A Conversation With Robbie Robertson
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Robbie.
Robbie Robertson: Hi Mike, good to hear from you.
MR: Your new album, How To Become Clairvoyant, is a very personal album for you, even though it's got this kind of "wise-guy" title. But its title also implies that, looking back at your life, you always knew what was coming around the corner, right?
RR: (laughs) Well, that's exactly the point. Of all the things that we would like to have, it's a good question and a good answer -- How To Become Clairvoyant.
MR: Now, your album starts off with "Straight Down The Line," which is referred to as "a sly nod to rock 'n' roll's early reputation as the devil's music." And there's this great convergence of styles in the music as the lyrics kind of dive into musical history.
RR: Well, this was, for a certain generation, the first musical revolution. That was the beginning of rock 'n' roll, and it was referred to as the devil's music. I enjoyed the counterpoint of this over the years. In the back of my mind, I am writing this song about first meeting Sonny Boy Williamson, and I'm also writing about Mahalia Jackson and Frank Sinatra. Sonny Boy was saying, "No, I'm a blues guy. I play the blues." Mahalia Jackson was very firm in her position on this because in the black community, there was blues and gospel music, and the idea of putting these two things together, like Ray Charles did years ago, was very questionable. Mahalia Jackson made a statement saying, "I do not play no rock 'n' roll," and Frank Sinatra said, "Well, this music will be around for six months and then it will be gone forever." I think there is something about those bold statements that has stayed with me throughout the years, and I just like the idea of writing a song about that.
MR: Would you go so far as to say that The Band is the premier "Americana" group?
RR: Well, I don't know that I would say that, but I do know what people are referring to when they talk about that, and it was always a curious point to me because I'm from Canada. I'm from Northern North America, and it was always like I was the one who had opened this door and was writing this music that was really referred to as the American mythology in music. When I first joined Ronnie Hawkins and went from Canada down to Arkansas to join them, their headquarters were in the Mississippi delta, and I was going to the Holy Land of Rock 'N' Roll. Where they were, there was a hundred mile radius around there; all of the music that I admired came from this one spot. So, when I went there at sixteen years old, it made such a profound influence on me that I stored all of this up.
When it was time for me to sit down and write songs, I reached into that trunk of my ideas and that's what came out. I didn't set out to say, "I'm going to write American music," I didn't even know what that was. I was just writing what I had stored up, and what I was most impressed by. So, it just came out that way, and because of the guys that I was working with at the time, I was trying to make everything apply to everybody, take all of it into consideration -- all of our musicality, use of voices, the backgrounds -- everything. Before we put out Music From Big Pink, we'd already been together for seven or eight years. So, we had been woodshedding, and our wood-shedding had a lot to do with just traveling all over the country, playing music, and picking up music. When Music From Big Pink came out, people could hear mountain music in there, gospel music, blues, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, and all these things like it was a big gumball of music, and it was because we had really woodshedded it and educated ourselves in trying to hone our skills.
MR: That merging of musical styles did end up leaving an indelible impression on a generation of artists and the culture to the point where it has been so influential that The Band is referred to as this kind of amalgam.
RR: It is. To this day, young bands are saying that they're just trying to do their version of The Band's music, and I guess that's one of the best compliments -- that your music does live on. In the music I'm making now, "When The Night Was Young" is really a reflection on this period that we're talking about, this period of the late '60s when the youth of the nation, and ultimately the youth of the world, really did have an incredible influence on what was going on then. There was a war going on in the late '60s that all these people at the Woodstock festival and people around the country said, "We don't agree with this. We're going to stand up and we're going to make some changes." They did, they had to pull out of that war because it was just such a negative thing, and we would like to see the youth of today have this same type of spirit. We don't have situations like that, and, of course, in the '60s, we were coming out of periods of the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., and in some very powerful way, it brought people together. Music was the voice of the generation.
MR: I was interviewing a rap artist named Saigon from the series Entourage, and he said almost exactly what you just said, which was basically, "Where is the spirit?" Maybe it's because we're distracted, but it seems like the main story of what people should be focused on is so diluted by everything that is out there that it's really hard to know what to even believe in.
RR: Yeah, there is really a separation in the cultures of the country right now, and unity is not the name of the game.
MR: Now, back in the day, "The Weight" was used often as a counter-culture anthem, and there seemed to be an anti-war sentiment in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" -- although, when you follow those songs' storylines, they don't overtly commit to those themes.
