Ruthless Escapades: Robbie Robertson In Conversation
Eight years after releasing his last solo album, ‘How To Become Clairvoyant’, Robbie Robertson today drops its long-awaited follow-up, ‘Sinematic’. That’s a long time in the rock ‘n’ roll world, where stylistic and consumer landscapes change quicker than the seasons, but the Canadian architect of Americana has hardly been sitting idly in the meantime.
He’s authored two books - Hiawatha And The Peacemaker, a children’s story created in collaboration with illustrator David Shannon, and Testimony, his captivating autobiography that recounts his early years and the successes of The Band, the iconic and enigmatic group he co-founded - and co-authored another, Legends, Icons And Rebels: Music That Changed The World, with his son, Sebastian.
As a masterful wordsmith, these works are deftly imbued with the evocative imagery that’s so redolent in his most famous songs - ‘The Weight’, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘Acadian Driftwood’ - but it’s another medium in which he prevails that’s proven more impactful on his creative output.
Since first pairing up with director Martin Scorsese in 1976 to film The Band’s farewell performance (to be released as The Last Waltz, from which the above clip was taken), the pair have worked together on a string of productions, with Robbie assuming the role of Executive Music Producer, spanning all the way from Raging Bull to Shutter Island. Most recently, in the downtime from his day job, he worked with Scorsese on The Wolf Of Wall Street, the period drama Silence, and The Irishman, the forthcoming gangster epic starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.
Having long served as a well of inspiration to his rich, descriptive brand of songwriting, the movies have continued to bear large in Robertson’s motivations. Now, with his autobiography adapted into a new documentary, Once Were Brothers, which recently opened the Toronto International Film Festival, it seems that putting his own life on the big screen has firmly brought his destiny full circle, and made a discernible impact on his recent activity.
“I wrote the book,” he explains to Clash, “and then some people said, ‘We would like to do a documentary based on your book,’ and then other people said, ‘That’s a great idea,’ and it became a combination of people - very talented people - coming together saying, ‘We want to tell your story, and we want to tell part of the story of The Band through your ears and eyes.’”
As that project progressed, Robertson was already working on The Irishman - a story that tells the life of a mob hitman - and thinking about what would become his next album. “All of these things started to become one thing to me,” he says. “They were all very separate, but in the centre of it, this record I was making, I couldn’t help but be influenced by gangsters, I couldn’t help but be influenced by the documentary and the story of The Band, I couldn’t help but be influenced by all of The Irishman. All of these things started to get mixed and stirred together, and I embraced it fully.”
The product of this prolific compound is ‘Sinematic’: a vivid and graphic record that prowls the underworld in pursuit of mystery and suspense, conjuring up enchanting stories of crooks, killers, and all kinds of sinners.
Its lead single, ‘I Hear You Paint Houses’, is named after the Charles Brandt book on which The Irishman is based, and sets the scene of what’s to follow. A menacing air pervades, manifest in the song’s deep rumble and Robbie’s abrasive guitar lines, and exemplified by the breathy and sinister tones of his voice that truly lets us know we’re in “the dark side of town”.
In the song, whose title is a reference to the blood-spattered walls that he leaves behind, Robbie assumes the role of a cold-blooded killer (“I’ve got a bullet with your name on it,” he sings, “and I’ve got a job to do”) embroiled in a life of crime, while a cameo from old friend Van Morrison injects extra grit and pathos.
That kind of convincing portrait is synonymous with Robertson, whose catalogue of songs with The Band is like a motley roll call of characters, all conceived from his astute imagination. Lonesome Suzie, Anna Lee, Crazy Chester, Virgil Caine, Ragtime Willie, W.S. Walcott, Ophelia, Pepote Rouge - in Robbie’s hands, these names become expressive voices each with their own distinct and no doubt vibrant backstory.
‘Sinematic’ is no different, and the vice-fueled drama that unfolds within is arresting. ‘Shanghai Blues’ depicts the reign of Du Yuesheng, the notorious Chinese mob boss, while ‘Street Serenade’ hauls the listener into the midst of a chaotic urban sprawl. It’s a tactic that renders Robertson’s songs strikingly illustrative, but it’s also a tool that prevents his personal life being laid open to scrutiny.
So it’s all the more poignant when we hear on this album two songs that plainly touch upon his past.
