The Sharon Robinson Q&A
As announced in Why Leonard Cohen Calls Her “The Incomparable Sharon Robinson,” the first post in this two part appreciation of Sharon Robinson, the singer-songwriter-Leonard Cohen collaborator graciously agreed to participate in a Cohencentric Q&A.
1. You started studying classical piano when you were barely out of kindergarten and not much later began writing and performing your own songs. Then when you were 16 you got a contract with a label (although that company folded before you could execute the contract). Finally, you left college to tour full time with a band. On paper it looks as though you were destined to spend your life making music. Did it always seem that way to you or were there times when you considered other careers?
When I was a kid growing up in LA, the future I had in mind for myself was just to be really good at, or the best at something. I dabbled in art, acting and considered professions like medicine. I liked science. But music just naturally won out.
2. At one time or another, you’ve fronted a band, teamed up with one or two other vocalists as a backup singer, been a producer, worked as a singer-dancer for a Las Vegas Revue, written songs on your own, and written songs in collaboration with Leonard Cohen.
Which of these roles
a. Has been the easiest for you?
b. Has been most difficult?
c. Has resulted in work you’re proudest of?
If you could only function in one of these roles in the future, which would you choose?
(No fair going with “all of the above.”)
In terms of easy and hard, most things have elements of both. I fronted bands for a long time. We covered hit material, a lot of which were the great songs by the great artists. I got an education in song structure, arrangements and lyrics that it would be hard to get any other way. I struggled financially during that time, but held to a certain belief that as long as I was making music, everything would work out. Studio session singing was sometimes tough waiting for the phone to ring, but it was always exciting to be part of making a record.
The Ann-Margret show was a fun and exciting gig. I got to work with people like director/choreographer Lester Wilson, and arranger Marvin Hamlisch. If anything was hard about it, it was the intense pace of the show. But that was also the part that was the most fun. There were lots of quick costume changes and sprinting backstage from one side of the stage to the other. As an employer, Ann-Margret was fun and feisty and a real professional, and everyone in her show was top-notch.
Producing records can be challenging and at the same time, extremely rewarding. I like focusing on detail as well as the big picture, breaking down the components of the music and the logistics, and bringing the project home
Songwriting is definitely one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling things I do. Songs are a very singular kind of art form that I’ve always loved. I can’t really say it’s easy or hard to write a song, but rather a matter of giving myself over to the process and trusting my instincts.
Of course writing with Leonard is great. The kinds of challenges that make it difficult are the kinds of challenges you want. The bar is high, and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, once we’ve settled in to the process, Leonard’s discipline and artistic clarity bring about a certain kind of ease.
You ask me what I’m most proud of. That would probably be “Ten New Songs” and my record, “Everybody Knows.”
You ask what I would choose if I could only do one thing in the future. That’s just too tough. I’m afraid I’m going to have to cheat a little and combine some things. I love making records, writing and producing for myself and for Leonard Cohen, or other artists, and singing live. It all feels like one thing to me anyway at this point.
3. That list of roles may be incomplete since it doesn’t include talent scout. You were the catalyst for the Webb Sisters signing onto the Leonard Cohen Word Tour and I ran across a piece written by another singer, Bodhi Jones, who attributes his chance to sign on with a record label to you.
I recently wrote, recorded and produced my self-titled full length album in February of 2009 and took it to the streets of downtown Vancouver (Busking 5 days a week). It was tough both physically and mentally go out on the streets day after day knowing I needed to make enough money for rent, bills, and food, but it was definitely not all bad. It reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of people and that we’re all in it together. I’m so grateful for the kindness and support I’ve received from both the people of this city and its visitors. One of these visitors was Sharon Robinson, a writer, producer, and vocalist with Leonard Cohen. Sharon noticed me performing on a street corner while on a tour stop in Vancouver, she liked what she heard and I soon found myself in LA to meet with the Head of A&R at Universal.
Is finding jobs for singers something you do habitually or did I just happen onto the only two instances of this phenomenon? Are you auditioning for guardian angel of unemployed musicians?
