Musician Robbie Robertson

Rock icon explains why he’s so transparent at this point in his life and describes his new CD—one of the most talked about projects of the year.

Before going solo, Canadian singer-songwriter-guitarist Robbie Robertson was a member of The Band, one of rock's preeminent acts. He's also considered one of the rock era's premier songwriters and was one of the first rockers to become seriously involved in scoring films, collaborating on several movies with longtime friend Martin Scorsese. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was recently inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his fifth solo effort and first in 13 years, "How to Become Clairvoyant," was released this month.



Tavis: Robbie Robertson is a legendary guitarist, singer- songwriter and, of course, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member who rose to prominence in the legendary group, The Band. The Band’s final concert back in 1978 is, as you know, the basis for one of music’s most famous documentaries, Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz.”
He is also an acclaimed solo artist whose latest CD is easily one of the most talked about of the year. The disk is called “How to Become Clairvoyant.” Love the title, love the cover. Features an all-star guest lineup. Here now, some of the making of “How to Become Clairvoyant.”
Robbie Robertson: “I think today, the element of drawing upon what you have in your attic of music, that you’re gonna do some music and you draw upon these things that you’ve gathered over the years, and that’s the traditional part. Then the way that you see it today and the way that you hear it now and you put that spin on it, and that’s what makes things have hopefully a timeless quality to it.”
Tavis: So, Robbie, since I’m not clairvoyant, what is in your attic of music? What’s up in there?
Robbie Robertson: Well, geez, I mean, you’ll have to listen to this a few times then, won’t you [laugh]? No, this is a gathering of stories and music and things that I picked up along the side of the road over the years, and it was just great that I was able to culminate all of this into a record.
This is not usually the path that I take of, you know, telling my own stories. I’ve always liked taking the position of the storyteller where you could tell any stories, but this became a very personal journey.
Tavis: I want to talk about your storytelling in just a second. Hey, Jonathan, put this cover back up for me. I love the music on the project, obviously, but I love this cover and I love the title. Tell me about the title. Tell me about this cover. I love this shot.
Robertson: This is a friend of mine who took this, Anton Corbijn. He’s one of the great photographers of all time, in my opinion. He did a lot of work for this project. He did a lot of things. One of the things that’s really enjoyable about working with him too is he takes these pictures in 30 seconds. You know, a lot of these guys are in there, they’re having you bend over backwards and do stuff. This is nothing. He just does it and makes it happen.
He took a picture of me that I had – there’s this magazine. Then there was another that I had and it said on the magazine, “Become clairvoyant.” So he said, well, let’s use that. So all of these pieces to the puzzle started fitting and that’s why I wanted to work with him.
Tavis: You got a whole lot of friends, man. Who isn’t on this project?
Robertson: You know, it wasn’t with that purpose at all to whatever you would call that stacking the deck or whatever you would call it. These are people that I admire and I thought it was really brilliant casting for this musical project, you know.
In the middle of doing this record, I did the music for a Martin Scorsese film, which I do a lot of those, but I had a break in the middle and worked on that film. It gave me time to have some clarity and some of the ideas from the film came over. But I ended up casting this record much like you would a movie.
Tavis: Since you mentioned Martin’s name and I mentioned it a few times – here I am saying Martin like I know Scorsese [laugh]. Mr. Scorsese’s name has come up a few times in this conversation. Without coloring the question too much, when I say the name Martin Scorsese, what do you think? You know this guy. Tell me about Martin Scorsese.
Robertson: Well, I knew him for a long time and know him pretty well. We have just a great working relationship and a great friendship which started – I first met him after he did “Mean Streets,” his first major picture. And from that, I could tell that this guy had something up his sleeve. I could tell that there was some magic in there and he had a way of dealing with music like I had never seen before.
Then when it came time for me to think about “The Last Waltz,” who would be the best director to capture what we were gonna be doing in this thing, I thought, well, I’ll make a list of directors that would be good for doing this and I wrote his name down and that’s as far as I got [laugh]. I went to him and I said, you know, could you do this? He said, “Oh, these people. This is all my favorite music people. I have to do this.”
Tavis: When you look back on “The Last Waltz” all these years later, Robbie, what do you think? What do you think when you look at that project now with all these years in the rear view mirror?
Robertson: Well, I think that this was a certain peak in music when we did this. We didn’t know it at the time. There was people at that time that called it the end of an era and, for a lot of the artists that were involved in this project, they were like spokes in wheel that made up this music that we were inspired by – people that represented, you know, New Orleans, people that represented Chicago blues and British blues and Tin Pan Alley and on and on and on.
To be able to gather this much musicality in one evening was a feat unknown to mankind at the time. Then for us to play with everybody and go from Dr. John to Joni Mitchell in the blink of an eye, it was – I don’t know. Guinness Book of Records should have been in on this one.
Tavis: If those persons who you referenced earlier who refer to this as the end of an era, the end of something, if they’re right, to your mind, it was the end of what? What was it the end of?
Robertson: I think that there was a thing that happened in the 60s where there was a unity in this nation, in North America, that the spirit of the youth were so connected and the music really became the voice of that generation. And at this time in the 70s, that dream and that idea wasn’t the same as what it was then and you just had to look at it through a different lens.
