Popdose Interview: Sharon Robinson, The Leonard Cohen Collaborator Not Everybody Knows

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

Just what the hell is a famous blue raincoat, anyway? Maybe Jon Cummings finds out in his new Popdose Interview with Leonard Cohen collaborator — and solo artist in her own right — Sharon Robinson.

As Leonard Cohen’s marathon world tour completed its final North American leg last week, Sharon Robinson –Cohen’s frequent songwriting partner, occasional producer and currently his full-time backing vocalist – says she’s looking forward to her upcoming vacation, and to its end. “I’m gonna cram as much of nothing as I can into the next three weeks,” she told me as she prepared to leave her Boston hotel room for an afternoon of pre-concert sightseeing. “It’s not that long a break before we leave for Europe, but nobody cares. We all know we’re part of something special here, and everyone’s enjoying themselves.”

The sultry-voiced Robinson has been pulling double duty for much of the last year, appearing nightly on the 74-year-old Cohen’s tour while promoting her first solo album. Titled Everybody Knows, after the now-classic song she co-wrote with Cohen nearly two decades ago, the gorgeous album of jazzy soul blends new originals like the first single, “Invisible Tattoo,” with titles familiar to the legendary singer’s fans. (The title track is one of Cohen’s most familiar songs of the last two decades, but Robinson’s version features a compelling new arrangement and a revamped melody.) She self-released the CD last year, and recently picked up a distribution deal for the UK and Europe with Freeworld Records; the album has sold nicely at Cohen’s concerts, spurred no doubt by her nightly spotlight turn on the percolating “Boogie Street.”

That tune debuted on Cohen’s 2001 album Ten New Songs, which Robinson produced. She had first worked with the Canadian legend on his memorable Field Commander Cohen tour in 1979, and her career has woven in and out of his ever since. (Among her other projects: co-writing the Patti LaBelle hit “New Attitude” and earning a Grammy along with other contributors to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack.) Additionally, a song she co-wrote with Cohen, “Summertime,” was a highlight of Diana Ross’ Red Hot Rhythm & Blues album; Robinson finally recorded it herself for Everybody Knows.

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So, how are you holding up, now that the tour is completing its 13th month?
I’m doing great. I think all our spirits are just as high now as they were when we started. We’ve tried to enjoy all the cities we’re in, but we’ve also tried not to party too much. That’s a challenge sometimes – but we’ve paced ourselves, and we try to make sure we have the energy we need for the show.

We all know how good we’ve got it. Everyone is thrilled to be doing this tour, and so everyone puts his best foot forward every night. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie, and it’s nurtured by way Leonard approaches the whole thing. We spend time in the green room together before the show, with no one else there, connecting and getting on the same page before we go out.

This is definitely one of the coolest things I’ve been able to do in my life.

You’ve just come back south from a series of shows in Ontario and Quebec. Is there a noticeable difference in the Canadian audiences, or in Leonard’s attitude toward those shows?
Some nights it does seem that there is a difference. The Canadians have a special relationship with Leonard, especially in Quebec, where many of the people who come to the shows have actually studied him [as a poet] in school. There’s a lot of warmth at those shows, almost a sense of family — but we’ve been really happy with the way American audiences have responded as well.

I saw the show twice back in April – once at the Nokia Theatre [in Los Angeles] and then a week later at the Coachella Festival [near Palm Springs]. The sense of reverence in the L.A. audience was palpable, whereas the Coachella crowd had more of a sense of discovery. Did you feel that?
Sometimes I look at him during the show, and then I look into the audience, and I make the same connection you did. There is a lot of reverence in the audiences — he doesn’t tour that often, and there are probably a lot of people who figure this is the last time they’ll see him. The younger audiences at a show like Coachella don’t have quite the same connection –

A lot of people in that crowd only really responded when he started into “Hallelujah” –
Right. They don’t realize that a lot of Leonard’s work has become part of the cultural mainstream. But Coachella was a really … interesting show. It was great to be there, and great to be playing for that particular audience. It was actually kind of a weird show for us, but it was very well received, so that was nice.

You sound less than completely convinced. Were there problems?
Well, our show is not necessarily a festival show. [Cohen had to pare down his three-hour set list to fit Coachella’s 55-minute time limit, and his crew struggled to replicate a sound design usually so pristine that – as I noted in my review of the L.A. show – Cohen thanks engineer Mark Vreeken on a nightly basis.] We did a sound check the day before, but it didn’t make much difference because there were several acts before us, and what we heard back through the monitors at the start of the set was definitely not what we were expecting. We were OK once we got used to what we had to work with.

