Sharon Robinson: The Essence of Our Lives
Producer, singer, arranger, songwriterartist Sharon Robinson wears many hats. Although her work occurs mainly behind the scenes, her name and work are becoming increasingly known both as a collaborator and, in recent times, as an author in her own right. With more than 30 years in the music business, she began as a backing vocalist in a myriad of R&B bands, to become a successful producer and songwriter for the likes of Diana Ross, Don Henley, Rufus Wainwright, Aaron Neville and Roberta Flack.
One of her earliest successes was "New Attitude," co-written with Patti LaBelle for the 1984 Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, and for which she received a Grammy Award for Best Song the following year. But most of all she is best known as singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen's most frequent collaborator, producing and co-writing music for songs such as "Everybody Knows," From I'm Your Man (Columbia, 1988) and "Waiting for the Miracle, from The Future (Columbia, 1992), as well as producing Ten New Songs (Columbia, 2001), she also co-produced and co-wrote several songs on Dear Heather (Columbia, 2004), as well as participating in the making of Cohen's recent Old Ideas(Columbia, 2012).
Robinson also helped to put together Cohen's touring band for his marathon comeback tour, which lasted from 2008 through 2010 and brought him back into the limelight and restored his stature as one of the premier authors of his generation. During that tour she had a central spot when she sang the magnificent "Boogie Street." Prior to that tour, she released her debut, Everybody Knows (Freeworld Records, 2008), an album that best showcased her songwriting talent. Among the several originals, it includes different interpretations of three songs she co-wrote with Cohen: "Alexandra Leaving," the title track, and "Summertime," their first collaboration.
Across these songs Robinson explores subtle ranges of emotion with her characteristic charm and attention to detail. When she sings, the sound is glacial, uninterrupted and flowing, while imbued, nonetheless, with a certain sensuality. Everybody Knows was recently reissued on vinyl and, in the forthcoming period, she has announced new material to be published as a digital download only. Some of this material was performed during the brief tour she did in November, 2011. In August, 2012, Cohen (now 77), will embark on a new tour in support of Old Ideas, to the delight of many of his fans, and Sharon Robinson will be there, sharing vocal duties with the Webb sisters.
All About Jazz: This August, Leonard Cohen will be embarking on a new tour to support Old Ideas. The previous tour was so successful that it really reinvigorated his status and won new audiences. To what do you ascribe the longevity and popularity of his songs?
Sharon Robinson: Leonard is a poet and a scholar and works very hard at writing material that goes to the heart and essence of our lives. He finds the balance of positive and negative that is life, without trying to skew it in one direction or the other. It's not contrived at all, because these are the matters that concern him. For this reason, I think his work resonates with people as something they can trust as a sincere effort to find truth.
AAJ: Both Cohen and the band literally mesmerized and charmed audiences with performances that were hailed as some of the best of his career. That tour also brought two live documents Live in London (Columbia, 2009) and Songs from the Road (Columbia, 2010). What was it like on that tour? What are your memories of it? What has made this tour so special?
SR: We became a well-oiled machine musically. With everyone working at the top of their game, the show had its own unique kind of authenticity. With Leonard's incredible body of work brought to life by his brilliant performances, it was hard not to feel you were part of something very special. I think the audience felt that way, too.
AAJ: You first worked with Cohen back in 1979, as a backing vocalist during the Field Commander Cohen tour, as well as the subsequent 1980 tour. How did you meet him? What are your memories from that period?
SR: I first met Leonard when I auditioned for the show in 1979. I was contacted by Jennifer Warnes, who brought me in to sing for Leonard. Once I landed the gig, I remember working hard to learn the parts very quickly, and then leaving for the airport from the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, which is a place dense with a dark French deco atmosphere. I had the feeling I had just stepped onto a magic carpet. As it turns out, I had; traveling around the world and doing huge concerts was really a first for me at the time, and to be doing that with an artist like Leonard was no less than exhilarating.
AAJ: How did your writing collaboration with Cohen begin?
SR: There was a moment in a hotel lobby that seemed right and I played a melody for Leonard that he really liked. He had me play it over several times, and then, as if by magic, started to recite a lyric that fit beautifully with the melody. These moments are rare. The song was "Summertime," and it was eventually recorded by Diana Ross and then by Roberta Flack.