It’s interesting that you use that term, because when I contacted Bodhi Jones for the first time, he said, “You might be my angel.” No, I haven’t done it many other times, but one day on our North American tour last spring when we were in Vancouver, as I was shopping near the hotel — we’ve been to a lot of places and I’ve heard a lot of street performers — Bodhi’s voice jumped out and stopped me in my tracks. I had just enough money on me to buy a record out of his guitar case and, listening to his songs, I heard a very well developed style that is thought provoking and beautiful. I think he’s very talented and I’m still hoping to work with him at some point in the future.
I met the Webb Sisters in 2007 when I was brought in by their record company to do some writing with them. Since harmony is a big part of their thing, we ended up doing a lot of singing together as we worked on the songs. There was a moment I remember when we all seemed to have the same thought: our voices sounded great together. Of course Charley and Hattie already had a beautiful blend between themselves, and my voice just added another dimension. Several months later I got the call from Leonard and Roscoe Beck to come in and try some things with some other singers they wanted to check out, as they were rehearsing and auditioning people for the tour. I went in a few times and sang with people, and nothing really magical was happening. Then I remembered the Webb Sisters. I mentioned them to Roscoe, but because they were really only looking for one additional singer, he hesitated at first, but I convinced him to have a listen and brought them in, and they did a great job.
4. You’ve described growing up listening to and being influenced by R&B, especially singers from the Motown and Stax/Volt/Atlantic labels (an amazing but true fact – I was devoted to the same music in my younger days as well as listening to a lot of the country artists Leonard Cohen heard on the radio in his youth, yet I have no musical ability whatsoever), and I think that sound is relatively easy to hear on your solo album, Everybody Knows.
a. I rarely see Leonard Cohen described as a modern Motown incarnation, but you and he wrote “Summertime,” a song recorded by Diana Ross and Roberta Flack, two female vocalists with pretty good Motown/R&B credentials. And, Roberta Flack did impressive covers of Suzanne and Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. Can you detect a little Smoky Robinson or Marvin Gaye in Leonard’s performances? Is there something in Leonard’s presentation of his songs on this tour that is reminiscent of the intensity that marked the way Otis Redding sang the slower tempo initial portions of numbers like “I’ve been Loving You Too Long” or “Try A Little Tenderness?”
b. I haven’t heard anyone else make the comparison but your voice and melody lines remind me of Phoebe Snow. Do you think there is some degree of similarity?
c. My adolescent admiration of groups like Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Gladys Knight & the Pips led to my thus far unrealized aspiration to be a backup singer in the Miracle/Pip mode. If you ever decide to go the Sharon Robinson & The Robettes route, would you keep me in mind (and would it be ok if one of your Robettes lip-synced the words)?
I was lucky enough to meet Roberta Flack at the recent Grammy awards. She took my hand and told me how much she loved our song, “Summertime.” I had worn out her records growing up so that was a tremendous thrill for me.
Regarding Leonard and the soul performers you mentioned, I don’t think your comparison is completely unfounded. We’ve talked about the minimalism and profound beauty of the songs and performances of those early r&b and blues artists, the humility and directness, and the sense of real-life struggle. So I guess one could safely say that to whatever extent there is outside influence in Leonard’s work, r&b and blues would be part of the mix.
To my knowledge I have not been compared to Phoebe Snow before, but I am flattered. She is a terrific artist.
You are very welcome to join me on tour as a Robette. How are your dance moves?
5. I have to ask – not because I personally care, of course – but if I don’t ask, a mob of Leonard Cohen fans will be muttering imprecations and issuing graphic threats of violence referencing me – what can you tell us about when the long rumored Leonard Cohen album will actually come out and about the songs likely to be on it?
And, is there another Sharon Robinson album in the works?
I wouldn’t be comfortable announcing anything about Leonard’s new album before he does, so I guess we all have to sit tight. But I’m sure he very much appreciates everyone’s interest.
And yes there is another Sharon Robinson album in the works.
6. At some point on the Tour, ”Boogie Street” changed from a duet with Leonard Cohen with you in the lead to a solo you perform with an introduction by Leonard Cohen introduces. When and how did that happen?