‘Dead End Kid’ is an emphatic response from Robbie to those who, in the early days growing up in and around Toronto, doubted and denied his aspirations to pursue a life in music. “I want to show the world / Something they ain’t never seen,” the young hopeful sings, only to be met with a chorus of “You’ll never be nothing / You’re just a dead end kid”.
“I loved readdressing this,” Robbie smiles. “I had these dreams, I had this mission that I was on and I wanted to be on, and I was telling everybody about it, and they were like, ‘Oh my God. No, no, no. You’re just setting yourself up for a big disappointment.’ And whether I was telling people on the Six Nation Indian Reservation what my dreams were and they were saying, ‘That doesn’t happen for people like us. You got a lot of heartbreak ahead of you,’ or in the city and my family were gangsters and they’d say, ‘You’re probably gonna end up doing time,’ and even when Ronnie Hawkins [rockabilly bandleader whose backing group, The Hawks, would evolve into The Band] hired me, he told me: ‘If I didn’t hire you, you’d probably be in prison right now.’ I was like, ‘What?!’ This was the definition of a dead-end kid. And so, at this stage, at this age, to be able to look back and write on that, just as I’m writing in my books, I love it.”
Then there is ‘Once Were Brothers’, the song whose title was appropriated for the aforementioned documentary in light of its tangible references to Robbie and the once intimate fraternity he shared with his colleagues in The Band.
The Band’s debut, ‘Music From Big Pink’, was released in 1968 and made a seismic impact, their rustic, rootsy sound immediately turning the fanciful music world of the time on its head. The group’s communal dynamic was the key to their success, creating a secluded environment in which they could autonomously pursue their own homegrown muse. But that utopian ideal wouldn’t last, as cracks appeared that would eventually drive the friends apart.
The Band split in 1976 when chief songwriter Robbie, reading the writing on the wall, called it a day. In the years that followed, drummer Levon Helm would be the principal antagonist that castigated Robbie for allegedly hogging the group’s songwriting credits - a flawed argument, yet one that sparked a fierce animosity between the pair that endured until they reportedly reconciled in the weeks preceding Helm succumbing to cancer in April 2012.
‘Once Were Brothers’ is Robbie’s touching reflection on the tangled web of emotions that memories of The Band elicit in him. “Some things weren’t meant to last,” he pleads in the reflective ballad, “And you know deep inside there’s no going back.”
It’s tinged with a fond nostalgia, yet there’s a caustic reference to the divisive acrimony too: “We already had it out / Between the north and the south,” he sings, interpreted as an allusion to the Arkansas-born Helm, “When we all heard the lies / Coming out of your mouth.” It’s difficult to tell whether this is a sentimental remembrance of old friends, or a final goodbye to a legacy that Robbie is intent to leave behind.
“Well, you know as much as I do,” he cryptically offers. “Maybe it’s a song about ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Maybe it’s a song about the brotherhood of The Band. Maybe it’s a song about losing people in your life. I don’t know.”
An enigmatic adventure replete with brooding electronic soundscapes courtesy of Howie B, ‘Sinematic’ - which also features contributions from Glen Hansard, Citizen Cope, and J.S. Ondara - is an intriguing film noir played out over 13 acts. While it may have been worth the wait, Robbie does offer some hope that his seventh solo album won’t similarly be eight years in the making: “I’ve got stuff that I was working on before I made this record, and it’s some material that I know what to do with now better than I did before,” he teases, “so I’m going to readdress some of those things.”
“I have no idea,” he adds. “I’m not on anybody’s schedule, I’m not on tour… I’m in a different line of work.”
While abiding with raised expectations, his fans realise they’re at the mercy of an artist driven solely by instinct, and motivated by the infinite possibilities of the unknown future.
“At this stage of what I’m doing, I’m constantly thinking,” he attests. “A project comes up, a new movie with Scorsese, or I’m making a record, and I have no idea what I’m going to do. Scorsese comes up and I think, ‘Fuck, I don’t know what to do on this! I don’t know what I’m looking for.’ I go into that zone and something happens. And as long as that magic keeps happening - as long as I can keep pulling these rabbits out of the hat - it really makes me feel good.”
Robbie Robertson’s new album ‘Sinematic’ is out now. The 50th Anniversary edition of ‘The Band’ is coming in November, and will be prefaced by a special and exclusive anniversary feature on ClashMusic.com. Watch this space!
Words: Simon Harper
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