In Conversation: Robbie Robertson, Part 1

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Photo by Don Dixon

Robbie Robertson has had a lot on his plate lately: His enlightening 2017 memoir Testimony; the 50th anniversary of The Band’s self-titled masterpiece, which is the subject of a massive reissue in November; the highly-awaited Martin Scorsese film The Irishman, for which Robertson composed music; and the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, which is already gaining acclaim in early showings and gets a U.S. release in January. Yet he has added to it by recording his sixth solo album, Sinematic, which arrives on Friday. This is part 1 of a three-part interview American Songwriter recently completed with Robbie, in which he talks about how all these disparate projects came together to inspire the new album, why he feels sometimes like he’s in a different profession than other songwriters, and how he dug deep to write about The Band.

This album was inspired by many different projects, from your work with Martin Scorsese on the film (The Irishman) to your autobiography (Testimony) to the new documentary about The Band (Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band). Were you surprised at how all of these different inspirations intertwined?

I was surprised. This turned out to be unexpected and I’ve never done anything like this before. Usually you work on different projects and they’re different projects. All of these started to beautifully blend together, and it does come out in this record in some kind of a seamless fashion, which did surprise me.

A lot of this record pontificates on our current times and how we seem to be headed to a bad end…

Jesus, do you think so? (laughs)

I know, just turn on the news or read a newspaper.

I’m depressed already.

But you provide really uplifting and romantic moments in songs like “Let Love Reign” and “Walk In Beauty Way.” Was striking that balance something that was a priority for you when making this record?

All the songs were like little movies to me, and I was taking it one movie at a time. I’ve worked with Scorsese over the years, and this is subject matter that we’ve been drawn to all of our lives. Whether it starts when you were a young kid, and you’re watching a move about Jesse James or about Public Enemy Number One, this fascination that we have with this dark side. In the song “Hardwired,” I’m saying we’re hard-wired for love but we’re also hard-wired for war. It is a balance in human nature. It’s a truth. And seeing it done really well, like we’ve seen in Martin Scorsese pictures and Sam Peckinpah pictures, it is something that I like to engage. 

I believe in telling stories with an edge. I believe in both sides of the coin. I didn’t think in making the record, “Oh I’m writing about this notorious bad guy in Shanghai back in the day (on the song ‘Shanghai Blues,’ I better lighten up on another song.” I didn’t think like that. These are just the little movies that I wanted to make and the stores I wanted to tell and the sounds that I wanted to share.

Speaking of movies and the visual aspect, you included your own custom artwork for each song on Sinematic in the album package. Were these images percolating in your brain as you were writing the songs or did they come after the fact when you looked back at the music?

Both. Some of them I painted while I was writing the song. Some of them I painted after I had written the song. There was no particular formula for it except that this is something that I do. All of these elements were connecting, from movies to documentaries to music to artwork, going back and revisiting the 50th anniversary of The Band album and the Woodstock thing. All of these pieces, much of it stemming from my book Testimony, I really felt like what a fantastic, electrical connection between all of these things. I’ve been doing what I do for a long time. I’ve never had anything like this before. And I don’t know if I ever will again.

One thing I found listening to the album is that the majority of these tracks have a great groove at the foundation, really sultry and soulful so you can put your guitar work on top. Is the groove where a lot of these songs began?

Sometimes. I don’t have a routine in this. In the documentary I talk about this process of songwriting of creating, how sometimes when you’re all prepared, you’ve sharpened your pencil, you got all your papers laid out, you got everything turned on, the lighting is just right, and you sit down with a blank canvas to start painting, you don’t know where to start. The idea is to come at it from out of nowhere. 

I look and I see a guitar of mine on the wall. And I go, for no reason whatsoever, except that I’m drawn to it. I pick up that particular guitar. I put my hands on it. And it makes a sound and I think, “Ooo. Ok, then what?” And then it takes me to another place. And another place. And it’s the same thing when I start a painting. You make a line. And you think, “Ahh, this feels good.” I play another note or another chord, and it feels good. Whatever feels good, you start following that. And that’s the creative process for me. I don’t have a thing like, “OK, I’m gonna play a riff on the guitar and then that will be the beginning of my song.” I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I want it to surprise me. And when it surprises me, it gives me a thrill that makes me want to push forward. So that’s how I try to come at it. 