I was convinced one of the Webb Sisters [Charley and Hattie, who complete Cohen’s triumvirate of backing vocals] was going to go right off the stage when they did their cartwheels.
I think Hattie’s foot was two or three inches from somebody’s camera when she came down. It’s a very precision-based kind of thing, but they managed.

I read somewhere that that maneuver [which the sisters execute during performances of “The Future,” after Cohen sings “And the white girls dance”] wasn’t originally in the show. Is there an interesting story there? And are you envious that you don’t get to do cartwheels too?
I don’t know exactly how that came about. Leonard keeps things pretty loose at sound checks, and sometimes we get a little silly. Probably one time one of the sisters did a cartwheel and Leonard saw it and said, “Yeah, that’s good. Let’s leave that in.” But I’m OK with not doing that – I couldn’t even do a cartwheel when I was a kid.

I really like the Webb Sisters’ album. How did they come to be part of the band?
I had been working with them when they were signed to Universal a couple years ago. Their A&R person asked me to write with them. That project didn’t go forward, but I remember the blend we had, the vocal sound we had when we were writing together. When Leonard contacted me about doing the tour, he was still trying to figure out what to do about the other backing vocalists, so I said he needed to check them out.

Backing vocals are key to so much of Leonard’s music of the last 20 years, and the songs you’ve written with him. I think of them as almost a Greek-chorus response to the ideas in his lyrics.
I think sometimes it’s like a Greek chorus, and sometimes it’s a female balance to the very male sound that Leonard puts forth. Women are such an integral part of his writing, so it’s natural that female voices should play a big role in his music. It’s his aesthetic choice.

Have you been able to do any writing while on tour, either with Leonard or on your own?
We’ve been trying to get ourselves there, but it’s rather difficult. For me, writing requires a bit of ramping up, a lot of focus and concentration. It’s difficult to get the time for that when we’re moving around so much. This tour has been so all-encompassing that those sorts of things have had to wait.

You put a lot of thought into developing the sound for your album before you let anybody else into the studio. Can you describe that, and why you did things the way you did?
I wanted to do something that wasn’t predictable, or expected from someone such as myself. I didn’t want to be too genre-specific — I really wanted the freedom to find my artist’s voice at this point in my career. I felt that taking the normal approach, of going into the studio with four or five musicians, would inhibit something in me. It’s not my best way of working. I’ve always done a lot of my writing and arranging alone in my studio, so that’s a comfortable way for me to work.

Beyond that, I was able to afford myself the time to change my mind, and to look for new directions in writing and producing it. I’ve been wanting to make a record for many years, but after doing Ten New Songs with Leonard I discovered something s about by my writing, and about my voice. I found a process that would get me to the end, that would allow me to complete a project. So I felt that I was, for the first time, armed with the tools that I needed to make the record I wanted.

What kinds of things did you learn?
I learned a lot from Leonard. It’s hard to describe, but he’s very true to his art, and to the level of writing he’s arrived at. He knows himself, and he knows what he wants to say and what he doesn’t — he never compromises that, he never stops short of saying exactly what he wants to put across. From that, I learned about the need to find out who I was.

For another thing, when I did demos of the songs I was writing [for Ten New Songs] I sang them in his key, so that he could relate to them and figure out whether they were working for him. I was singing in a lower register than I had in a long time, and that was interesting. I knew I wanted to pursue that, and explore it further.

Your version of “Everybody Knows” is profoundly different from any we’ve heard before. Did you feel a conscious need to differentiate your arrangement from Leonard’s, or was it a more organic process?
It was a little bit of both. Obviously I needed to do something different from his version – or Don Henley’s, for that matter. Actually, that recording came together really quickly. The arrangement really wrote itself – it must have been one of those gifts from who-knows-where.

What was your thinking behind including a mix of old and new songs on the album? Did you feel a need to include some of your collaborations with Leonard in order to provide a hook for his fans?
Not really. It was all an effort to create a cohesive record, where the songs had a certain honesty and integrity. Some of them happen to be older and some newer, but I chose them because I felt a need to create an inner landscape that would speak to the people I want to reach.

With this album under your belt, what sorts of projects do you anticipate for the post-tour future?
When we finish with Leonard’s tour, I’ll probably do some live dates of my own. I’m fortunate that people all around the world have gotten to know me through this tour, so I’m looking forward to playing some shows for those audiences. I have some projects with other people I’ve been thinking about as well. Really, I just plan to continue on with my career, in whatever form that takes. I look forward to what’s coming.

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