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Robbie Robertson's prolific 'Sinematic' creativity

Robbie Robertson is as busy as ever, with a solo album titled "Sinematic," a documentary, a Scorsese soundtrack and a reissue of the self-titled Band album.
 Robbie Robertson portrait by Don Dixon.

Robbie Robertson portrait by Don Dixon.

By Ray Chelstowski

Robbie Robertson may be busier than he has ever been. Over the last 30 years he has constructed soundtracks for some of Hollywood’s most iconic films, working alongside directors like Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone. These films are almost as well remembered for their musical scores as they are for their story lines, famous quotes and performances. Robertson’s most recent Scorsese collaboration, The Irishman, marked the eleventh time they have worked together.

A documentary on his life, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, debuted in early September at The Toronto Film Festival. It’s the perfect companion piece to his 2016 autobiographyTestimony. The film sheds a detailed light on the transformational sound that The Band created, and it also speaks to the personal battles that would quickly unravel the formerly tight-knit, musical brotherhood.

Alongside the documentary comes the release of an expanded 50th anniversary editionof The Band’s self-titled sophomore effort. This version includes many extraordinary demos, as well as the group’s entire Woodstock Festival performance. This rare look into that magical musical moment is riveting and surprisingly pristine.

Lastly, there is the release of Robertson’s sixth solo album, Sinematic. Like the better part of his solo cannon, the record drips with an atmosphere and sonic condition that is haunting and mystical. Like all of his work, this new music is an awe-inspiring example of the kind of storytelling that has defined his career. In describing the inspiration for the album, Robertson said: “I could see a path. Ideas for songs about haunting and violent and beautiful things were swirling together like a movie. You follow that sound and it all starts to take shape right in front of your ears.” The record is complemented with original artwork inspired by the songs and the entire creative output of this prolific period.

Goldmine recently caught up with Robbie on all of this, his approach to the creative process and what lies ahead for one of rock’s most important influences.

GOLDMINE: Is this the busiest you have ever been?

ROBBIE ROBERTSON: It feels like it’s up there. It wasn’t planned like this but everything just fell into place. And now I’m really glad that it did because all of these elements are connected in a really special way. I’m really enjoying being a part of it all, especially talking about it because this is all unusual for somebody at this stage in my journey, in my artistic development. So yeah, I’m having a good time with it.

GM: The new album reminds me of your first solo record in that it is also atmospheric, with a lot of raw rock moments and more guitar than you have used in a long time.

RR: Sometimes the songs that I’m writing just provoke me to want to make the guitar sing, to make the guitar tell the stories. I found that in this case. It’s a particular time nowadays too where the guitar is being underplayed; it’s being pushed to the side, it’s being pushed into the past a bit. That just makes me want to make a louder noise.

GM: Did Van Morrison being known as “The Belfast Cowboy” play a role in him joining you on “I Hear You Paint Houses,” a song from The Irishman?

RR: Van just happened to be coming to town. When he comes to town he and I pretty much always hook up and tell some stories. He’s a dear old friend of mine and I also just think that he is ridiculously talented. So he came to town and I had just finished writing that song. He asked what I was working on and I played it for him. He said “Whoa, I like that!” So what do I say besides, “Do you want to sing with me on this?” So we just did it and it was just a joy, a great feeling. Because it was connected to the movie The Irishman, it was almost like the stars were aligned. Even working with Glen Hansard — who also is a really talented guy, and Irish, too — I didn’t even realize the connection until after we were done. Again, the way that all of these things connected, that’s something I have never experienced before. Everything just completely plugged into each other.

GM: Citizen Cope was another interesting collaboration?

RR: I would see Cope around; he’s another really talented guy and I just like him. So I was doing this song and told him that I needed some help. Also, I had heard through my daughter about this guy J.S. Ondara. She played me a couple of his songs and I just loved his sound. I was hearing something in my mind for the song “Once Were Brothers” and thought that it wouldn’t get much more interesting than having Citizen Cope and J.S. Ondara from Nigeria singing in the background. The sound that it made reminded me that I’m just doing God’s work.

GM: Your solo work has a very specific “sound” that is uniquely yours.

RR: One of the things that steered me is working on these movies. I’d be intrigued by the origins of putting together a piece of magic that would become a movie. How did we get there? What was on the ground before this thing goes up into the sky? I got fascinated reading these scripts. Years later working on movies, all of that connecting inspired me to almost score the sound of the songs as opposed to just strumming along. It just took me in a different direction. I was trying to find sonics that complemented these songs in a way that wasn’t overly specific and hopefully not obvious. So that took me in this direction and since I’m still doing that on movies I can’t help but be influenced by it. In songwriting, I’m making little movies.

GM: You speak in the documentary about the creative process. You kind of let the music take you where it will go.

RR: Quite often I sit down and come up with something that I don’t like that much. So there’s all of this trial and error. It’s sitting down with a blank canvas and you start painting. Sometimes you think, “I’m just not drawn to this. Let me do something else.” A lot of these things I have as bits and pieces in my memory or scattered around on tapes and computers. It’s a process of discovery where you’re on a mission to find something that will take you to the next place, and I still love the process.

There’s a thing that fascinates me and has ever since I was a kid. How one person sits down and comes up with something and another person just doesn’t sit down at all. Early on with The Band I used to think that the other guys were just being lazy. Eventually I learned that some people write and some people don’t, and it’s no different with books or poetry. I used to try to write something with Garth (Hudson) who is a kind of musical genius. But when we would sit down he didn’t have whatever that chip is that makes you create. Because I liked it so much I thought that everybody liked it. I tried to do this with Levon (Helm) and he got very uncomfortable and impatient with the creative process. He was much more interested in taking something and figuring out how to play beautifully on it or how to tell the story that I had written in a very honest way. The same thing was true with the other guys. Over time I had luck writing with Richard (Manuel) but it went away. At this stage in my songwriting I have many friends that can’t write anymore which makes me tremendously grateful that I still have this inspiration.

