Robbie Robertson
The legendary guitarist opens up about the Band, collaborating with Eric Clapton, and his collection of vintage Martins.

By Derk Richardson

Robbie Robertson

On November 25, 1976, one of the most remarkable concerts in rock history took place at Winterland in San Francisco, California. “The Last Waltz” included performances by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Dr. John, and others. Attendees were treated to a catered Thanksgiving dinner. And even more notably, the unprecedented event, filmed for posterity by director Martin Scorsese, had been planned and promoted as the formal swan song for one of the most respected groups of the era—the Band.

Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson recorded one more studio album together, 1977’s Islands. Over the subsequent three and a half decades, Robertson, who had been the Band’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter—and who instigated the dissolution—has been more active as a film music composer, consultant, and supervisor (see “Go to the Movies,” page 44 of September 2011 issue of Acoustic Guitar) than as a recording artist in his own right.

Treasured as a songwriter (“The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In”) and revered as a guitarist for his uniquely terse, expressionistic style (Bob Dylan famously called him a “mathematical guitar genius”), the Toronto-born Robertson had showcased those talents on only four solo albums before this year: Robbie Robertson (1987), Storyville (1991), Music for the Native Americans (1994), and Contact from the Underworld of Redboy (1998). The 2011 release of How to Become Clairvoyant came therefore as something of a surprise.

Even more startling for longtime Robertson watchers is the way the 68-year-old pioneer of Americana addresses his personal musical history in his new songs. He had previously reflected on his family and cultural roots—he was born Jaime Robbie Robertson, July 5, 1943, the son of a Jewish father and Mohawk mother who was raised on the Six Nations Reservation—in such songs as “Acadian Driftwood” and “Rags and Bones” on the Band’s Northern Lights—Southern Cross (1975). But on How to Become Clairvoyant’s “When the Night Was Young” (with its card sharps and tent-show evangelists on Highway 61, and mentions of Luke the Drifter and Andy Warhol) and “This Is Where I Get Off” (about his decision to leave the Band), he makes poetic reference to the seminal 16 years of his early career. “‘Straight Down the Line’ does it, too,” he said in a telephone interview from Village Studios in Los Angeles, California. “All of these things are reflections from back then. None of these are about what happened just yesterday.”

“Back then” in this case includes the periods when Robertson, Helm, Danko, Manuel, and Hudson toured with Ronnie Hawkins as the Hawks (1961–64); backed Bob Dylan on his first US “electric” tour (1965–66); holed up with Dylan in the house called Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York, and recorded what became The Basement Tapes (recorded in 1967 but released in 1975); signed to Capitol Records as the Band, after first calling themselves the Crackers (1967); performed at the Woodstock Festival (1969); played in front of 650,000 people at the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in upstate New York (1973); toured with Dylan again (1974); and went into the studio for the last time as the Band (1977).

How to Become Clairvoyant is also the most guitar-centric album in Robertson’s solo catalog, and not just because it name-checks “Duane,” “Stevie Ray,” “Jimi James,” “Link Wray,” “Django,” “Elmore James,” and others in “Axman.” Begun as a collaboration with Eric Clapton, who plays on seven of the 12 tracks, the recording includes significant contributions by pedal steel star Robert Randolph and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello (plus a rhythm section of Steve Winwood and Marius de Vries on keyboards, Pino Palladino on bass, and Ian Thomas on drums), and more electric soloing and nylon-string fingerpicking from Robertson than he’s laid down on all four previous albums combined.

In his interview with Acoustic Guitar, Robertson—who has no plans to tour in support of How to Become Clairvoyant but is embarking on a memoir—talked about his motivations for recording, the earliest influences on his songwriting, how a young Canadian became possessed by the musical spirit of the rural South, and why he felt compelled to develop a distinctive personal style in his guitar playing.




All photos by Dennis Mukai, unless otherwise indicated

When did you know you needed to record a new album?
ROBERTSON It wasn’t like I woke up one day and said, “I’ve got to make a new album.” What happens is that there’s a spark, a piece of inspiration that leads you to some songs. You get some ideas, and then you get excited about it. It’s not a very mysterious thing, it’s just that where this comes from we don’t know.

You mentioned a spark. Do you remember what that was in this case?
ROBERTSON I started kicking around some ideas with Eric Clapton some years ago. We were just hanging out. It wasn’t that we were trying to do anything in particular. He went off and I went away. We had different projects that we needed to get back to. I stumbled across some of the work we had started, and I thought, boy there are a lot more little seeds of ideas here than what I remembered, and some of it sounded quite moving to me. At that point, I called Eric and said, “You know, there are some things here that maybe we should look at again, because it has more depth than what I remembered.” He said, “Yeah, I’m very much aware of that.” Sometime after that he said, “Why don’t you come to London, and we’ll go in the studio, and we’ll lay some things down and just see what piques our interest.” So I went over there, and we recorded all the tracks for this record, and some other stuff, too, and it just felt great.

At the conclusion of that, Eric said, “Well, you’ve written most of this stuff, and you seem to have a handle on this direction, so I think this should be your record.” He was just as supportive as he could be. I had a pretty clear vision of where I wanted to go with the songs, finishing up some of the lyrics, and I knew who I wanted to ask to work on the record. It was like casting a movie.

Did certain song ideas provide the emotional core of the album for you?
ROBERTSON I don’t think it was a specific thing. I’ve always looked at a record as a musical journey, and all of the songs are like chapters in a book, and they all add up to something. I’ve never made a record and thought, oh, it’s all about this song, and everything else plays a supporting role. I know there are many records like that, but I’ve looked at it like the songs are scenes in a movie, and they fit together and contribute to the musical journey.

Looking back on it now, what does How to Become Clairvoyant add up to?
ROBERTSON Well, it adds up to a pretty personal journey, and it just revealed itself to me in that way. I always liked it when people would go to the trouble to really give you a journey, to make a record that you’d put on and it felt good in the background or it felt good to really sit down and pay close attention all the way through, like [Van Morrison’s] Astral Weeks and [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Goin’ On. That’s one of the exciting things about writing songs—that you can just start with something and it goes somewhere. Your job is to discover where it’s going and not get in its way. That’s what happened with just about everything on this record. As it unfolded, I found I was writing about stuff that I would have shied away from in the past.

It does seem that you deal more explicitly than ever before with those 16 years you spent with the Hawks and the Band.
ROBERTSON There are quite a few episodes that look at that period directly. That turned out to be a nice release, in a way. There’s some good medicine in letting these things that you’ve been carrying around come to the surface. That’s what happened in my discovery of what I was writing about. They’re subconscious things, and they just kind of sneak their way up to the surface. While writing this music and these lyrics, I had a very open feeling. There was just a certain sense of freedom that I haven’t felt in a while. There was something refreshing about that.

What were you trying to say about the journey by opening with “Straight Down the Line”?
ROBERTSON I got the idea for this song from a couple of places. One is the line, “straight down the line,” from the [1944] movie Double Indemnity, which was made the year after I was born. There are these scenes when Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray say, “Yeah, we’re gonna do it, baby, straight down the line.” And the potency of the way they said it just stuck with me. The other idea I was trying to get across was that Sonny Boy Williamson had one time said, “I’m a bluesman, I do not play no rock ’n’ roll.” And I thought, yeah, right on. And then Mahalia Jackson had also said, “I do not play no rock ’n’ roll.” And then Frank Sinatra said, “This music will be around for six months and it’ll be gone.” All I’ve ever done all my life—I started so young doing this—is play rock ’n’ roll. So those ideas opened up the door to this journey.

When you were becoming a musician, what were the first songs that really grabbed you, and how did you come across them?
ROBERTSON I remember some of this, but my mother would talk about it, and so that’s the way I remember some of these things. She said that when I was very young, I responded very strongly to boogie-woogie, just the feel of it. She said that’s what would get my attention. The first songs that affected me, I heard from my relatives on the Six Nations Indian reservation. They sang country music. It wasn’t a cowboys-and-Indians thing; it was country music. They lived in the country. I had uncles and cousins that would sing Hank Williams songs and Lefty Frizzell songs. As a little kid I remember Lefty Frizzell singing “Always Late,” and there was a thing that he did with his voice that really affected me emotionally. Later on I heard him sing “Long Black Veil,” and that’s where I got the idea to do that song on Music from Big Pink. And lots of Hank Williams songs. That was music that you could do in an intimate way with just guitar and voice, or guitar and mandolin. There were interesting stylistic things, too, on the Reserve. You would hear an acoustic guitar and hand drums together, and a violin in a funny tuning. The people were inventing things. That, and the sound, stayed with me.

