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Sharon Robinson: My Journey as an Artist Continues

Nenad Georgievski By

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The seven years since singer and producer Sharon Robinson's debut album Everybody Knows have been transformative for her. She toured the world several times as part of the Leonard Cohen's band, for what is considered to be one of the most impressive comebacks in music history. The result to that are several live recordings, the last of which are Live in Dublin and Can't Forget that serve as a testament to the many great nights when the band played to enthusiastic crowds all over the world.

What was life like during those tours can be seen in her recently published collection of photographs titled On Tour With Leonard Cohen where she provides an up-close-and-personal view of the people that took part in these travels. The photos capture the intimate behind-the-scenes moments of Cohen's professional and personal life. Robinson and Cohen's story goes way back in the past when she toured with him in the late '70s, but the relationship flourished into a songwriting duo when she co-wrote, produced and arranged Ten New Songs, one of the best records in the Cohen's canon.

Several years in the making, Robinson released her second outing Caffeine, a beautiful soul album full of smooth grooves and melodies. Blessed with a great voice—husky yet smooth, distinctive, beautiful and wise, she imbues her songs with a deeply resonant soulfulness. Caffeine is an album that demands attention because it offers so much. It's a meticulously crafted release that explores diverse settings from upbeat songs to shimmering sentimental nocturnal ballads.

All About Jazz: The new album Caffeine has been several years in the making. You even took it on the road while being part of the Leonard Cohen's touring band. What journey do you feel these songs reflect?

Sharon Robinson: The songs on Caffeine that were inspired during the tour speak to a certain dreamlike phenomenon that happens when you've been on the road for a while. You're disconnected from the day to day concerns of normal life and start to look at things differently. That's how it felt to me, anyway.

AAJ: Why did you name the record Caffeine?

SR: The title song, Caffeine, is a romantic fantasy that serves as a metaphor for love that is always there for you, even if only in memory. Perhaps someone with whom you first shared a coffee, and it went on from there, caffeine being the symbol of that love. I chose the name because it seemed to focus the overall mood of the record.

AAJ: This record is a very diverse collection of songs both musically and lyrically. Please describe the ideas and the thoughts you had about this record.

SR: With the first song, "The Harder You Look for Love," I was thinking about how sometimes we try too hard in life to influence outcomes, which is a practice that can backfire. This complex web that we are all part of has it's own energy and sometimes we have to accept what we're given, and by doing so, often things can happen that are far better than anything we could construct. "Strong for Me" was inspired by my desire to be supportive to a loved one who was going through something very difficult.

"Driftwood" uses the metaphor of a failed romance to examine the disorientation that can be caused by the distance between the promise and the realities of the world in which we live. The song "Safe" speaks to a feeling that I think we've all had, where we rely on the comfort and shelter of those closest to us, to quell the fear of the unknown, and to say that no matter what happens, "my heart is safe with you." "Along for the Ride" asks the questions that can never be answered about the necessity of war, the origins of man's inhumanity to man, and the powerlessness one often feels to do anything about it.

The comfort inherent in the song is that we're all in the same boat. Songwriters in particular will understand "One More Song" in the sense that the silver lining of a broken relationship is that it gives you fodder for a song. I enjoyed writing that song mainly for the craft of it. "A Fragile Love" exists in a subliminal dream, a love that is too fragile for the world, and though it cannot last, it is no less real—and will always exist somewhere in the ether.

The songs on Caffeine were written over a period of time, the earlier ones with more of a dreamlike quality that reflected the vibe of the tour. When I was finishing the record up after the tour, writing the last few songs, I wanted to catalyze more of an R&B or Soul direction for the record, so songs like "Driftwood" and "The Harder You Look" for Love have a more grounded feel.

AAJ: Can you give me an insight into your creative process? How do you channel your ideas and inspiration into songwriting?

SR: Ideas come when you least expect them. I try to always have a way to capture them when they happen. Then I go back later and decide what still resonates.

AAJ: What can you tell me about the song "Lucky"?