There are times too when I think, “Geez, I want to write a song called ‘Walk in Beauty Way.’” This is a thing that I heard when I was in Arizona or New Mexico one time and this Navajo told me about this expression. It means just being really kind in your life, taking care of the people you love, caring about people. Just doing what we know deep in our soul is the way we should live. And I thought what a wonderful way to put it. To walk in beauty way. That says everything. So sometimes I can have a clue, but not much more.

When I listened to “I Hear You Paint Houses” and I heard Van Morrison’s vocal, I went back to “4 % Pantomime” (a song The Band recorded with Morrison on Cahoots in 1971) for reference, and his voice has not changed an iota. So I ask you as someone who has worked with him over the years, what kind of sorcery is he conjuring?

To me, Van has always been like the Pavarotti of rock and roll. He sings from his chest. He sings from his gut. He’s always been one of my favorite singers. Also one of my favorite songwriters too. And a good buddy of mine for many, many years. And this was just a complete fluke. 

When he comes to town, he usually gives me a shout. We go catch up. And we talk about what we’re doing. He said to me, “So what are you working on?” So I said, “I’m working on a bit of music for this Scorsese movie.” And I had started writing a song. The song is something I don’t think is gonna end up in the movie, but it’s a song about the movie. I’ve never done that before. And he said, “Well, let me hear it.” So I played him a rough version of the song. He said, “I like this. I said, “Well do you want to sing on it?” He said sure. So we did it together. 

And it was just a glorious feeling. Because it was a personal thing between him and me and in respect to Martin Scorsese. There was something kind of perfect about it. It was odd, though, singing about a character who was really not a very nice person. “I Hear You Paint Houses” is referring to blood splattering on the wall. It was not your normal tune that people are writing nowadays. 

But I don’t write those kinds of songs. I’m not drawn to the kind of subject matter in 90 percent of music that I hear today, even though I love a lot of it. I really enjoy it. But they’re not writing about this kind of stuff. They’re not writing about “Walk In Beauty Way.” They’re not writing about the “Dead End Kind” (another song on Sinematic.) And I’m also writing about the brotherhood of The Band (on the song “Once Were Brothers.”) This is really a departure and sometimes I feel like I’m actually in a different line of work from people who do what I do.

I would argue that’s been a characteristic of your entire career. You’ve always written songs with subject matter that was set apart from the usual rock song topics.

I just came in on a different train. I’m interested in storytelling. I’m interested in characters. I used to read a lot of scripts from classic movies. That was my inspiration. That was my literature. I was learning something. And I was really having a lot of enjoyment in doing this. I was just a movie bug. I realized, very early on, how cinematic the stories I wanted to tell in the songs were. 

And now I’ve come up to this point that I’m hitting it head on. And actually calling the record Sinematic, with an “S” of course. While I was working on The Irishman, my job wasn’t to write a song called “I Hear You Paint Houses.” That was something I just couldn’t help but do. 

You mentioned writing about the brotherhood of The Band on the song “Once Were Brothers.” As a Band fan, it was cathartic to listen to it, so I imagine it was cathartic for you to write it. Did it come easily or did you struggle at all with what you wanted to say?

I didn’t struggle with it at all, but it was extremely emotional. The fact that Richard has passed away, Rick has passed away, Levon has passed away, it tears my heart out. Writing a song that I can share some of that feeling, I guess you could say that there was that kind of fulfillment in it. 

It wasn’t a hard song to write in a songwriting sense. But tt was something that I had to dig deep for. And there is something very rewarding about finding that place inside yourself that you can share that. I’m really happy that I was able to write that song. I’m really happy that it was inspirational in the documentary. All of this stuff has added up in a creatively glorious way.

READ: IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBBIE ROBERTSON, PART II

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