RR: There was something very rebellious in the nature of the music I was making with The Band. It was not what was happening, what was trendy, or what was popular at the time -- this was not it. Music was very aggressive, and while we were taking pictures with our parents, other people were singing songs about killing their parents. The idea of doing something patriotic in a different kind of way was unheard of at the time. So, we were actually rebelling against the rebellion.
MR: Wow, well put. Now, you have some great guests on ...Clairvoyant starting with your rhythm section that sports Pino Palladino and Ian Thomas on bass and drums. And you began this album in '08 in London, right?
RR: Yes, I went over to London because Eric Clapton had asked if we could do some recording over there. The beginning of this record really started with Eric and I just messing around with some ideas. We didn't really have anything that specific in mind, except that we're old friends and we've been talking about doing something for a while. So, he was in L.A. some years ago, we were playing around with ideas and talking about life, and those stories ended up in the music and the songs -- that was the germ of the idea. Then, Eric had to go off to a tour of Japan at the time, and I had a film project, so we just went off and sort of forgot about what we had done. Then, sometime after that, I stumbled over this music again, not realizing how much of this music we had started. I called him and said, "You know, I just revisited this stuff , and some of it is further along than I thought, and some of it is really good." His reply was, "I know that." (laughs) Just because it was a passing thing, I didn't realize how far in we had gotten on this. Then he said, "Listen, why don't we work out some of these ideas and see what happens? Come and do it in London, and we'll do it with Pino, Ian, you and I, and then if we need a keyboard player, we'll see if Steve Winwood is around, and maybe he'll help us too." So, then I brought in Marius de Vries to help with the production because he's very good at doing a lot of things that I knew we were going to be addressing in this. I went to London for three weeks, and we recorded all of the tracks that are on this album and some other things as well. Then, after that, Eric said, "Well, you've done the majority of the songwriting here, so I really feel like this is your record. I love the idea of just being supportive. I'll play, sing, whatever you want me to do on it."
It was a very sweet gesture of his. Then, when I came back from London, I had to immediately work on the music for Martin Scorsese's film, Shutter Island. My idea for that was that I wanted to use all modern, classical composers. It was such a departure from what I had just done in London that it was an extraordinary experience and an extraordinary education because I had to really do some deep research into that type of music. I loved it and everything, but it took me as far away from what I had been doing as I could go, and when I came back to it, I had a very clear picture in my mind of who I wanted to work with. Because Eric and I had started it, a lot of it was quite guitar-oriented. We would be singing something back and forth, and then, when we would play guitar, it was almost like a conversation between the two guitars, and I wanted to continue that.
I really enjoyed the guitar playing of Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine because he just does something with the instrument so unusual, and so different from what I do. So, I asked Tom if he would come and do this song, "Axman," with me, he agreed, and that was a great experience. Then, I asked Robert Randolph, who plays amazing pedal steel guitar, if he would do some things with me. Now, the reason I chose these two guys out of all the guitar players out there is because they both play amazing guitar, and I have no idea what they're doing. I've been playing guitar forever, right? I should know, and I have no idea what they are doing and it fascinates me -- the idea that I can stand in front of another guitar player while we're both playing and I have no idea how this guy is doing what he's doing, in making those particular noises. So, working with those guys was a very thrilling experience because they are people that I very privately admire in my own kind of way.
Then, I did the same type of thing with Trent Reznor. I've done so much work with Martin Scorsese that in my songwriting and the way I accompany the songs, a lot of it is cinematic because I can't separate the two worlds completely nor do I want to. Trent Reznor has recently gotten into wanting to do film work, and some of the things he's doing are quite cinematic. I asked him if he would help me out with this other track I was working on and he did an amazing job at it. He did something so unpredictable and exactly as I was hoping it would work out. Collaboration in music is extremely important, and it gets even better when you can work with people of this caliber, of course.
MR: "Axman" is really interesting because of both its angle as a tribute to guitarists, and you're evoking a classic, influential lineage.
RR: I'm just paying an homage to a lot of the great guitar singers that were so influential but aren't with us anymore. It was just a way for Tom Morello and I to do something in tribute to all these guys. I refer to Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Jimi Hendrix who I call Jimi James in the song because when I met him, he was going by Jimi James. I also refer to RJ, who is Robert Johnson, Django Reinhardt, and Link Wray...so many of the guys who, if it weren't for them, we wouldn't be doing what we're doing. It was time to do a tip of the hat, I felt.
MR: Going off topic for a minute but keeping that "clairvoyant" theme, could anyone have been able to predict what's going on in the Middle East right now?