SR: I wrote "Lucky" with Leonard Cohen in the 80's. I had created this strange, densely arranged calypso track that surprisingly, Leonard really liked. He wrote a sweet and beautiful lyric for it, but in all this time, it hadn't found a home. I decided to re-do the arrangement, giving the music a more down-to-earth quality, and try it for my new album, and I'm feeling good about where it's landed.

AAJ: What responsibility do you feel as a songwriter to reflect truth as you see it around you?

SR: I try not to over-think it when it comes to "truth" because I feel that successful songs have their own truth, which is unpredictable and will be different for everyone. Sometimes I'll go back and find things in my songs I didn't know were there. If you allow yourself to trust your process, creative work can bring you to places you couldn't possibly come up with intentionally.

AAJ: Can you make a comparison between Caffeine to Everybody Knows?

SR: I've always been somewhat of a chameleon creatively—out of necessity—writing and recording songs for other artists. With Everybody Knows, I had to set that aside and look for the heart and soul, the voice, of Sharon Robinson. It wasn't so easy. With Caffeine, as with anyone's second album, the challenge of knowing that voice became a little easier.

AAJ: How did you get the idea to do this photo book? Can you explain how it came about?

SR: My photo book of the tour came about spontaneously. I had started to feel the need to preserve the memories of this magical, once in a lifetime experience for myself, and started taking a lot of pictures in my candid style. The photos came to the attention of a publisher who liked the behind-the-scenes, documentary feel of the photos, and offered me a book deal.

AAJ: The photographs portray all kinds of things during Cohen's mamouth tours. They don't necessarily concentrate on Cohen directly, but they show a lot of things that have happened around him at the time of the travels—cities you have visited, people you have encountered, the routine life of musicians on the road. What do you think that readers will enjoy most about On Tour with Leonard Cohen?

SR: My book is meant to be a visual experience of being On Tour with Leonard Cohen. The constant movement, the chaos, the camaraderie, the discipline and concentration, the natural and man-made beauty of our surroundings, the refinement of the artist, the music, and by association, most everything else. I tried to include photos that tell the story of the tour, and bring the viewer along on the ride with us.

AAJ: Was putting this book together a welcome change of pace from making music?

SR: Publishing a book was a strange experience for me. Being that it was my first book, I was not aware of the way the world of book publishing works, or what to expect in terms of the timing, the deadlines, the proofing process, the fact that you don't get to actually see the book until it's already being shipped. (At least that was the case with mine!) But I think it all worked out well in the end.

AAJ: What surprised you most in collecting and editing material for the book? What have the highlights been for you?

SR: My gallery shows with the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Los Angeles and New York were really fun, as was creating the large format prints for the shows and for the gallery store. Working with Timothy White on some of the prints was really fun as well. And it's frankly just been a privilege to have my photos published.

AAJ: Now that it's been several months since it was published, how do you feel about the book?

SR: I like it. I went for the minimalist approach of telling the story without text, and I think it has it's own quiet beauty; interesting for a book about a music tour.

AAJ: Leonard on tour: what memories come to mind?

SR: Ah... so many!. It was beautiful and tough. Just know that when Leonard said at the beginning of every show that "Tonight, we're going to give you everything we've got," he meant it!

AAJ: Does he has any backstage routines before going on stage?

SR: There were several rituals we enjoyed before the show. The green room was reserved for Leonard and the band starting 30 minutes before the show as a way of preparing for the concert. There was the essential oil that Leonard would anoint us with and the "rounds" that we would chant on the way to the stage. I can't help but think these gestures and rituals contributed to the cohesiveness of the music once we were on stage.

AAJ: Did you all socialize together then—Cohen and the rest of the band, during the tour?

SR: We often had meals or coffee together. There were excursions, parties, birthdays, romances. Though we all socialized, there was a special bond between Leonard and the band. We called the touring party the bubble, but the word microcosm might also apply.

AAJ: Do you socialize much with Leonard beyond the touring and the working schedules?

SR: Yes, we keep in close touch.

