If you go in and do it right the first time, it saves having to go in and fix things.”
The title song of the album had a simple beginning; Robinson had the phrase, “I’ve got my eyes on the prize” in mind and Maher suggested “The Prize” could be an intriguing song title and followed that up with the opening line, “I had a one-way conversation with me, myself, and I.” Given Robinson’s philosophy that songs should be straightforward, it worked.
“If you listen to a lot of the great classic songs, often times they repeat the first verse and the chorus is very simple,” he said. “Brent would say, ‘Okay, we’ve got a couple of verses and a chorus, and the first verse is strong – it’s a hook in itself, so let’s repeat it,’ and the song would be done. ”
For this album, Robinson used his signature Maton JR on the acoustic songs. On “So Much More,” it’s his Fender Custom Shop ’63 Strat into Maher’s mid-’60s Deluxe Reverb, and on “Moonlight and Magic” Robinson brought out his ’89 Ibanez George Benson GB-10 and ran it through the Deluxe.
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.