Breakin’ The Rules – Robbie Robertson Interview

Master story teller opens his heart

What happens when the master story teller finally opens his heart? Robbie Robertson is ready to speak for himself.

As principal song writer and guitarist for The Band, Robbie Robertson crafted perfect sepia-toned visions of Americana, effectively inventing the genre with pastoral illustrations of Southern mythology as told by a Canadian.

Robertson, born in Toronto in 1943, first visited America’s Deep South in the late Fifties while traveling with rockabilly band leader Ronnie Hawkins, and was immediately taken by the musicality of the region. By 1965, The Hawks, Hawkins’ backing band, were playing behind Bob Dylan at the most crucial and controversial juncture of his career, with Robertson studying every detail of the bard’s art. When The Hawks eventually became The Band, Robbie’s song writing prowess was fully formed: his evocative character studies and agrarian landscapes set The Band apart from their late-Sixties contemporaries as introverted rural poets.

Fast-forward to 2011, and Robertson’s fifth solo album ‘How To Become A Clairvoyant’ sees him finally confronting his own personal issues, rejecting third-person narratives in favour of candid emotions. You may think after a lifetime of working this would be a difficult adjustment, but, Robbie says, “this record is one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”

It sounds like you’re having fun on it.

Yeah. Just the way things unfold sometimes, you don’t know if you’re painting yourself into a corner, you don’t know if the combination of people are going to work together as the way you think in your imagination – there’s a lot of stuff up in the air in the way that I choose to work, and in this situation it was a glorious experience. And the way that it worked to – I came over here and I recorded with these guys over here, and got these tracks down on tape the way that I wanted them, and then the thing was completely disrupted by Martin Scorsese, who is a wonderful disruptor.

You can’t say no to someone like Scorsese though.

Well no, but he’s my pal, and in this situation, while I was here recording he called me and he said, ‘I’m doing this movie’, and this is one of the only times that I can ever remember this, but he said: ‘I have no idea with this material what to do with the music’. And that is unusual for him, because he’s always got like a clue or an idea whether that’s what goes the distance or not, but he comes with some kind of goods, you know? And with this one he said, ‘I just don’t know what to do’. He said, ‘I know you’re recording and everything, but can I have them send you the script over and see if you have any ideas for it.’

I read the script, and I had a very specific idea. I said, ‘We should work with all modern classical composers on this. I think that that’s what this material is crying out for. And I think that we should avoid a traditional underscore for this movie. I think it’s going to be ordinary and I think that that music is not ordinary.’ And I sent him some things, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I see what you’re talking about. I think this is going to work.’ And so, right in the middle of making this record, I had a departure that turned out to be an extraordinary luxury, because it completely took my head out of what it was doing, and I had to go into research on this project as deep as anything I’ve ever had to do.

Because I know something about modern classical music, but I’m not like an authority on it. But now I am, and it was a beautiful learning curve, and when I finished that project and did some really unusual things in the course of it – stretched my imagination and challenged me in great ways – when I came out of that and I came back to working on this record, there was like a parting of the clouds or something, and I really knew where I wanted to go with these songs, and the writing was all just rising to the surface, and it was surprising me completely that it was becoming this personal. I usually like to take the truth and turn it into mythology, and in that way I can play the part of the story teller and I don’t have to get any on me, so to speak. And in this, it was just coming out in a completely different way, and I knew that I wanted to work with Tom Morello and Angela McCluskey and Trent Reznor and Robert Randolph…

All of these things, it was like casting a movie. I’d just come out of this movie thing, and I thought, ‘Who could play these parts better than anybody else?’ Because I can ask people to do things, and they don’t very often say ‘I’m too busy’. They’re curious about what I might have up my sleeve or something. Whatever makes it work, I’ll accept that. So everybody that I chose, they all said ‘Yeah, let’s do this’. So the musical journey in this thing, every gamble that I took, every chance that I took, every challenge that I accepted in this, I came out the other end with the goods that I felt like, ‘Okay, really good casting on my part’. So anyway, that’s why I end up with this feeling of doing this, and it did turn out to be very reflective and personal for me, and that I have a good feeling about that, as opposed to ‘Oh, what did I just do?’ or something. It just all feels good, so I’m very grateful.

So when did it all start? This is your first solo album in thirteen years. What made you feel like this was the right time? When did the songs begin to germinate?

I’ve been to that place of where you had to make a record because of deadlines and because of schedules and everything, and I choose not to have that anymore. So I was doing a bunch of other stuff – tonnes of it – and I was really busy, and having a great time doing it, and I decided to make this record because I felt inspired. I can’t think of a better reason to do that. I felt like I had a need now to fulfill, as opposed to someone saying, ‘Hey, [taps watch] it’s album time!’ I’m off that treadmill. I’m just following my instincts really.

You were just saying this has become a more personal album for you – your songwriting is usually infused with stories of characters. Did this happen by accident?

