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Different every time

Robert Wyatt is one of the most influential musicians of his era. Daniel Trilling visited him at hom

It's a Wednesday, and for Robert Wyatt, the musician and songwriter whose compositions mix intricate sound-worlds with defiantly left-wing politics, that means it's Sausage Bun Day. We are sitting at a table next to Stan's Van in the Lincolnshire market town of Louth, where he lives with his wife, Alfie.

Wyatt, with his aura of long white hair and beard, is talking animatedly about the cult American television series The Wire (he loves it) while Alfie quizzes me about long since departed New Statesman editors (she has been a lifelong reader, on and off). Then she hits me with an ideological question for which I'm not prepared. There's a pause as the couple wait for a response. Licking my dry lips, I take the plunge: "Mustard and onions, please, Alfie." Wyatt leans over to me and says, with a conspiratorial smirk, "That was the right choice."

Louth is somewhat isolated. To reach it, you have to take a single-carriage train along a pro vincial branch line, followed by a drive through miles of flat farmland punctuated by scraggy lone trees and the occasional copse with crows circling above. The town exists in a comfortable time warp: the supermarkets have not yet made inroads, and there is even a well-stocked independent record shop up the street from where we sit. It strikes me that this is an appropriate location for Wyatt to pursue his art - the kind of place you might believe had vanished, but one that persists nonetheless.

As Gordon Brown prepared to rumble onstage at last month's Labour party conference, organisers provided a fanfare for him with a series of upbeat pop tunes. Their intention was evidently to induce a sense of optimism among delegates with the messages of hope ("Higher and Higher" by Jackie Wilson, "Moving on Up" by M People) and solidarity ("Sit Down" by James) contained in the songs - ludicrous as that optimism might be, given Labour's present woes.

An events programmer with a sense of reality, or a wicked sense of humour, might have chosen to play Wyatt's 1985 song "The Age of Self" instead. Besides being (probably) the only song in pop history to name-check Martin Jacques, former editor of the now defunct Marxism Today, it sketches a working-class movement at which smug careerists eat away from within, a movement under attack from consumer capitalism. Wyatt's mournful refrain, sung over a sparse drum machine sound and funereal electric organ, should clatter around the heads of the new Labour elite when electoral meltdown finally arrives: "It seems to me if we forget/Our roots and where we stand/The movement will disintegrate/Like castles built on sand."

Those words have never seemed more pro phetic than now, in 2008, and that is no accident. Over a solo career spanning four decades, Wyatt has proved the antithesis of rock stars who espouse fashionable causes. In 1982, at the height of jingoism over the Falklands War, he released the protest song "Shipbuilding". Written by Elvis Costello, it was one of the most acclaimed singles of the year. Later, as his contemporaries clustered around Live Aid, Wyatt - then a member of the Communist Party - collected money for striking miners. Last year's album, Comicopera, dealt in part with Israel's 2006 bombing of Lebanon. But although you cannot separate his politics from the music, they are just one aspect of a deeply compassionate, internationalist artistic vision. "The fact is, I live in the world, and what makes me happy and unhappy will emerge in what I do," says Wyatt later that day when we are back at his house. "It's not a decision to 'be' political."

Wyatt's albums, which Domino will reissue this autumn, build an unclassifiable array of instrumental cocoons around his distinctive, plaintive vocals, which sweep up and down the octave range. When not overtly political, the lyrics can range from intimate accounts of dysfunctional relationships to surreal wordplay, while the music extends from home-taped loops and toy organ sounds to full-on explosions of free jazz, rock and African styles. Over the past decade or so, Wyatt has developed a fluid, impressionistic kind of ensemble playing on his albums, helped by a coterie of collaborators, whose improvisations he rearranges in the editing suite.

Much of this later music has been recorded where we talk: the front room of Wyatt's home. A well-worn piano sits in one corner, drums and trumpets crowd along the skirting board, and a small bust of Lenin juts its chin out from the fireplace.

Now in his sixties and wheelchair-bound since an accident in 1973, Wyatt seems to be brimming with melody. Throughout our interview, he hums and sings to illustrate specific points; when we are interrupted by a phone call, he scoots over to the piano and starts improvising along to the ringtone.

Yet he claims to find making music difficult. "It's a bit like the difference between toads and frogs," he says. "Frogs, they're in and out of water all the time. Toads are born in water but basically stay on land. They're not so comfortable in water. I'm not a natural-born musician."

Born in 1945, in Bristol, and raised first in London and then in Lydden, east Kent, Wyatt left school at 16, at a loss what to do next. "I had no ambition at all. In fact, I tried to commit suicide," he explains in a matter-of-fact way. "There just wasn't anything I wanted to do."

His main interests were painting and music, specifically jazz. As a teenager, he was taught how to play the drums by the American jazz musician George Niedorf, who was staying at the guest house that Wyatt's mother owned. He describes the artistes who made the soundtrack to his early years - he mentions Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus during our conversation - as "the romantic star-cluster of my youth, just as for a slightly later generation it would have been rock and pop musicians".

In 1966, Wyatt became a founding member of the progressive rock group Soft Machine, which he left in 1971 to form his own band, Matching Mole (a pun on the French machine molle, for "soft machine"). In 1973, this project was cut short when Wyatt fell from a third-floor window while drunk at a party and broke his spine - an accident that left him paralysed from the waist down. Within a year, however, he had switched from drums to keyboard and recorded a solo album, Rock Bottom. Towards the end of the 1970s, his output became markedly more politicised, first with a series of cover versions (collected on the 1981 album Nothing Can Stop Us) and then, in 1985, with Old Rottenhat, which formed the peak of what Wyatt calls his "communist period".