GM: You often wrote songs with one of your bandmates in mind. Are there any of your songs on the new record that you can imagine Levon, Richard, or Rick (Danko) singing?

RR: It was almost like having a theatrical group with The Band. I always liked that you have this group of actors and this guy in this movie would play this guy and that guy would play that guy. I wrote songs for Richard, Rick and Levon in that kind of way. I was casting their characters to tell these stories. Now without that theater group I still think in that kind of way but not in terms of “Oh, Rick would sing this really well” because I’ve lost Rick and I’ve lost Richard and Levon. So I have to go in a different direction. When I write these stories now there’s a different sense of freedom. Now I’m writing things that I am just experiencing or reliving. One of my favorite things is telling stories and these are stories that I want to tell. I could never write “The Shadow” and expect Richard to sing that.

GM: My favorite soundtrack is The King of Comedy, and your song “Between Trains” may be my favorite of your post-Band career. How do you approach soundtracks?

RR: There is no formula for this. The Irishman takes place over many years and so some of these time periods you get to feel through the songs that Marty (Scorsese) or I have chosen. In The Wolf of Wall Street there is a guy walking down the street and there’s heavy blues playing. It has nothing to do with anything anyone would put in a movie like that. And in The Irishman because of these different periods the music takes you into a world that these people lived in and it’s not on the nose at all. This is not music that they would listen to. It’s something that comes out of an interior. Marty is so good at these choices which is why I wanted to work with him on The Last Waltz. He has an amazing connection to music. To this day he really impresses me. We really have a great time working on these movies and figuring out what the sonic experience is that goes with it. He once told me, “There’s no difference between the picture and the music. It’s all the same.” Most people do all of the obvious stuff and Marty doesn’t come from that blueprint at all. It’s so unexpected. It’s not to be different — it’s something deeper.

GM: The Irishman has a running time of 3 hours and 19 minutes. How much different is it to approach a film of that length?

RR: Fortunately, what I wrote in that score is a type of instamatic, a type of music that I have never made before. One of the things in working with Marty over all these years is that we get started on something and look for some kind of clue to a direction to go in. It’s always, “What do we do this time that we haven’t already done?” So on this there was a hint of an idea that stemmed out of an early French gangster movie from the early ’50s. It was a sound that we heard. We thought that that might be a clue. That’s all that it was. Marty’s instructions going into it usually are to write the piece so that it becomes thematic in a traditional way. I’ll usually say, “What if I try something with a blah blah blah?” He’ll usually say, “Oh great, as long as it doesn’t sound like movie music!” So you’re writing music for a movie and the number one rule is that it can’t sound like movie music. (laughs)

GM: Was your approach for The Band at 50 similar to what you did for Big Pink?

RR: We tried some things and we found out that the record came from a very organic place and was so honest in its originality that to step in and try to fancy something up would be difficult because this was an even more delicate territory. You cannot go in on a painting and try to improve the painting. If you can put a frame around it that protects it and make it look better… fine, but you cannot get in the way of the sound and the music. At this time nobody did what we were doing. Nobody made homemade records. Everyone went into a recording studio. I didn’t want to. I wanted an atmosphere that was our atmosphere. It was a tangent that I thought really suited this group. And we learned from the basement that in our own space we had a freedom to do something that really set us apart from the rest of the world.

When Bob Clearmountain and I came back to the record, he said let me take a song and try to make it as great as I can and let’s see what we get out of it. So he did just that with a song making it really sparkle. This took us to a place where we talked about a painting. You can’t “brighten it up.” It is what it is. What we were able to do was make the music breathe a little bit more so that you could hear what was going on between the notes and in the silence. That seemed honest.

GM: The Woodstock tracks are remarkably clean and modern sounding, better than anything I have heard from the festival.

RR: This is the original mix from Woodstock. There was no multi-track. It was such a strange experience. We were the only ones actually from Woodstock. When we went out to play it was at the pinnacle of the experience. It was 9:00, just getting dark on the third night. The audience was pumped. They wanted to get crazy and rock. We go out there and it was like singing hymns. They looked at us as if they were saying, “What’s going on here? We didn’t come for a spiritual experience!” And all of a sudden a couple of songs into our set you could see a feeling come over the whole place. This isn’t about ripping your shirt off and rolling in the mud. This is a different kind of moment. We just went out there as if we were playing for 10 people in the living room. We hardly had played any jobs as “The Band” when we did Woodstock so we didn’t know how to turn it up to 11. We just knew how to do what we had done in the basement.

GM: The new solo record features a good amount of your art work. Were these pieces completed before the recording?

RR: No, all of these things were happening simultaneously. But this the first time ever that I thought that because there was a direct connection to what I was writing about that I had to share it. I would be writing a song and I’d see an image and I’d think that this is the kind of magical connection that I was always looking for. I love making these images that take you into a deeper place of the music, of the movies, of everything. I thought that it was time to share this and not just keep it to myself.

GM: It’s hard to believe that How To Become Clairvoyant was released eight years ago.What’s next and how long do you think it will be before we hear more new music from you?

RR: All of this, including the documentary, stems from my book Testimony. Writing that is one of the hardest things that I have ever done. I wrote every word. With the editor I cut it down from 850 to 550 pages. That was a chore. I’m writing volume two now with everything else going on. I don’t make records to find an excuse to tour. I make them when I have time to make them. I have to really hunker down on volume two. It’s a completely different period, a different rhythm, a different kind of storytelling – everything. I’m still in a discovery process here. I sketched out the journey but I have to really push aside everything for that.

And Scorsese and I are already talking about the next movie.