Some wannabe music critic-blogger wrote about your performance of “Boogie Street” in Lisbon, “… watch this albertnoonan video of Sharon Robinson performing a luscious arrangement of “Boogie Street” at the Lisbon concert. If you don’t enjoy this, you can rest assured that you just don’t like the song and can time your trip to the concession stand or the rest room to coincide with it during the next concert you attend.”
Do you think Lisbon was an especially successful performance or is the blogger just an idiot? If it was special, how would you explain what is was about that performance that night that made it different from other concerts?
I actually don’t remember how the current version of “Boogie Street” came about. I think at a certain point Leonard just decided to lay out and let me take it (though he can sometimes still be heard singing softly off-mic.) We’ve done a lot of concerts, and measuring one performance against another would be difficult, but there’s one I like that I am currently mixing for an upcoming special release. I like how “Boogie Street” speaks to a pivotal part of Leonard’s journey.
7. I’m intrigued by the impact venues and other circumstances have on performances. During this Tour, you and the other musicians have played in many countries. You’ve played outdoors in excellent weather, sweltering heat, and in storms of the sort one usually associates with small craft warnings. You’ve performed in intimate concert halls, converted hockey rinks, and Roman coliseums. Sometimes you’ve played on consecutive days after weeks of shows and sometimes you’ve played after two or three weeks off. Sometimes the crowds knew every word of every song and were clearly in tune with performance and sometimes the audience members were chatting with one another, walking around, or drinking beer; sometimes, they appeared to be oblivious. Other crowds were polite but just not into it. Rumor has it that some audience members hurled clothing at you. You’ve played through food poisoning episodes and summer colds. Given the number of folks involved and the length of the tour, it’s a statistical certainty that some concerts took place with some or all of the cast unhappy with someone else on the same stage or some performer undergoing a personal psychological problem.
While I realize you are a professional and handling such circumstances is a part of your job, some of these factors must affect you and your work. Which situational aspects are the most challenging for you and how do you manage them in order to go on with the show? Which factors most enhance your performance?
Your observations of the rigors of touring are very astute and your empathy is appreciated! Basically, though, I don’t think anyone in our group takes for granted how great it is to be touring with Leonard. Any complaining that anyone does tends to fall to the floor with a thud in that context. Complaining has become more of a running joke than anything else. Yes there are trying moments, but when you’re going to so many places of beauty, of history, and more importantly, when you’re part of this phenomenon that feels so magical, and you’re connecting so deeply with the audiences every show, the day-to-day difficulties pale. Overall, my impression of the audiences is a bit different from yours. There were occasionally some that started out somewhat distracted for whatever reason, be it inclement weather or beer, but with very few exceptions, always came around and were totally with us by the end of the show. We’ve been very lucky in that regard. I would say the overall temperament of the tour comes from the top down. Leonard maintains a very disciplined and gracious demeanor himself throughout, which influences everyone else. Basically, band and crew, everyone to a person is a consummate professional.
It’s hard to say what circumstances lead to a good performance. Any theory you try to construct around that is usually quickly disproved. You can be exhausted and have a great show, or be totally rested and have a more difficult time. It’s individual and seems very random. In my case, immersing myself in the music and lyrics usually cures whatever ails me.
8. I initially developed the idea, free of the encumbrances of evidence, that you were especially serious and reserved, carefully guarding your privacy to the point of being stand-offish. Admittedly, that conception did not survive meeting you in person. Yep, it took you almost 12 seconds to win me over completely. Now, I’ve significantly revised my perception of you but have retained the notion that you are particularly serious about your craft and, in fact, now see you as maintaining high, perhaps perfectionist-level expectations of yourself. Is that a fair assessment?
I take what I’m doing seriously because I love the craft, and I guess you could say I’m a rather conscientious person. And I’m very happy that your view of me has changed, and that it only took 12 seconds!
