Robbie Robertson Looks Back in Song

Los Angeles

With a glint of charm and an air of easy confidence, Robbie Robertson greets visitors at his studio here, tucked into a side street off Santa Monica Boulevard. It is where he conceived and completed his first solo album in a dozen years, "How to Become Clairvoyant" (429 Records), which features significant contributions from old friend Eric Clapton. In the recording, co-produced with Marius de Vries�who has worked with Bj�rk, PJ Harvey, Massive Attack, Rufus Wainwright and many others�Mr. Robertson has managed to retain and update elements of his classic sound. Guests on the record include Tom Morello, Robert Randolph and Steve Winwood, with Ian Thomas on drums and Pino Palladino on bass forming the foundation under Mr. Robertson's voice and guitar. Mr. Robertson called the lineup "good casting."

"This record started with Eric and I in this room with a couple of guitars," Mr. Robertson recalled, gesturing to a wall covered with vintage guitars, including his prized 1921 Martin gut string. "We were messing around and having a few laughs. It evolved to another place."

View Full Image

429 Records

Robbie Robertson

"For the first time in as long as I can remember, I sat down and wrote about what happened," the 67-year-old said. "I wasn't uncomfortable doing it, but I was more comfortable writing fictional characters."

In the wrong hands, the true-life, first-person form can be an exercise in egotism for a lyricist; a songwriter like Taylor Swift, Mr. Robertson said, assumes the audience is really interested in what she does. He called it "the me-me-me type of songwriting." "John Lennon did it really well," he said. "From a street-level point of view, I find it on the verge of hokey. This time I had to find a way to do it, to make it very personal but not self-absorbed."

Though it's nice to hear him weigh in, there's nothing particularly startling about Mr. Robertson's revelations. His tale of exiting the Band points no fingers�unlike his former bandmate Levon Helm, who savaged Mr. Robertson in his autobiography�and the specifics are missing: "I was higher than a lost kite" is about as revealing as it gets. But Mr. Robertson seems to be telling us that at crucial junctures in his life, he concluded it was better to walk away alive. His past, he conceded in conversation, is littered with former colleagues who failed to do so. He admits one of the joys of the new album was the chance to work again with Mr. Clapton, whom Mr. Robertson once feared he'd lose to drugs. "It's wonderful to see someone come back," he said.

The album's best compositions are love songs that may be autobiographical but could work for any vocalist. "She's Not Mine," a gorgeous, atmospheric ballad, recalls Mr. Robertson's 1987 self-titled solo debut.

"It came out of a conversation Eric and I were having," he said. "We were talking out our experiences in our lives and I was intrigued by what he was saying. He was telling me a story as I was writing the song."

Mr. Robertson's "The Right Mistake," or the Clapton-Robertson composition "Won't Be Back," would have been a natural for Solomon Burke, who did a masterly cover of Mr. Robertson's "It Makes No Difference." When Burke's name was mentioned, Mr. Robertson produced a photo of the singer taken shortly before his death last year.

The past continues as a formidable presence in Mr. Robertson's life. In addition to exploring his memories for lyrics and reconnecting with Mr. Clapton, Mr. Robertson is at work on an autobiography of his own. It could be a winner: He's a natural raconteur who regales a visitor with tales of a curmudgeonly Van Morrison or how Mr. Morello plays. "I watch him and have no idea what he's doing," he said in obvious admiration of the Rage Against the Machine guitarist. "I don't recognize the instrument in his hands." When conversation turns to the haunting soundtrack Mr. Robertson compiled for Mr. Scorsese's 2010 film "Shutter Island," in which modern classical compositions by John Adams, Morton Feldman and Gy�rgy Ligeti flowed seamlessly into performances by Lonnie Johnson, Johnny Ray and Dinah Washington, Mr. Robertson reveals that he's long studied classical music, and that in the 1970s he'd formed a pen-pal friendship with the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

Yet Mr. Robertson said that working with new musicians and writing in a new style was essential for him when he set out to record what became "How to Become Clairvoyant." "I don't like overt traditionalism. I don't want to feel like I'm reverting or redoing old flavors. That whole lifestyle�make a record, do a tour: I know how to do that. It doesn't interest me. My thirst for knowledge and experience comes from the idea that once you learned something, it was time to learn something else. I missed out on a formal educational process, so I'm making up for that."

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.


The SLG, Savoy Jazz and Denon Records catalogs are available for purchase at the following sites: