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Robbie Robertson: Writing Songs Is “Completely Mysterious”

Enjoying one of the most prolific periods of his career, Robbie Robertson has released a new album, ‘Sinematic’, and scored the movie ‘The Irishman’.

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Photo: Silvia Grav, courtesy of the artist

Robbie Robertson, whose latest solo album, Sinematic, came out on 20 September, thoroughly enjoyed writing the score and theme song for the blockbuster movie The Irishman, which has its Netflix premiere on 27 November. The former guitarist and songwriter for The Band sees parallels between the relationship of the superb cast and the way his group of musicians once gelled so naturally.

“I was casting musicians as characters in songs”

Robertson, who was speaking to uDiscover Music from Los Angeles, was clearly delighted to be working again with director Martin Scorsese, a man he has collaborated with on more than ten films. “Martin pulled together an extraordinary cast for The Irishman. It’s so impressive to see actors of the calibre of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci together,” said Robertson. “These guys have a connection and a working process. It brought me back to thinking about how The Band were like a musical committee, working together so closely.

“These actors are almost like a theatre group, where people play different characters,” he continues. “That is also how I would describe the people in The Band over the years. I felt like I was casting these musicians in roles of playing characters in songs. The Irishman relates to that, for me. Nobody is questioning anyone’s ability in this movie ensemble. Everyone is on an equal playing level and everyone totally appreciates what the other person does.”

“There’s a link between my story and the underworld”

The Irishman recreates the story of murdered union boss Jimmy Hoffa and is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt. The film resonated for Robertson, not least because he had his own knowledge about the shady past of his father, Alexander David Klegerman. “Ever since I can remember there has been a link in my story and my journey to the underworld,” says Robertson. “My father and his family had their links. Then, when I was playing music, we performed at a lot of places where there were very questionable characters. We knew them and they were our friends, but a lot of them were thieves, a lot of them travelled on the other side of the law.”

Robertson says he learned how to navigate that world. “We had to understand the rules of the road. We had to understand street savvy, we had to understand when to walk away,” he says. “At the time, we didn’t think about the sketchy world in which we were operating. It also applied to my early band work with Ronnie Hawkins And The Hawks. They were on Roulette Records and the head of that company, Maurice Levy, was a renowned underworld figure. It was everywhere. It still exists and now I have done a movie about all these gangster figures. What are you gonna do?” he adds with a laugh.

“I talked a lot about music to Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci”

The score for The Irishman offered an unusual challenge. Robertson and Scorsese were attempting to discover a sound and mood that would work over the many decades in which the story takes place. Robertson’s theme brings a timeless quality, and the soundtrack – which was under the remit of music supervisor Randall Poster – includes classics such as Glenn Miller’s ‘Tuxedo Junction’, Smiley Lewis’ ‘I Hear You Knockin’’, and ‘The Fat Man’ by Fats Domino. The music in The Irishman is full of energy and feeling.

Did Robertson get the chance to see the film being made? “Martin Scorsese always likes me to come to the filming at some point and feel what is going on in the shoot,” says Robertson. “So I have done that on just about every movie that he makes. I have talked a lot about music over the years to Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, but in this film it was really just to do with Marty. He is the centre of that universe and he knows the material better than anyone in the world. I am totally connected to his instincts in trying to make these things work.”

Working on the film bled over into Robertson’s other projects, including with the songwriting for his sixth solo album, Sinematic. The opening track, ‘I Hear You Paint Houses’, a duet with Van Morrison, was inspired by the film. The words are a droll euphemism for a mob hitman’s work.

“I was just warming up and that song came out”

“I had looked at the book by Charles Brandt when The Irishman project came up, and I was just sort of warming up on this story before I got the script of the film,” explains Robertson. “While I was working on the music for the movie, I sat down one day to write a song, and that song is what came out of it. Then Van Morrison came to town a couple of days later and wanted to know what I was working on. I played ‘I Hear You Paint Houses’ to him and he said, ‘Wow, I like that.’ So we ended up doing it together.”

Morrison was one of the standout performers on The Band and Scorsese’s memorable concert film The Last Waltz, in 1976, and their relationship goes back even further.

“I first met Van in early 1969,” says Robertson. “Then he moved to Woodstock. We spent time together, but we were both busy playing gigs, so we weren’t just sitting round all the time. However, when we could, we did hang out and make music. In 1971, we recorded a song called ‘4% Pantomime’, which is on The Band’s album Cahoots. There is an alternative take of that which I like very much, too. That was a spur-of-the-moment thing which was written by both of us in the afternoon and recorded that night. I guess we have both evolved with growing older. Hopefully we have grown and are both a little bit smarter than back then, but I think we have both evolved in a good way. He is a dear old friend of mine.”

“With many of my songs, you don’t know where they come from”

There are 13 songs on Sinematic – which also features the brilliant veteran drummer Jim Keltner – and Robertson still enjoys songwriting, something he has done professionally since he was 15. “One of the glorious and mysterious things about songwriting is you try to put up an antenna and hopefully receive something that needs to be received,” says Robertson. “With many of my songs for The Band, you don’t know where they come from. On Sinematic, even after writing for such a long time, every time I sat down to write a song it was completely mysterious and unknown to me.”

Another guest star on the album is the young singer-songwriter JS Ondara, a rising star whose debut album, Tales Of America, was released in February 2019. “I am drawn to his voice… he has a sound,” says Robertson. “My daughter Alexandra works for Universal Music. She told me about this new artist and said, ‘I think you might like him and he has a fascinating story of coming from Africa and going to Minnesota, and he talks about Bob Dylan and The Band.’ His journey interested me, but it was really his sound that grabbed me. He turned out to be a wonderful person.”

Ondara sings on the heartfelt song ‘Once Were Brothers’ – which also features Citizen Cope and French musician Frédéric Yonnet – a composition which provides the title and music in a forthcoming documentary about The Band, which is executive produced by Scorsese.

“A wanderlust lifestyle appealed to me”

Sinematic is accompanied by artwork for each song, all created by Robertson. “I loved doing the art,” says Robertson. “All of a sudden the music from The Irishman was connected by my art to my album and to the forthcoming documentary. These projects were all swirling around at the same time, and it was an unusual and wonderful feeling. I have done art to different degrees for a long time and I have a lot more that I am still working on.”

Robertson admits that he owes much of his early artistic sensibilities to his mother, Rosemarie Dolly Chrysler, a Cayuga and Mohawk woman who was raised on the Six Nations Reserve outside Toronto. “My mother had an eye for things,” says Robertson. “The way she looked at things and the way things affected her was impressive to me. So much of this came out when we were at Six Nations, where she was born and raised, just pointing out the different parts of the culture and the surroundings and what she grew up with. They were very mixed feelings, too, because she and her relatives, friends and loved ones, weren’t treated great in their story. But there was a lot of appreciation just for the gift of life.”

Robertson has always been a searcher, someone looking for rich experiences. When he was 15, he worked with a travelling carnival, another thing that brought him into contact with scary characters. “That was dangerous and I was so young,” says Robertson. “When you are young, you feel fearless and bulletproof, in ways. But I also found myself in situations where I was fascinated by the gypsy spirit of carnies. It was so interesting to see that when I was young. They were people who come to town, and they do this thing where you don’t know what is real or what is not, and then they pack up and they move on. I think something about that wanderlust lifestyle appealed to me, and ultimately I experienced that in music.”

Even in his late 70s, Robertson’s musical journey continues to enrich the lives of music fans everywhere.

Sinematic is out now and can be bought here.

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