AAJ: What appealed to you as about being a member of Cohen's touring band at this point of your career?

SR: It was great to be working, and working with such a great artist. And it was a privilege to be exposed to Leonard's audience as a soloist and to acquire some of them as my own fans.

AAJ: How did the touring band achieve its excellence to be constant on the various recent tours?

SR: Lots of rehearsals.

AAJ: Leonard Cohen has released a live album Live in Dublin, (Columbia, 2015) and another Can't Forget (Columbia, 2015) which was also recorded during rehearsals. What do you recall about the concert in Dublin? What made this concert so special to be released as a live document?

SR: I wasn't involved in putting that album together, so I don't know exactly why Dublin was chosen, but there was definitely something special about the Dublin shows. The Irish have a great literary heritage and their enthusiasm for Leonard's work is palpable. We did several memorable shows in Dublin to a loving crowd that danced in the aisles in the rain.

AAJ: How does it feel to have a book published? What does being a published author give you a that music doesn't?

SR: It's definitely a different feeling, but I love it. It was great to have been able to capture such a privileged and unique experience and share it with the world. I love taking pictures and I hope I can do another book at some point.

AAJ: Your solo career has evolved into a significant, self-sustaining entity and now you have just finished a successful tour in Europe. How difficult of how easy it is to be building an audience outside of the circle of Leonard Cohen.

SR: Many of Leonard's wonderful fans have come to my shows. It will take some time, but I hope to build from there to a larger audience. Which is why that initial core audience is so very important. I hope to develop an even stronger connection with my fans on my next European tour coming up in the fall. We're working on dates for October and November and I'm really excited about it.

AAJ: It's been awhile since you toured fronting your own band. What are the opportunities and challenges that creates for you?

SR: Whatever your resources or limitations might be, it's tricky to strike the right balance between feasibility and entertainment value. But I'm working on a show that I hope will be a lot of fun.

AAJ: How do you look back at the making of Cohen's Ten New Songs (Columbia, 2001) from this standpoint? Not only you produced it, but you share a co-writing credit on all of the songs and you are featured on the front cover. Could you talk about the process of collaboration on this record?

SR: Making Ten New Songs was a real collaboration. We'd start with a verse or a few verses that Leonard had written during his period of study at a Zen retreat. We'd get together and talk about a possible approach to the music. I would then go to my studio and work on melody, chord changes, style, form, arrangement, etc. I would bring ideas back to Leonard and we would continue to flesh it out together. It went back and forth like that until we had something we both were happy with. I would then start the recording process and when I had a track done, we'd do Leonard's lead vocal and mix with Leanne. We would then listen in other environments, especially the car for objectivity, and decide whether it was done.

AAJ: What was your objective as far as what you wanted the album to sound like?

SR: I wanted the music to support the very special lyrics that I was working with, lyrics that represented years of introspection and study. At first, I felt I wanted to capture a careful and reverent version of the style of Leonard's previous work, but he wanted to introduce a more soulful feel. We ended up somewhere in between, with a unique sound befitting the words.

AAJ: Please describe your demeanor as a producer.

SR: I'm very tough and you better watch out. Just kidding!

AAJ: Please talk about the making of songs such as "By The Rivers Dark" or "In My Secret Life"?

SR: The first song you record for an album, which in this case was "In My Secret Life," is in many ways the most important to the project itself. It sets you on a path for the decisions you make from that point forward. "Secret Life" was the first song we wrote, and turned out to be a great place to start. Leonard liked the soulful direction and the way we ended up doing the vocals, which became a kind of road map for the rest of the record.

AAJ: "Alexandra Leaving" is song you sang during the tours. What special place does this song has for you?

SR: I'm thrilled to have written "Alexandra Leaving" with Leonard. His lyric is exquisite, and it inspired me to do what I think is some of my best work compositionally.

AAJ: What are some of the most significant musical moments in your life that have influenced your journey as an artist?

SR: Being encouraged by the late Joe Sample, and of course, working with Leonard Cohen. But my journey as an artist continues and I still have much to learn.

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