Tavis: When you look back on that era, you’ve chosen in this project to be open, to be authentic, to be transparent about your own personal journey, the good, the bad, the ugly, the drugs, etc. What at this point in your life be so open about all of that?
Robertson: You know, I’m not sure. It’s one of the things about songwriting that the creative path just takes you sometimes. You’re not in charge all the time in doing this. On this record, most of the time in writing these songs, I would sit down and something would come and I would follow that and I’d see what was around the next corner and what was around the next bend and, all of a sudden, I’d realize what I was writing about.
It was revealing itself to me and that’s where the clairvoyant thing came in. I was starting to feel what was around the next corner and around the next bend.
Tavis: You referenced earlier in this conversation, Robbie, the notion of storytelling. I note, obviously as your fans do, that you do that awfully well in your writing, number one. But I also read the other day that you’ve signed a three-book deal with – as a matter of fact, I just saw Jon Meacham the other day at Random House.
You got a three-book deal with Random House and they think that you are, obviously, a pretty good storyteller to give you a three-book deal. Talk to me about your process for storytelling and what makes a good story, what makes a good storyteller. Just talk to me about storytelling.
Robertson: You know, this thing first struck me when I was a young kid. My mother was born and raised in the six-nation Indian reservation. Besides it being – this is where I got introduced to music.
It seemed to me like everybody played music there, so I needed to get in on this club when I was a young kid as the way I felt. But after the music was played, then the elders would come in and they would sit down and everybody would gather around and they would tell stories and it would give me chills down my spine when I was a kid.
I thought, when I grow up, I want to be able to do that. I want to learn how to do that. So it got established at a very young age for me that this was something that I was drawn to and it’s something that I’ve been striving for for a long time.
Tavis: In retrospect, should The Band have broken up? Did The Band have to break up?
Robertson: The Band didn’t break up. The Band went in different directions. Nobody said, “I’m leaving The Band. I’m breaking up The Band.” That was not the idea at all. The idea when we did “The Last Waltz” was that we were gonna bring this chapter to a conclusion. We had been doing that for 16 years and we had done it every which way that we could.
At that time, we needed to shuffle the deck. We needed to do some things to get focused, to get into a place where we thought we could do our best work. We thought, okay, let’s bring this to a conclusion. We’re not gonna be going out on the road now. We’re really gonna concentrate on the creative process.
Some of the guys in the band, we had separate projects and things at that time. We thought, okay, that’s healthy. Everybody will go off and do something that they’re interested in and that way we’ll come back fresh and focused. We all went off and did things and nobody came back [laugh].
Tavis: The name “The Band” obviously worked, but how did you guys settle on that, number one. And number two, what might we have called you guys had it not been The Band?
Robertson: Well, the reason that this name made sense to us at the time, we’d already been together for seven years when we made our first album, “Music from Big Pink.” We couldn’t be thinking of silly names, and there were a lot of silly names at that time. When we were working with Bob Dylan, people just called us “the band.” When we were living up in Woodstock, when we’d go to the bakery, people would just say, “Oh, that’s one of the guys at the band.”
We got used to it and then we really wanted to represent ourselves as five guys who did something very, very unique and special in their own way, and that’s what would make up a real definitive band. This was not a singer and a guitar player and some other guys. This was really five people and everybody played a very, very important part in.
Tavis: We referenced in this conversation earlier the 60s. I wonder whether or not, for all that you might not miss about that period, the drugs, etc., etc., I wonder whether or not you miss in any way the social activism, the social energy, the engagement, the involvement of that period in American history.
Robertson: There’s a song on this record that I’m really referring to that on called “When the Night Was Young.” On that song, I’m really feeling that that’s something that’s missing now.
You know, when I was talking about the youth of the nation and this connection and having this really powerful voice and people saying we can make a difference and we can make things happen, now it feels very fragmented and disconnected. I miss that and I couldn’t help but just reflect on that.
Tavis: Not that you ever went anywhere – obviously, you decided to stop doing the tour thing. We all know that. But not that you ever disappeared or went anywhere, but how does it feel to have an album that is like the most talked about project this year? I mean, everybody’s talking about this thing.
Robertson: I don’t know about that [laugh].
Tavis: Trust me on this. Everybody’s talking about it. Just go with it [laugh].
Robertson: Okay, okay. I’m gonna try to go with it. I’m delighted because this was maybe the most enjoyable musical experience I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve had some doozies. This was just fantastic working on this record.
Tavis: You know why that is, though? Because you’re clairvoyant [laugh].
Robertson: Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you [laugh].
Tavis: The new project from Robbie Robertson is called “How to Become Clairvoyant.” It’s a wonderful piece and everybody’s talking about it. You might want to add this to your collection. Robbie, good to have you on, and congrats on the success already.
Robertson: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Tavis: My delight to have you here.
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Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 4:32 pm