At what point did you start writing your own songs?
ROBERTSON Probably when I was 13 or so. I had some little bands around Toronto. We would do covers of songs of the time, and I would write songs. I didn’t even know why. I was just drawn to the idea, and I felt comfortable doing that. So I’d write songs. And that’s how I got hired by Ronnie Hawkins. I wrote a couple songs when I was 15 that he recorded.

Didn’t he hire you as a “song consultant”?
ROBERTSON He didn’t hire me as a song consultant, because he wouldn’t have known what a song consultant was, but he thought if I could write songs for him, then I’d also be able to hear and find songs that were good for him to record, songs that I thought he could sing well. I didn’t know whether that was true or not, but I was ready to go along with it. He took me to New York, and that’s when I got to meet [Jerry] Leiber and [Mike] Stoller, and Otis Blackwell and Titus Turner, and these writers that were in the Brill Building, like [Doc] Pomus and [Mort] Shuman, who were writing these songs that everybody would record. Most singers did not sing songs that they wrote themselves. Elvis Presley never wrote a song, and these guys wrote lots of songs for him. Buddy Holly was an exception.

When you started writing songs for the Band, especially when you got to the second album, your songwriting was all about characters, story, and a sense of place, which was really different for that era. How did your songwriting develop in that direction?
ROBERTSON A couple of things happened that had a big effect on me. One of them was going from Canada down to the Mississippi Delta when Ronnie Hawkins hired me. I felt like I was going to the holy land of rock ’n’ roll. They had a little headquarters in Helena, Arkansas, which is just across the river from Clarksdale, Mississippi. In the other direction is Memphis. It mystified me—how could all these people come from that one small area? Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, on and on and on and on. Johnny Cash. It was like music just grew out of the ground. Even before I got there, in my mind going to the South was a very precious thing. When I got there at 16, it had a big, big impact on me. I was soaking it up, and I was putting it away somewhere in a trunk in the back of my mind. I didn’t know what for, except that I loved it, and it was musical. When it came time to write songs for the Band, I was calling upon these memories, these characters, and the sound of these places.

The other part of it was at Six Nations. There was the music, and then there were these elders who would tell stories that were just mesmerizing. I thought, I want to be able to do that someday. It felt like it was part of the music to me, too. They went hand in hand. There was no other entertainment on the reservation, like big shows coming through town. So they had to provide all their own entertainment, and that was made up of music and storytelling and the dancing that went with the music. That storytelling on the reservation and the impact of going to the South just led me to a place that had nothing to do with anything else that was going on in music at the time. But it felt natural, and the guys in my band could help me tell these stories really well.

I can picture the setting of The Basement Tapes as a kind of songwriting workshop. But how much of the composing in that period—whether with Bob Dylan or the Band—was collaboration?
ROBERTSON
I wrote some things with Richard Manuel. Richard and I would work on the music, and then I would write the lyrics. But at that time, and I still feel this way today, you would go off and write a song and then bring it to the guys in the group, play it for them, and say, here’s a song I wrote. The guys would say, “Oh, man, that sounds pretty good,” and then, because I knew the song better than anyone else, I would say, “I think it would be a good idea if Rick sang this one, and I think it would sound good on the chorus if Richard took over the melody part and Rick went up and sang the third harmony, and then Levon could . . . ” Because I knew their instruments well, I had ideas about what would sound good. In some cases we would try that, and then I’d say, “I don’t know, why don’t you sing that part,” and we would shuffle the deck around and figure it out as we went along. I’d hum little parts, and then the guys would think of some things, and they’d say, “What would you think if I did this leading into the bridge?” Stuff like that.