9. Speaking of your allegedly serious demeanor, I’ve read notes and received email from fans who believe you disapprove of onstage antics such as the cartwheels performed by the Webb Sisters. Whether there is or was any truth to that, I’d like to draw your attention to one of my favorite Leonard Cohen performances available on YouTube, “Memories” from the 1979 ZDF-TV Rockpop Special, which features two backup singers, a Ms Jennifer Warnes and one Ms Sharon Robinson (that would be you, on the viewer’s right), both held to be deliberate, focused, sober-minded singers of note.
Leonard Cohen – Memories
German TV: 1979
Now, tell us how that bit of synchronized choreography that begins at 2:45 of this video came to be.
I recently saw a different video of “Memories” from one of our concerts, after not seeing it for years. I had forgotten how totally uninhibited and riotously funny Leonard’s performance of that song was. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of doing the choreography, but when Leonard saw it he loved it. ‘Memories’ was a moment of levity in the show that we all had a lot of fun with.
As far as the Webb Sisters’ cartwheel, I love it! I don’t know why anyone would think otherwise.
10. Speaking of 1979, that comes just before 1980, the year when the tour featured my all time favorite unreleased (ok, released only in an earlier version and only as a 45 rpm in Europe) Leonard Cohen song, “Do I Have To Dance All Night,” for which you sang backup.
a. He played “Do I Have To Dance All Night” a lot in 1976 and 1980, at which point it disappeared from his playlists. Obviously, this has happened with other songs as well. Can you offer any insight as to how songs are chosen for or eliminated from a tour’s set list?
b. The current tour has been too financially successful to sustain my initial hopes of bribing Leonard to release this song. Do you have any incriminating Polaroids, letters, or text messages you could lend me to blackmail Leonard into adding “Do I Have To Dance All Night” on that next album?
We played that song on occasion in ’80 but the version on your site is probably from ’76.
It‘s been terrific that all of Leonard’s set lists have been archived on ‘the Files,’ because I think at times it’s been helpful to him in selecting songs for the show. As you know, there are too many songs to play them all, so some have to be put on the back burner. There are many more songs rehearsed than we actually play, and different factors that lead to a song being called during a show, sometimes having to do with Leonard’s mood, or the temperament of the audience.
11. “In My Secret Life,” one of the songs you wrote in collaboration with Leonard, holds a special place in my heart because of its resonance with my feelings about the death of my wife a decade ago. I’m certain that others have expressed that sort of sentiment – that something you’ve written or sung has seemed to precisely fit and illuminated their innermost feelings. Which of your songs seems to trigger that kind of response most frequently?
“In My Secret Life” is definitely one of the songs that tends to resonate with people’s deepest experiences. Alexandra Leaving is another one. I’ve heard that the late Pierre Trudeau loved “Here It Is.”
Of the songs I’ve written alone, I get a lot of mail about “Invisible Tattoo” and “The High Road” being very relevant for people. I also have been getting wonderful letters about the song, “Sustenance.”
12. What is
a. The most surprising thing you’ve seen on this or earlier tours?
b. Your favorite concert from the Leonard Cohen World Tour?
c. The funniest story you’ve heard from or about Leonard Cohen?
d. You proudest career accomplishment?
e. Your favorite blog written by a psychiatrist that is rife with Leonard Cohen-based hilarity, a love story, essays on broomcorn, and proposals for a county seal featuring Dick Tracy?
a. Waltzing in the aisles in the rain, polka-dot blouses
b. Fredericton, London, Tel-Aviv, Dublin, Montreal….how about too numerous to mention??
c. The story of a planned encounter with a famous actress that never happened, that LC calls, “Waiting for Bardot.”
d. Overcoming my fear of flying.
e. You’re a psychiatrist? I’d better check my answers!
Bonus: Sharon Robinson’s Leonard Cohen World Tour Photo Diary
Video from InvisibleTattoo. Music: “Sustenance” by Sharon Robinson
Credit Due Department: The photo of the Ann-Margaret Revue atop this post and the candid shot of Sharon Robinson and Ann-Margaret were provided by Sharon Robinson. The photo of Leonard Cohen gesturing toward Sharon Robinson was taken by Lorca Cohen.
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Feb 26, 2010 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com.