RR: I think that it was extremely unpredictable in the way that this whole thing's started. I saw a thing on 60 Minutes that it all started with one guy in Tunisia who was so fed up with the way that people were being treated in that country by their leadership that he became a martyr. He went in front of their government building, set himself on fire, and it just started an uproar in that country that spread, and it started a revolution. So, the leaders have held people at bay for so long in these situations, but now, throughout the Middle East, revolution is in the air.
MR: Hopefully, things will end up for the best in the region.
RR: Absolutely. I think that this makes everybody just stop and think. What is happening in Libya was unimaginable, and today, they are in for amazing big changes in this country. Only good can come out of this. Even if it takes longer for them to find what they're looking for, only good can come out of getting rid of the old and bringing in the new.
MR: And with the revolution happening, maybe there will be some discussion and focus on alternative energies and not being so dependent on Middle East oil since this is probably going to be putting some financial and political pressure on oil companies.
RR: I think all of these things are feeding the right fire.
MR: Beautifully said. Okay, ... Clairvoyant features a song in which you're dealing directly with touchy subject matter, so I just want to very delicately ask you about "This Is Where I Get Off," which tells the story of your departure from The Band. I'll just leave it there, but do you want to discuss it?
RR: Well, you're right in saying this is the first time that I've addressed this. I've never much talked about it in public, and I've certainly never talked about it in song. As I was writing this song and it was revealing itself to me as I was writing it, sometimes you just start with the germ of an idea, and you really don't know where it's going to go until it unveils itself and lets you know what path you're following. When I started writing this song, I wasn't sure where it was going to go, but as it unfolded, it was a nice release to be able to talk about this, and to put it in a way of declaring that when I did leave The Band, that was never the idea. As I put it in the song, "Walking out on the boys was never the plan," because it wasn't. Everybody went off in different directions after The Last Waltz because there were projects that everybody was interested in doing, and everybody wanted to just freshen up and do something else. Then, the idea was we were going to come back together, do some writing, and try to make some great music. Everybody went off and did their own thing and nobody came back. It was just like, "Okay, that's telling you something."
At the time, I don't think anybody felt a negativity towards it. Everybody just felt like, "Hey, we're all pursuing things that we're interested in right now, and when we're ready, we will regroup and do what we're supposed to do." But it just didn't go that way -- nobody could retrace their footsteps somehow, and everything evolved into different places. So, it wasn't about me standing up and saying, "I'm quitting The Band." That never happened. Even The Last Waltz was more of a declaration of the lifestyle in those days and on the road.
MR: The Last Waltz, of course, being The Band film that had anybody who was anybody at the time paying tribute to the group.
RR: Yeah, but the fact that it was called The Last Waltz really leaned it in a direction where people thought, "Let's close this chapter, everybody gets a chance to breathe and take care of themselves, and let's get a fresh deck." We needed to shuffle the deck, the way we felt at the time. This was not about anybody quitting anything, but it just didn't work out that way. So, you say, "We will follow the path that is laid out before us." If everybody had wanted to regroup at that time, that's what would have happened. We were just reading the signals all the way around, and it wasn't my choice or anybody's choice, it's just the way things turned out.
MR: Following that, you became an overseer of music for films, and actually, Neil Diamond's Beautiful Noise.
RR: That was an unusual turn at the time, too. But those kinds of challenges and going against the grain sometimes really bring out a creative spirit in you that is above and beyond what you're normally finding on a day to day basis. Working with Neil was just a real left turn, and I completely enjoyed it. He's a great guy, and this year. he's being inducted into The Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame, which I've been yelling at these guys (to do) for a while now, so I'm glad to see that it's happening.
MR: Also, you went on to work with Martin Scorsese on Carny, Raging Bull, King Of Comedy, and The Color Of Money, and you were the creative consultant for Chuck Berry's Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll. Then you move on to one of my favorite post-Band projects--the Robbie Robertson solo album, followed by Storyville, its follow up. On those albums, you feature the original "Broken Arrow," which was a big hit for Rod Stewart, and you have other major tracks such as "Showdown At Big Sky," "Somewhere Down The Crazy River," and "Testimony." Then, on Storyville, you have tracks such as the Bruce Hornsby collaboration, "Go Back To Your Woods."
RR: That was fun because we were doing a lot of the stuff in New Orleans, and got to work with a bunch of people there. I'm a great admirer of the music and the tradition of New Orleans, so that was just a great life experience too.
MR: Then, you moved onto Capitol Records for a couple more concept-focused albums, one dealing with Native American heritage.