When you were coming up as a guitarist, was it common for players to want to prove themselves by playing faster and playing more notes and bending more notes than the next guy?
ROBERTSON When I first started playing with Ronnie Hawkins, that kind of guitar playing was really quite rare. There weren’t a lot of guys doing it. There were black guys doing it in blues music, but there weren’t many white guys doing it. People coming out of the Louisiana Hayride were playing like that—Roy Buchanan and James Burton and Fred Carter, Jr., and some of those guys. When I was playing with Ronnie Hawkins, guitar players would come from all around to hear this kind of guitar playing. By the time we finished playing the [1965–66] tour with Bob Dylan, lots of guys had come along, like Eric and Jimi Hendrix, and that kind of guitar playing was becoming quite common.

You had proven yourself as a flashy soloist—even Mike Bloomfield had deferred to you. When did you feel the need to become a more economical player, and what fed into that?
ROBERTSON I had decided that I was just much more interested in subtleties and discretion, and I put all the emphasis on the songs. By the time the Band was ready to record, it was not about jamming or just playing to fill up space. This other thing was becoming too obvious. All these guitar players were coming out of the woodwork, and that’s when I wanted to avoid the obvious.

In the past you’ve mentioned the influence that Hubert Sumlin, Link Wray, James Burton, Steve Cropper, and Curtis Mayfield had on your guitar sound. Did finding the personalized elements of your style—the distinct vibrato and harmonics, the way you muted strings, the pithy phrasing—come naturally to you?
ROBERTSON None of this comes naturally. You have to work on it. When I started playing with Ronnie Hawkins, I was literally sleeping with the guitar, and I wanted to go to another level that I didn’t see around me. When you’re that young, you want to be extreme and loud and blazing. When we made Music from Big Pink, I think I was 23 or something. It’s not that I was that mature, but I’d been doing this every day, making a living, since I was 16 years old, so it felt like I was becoming a veteran. I wanted to play one note that meant more than somebody else playing 20. I admired Miles Davis for that.

That said, the new album sure is a lot about guitar playing.
ROBERTSON It’s the most guitar playing I’ve ever done on any record I’ve ever made. Probably because I got started on this thing with Eric, it was bound to go in that direction.

People may not readily think of you as an acoustic guitarist, even though there was a fair amount of acoustic guitar on the Band albums, and notably on such songs as “Unfaithful Servant” and “Rockin’ Chair.” And the acoustic plays a big role on How to Become Clairvoyant.
ROBERTSON
There is one guitar that is a starring feature of this record—a 000-45 Martin that I’ve had for years. I thought it was a 1928, but I was just told by somebody at Fred Walecki’s [Westwood Music Center in West Los Angeles] that it’s actually a 1927. Eric used it on “Fear of Falling,” “Won’t Be Back,” and “Madame X,” and I used it on “Tango for Django” and “He Don’t Live Here No More.” For a gut-string guitar to play that kind of major role, it’s special.

And you brought even more guitars into the album with electric players Tom Morello and Robert Randolph.
ROBERTSON Those guys, I don’t even know what they’re doing. I should know, but I can stand right in front of these guys and have no understanding of what they’re doing. I love that. That fascinates me. I know what most guitar players are doing, but I don’t know what these guys are doing.

They can be over-the-top players, but they were able to contribute to what’s always been important in your records, which are those unusual and subtle textures.
ROBERTSON Both of these players wanted very much to get in sync with where I was going musically. Usually, people come in and just start throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what’s gonna stick. But these guys, who are ready to blow the roof off the place, were also interested in getting just a little bit more spiritual. That wasn’t hard for Robert Randolph, because he plays sacred steel, but I was looking for things that were more haunting. Let’s avoid the acrobatics and go for something that gets under your skin and stays there.


Go to the Movies

After working together on The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson and director Martin Scorsese became close friends, roommates for a spell, and long-term creative collaborators. As Scorsese’s primary music advisor, Robertson shaped the soundtracks for such films as Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Gangs of New York, The Departed, and Shutter Island.

