The American Songwriter Q&A: Robbie Robertson
By Evan Schlansky May 2nd, 2011 at 7:00 am
As a member of The Band, Robbie Robertson changed the course or rock music history, hipping the genre to a more old-timey sound with songs like “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” His latest solo album, How To Become Clairvoyant, reflects on his rock and roll past.
Tell us about the album’s origins.
This project actually began with Eric Clapton and I. At the time, we were just hanging out, telling stories to one another, playing a little bit of music, and some of that music that we started then was a beginning for us to get together and really do this. I had underestimated those seeds that we planted earlier on, and when I came back to it some time later, I said to Eric, “God, you know I’m surprised that we had much more going, and dug much deeper than I realized. I went back and I revisited some of these things and there’s some really good ideas, and good stuff in there.” And he told me, “Well I know that.
[laughs]. I’ve known that all along.” And I said, okay, well maybe we should pursue some of this.
What was the nature of the co-writing you did together?
We started with mostly a musical impression that we were fooling around with, and the words just grew out of the feeling of the music between us. He would sing ideas and then I would sing some ideas back to him. We just passed the ball back and forth, until we thought we were getting somewhere.
His process of songwriting is more traditional than mine. I mean, I don’t know what he does on his own, but when we were working on songs together, it was very traditional in just passing ideas back and forth, until it seemed like there were enough good ideas there to really pursue it as a song, and then see how far we got with the lyrics. And the lyrics really grew out of the music.
And these lyrics are autobiographical?
Yeah, to a large degree. Much more so than anything I’ve ever done. In the past I was always more comfortable… one thing was, when I was writing songs for The Band, I didn’t feel that comfortable saying, well guys, here’s a song that I’ve written about myself for us to record. You know what I mean? I wanted to find a way to do it where it felt like it was coming from a place that included everybody.
And at first it was a bit tricky to do, and then I really got into the idea of the American mythology. And that felt like I could do storytelling in the songs, and anything that was personal, I could disguise it in a fictional way, in these characters that I was inventing. But you never can help a lot of your personal things ending up in there. It’s just the way that it works.
That’s really what was appropriate for the songwriting with The Band. With my solo records, I still felt the same way. When I would hear people writing songs, like “I woke up this morning, and I looked out the window, and I saw, you know, a cow”…to me, when I would hear that, I would think, “Your life is not that interesting to me.” I know it means a lot to you, it just doesn’t mean that much to me.
Having gone full circle, I don’t feel that way now. Now I feel a certain release from writing songs this way, and there’s enough distance between me and the periods I’m talking about, and what I’m writing about now, that I’m okay with that. It’s a bit mysterious to me, too, how that comes about. But that’s where I’m at.
There’s also a universal, older statesman kind of vibe.
That’s what you hope for. I think that people that take great pride in sharing what’s going on in their lives…my point is, songwriting and twittering are two different things to me. But the idea that songs can be personal, and they paint a bigger picture, in a broader horizon, is something that I would naturally want to strive for.
“When The Night Was Young” seems to address the idealism of the 60s. How do you view that idealism now?
Part of that song is a reflection of that period, and part of that song is about missing that unity in the voice of a generation. Music was the voice of the generation in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, and now there’s a certain indifference in the air that makes me miss that. [In the ‘60s], there was a lot to make a unified feeling, with the young people. And when the music was addressing those things, it really brought people together, in a strong way. Now, with the Internet, we just don’t have the feeling of shoulder to shoulder.
Americana music is more popular than ever. Do you hear The Band’s influence in artists today?
Yeah, I hear it here and there. It’s a good feeling, to think that your music had a timeless quality to it. People that I was influenced by, there was nothing particularly trendy about it; it was just really, really good stuff. So I couldn’t help but wish that upon what we were doing too, and according to the feedback, it seems like a lot of young musicians are still appreciating that work.
Did you see Bob Dylan with The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons at The Grammys?
I caught a little bit of it. I caught the first song Mumford & Sons did, and that was quite good.
In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of bands reunite, from Pink Floyd to Buffalo Springfield. What are your thoughts on a Band reunion?
Well, we lost two guys in The Band. That’s like Ringo and Paul McCartney doing a Beatles tour. If everybody isn’t there, I don’t think it’s valid. That’s just how I see it. And the idea of making some music with Garth or Levon at some point, I have no objections to that.