It did. It was in the writing process… I mean, it’s one of the real interesting thing about songwriting actually, is that you don’t know where it comes from, you don’t know when it’s gonna come, you don’t know what you need to do to find what you’re looking for because you don’t know what you’re looking for. As I was working on this music and it started to reveal itself to me, I was quite surprised that ‘Oh my god, I’m doing that?’ And if I didn’t like where it was going I would have stopped, but it felt right and it felt good and it felt honest and I couldn’t resist it.

You have been able to become more personal with your fans too, reaching out to them via Facebook. Has this been an interesting development for you?

I dunno. This might have been like at the turn of the last century using the telephone. We use the tools that they give us to work with, and I’m curious, and I like exploring possibilities, so it’s just there, you know? And I’m more curious than I am restrictive to where I’ve been. I’m more connected to looking around the corner – that’s part of the clairvoyant journey.

When you wrote songs for The Band you were writing lyrics that would be sung by someone else, thus taking the pressure off you when it came to explaining the songs. How does it feel writing songs knowing that you have to sing them and you are answerable to them?

Writing for the guys in The Band, and the position that I took in that thing of being able to say ‘I’m writing this song specifically for Rick Danko to sing – his voice can tell this story; I’ll feel the truth in that’, once again it was almost movie-like. I’d say, ‘For this one, Richard will tear your heart out if I have him sing this’, and, ‘For getting the humour across in this song, Levon can do that better than anybody in the world’. So I had almost like a theatre workshop, where you’re casting people in these parts, and that’s what my job was then.

There’s always personal things in these things that are there, they’re just not obvious. And now – and it’s taken me a while to get to this place, where I can just blatantly say, ‘Here’s what happened’ – it’s almost like that on this record. And I’m happy to get to this place, but it was a journey getting here. I realise that now. I don’t think about this stuff very much – I don’t sit around and think, ‘Oh, they’re gonna talk to me about the lyrics and they’re revealing…’ I just try to do the work, and if I feel good about the work then my job is done. I can’t really answer to other stuff, because I don’t know how.

You only sang a handful of songs with The Band, and in your subsequent movie work you were more in the background. Have you had to relearn the confidence needed to be a singer on stage?

It’s such a big part of everything that I’ve been involved with all my life that, uh…it’s not like riding a bicycle, but you just do what you have to do. I don’t think about it as, ‘Okay, now I’m gonna put on a big performance. I hope you’re ready for that’. That’s not my job, that’s James Brown. He did that good.

When I first heard of Eric Clapton’s involvement on this album, I figured he’d be on a couple of songs, but he features throughout most of it. Was the original intention to make a whole album together, and then it became your album, or what?

That was part of it. When we started recording, we didn’t know whether it was going to be Eric’s album, a duet album, or my album. After we recorded the tracks for this, it was Eric who said, ‘You’ve written most of this stuff. The direction is your focus. I am really delighted to be supportive – I’ll do anything: if you want me to play, sing, or anything, I’m in’. He’s a really good pal, and I have a lot of gratitude for his support in trying to do this.

It just turned out that way. I was in no matter which direction it had gone in, but I was feeling, when we were doing this, very ambitious, and I’m in a different place song writing and story telling than he is, at this stage in what we do. And so he read those signals and said, ‘Ah, I get it: this is your thing’. And after we did our thing and I went off and did this work and completed what I wanted to, and a lot of the things we’d worked on I turned them inside out and made a lot of changes and things, and when I sent it to him, I didn’t know how he was going to feel about my direction in this, and my producing indulgence in the thing.

And when he heard it, he said: ‘I don’t even understand what you do and how you did this, but I think,’ his words were, ‘this is fucking great.’ And that’s all I needed. After that I thought, [wipes hands] ‘I’m done’. Anything else that anybody says, that’s a bonus. Just because of the place that we started on with this, and that the risks I took – which were very different than what he would have done – he appreciated.

The Band originally made a great impression on Eric Clapton: the story goes that he split Cream and came to America to find you. Similarly, George Harrison left The Beatles because he wanted to be in a group like yours. The Band’s impact was phenomenal; was that something you were aware of? And do you feel responsible for breaking up these great bands?!

No, I accept no responsibility! (Laughs) I liked Cream. I thought there was a lot of interesting music going on there. I just chose, at that time, to go in a different direction. What was happening musically in the mainstream was not of any interest to me, and I wanted to avoid the obvious. From the beginning – of playing with Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks and then Bob Dylan – going through all that stuff, I had done my raging guitar thing.

When I first started playing guitar, very few people were playing like that; it was very unique at that time. Guitar players were coming from all around just to see ‘What is up with that? I’ve never heard that kinda thing!’ And by the time we were getting ready to make ‘Music From Big Pink’, a lot of people were doing that: Eric, Jimi Hendrix and a lot of people were playing. So I thought, ‘I want to go into a direction of incredible subtleties and emotional playing. If I can get out of one note – the way that it rings and fades away – what somebody can get out of twenty, then I’m getting somewhere here’.

