After avoiding autobiographical songs for most of his career, Canadian singer/songwriter Robbie Robertson, 76, dives into his life story on his new solo album Sinematic, a set of dramatic tales based on his 2016 memoir Testimony and its upcoming second volume.
The music is also inspired by his history as guitarist and songwriter with the Band ("The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") and his work as a film soundtrack composer and producer. A longtime collaborator with director Martin Scorsese, Robertson is now working on music for his 11th Scorsese film, Killers of the Flower Moon, based on David Grann's best-selling 2017 book about the 1920s murders of Osage Indians in Oklahoma. He also composed the soundtrack for Once Were Brothers, a new documentary chronicling the rise and demise of the Band.
We talked to Robertson about the Band, his work with Scorsese and how the new album was shaped by both.
Your new song “Dead End Kid” is about your growing up as a half-Mohawk, half-Jewish Canadian living in Toronto and the Six Nations reserve. Can you tell us about that time?
I was just getting to the stage of taking music really seriously. In my imagination, I thought I would write songs that people would hear all over the world. I would tell [that to] my First Nations relatives and friends, and they would look at me and say, “That never happens to people like us.” And in the city, I remember these guys from the neighborhood saying I was a dead-end kid: “You don't have a chance.” Even Ronnie Hawkins, who hired me when I was 16 [to play in his band], said, “If I hadn't hired you, you'd probably be in prison right now.” I was actually able to think everyone was wrong. I had faith in the music.
But even with the Band, it wasn't “case-closed, everything is fine.” There were many experiences with the Band that could have gone really wrong. It was week to week of going in a good direction and then a bad direction. We really did some dumb things. We drove too close to the edge.
The song “Once Were Brothers” looks back at the disintegration of the Band. How difficult was it to excavate those memories? Writing it was painful but rewarding. It's something I always carry around. It's such a big part of my life. I spent all of those years in that brotherhood, and we went through it all. I'd put the story of this group up against any other and double down. It's that outrageous and unusual.
You've had a long personal and professional relationship with Scorsese. How did that start and evolve?
Our road manager John Taplin left for the movie business and the first movie he produced was Marty's Mean Streets (1973). He told me Marty has some kind of magic touch. They screened the movie for me in L.A., and I had to agree it was just reeking of talent. Marty came to the screening room to meet me. We found out that we were on a similar wavelength.
When I started with the Band, I was inspired by movie scripts. That was my literature. If I didn't get so extremely addicted to music early on, I would have ended up in movieland. And Marty had such a tremendous connection to music in his soul. I would turn him on to music that he didn't know about. The depth of those things we shared made a connection.
We've been trading back and forth all these years. Stuff he does as a director will knock my socks off. I try to come back to him and surprise him and push a nerve. There is a particular joy in this process. He is one of my dearest friends.
The song “Beautiful Madness” refers to a time you and Scorsese shared a house in Hollywood in the 1970s. Why do you describe it that way?
People were crazy and sometimes dangerous in a wonderful way. We're lucky we survived.
How jarring was the shift from making your own music to writing movie scores?
Writing music for movies is so much more collaborative. I don't read or write music. So when I start to work with Marty, I tell him, “I have a thought, a feeling, a mood that might work with this.” Most of the time, his feedback is, “That's great, as long as it doesn't sound like movie music.” Every movie starts with a clean canvas. I usually think, “Damn, I don't know if I can do this.” It is liberating in ways and frightening in others. I rarely go into anything thinking, “I got this.”
Sinematic goes down a lot of dark corridors, but the song “Let Love Reign” couldn't be sunnier. What inspired that one?
One day I was driving and “All You Need is Love” came on the radio. Here's John Lennon, the guy in the biggest group in the world, an antiwar guy, a peace-and-love guy, talking about how much love means. People say that movement died a quick death. No. Those 500,000 people who came to Woodstock and all those people who helped stop that terrible war, they made some big changes. It wasn't a lost cause. In that song, I'm saying Lennon wasn't wrong. That message will always be right.
Edna Gundersen is an American journalist and a former longtime music writer and critic for USA Today.