RR: Yeah. There was a documentary that they were doing at the time called The Native Americans, and Ted Turner was behind it, actually. They asked me if I would do the music for these documentaries -- it was a series. They were asking me because they knew it was part of my heritage, and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to go back and explore this part of my musicality because that's how it all started for me back on the Six Nation Indian Reservation -- that's how I got interested in music. So, this was full circle for me, and another wonderful life experience to open up that door. I got to work with a lot of amazing Native American musicians on that. I was doing music that I wanted to do, but also music that would work for the documentary.
Then, I did another record called Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy, where PBS was doing a documentary on the making of this record. So, it was the opposite of the experience that I had just had on the other one, and I'm so grateful for both of these experiences because I just really enjoyed them. At the same time, this new record is one of the most enjoyable music-making experiences of my whole life. So, I feel really good these days that I've been able to do things that I really want to do -- not that I have to do, or I'm supposed to do, but that I really want to do -- and that I'm having such a good time doing it.
MR: Listening to ...Clairvoyant, it's as if I were listening to a Band album at times. I was trying to figure out why that was, and I think it's because of what was going on production-wise and topically. Your first couple of solo albums will always be dear to me because of their musical content and but also that I got to work on their reissues with you. However, this album is mesmerizing.
RR: Thank you, Mike, I really appreciate that, especially coming from you.
MR: Thanks, Robbie. Now, do you have any favorite recordings from either your Band period or solo career?
RR: You know, it's like picking my favorite guitar. They have different reasons for being, and I think that it's difficult to single out any particular songs because I like to think that I make albums and these albums are complete stories. The songs are chapters in the stories, and so that's like saying, "Do you have a favorite chapter in your book?" It's the book, it's not about isolating anything.
MR: What would you say are the major differences between Robbie Robertson and his days with The Band and Robbie Robertson right now?
RR: I hope that I'm wiser. (laughs) I hope that I've learned something from my mistakes. I think that I've come to a place that I really understand the enjoyment of doing it too. A lot of the time, you're just in there sweating it out and you're forgetting to really enjoy what you're doing along the way. Now, everyday, I just appreciate this gift that I have, and the opportunity to share it with people. I think that's the place I'm in now, and I wasn't there before.
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?
RR: I think the advice for new artists is don't treat music like you got a guitar for Christmas. I think that it's really important to get the right seasoning in what you do, and to not get ahead of yourself in doing it. Really develop and get some depth in what you're doing, and in doing that, I think that there's a better possibility of your music and your work having a longer life.
MR: The environment of the record industry has changed so much over the last few years with labels closing and a lot more DIY albums, singles, videos, and more coming out. Does the DIY approach provide an artist the ability to express themselves more than ever before, or is it something...
RR: ... I think, Mike, that I know exactly where you're going with this. Something that we touched on earlier was that years ago in Woodstock, in the basement of this pink house, we were making music called The Basement Tapes, which nobody was supposed to hear because they were just supposed to be song demos for other artists to record those songs. The music that was made was in an atmosphere that was everything wrong with the way you're supposed to record music -- in a concrete basement with a big metal furnace in the middle of the room. The idea that you could do anything, anywhere -- The Band was a great example of this. We made records in our atmosphere, and now everybody can do that, and I think that there is a tremendous personal, private advantage to that.
I don't have a great longing for the idea that you have to be in a professional atmosphere to make a record. The idea that you can do it in your bedroom I think adds something personal. So, that advantage, I applaud very much. The fact that it doesn't have to live up to any standards can have a negative effect too, so there's always a balance in these things. Hopefully, with what is happening with music companies in this day and age, we're really gearing up for a new model for music. I love the idea that we're going through something now that when we come out the other end, there could be something extraordinary that happens, and that's what we're rooting for, really. We're not rooting for music to go away in our lives at all.
MR: I just have one more question for you, which I think is appropriate for someone who just created an album titled How To Become Clairvoyant. What do you predict for Robbie Robertson over the next year or so?
RR: Well, in the next couple of months probably, I'm going to start writing an autobiography. It's something that I need to get to as soon as possible... I just made a deal with a book company to do it. I've been wanting to do this for a long time, so I'm really looking forward to it. I'm at a stage now where I think I can tell this story, and this album has helped me a lot in that because, as we said earlier, this is more reflective and more personal than any work I've ever done before.
MR: Robbie, you've been so generous. Thank you for your time.
RR: Mike, take care.
1. Straight Down The Line
2. When The Night Was Young
3. He Don't Live Here No More
4. The Right Mistake
5. This Is Where I Get Off
6. Fear Of Falling
7. She's Not Mine
8. Madame X
10. Won't Be Back
11. How To Become Clairvoyant
12. Tango For Django
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney