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.
AAJ: This collaboration has brought many memorable songs. Please describe the chemistry you and Cohen share.
SR: Things like this usually defy description, but we seem to have a creative and personal connection that is very comfortable. There is an unspoken understanding between us that sets up a great atmosphere for writing.
AAJ: What is your assessment of Cohen's Old Ideas, now that the album has been out for awhile, and how has that record been received?
SR: I think Old Ideas will ultimately be considered one of Leonard's most important albums. The almost spoken- word tone of it gives it a very personal quality and makes it seem even more deeply autobiographical than previous work, while at the same time being very musically and melodically satisfying. It has already been widely acclaimed, and for good reason.
AAJ: Could you please talk about the work you did on Old Ideas, in contrast to his previous two records, Dear Heather (Columbia, 2004) and Ten New Songs (Columbia, 2001), where you were credited for producing and co-writing the songs.
SR: Compared to my work on Ten New Songs, where I actually co-wrote the songs and produced the album, my work on Old Ideas consisted mostly of backing vocals and vocal arrangements, although I did do a little keyboard, drums and bass on one song. Even though I didn't write them, it's nice to play a part in bringing the songs to life.
AAJ: How do you feel, looking back, at your debut, Everybody Knows?
SR: I like how my record turned out. I think it contains some of my best songs. I think it's an album that will have a long life. Judging by the feedback I get, it seems to resonate deeply with people, which makes me very happy.
AAJ: What inspired you to release a solo album after many years of producing, collaborating and co -writing for others?
SR: The recording artist in me has been there from the beginning. I think it had less to do with inspiration than circumstance and timing. I've been fortunate enough to make my living exclusively through music for most of my career, and part of that is the ability to wear a lot of hats. So I kind of think of it as all part of the same thing. For audiences, however, it's different. But I'm enjoying the challenges of completely realizing Sharon Robinson, the artist.
AAJ: On that record you sing lead and backing vocals, as well as arranging and programming, and you play most of the instruments. What challenges did you face when creating the album?
SR: I think the question answers itself. When one person is doing everything, the biggest challenge is time. The other noticeable challenge was committing to a certain artistic direction. Having written so much for other artists, I had to ask myself, okay, what is it that I want to say?
AAJ: Please talk about the inspiration behind some of the album's key tracks as it is a very diverse collection both musically and lyrically. Please describe the elements you sought to weave together.
SR: First, I wanted the album to have integrity. I wanted every song and every performance to stand on its own. Second, I was looking for a cohesiveness of spirit. In other words, even though there are slightly different styles represented, all of the songs try to speak from the heart of the human experience. "Alexandra Leaving": loss and courage. "The High Road": personal pride. "Party for the Lonely": the pain of not being understood and the inherent aloneness we all feel at times. "Invisible Tattoo": the permanent effect we have on each other, for better or worse. "Summertime": looking for a way out of heartbreak. I love the song form and how it can catalyze emotion, and I'm always shooting for that.
AAJ: Beside the original material there are three new versions of songs you did with Cohen.
SR: Musically it didn't pose a problem, but it was an interesting challenge putting my lyrics in the same project with songs I'd written with Leonard. I had to approach it with a belief that there was a thread of continuity based on integrity, if not style. Leonard has always treated me like a peer in that respect, so I decided to go for it.
AAJ: What are some of the things you have learned regarding the art of songwriting from Cohen?
SR: I've been writing songs since I was a child, and wasn't really a novice. But working with Leonard has definitely deepened my understanding of the transmission of emotion through song. And I'm inspired by his uncompromising level of excellence. He works very hard at that and doesn't accept less. I guess that's the biggest lesson.
AAJ: "Everybody Knows" has taken on a life of its own. I read that even the hard rock band Guns N' Roses used to play that song on the PA system before the start of their concerts in the late '80s. The words are so fierce, with their razorblade irony. What is the story behind it? What inspired it?
SR: "Everybody Knows" has retained a sense of relevance over the years. The particulars change, but the knowledge that one is not in charge remains something we tend to forget on a day-to-day basis, but that we all know, and I think the way this song speaks to that actually offers some relief. A sense that we're all in the same boat.
AAJ: What is the difference between writing for oneself and for others?
SR: When writing for other artists, you're trying to understand who they are and what kind of statement they might make next. When writing with other artists, you're hopefully helping them realize their vision. When writing for yourself, you want to take the thinking out of it so that your own voice can find its way.
AAJ: Can you define what makes a song good? Why do you think that some songs last, both musically and lyrically?
SR: It's some kind of mystical math that makes a great song. It's a marriage of words and phrases, melody, rhythm, a certain emotion created by the chord changes and the overall idea that has to work. I think even the greatest writers don't take it for granted. But I think that's part of the key: understanding that you can't think your way into a good song. You have to trick it into being by showing up with all the avenues open.
AAJ: Are songs an act of discovery for you?
SR: Yes, when I allow them to be. In other words, like I said before, when I'm not thinking too much about who I am and what I should be saying.
AAJ: Last year you went on your first solo tour. What was it like? Did you enjoy the experience?
SR: I really had a great time. The audiences were so wonderful. I was deeply moved by everyone's response to my show and the songs. I really appreciate everyone coming out. I would say it was a success and I'm very much looking forward to the next time.
AAJ: During the tour you also performed songs from your forthcoming new record. There was an announcement that the new record will be out this spring.
SR: It's taken longer than I expected to get an album done, so I'm going to release part of it as an EP before I go back out on tour with Leonard. It will mostly be comprised of the new songs I did in my show.
AAJ: Do you have any news regarding a release date?
SR: I'll do a digital release in August .
AAJ: What sort of show can fans expect from Cohen's forthcoming tour?
SR: We're putting together what I think will be a great show. We will of course do many of the favorites, plus songs from Old Ideas and songs from his catalog. In addition to the lineup from before, we've added a wonderful violinist named Alex Bubiltchi, and Mitch Watkins, whom you know from the '79 and '80 tours, will be on guitar this time. We're in rehearsals now, and looking forward to August with a lot of excitement.
Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas (Columbia, 2012)
Leonard Cohen, Songs from the Road (Columbia, 2010)
Leonard Cohen, Live in London (Columbia, 2009)
Sharon Robinson Everybody Knows (Freeworld Records, 2008)
Leonard Cohen, Dear Heather (Columbia, 2004)
Leonard Cohen, Ten New Songs (Columbia, 2001)
All Photos: Greg Gold