Robertson also brought an increasingly cinematic sound to his solo albums, in terms of mood and atmosphere and texture. But he says the roots of that sonic approach extend deeper into his personal history. “I always thought I was working in film,” he says. “Even the songs that I did with the Band, there is something about that music, too, that is cinematic. I’ve been a movie buff for a long time. In the Band, nobody else cared about movies that much. They liked movies—like anybody does, I guess—but nobody was particularly drawn to them. I was. I was desperately drawn to movies. We’d be playing in a club somewhere, and in the afternoon I’d go see 81/2. I’d go see some film by Buñuel or John Ford or Howard Hawks. I knew the people who were doing special work. There was a bookstore on 47th Street in New York, Gotham Books, and you could buy movie scripts there. I wanted to see the differences between what was on paper and what was on screen, and how all the elements fit together. It was just my own private little thing. When Martin Scorsese and I became friends, he turned me on to a lot of things, he made me pay attention to things in movies I never would have noticed, and I turned him on to a lot of music. That’s why our buddy system works so well.”

In a radical move, Robertson convinced Scorsese to use modern classical composers (György Ligeti, Ingram Marshall, John Adams, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, and others) for the score of Shutter Island. “I knew something about modern classical music, but by no means was I any kind of expert. By the time I finished working on that movie, I was an expert. I’m especially proud of what I did at the end—putting Dinah Washington’s vocal on ‘This Bitter Earth’ into Max Richter’s classical music [On the Nature of Daylight]. It was something I’ve never done before, and I just love the way it turned out, and it’s become quite an online phenomenon. People all over the world have done ballets and modern dance to it.”

Write When It Feels Good

Robbie Robertson crafted many of the songs on his new album, How to Become Clairvoyant, from material that he has described as “personal experiences rising to the surface.” But he didn’t force himself into a routine in order to whip them into shape. “I don’t really discipline myself to do it,” he says of songwriting. “I enjoy doing it. And one of the reasons I enjoy doing it is because I don’t discipline myself. I do it when it just feels good, and then when I’m doing it, I think, ‘Ah, this is the way to make music.’ You do it when you can’t stand it no more, and it just reveals itself in a real honest way.”

Robertson is, however, familiar with the hurried approach that plagues so many recording artists who find themselves under the gun when they get into the studio. “In the past, a lot of times, you’d write a few songs and then think, ‘OK, let’s go and record these, and I’ll think of some more songs along the way.’ Then, you just go into the trenches and you beat your head against the wall until you’re done, and then you think, ‘God, I hope I end up liking this.’ With this record, because I didn’t have a deadline, and nobody was telling me when I had to do what, I just found it really enjoyable.”


ROBBIE ROBERTSON’S GUITARS AND GEAR

  • ACOUSTIC GUITARS: “I’ve got some dandies,” Robertson says, before rattling off a stunning partial account of the Martin guitars in his collection:
    1901 00-42: “It’s just a little honey, and it looks almost new.”
    1919 00-45K (koa): “I have the only original that exists in the world. Martin has made some different new versions of it for me—and they’re making a 00-45 signature series and a 00-42 signature series.”
    1927 000-45 (strung with nylon).
    1951 D-28: “I have a couple of those.”
    OM-42 “Workhorse Show Dog”: “Martin made a beautiful all-around great-sounding, great-playing guitar for me, with a hidden pickup.”

    Robertson also owns a Martin ukulele, an Eric Clapton signature Martin, and a Gibson Style 0 “with that mandolin curlicue on the body. It’s a weird-sounding guitar, but of course it looks fantastic.”
  • ELECTRIC GUITARS: “I got stuck on Fender at an early age because we had to play long hours in clubs, and the Les Pauls were heavy on the shoulder after a couple of hours.” Robertson says. “I play hot-rodded custom signature Stratocasters, with two pickups in the rear, so they have a thick humbucking sound, and one front pickup. I also have a 1951 Broadcaster, which is a great plug-it-in-and-it-sounds-good guitar, and a bunch of Les Pauls, which for me are great for rhythm parts.”
  • AMPLIFICATION: “Only the ‘Workhorse Show Dog’ [OM-42] has a pickup [a Fishman Martin Gold+Plus Natural 1].”
  • STRINGS: “I don’t know which ones are better.”
  • PICKS: “Dunlops, because they don’t slip. But I fingerpick, too.”
  • CAPOS: “I don’t use one very often.”

Derk Richardson, who was at the Last Waltz in 1976, is former managing editor of Acoustic Guitar and currently is senior editor at Afar magazine (afar.com). He hosts a weekly music program, “The Hear and Now,” on KPFA-FM 94.1.

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