Musician in Finistère


Brittany captured the heart of musician Robin Foster and is the inspiration behind his latest album. He tells Annaliza Davis why he loves this rugged region where he lives with his artist wife and young son

It’s a beautiful morning in Camaret-sur-Mer, on the coastal tip of western Brittany; the first tourists of the season are strolling along the port, where the fishing boats bob as the gulls dip and soar, and locals are greeting each other like extras in a French film.

April is going to be a busy month for musician Robin Foster. His third album has just been released; there are press interviews and filming; plus a 10-day tour of Germany.

“You can never tell how it’s going to be six months ahead,” he smiles. “You’ll be sipping a coffee on the harbour then you’ll get a call about a summer festival and you’re off. It can be tough, but in a setting like this, it’s worth it!”

Robin’s story reads like a film script: young student arrives in France, joins famous band, forges solo career, writes soundtracks and is soon nominated for best film score. Along the way, he proposes to a beautiful Irish-French artist and together they have an adorable son.

“It’s the best job in the world, but it sometimes feels unreal,” he says. “A working week can be laying down new tracks around the family, or a series of dates overseas. Usually, it’s a mix of full-on recording, interviews, booking gigs and dealing with the admin of people asking to use your music on a TV series.”

Like any job, there are bits he likes and elements he likes less, and although life as a self-employed musician can be unpredictable, he is delighted to be based in France.

“It’s great to do this for a living,” he says. “I’d never have been able to do this in England. Like most modern languages students, I had a teaching year abroad. As a teenager in Kendal, my next-door neighbour, Barbara, had an Irish father and a Breton mother, so I chose Brittany for my placement.”

He never went back. “I arrived clutching a demo tape and handed it to the landlord of a local Breton pub. A few days later, the band, Beth, took me on as their guitarist and I spent six years juggling rehearsals, gigs and tours with teaching.”

Beth’s success grew, supporting acts like Massive Attack and Placebo, and when they disbanded in 2004, it was Robin’s chance to establish his own musical career. In the meantime, he’d given up the teaching and moved in with his childhood sweetheart, that self-same girl next-door, Barbara; deepening his connection with Brittany.

“Of course being in France has played a huge part in my career. Success in this industry has a lot to do with being noticed and my nationality helped to get me noticed.

“Most importantly for me, French music culture values musicianship above marketability. I was 35 when I released my first album – Life is Elsewhere (2008) – whereas in England, 25 is already too old.”

Camaret’s most famous landmark is the UNESCO World Heritage site Tour Vauban, an historic stronghold that glows apricot at dawn and sunset. The town itself is buzzing in summer but almost deserted in winter. It seems an unlikely setting for Robin, whose music has an international market, and for Barbara, whose art is already hanging in New York galleries.

“We moved here from Brest three years ago,” says Barbara. “At the time, we needed tranquillity and more space for us both to focus on our creative work. We fell in love with Camaret immediately. There are lots of beautiful beaches and breathtaking landscapes.

“The community here is fairly quiet. The majority of the older generation tend to keep to themselves but the younger generation is more dynamic. They want to see Camaret prosper all year round.”

“Camaret is so remote it’s like living on an island,” explains Robin. “Actually the French for peninsula is presqu’île which means ‘almost-island’. It’s a pretty wild landscape; great for inspiration. That’s how the latest album evolved.

“At the end of 2012, I came back to a dormant idea of writing a couple of locally inspired songs but it took on a life of its own. I was writing from home. It was a lot more creative than working in someone else’s studio, and suddenly I had enough material for an album.”

This album, launched in March, is appropriately called PenInsular; it’s a personal project, partnered by the town of Camaret. Walk with Robin around the town and it’s clear he’s been embraced by the locals as he can’t go 10 paces without a greeting. Camaret has always supported his music; staging performances in sites as diverse as an ancient stone circle, a ruined clifftop manor and even a concert on a boat in the harbour.

“Given how this work evolved, and that I wasn’t tied to a record company, it made sense to consider local funding and alternative ways to launch and promote this album. We chose crowd-funding, which is asking the public to support your work, helping you to promote it.”

And forging strong connections both locally and further afield has been the secret of his success.

“The internet is my main tool. It launched my first album and helped to distribute my work globally. Even Sean Ellis originally found me through a website.”

Film director Ellis chose Robin’s music for his Hugo Boss advert. Robin then wrote the soundtrack for Ellis’ latest film (Metro Manila, released in May), garnering acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Online connections are paramount in today’s music industry, bringing Robin’s work to audiences in China and the States and collaborations with brands like New York’s Kenneth Cole. From a tiny coastal town in Brittany, all things are possible online.

“When we launched a PenInsular preview video through Facebook, we offered three ways for people to contribute to the album. Firstly, they could pre-order a copy; secondly, they could pre-order and book concert tickets; finally, they could pre-order and book a private gig as part of a ‘lounge tour’ later this year. We got responses immediately, the funding began and it’s off to the next stage: the distribution and tours.”

Following Life is Elsewhere (2008) and Where do we go from here? (2011), PenInsular is his first independent production and his first as a father. Hasn’t that hampered his productivity? “I was scared I’d go off the boil,” says Robin, “but I’ve been 10 times more productive since moving to Camaret and again since having Marlon.

“I keep a photo of him on my pedalboard, reminding me the gigs aren’t just about me; it’s my job. Touring will be harder now, but in the future I hope to bring Barbara and Marlon along with me – like The Monkees, all living together.”

Given that Barbara’s own career is gathering pace overseas, synchronising their schedules could prove increasingly tricky.

For now, Robin’s doing a great job handling the work-family balance, even if the job is rather unconventional and the setting is on the edge of the world. Next time you hear an atmospheric film score or advertising soundtrack, it might just be one of Robin’s, inspired by and written in the wilds of Finistère. LF

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