Something odd happened to Philippe Robrecht while hunkered down in lockdown on Inishbofin, a tiny island with just 170 inhabitants off Ireland’s Atlantic coast: he became, again, a pop star.
The 55-year-old musician and singer had not made an album in almost a decade and was all but forgotten in his native Belgium when the Covid-19 pandemic reached Ireland last year.
He and his wife supplemented their income on the island, their home since 2017, by selling eggs and fish to neighbours.
Then Robrecht rediscovered his muse and wrote and recorded two double albums in his home studio. And a TV talent show in Belgium featured one of his old hits and catapulted it to number one in the charts.
“It’s quite unusual. It never happened before,” he said this week.
The show, called Love for Music, featured another artist’s cover version of Robrecht’s 1992 song Magie, or magic, in February. The cover version went to number three in the charts – only to be eclipsed by Robrecht’s original, which went to number one.
“People liked the new version but they turned out to be more excited about the original. There was a lot of feedback, press, radio, a storm of people sending things through social media.”
The rekindling of fame coincided with a burst of creativity that resulted in Robrecht producing two double albums, titled 2020 and 2021.
2020, a mix of 20 new and old songs in Dutch, received wide airplay in Belgium and the Netherlands. Robrecht plans to release 2021, a mix of 21 new and old tracks in English, this week. It has pop and traditional Irish influences, notably in the song No Craic, about the loneliness and hardship of lockdown.
Robrecht is chuffed and a bit puzzled by his revival, since even in his 1990s heyday, when he made nine albums and toured with his band, he did not chase publicity. “I never squeezed the lemon when it came to popularity. I pushed it a bit away from me. There was nothing else that I wanted to do except play with my band.”
Magie – which he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra – made him a radio favourite but after the 1990s Robrecht drifted to fame’s margins.
“I kept my focus on music. I wrote songs for musicals, campaigns, tributes. Music is an art, a passion. The showbusiness around it wasn’t really my thing. As a person I was a bit low-profile and not very reachable.”
Regular visitors to Ireland, in 2017 he and his wife, Leen moved to Inishbofin, a bucolic, windswept island that derives its name from Inis Bó Finne, Irish for Island of the White Cow. Seven miles off the coast of Connemara, it is a haven for seals and hikers and over the decades has attracted writers such as Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Cecil Day Lewis and Seamus Heaney.
The couple sell surplus eggs from their hens. “Some people on the island pass by for a box. It’s not a business but a typical island thing. You do all different things to keep costs down and make ends meet.”
Robrecht, who also worked as a teacher at the local school, has a recording studio and before the pandemic did gigs in pubs. “What the lockdown did was push me into a lot of time and devotion to writing songs.” On the albums Robrecht played the guitar, bass, banjo and keyboard and invited Irish and Belgian musicians to play flute, violin and other instruments.
He is philosophical about whether inspiration strikes again. “I’m just a writer. Either the songs come or they don’t.”