I was just looking at it from a different place. The music that I had been influenced by growing up that had a lifespan was not based on how loud it was or how obnoxious it was, it was based on a musicality that just lives in the air. I thought, ‘Oh, okay’. In any of the music that I’ve done in my life, I’ve never been drawn to a trendy thing. I’m just not drawn to it.

You follow your own muse?

Yeah. I always thought that…and working with Bob Dylan too, it was like, ‘That’s not what we do. We don’t look around and see what’s happening and try to copy that. Yikes!’

As the custodian for what happens with The Band’s music now, is there pressure on you to meet the demand of the fans, but also balance that with the respect of its legacy? Is there a limit to what you can do with The Band’s music now?

Well, The Band has already done that. There is no flexibility in that: it is what it is. Quite often record companies will say, ‘Why don’t we put out one of these?’ They’ve done that in the past in some things to me that at the time they wanted to do something and I couldn’t do it – I was busy doing something else – and they did things that I didn’t like. I didn’t like the way they did it, so I said, ‘Don’t do that anymore. Let’s try to do it with the integrity that what this music hopefully stands for’. So they’ve listened to me… Yeah, we’ll see… There’s some very interesting live recordings of The Band that’s been put away for a long time, and some film stuff too that I’ll explore at some time.

The imagery you evoke on this album – the card sharks, the grifters, etc – and those in The Band’s music, much of it comes from your love of America’s deep south. You travelled down there as a teenager and it apparently made a huge impact on you. Can you tell me about how it affected you and your song writing in particular?

I was sixteen years old when I first went from Canada to the Mississippi Delta and it was like, ‘Oh!’ I felt like I was going to the Holy Land of rock and roll. All this music that I loved came out of just this little area between Clarksdale and Memphis and it was like, what’s going on here? All these people that came out of this place: Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley – you could go on forever just naming these names – it was like, what is up with this? And so, when I got there, oh, it was like it just washed over me, and all of these characters and these sounds and the rhythm of the place, it got so under my skin that when it came time for me to write songs, this just came pouring out, because I went into this with an innocence of a kind, with fresh eyes and fresh ears.

If you were from there, you took this stuff for granted. I came in, and somebody said to me, ‘Just remember Robbie, the South is gonna rise again’. And when I heard that, it just sent chills through me, and it stayed with me. That’s where a lot of that story telling comes from, because I was at such a vulnerable age that it just…[makes exploding sound]. It just did that to me, and I didn’t even have a choice of it. I was in it and loved it, and I know it was ironic for somebody coming from Canada to be the guy that was going to be the prophet of Americana, you know what I mean? It doesn’t make sense. But if you know how and when it had that affect on me, then you can understand that.

One of the songs that is most redolent of cotton fields or plantations or prison camps is the traditional ‘Ain’t No More Cane’, which you covered early before The Band’s first album. Levon said that when you recorded that song, that’s when The Band found its voice. Firstly, what are your recollections of doing that song, and secondly, is it because of the song’s nostalgic roots that The Band were able to capture it so perfectly?

Well, I have a different recollection of that song. That comes from when we were doing ‘The Basement Tapes’, so there was new songs, and Bob Dylan knows all of this stuff about folk music that we didn’t know. So every once in a while he would pull out one of these songs that we’d never heard of or heard before, and a couple of them that stuck out to me were ‘Spanish Is The Loving Tongue’ and ‘Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos’. And when he sang that song, ‘Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos’, I said, ‘Wait a minute, teach that song to me. There’s something special in that.’

And then I took what he was doing and I put it in another time figure, and then The Band were able to play that like it was one of our songs, and it fit in with other stuff that we were doing seamlessly. It was like, ‘Hmm, that’s an interesting thing’. Because it’s an old river song – a very old song – and there was something about making this feel timeless: “You should have been on the river in Nineteen and Ten / They were running the women just like they were running the men”. It didn’t matter that it was 1910. It was beautiful story telling, and it was an inspiration for that time.

Well, considering the black and white portraits of The Band at that time, you could very well have been living in 1910.

Yeah. And that wasn’t made up either; that was just the way that everybody looked. It wasn’t like anybody was dressing up for the album cover – everybody just showed up, and that’s the way everybody looked every day! And it just had an influence on other people – the music, the image, the everything: it was kinda anti-showbusiness really, and people just picked up on it in however they chose to. We weren’t trying to do anything in particular at all except play the music.

You admitted in a recent interview that making music in the future with Levon or Garth might not be an impossibility. How would that be initiated?

I think you just follow the music in these things. If something comes up that we’re all drawn to and we went in that direction… I just had such great experiences playing music with them over the years, you know what I mean? I can’t find any negativity in that at all. So yeah, I’m just open. I’m open to whatever: if you can do something good with it, I’m in.

Words by Simon Harper

This interview appears in the current issue of Clash Magazine, out now. Read more about the new issue HERE.

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