Even though he is no stranger to political theory (Wyatt told the New Statesman in 1997 that "if I were a bit of Blackpool rock I would have Marxist-Leninist right the way through the middle, in pink"), today he describes this period in more emotive terms. "It's a funny thing - the two groups of working-class people admired by right-wing press and politicians are soldiers and policemen. If he's a miner, then fuck him! I thought that was so ungrateful. If you add up the sacrifices the mining community made to build industry, to then treat them like criminals was just disgraceful."

After a sabbatical at the end of the 1980s, spent living in Spain, he returned to Britain, record ed another album (1991's Dondestan), and then moved to Lincolnshire. Alfie, raised by her Polish refugee mother in Fulham, west London - "before it was gentrified", she warns - has played an increasingly active role in his projects: she has provided the artwork for the albums, but she now writes most of the lyrics, too, drawing on diary entries, dreams and poems. "Just As You Are", from Comicopera, is a fine example of the couple at work: a searingly honest duet that deals with Wyatt's recent battle against alcoholism (he is now dry). Their latest project has been to provide lyrics and vocals for a single by the French electro producer Bertrand Burgalat called "This Summer Night".

The couple are intelligent and witty, Alfie providing a foil to Wyatt's dreamy optimism. The endearing way in which they play off one another comes to the fore in a minor row over the Old Testament (Alfie was forced to learn scripture at her Catholic school). She hates all the smiting; he thinks the story of Abraham and Isaac was "a great humanitarian breakthrough" in historical thinking. She grumpily concedes, "Oh all right, all right, the Old Testament's great."

"When I first met Alfie," says Wyatt, "I saw her as a sort of anarchist. She said, 'You don't need to be told how to be moral, it's innate.'" "Don't need Jesus to tell me to be good," Alfie mutters. "I don't do bad things." The pair start sniggering as the same thought occurs to them simultaneously. "That's because I know God's watching!" she splutters, and laughs.

Wyatt's commercial success has been limited - aside from "Shipbuilding" and a 1974 cover of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" (written by Neil Diamond) his work has never featured in the singles charts. However, his influence spreads tendril-like throughout contemporary music. He has inspired and worked in partnership with successive waves of performers from Pink Floyd to Björk. Paul Weller, who first encountered Wyatt on anti-apartheid marches during the 1980s, has contributed guitar parts to his three most recent albums. Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, another one-time collaborator, tells me that, thanks to his "sublime gift for melody", Wyatt has been an enduring passion. "It would be hard to overestimate his influence on me," Green says. "I'd never have got into jazz, for example, or the whole business of there being other ways of listening."

Even now, a younger generation of artists looks up to Wyatt, who signed to the hip indie label Domino Recordings last year. Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, who recently recorded a couple of as-yet unreleased songs with Wyatt, says he became "obsessed" with him after "borrowing, and then stealing, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard [Wyatt's 1975 album] from a library". The folk group Rachel Unthank and the Winterset perform a gorgeous cover version of his "Sea Song" on this year's Mercury Prize-nominated The Bairns. Their manager and producer, Adrian McNally, cites an internet reviewer who described Rock Bottom as "not just Mr Wyatt's artistic peak, but a peak for music and humanity in general".

"His words and music on [the song]," says McNally, "are both base and intellectual, animalistic and existential, touching at the human soul and condition in a way that is at once comforting and unsettling."

It is telling that Wyatt's music should be included on a folk album, because, despite its complexity, there is something essentially simple, playful and even timeless about it. Aside from jazz, the most important formative influences on Wyatt were the English folk melodies resurrected by Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, whose music his parents loved.

"They got right into me as a child, listening to 78s," he says. "There's a sense of rediscovering archaic ways of singing and writing songs that stayed with me - particularly, for example, on 'Sea Song', when you're going 'with the tide, with the tide'. You wouldn't say that in normal speech, but to turn it into a floating repeated phrase for a moment, there are no blues inflections. It's real Old Europe."

Beyond this, there is something atavistic in Wyatt's accent, a mix of cockney and rural burr. It's the kind of indigenous Home Counties twang that has been all but erased in the past century by the spread of commuter towns. At times, it recalls the singers captured on Alan Lomax's British folk recordings of the 1950s, whose voices provide a haunting reminder of premodern music. "I know it's there in my voice. I can hear it," says Wyatt. And he laughs. "After all, I am an old Englishman."

Robert Wyatt's back catalogue is being reissued throughout October and November; and "This Summer Night" by Wyatt and Bertrand Burgalat is released on 20 October (all recordings available on Domino). For more details log on to:

The essential Robert Wyatt

Rock Bottom (1974)

Opening with "Sea Song", Wyatt's imaginative dissection of his love for Alfie, the album drifts through jazzy soundscapes, ending with a surreal outro by the poet Ivor Cutler.

Nothing Can Stop Us (1981)

A collection of politicised cover versions. Highlights include Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and a reworking of Chic's "At Last I Am Free" that turns the disco group's original into a poignant epic.

Old Rottenhat (1985)

Wyatt's State of the World address. Set to sparse, echoing accompaniments, his lyrical concerns span the US, Iran, East Timor and the British empire, but are less about politics than about the limits and distortions of political language.

Shleep (1997)

Awash with brass, guitar and woodwind, this album radiates the sheer pleasure of people playing music together in a room.

Comicopera (2007)

A concept album in three parts. The first is domestic in focus; the second deals with the 2006 war in Lebanon; the third is sung in Spanish and Italian - a linguistic protest at the UK-US response to the war.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks