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Jason Bentley: Well, next up it is a pleasure to welcome our friend Robbie Robertson to the studio. Good Morning!
Robbie Robertson: Top of the morning to you, Mr. Bentley.
JB: How are you sir?
RR: I’m very good, thanks!
JB: Good to see you. Of course, every time I run into you I always say the door is open we’ve got to get you down into the studio. So, at long last, you are here.
RR: We’ve been working on it.
JB: And with a new album so that’s really the occasion. This is, “How to Become Clairvoyant,” and it is your first record in quite some time.
RR: Yeah, it is. You know, I got off that treadmill a long time ago of making a record, doing a tour, making a record, doing a tour. It’s not my schedule anymore, so I didn’t know whether I was ever going to make a record again actually and I enjoy a lot of the other things I’ve been doing so...
JB: Yeah, when we say that it’s been however many years since your last album it suggests that you haven’t been making music or working in music for that long but that’s not the case -- you are busy with film work and all sorts of projects. But, tell us what you have been up to.
RR: Well, in the middle of making this record Martin Scorcese called me and asked me to help figure out the music for Shutter Island. And this is the first time that he’s ever called with this kind of confusion in mind. He usually has a clue of some kind of a starting place for us on these films. This time he said, “I have no idea what to do. It’s a different kind of material. See if you got any ideas.”
And when I read the script I immediately thought modern classical composers and I said, “I think that we should just use a bunch of geniuses - brilliant composers - all modern classical music.” And then he asked me to send him an example of what I was walking about. I did and he called me, laughing, and said, “I think you’ve nailed it.” So I started out knowing something about modern classical music. By the time I was done with this project, I was an expert at it. So, I love those things where you learn and grow and get to explore things that you never would have normally.
JB: Your relationship with Martin Scorcese goes back many years to The Last Waltz. You have a real connection with him. Tell us about your relationship with Scorcese.
RR: Well, we first worked together on The Last Waltz and then, when he was doing Raging Bull, because - at the time of The Last Waltz we were housemates for a period of time. And during that period he would show me lots of movies that I never had seen or thought of before and I’m a bit of a movie buff and I would play him lots of music that he’d never heard of. It was kind of a trade off we had.
And then in Raging Bull, some of that music that I had played for him, he wanted to use in the movie. And then he asked me if I would do the source music for the movie. And the power of the music on the movie and the movie on the music in that, is when I first got addicted to music in movies. It was just an amazing experience and Raging Bull is a great place to start.
JB: Well, with this whole chapter in mind, what did prompt you to put this recent album together? It’s “How to Become Clairvoyant” is your latest and Robbie Robertson is our guest in studio. But what did bring you to this point in making the album?
RR: Well, Eric Clapton and I had been talking about doing something together for quite a while. And at my studio in Los Angeles a few years ago he’d come by and we would tell stories and then we’d eventually pick up a couple guitars and mess around with some ideas but we didn’t have anything really specific in mind. It was always like, “Well, let’s see what happens.”
And then I ran across some of this music that I hadn’t heard in a while and I called him and I said, “You know, there’s some very good ideas that we’ve started here, I don’t know how we got off the track.” And he said, “Oh no, I know there is.” And he said, “I think you should come to London and we’ll go in the studio and let’s see what happens.” The famous words, “let’s see what happens.”
So, we went in to the studio over there, him and I. And then Steve Winwood came in and joined us, and with a great bass player, Pino Palladino, and drummer Ian Thomas and we went in and we recorded all the basic tracks for this record. And some other stuff as well.
But that’s when Eric said okay it’s clear to me now this is supposed to be your record. Because we didn’t know if it was an Eric record, a duet record, a Robbie record. So he said this is your record, you’ve written most of the stuff, the direction is really your direction. And so then after we finished that - and we had a great time doing it, it was such a good vibe in the studio. It felt like we’d been doing this for years. You know what I mean, just very natural.
Then I came back and I did the Shutter Island thing, which took me completely out of the mode of making this record, and as it turned out, in a very good way because when I came back to finishing this record, I had some wonderful clarity and some of the things from that movie actually bled over into finishing up this record. Some of the musical ideas, some of the people I wanted to work with on it. The thing I did with Trent Reznor on this record was definitely something that came to me having worked on Shutter Island.
JB: Let’s play a song from the album that perhaps captures the spirit of your original sessions in London with Eric and friends. Shall we pick a track?
RR: Sure, whatever you want. The first track’s fine.
JB: Track one? Okay. “Straight Down the Line.” Robbie Robertson our guest in the studio. The new album “How to Become Clairvoyant”. It’s KCRW.
JB: Robbie Robertson is in studio. We’re playing selections from, “How to Become Clairboyant” the new album. And I’m kind of hushing him because he’s telling us so many great stories and I’m like, “Wait until we’re on the air to tell us this stuff!” But you mentioned how much guitar you played on this album in particular.
RR: I played more guitar on this record than any record I’ve ever done in my life. And I’ve done a bunch of records over the years. And I played with some amazing guitar players on this album too. And on this is Robert Randolph. Who, it’s a fascinating thing to me, that he comes from this church and he plays a pedal steel. And in this church that’s the instrument.
They don’t use an organ. They don’t us a piano or a gospel choir. They play pedal steel or lap steel. And when I said to him, “Wow, it’s so unusual for an African American to be playing pedal steel the way you are.” And he said, “No, not really. There’s tons of these old guys at my church that could just play me under the table.” And I said, “Yeah, I don’t know if I believe that.” But it’s true and then he sent me a documentary and it’s just fascinating stuff.
JB: Well, interesting choice of words with the album title, “How to Become Clairvoyant.” And just the words clairvoyant seems like - it’s a French word meaning very literally “clear vision” and I wonder if you feel that music gives you a clear vision on your past, on your experiences, on these sorts of experiences that you’re sharing through some of the artists that you’ve collaborated with.
RR: Well, clairvoyance in this case was, if you listen to this record enough times you will start to become clairvoyant. That’s it to begin with. But I was really saying when I was making this because I’m reflecting on a lot of periods of time in the songs on this record that I’ve never done before. And it really is saying I wish I knew then what I know now. But I love going into the mystical side of the music. And what it’s encouraged for me in this project - something that’s never been done before. And it’s something right now that I’m extremely excited about.
But when I was making this record, this artist that I know in New York, Richard Prince is his name - he’s a famous American artist of today. And he gets six or seven million dollars a painting. He was listening to the music of this record and said, “Can I do some work for the art work on your record?” So he ended up doing - we have five different pieces that he did for this. And so, obviously we couldn’t get it into a CD. So we’re doing this collector’s edition where it has all of his artwork.
Anton Corbin, who’s the photographer in this, did a bunch of other artwork too - not just pictures - but actual artwork as well that we couldn’t get all into the CD. And my friend, the famous Ricky Jay, the amazing magician, contributed a bunch of clairvoyant art work from his collection as well and there’s ten bonus tracks on this collector’s set and clear vinyl that’s absolutely pure, and there’s a DVD where you can do your own mixes.
And it is a collection of something you can do nowadays that you never could have done before. And everybody says, “Oh we used to be able to do this and we used to be able to do that.” Now you can do something like this which is something we never used to be able to do. So, I am so excited about this project because I’ve never done anything where the art work and - where you go inside the music, you go inside the songs, you really see who these characters are. And it just comes to life in a way that I’ve never experienced before.
JB: You know you touched on something which I’ve always appreciated about your music, which is the mysticism or the spirit in music. And that’s just the sense that you pick up on as a fan of music, as a listener. And I wonder when you first sensed the power of music in that way. Kind of, what part of your life were you in when you really acknowledged the great mystery and the power of this universal communication. Do you have a sense of when that struck you?
RR: Yeah I do and it happened at a very young age for me. My mother was born and raised in the Sixth Nation Indian Reservation from the Mohawk Nation. And when I was a kid we spent a lot of time there with our relatives. And it seemed to me at the time that everybody played music. So I was a young kid and I thought I got to get in on this club. And I was looking around and somebody was playing a fiddle, somebody’s playing a mandolin, somebody’s playing a drum, somebody’s playing a guitar, singing or dancing. And I’m thinking that guitar looks pretty sexy, I think I might go in that direction. And then after the music - and my cousins and uncles and aunts, they all started showing me little things, musical things, and then after a couple of years of this I realized that I was getting better at this than any of them. And that was the sign that music was a direction. But the spiritual side of it and the mysticism - after the music, the elders would come in and they would tell stories. Stories - mythical stories, real stories - that would send chills down my spine and I’d never heard anything like this before. And I thought, one of these days I want to be a storyteller too. And I want to be able to tell these mystical stories too. So, I’m still on the path.
JB: Well, it’s so great to sit with you today. The album, “How to Become Clairvoyant,” from Robbie Robertson. We have track two cued up which is, “When The Night Was Young,” perhaps you can set this up for us.
RR: Yeah, “When The Night Was Young,” I’m reflecting on a period in this when…I started playing with Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks when I was sixteen-years-old. And The Hawks, who went on to become The Band, eventually, this is when we left Ronnie Hawkins and we were playing down south and we were running into all of these amazing characters - they were just coming out of the woodwork all the people that I talk about in this: card sharks, and tent show evangelists, and it was like okay, things are very colorful. And it was very inspirational too for just the songs that I wanted to write when I was reaching out for characters and for ideas. And through that trip we ended up then in New York playing with Bob Dylan. And in that period you really felt that music was becoming the voice of the generation at that time. It wasn’t just background stuff anymore. This was what people were chanting about in the street. And the power of that was overwhelming. And I was living at The Chelsea Hotel at that time in New York and Edie Sedgwick was a friend of mine who lived at the hotel too and she used to always come down and be hanging out in my room. And Andy Warhol just worshipped her and he would - all the time - he would come to the hotel and then they would call up to my room and they would say, “Mr. Warhol’s down here, he’s looking for Ms. Sedgwick. Would she be in your room by any chance?” And she’d be like, “Tell him I’m not here. Tell him I’m not here!” So I’d have to make up some big story - “No she’s gone downtown” - I’d have to make up something and so I’m reflecting on all of that in this song.
JB: Really nice. Really nice. Robbie Robertson the new album, “How to Become Clairvoyant” and we’re kind of able to share in some of your memories and perspectives on the old time. Now, that featured Angela McCluskey on vocals with you. Very nice.
RR: Oh, she’s great. I’ve been enjoying her since The Wild Colonials.
JB: That’s right.
RR: And then I also liked what she did with Telepop too.
JB: Oh yeah.
RR: Yeah, so anyway. This was part of the list of people that after I did the Shutter Island thing and I was thinking about, “You know who I’d really like to have do a background vocal for me? Angela McCluskey. You know who I’d like to play guitar with on ‘Ax Man,’ there’s a song called ‘Ax Man’ that I talk about a lot of the great guitar heroes that are no longer with us, I’d like to do that with Tom Morello.” He does something, which I don’t understand at all and it’s the complete opposite of what I do, perfect casting. On the other track Trent Reznor. On the other track Robert Randolph. It was all like - because I had just come out of this movie - it was like casting a movie to me. Who could play these parts that I have in my imagination better than anybody in the world?
JB: Well, it’s almost like casting a movie on your own life really as you reflect on different parts of your life and previous incarnations. And this next song, “This Is Where I Get Off” is about your departure from The Band. So tell us about this.
RR: Well, you know, one of the things that still intrigues me most about song writing is that you’ll sit down, have no idea what you’re going to do with an instrument - and I’m sitting down at a piano or a keyboard or with a guitar and messing around and something starts to come and you think, “Ah, that feels kind of good. I don’t know what it is, but it feels good.” And you start following that path and you go down the path until it reveals itself to you what you’re actually writing about. And this was a perfect case of that. Because I would have never thought in my life that I would write a song about my departure from The Band. And as I got deeper into it, it felt really good. It felt like, “I’m really feeling very good about sharing this.” And also talking about - nobody quit The Band. Nobody broke up The Band. It evolved in a certain direction and this is what happened naturally and there was no way to change that. And that’s what I discovered in this process.
JB: The song, “This Is Where I Get Off.” Robbie Robertson our guest on KCRW.
JB: Robbie Robertson is with us in studio. We’re talking about the rare, creative conversation you have with Eric Clapton on that last song. Really, really beautiful.
RR: Yeah, it was a moment of just such emotion because Eric was always very attached to The Band’s music. And when we were in the studio recording this Eric and I were sitting in front of one another with our guitars and as I was singing this song I could see what it was doing to him emotionally - that it was going to that deep place. And then after the lyrics and then when I started playing a guitar solo, I’d play something and then he would answer me and in this almost want to make you cry kind of way. And it just - when we finished cutting this track we both were speechless - we couldn’t even talk after that. Because it was like the guitars - like talking guitars back and forth and just what the song is about and everything it dug deep.
JB: Well, Robbie we have time for one more so we’re going to go out with, “He Don’t Live Here No More.” And we also have copies of that album autographed that I want to make available to the audience.
Well, if you would set up this song and let me say it’s always a pleasure to see you and thank you for coming through KCRW.
RR: Oh, it’s great to see you guys too. So, on this track - this “He Don’t Live Here No More” - I wrote this song to Eric Clapton actually and I wrote it to him and I was reflecting on a period of time when Martin Scorcese and I were house mates like we talked about earlier and I was in some ways really feeling that we were lucky - all of us: Marty, Eric and myself - we were all very lucky to come out of that place of darkness. Because a lot of people we knew didn’t come out of that place of darkness. So, it’s kind of a celebration as much as a reflection on that period of time.