For more than thirty years, GRAMMY winner Sharon Robinson has been a part of the musical journey of the legendary singer/songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen. During this time, she has taken on many roles in the music industry, serving as a background singer, a songwriter, an arranger, and a producer.
Aside from Cohen, Robinson has worked with a plethora of artists, including Stevie Nicks, Aaron Neville, Morris Day, Robbie Kreiger, Thelma Houston, Brenda Russell, Jennifer Warnes, Randy Crawford, Hamish Stuart and Matthew Wilder. She co-wrote Patti LaBelle's hit song, “New Attitude,” winning the GRAMMY for Best Soundtrack Album (Beverly Hills Cop) in 1985. Her music has also been featured in films like Wonder Boys, Natural Born Killers, Pump Up The Volume, Stakeout, and Wim Wenders’ The Land of Plenty.
Most recently, Robinson has turned the spotlight on herself by releasing her first album as a solo artist. The recording, Everybody Knows (named after the song she co-wrote with Cohen in the late 1980’s) includes ten soft, introspective and soulful tunes that keep the backing soft, placing Robinson’s sensual and rich alto voice at the forefront. In addition to singing lead and backing vocals on the album, Robinson also played most of the instruments, provided the computer programming, and created the arrangements.
Serving as a writer on all of the tracks (having written a few of them with Cohen over the years), she was able to explore a creative voice that she has developed during her many years as a “behind the scenes” player in the business. The result is phenomenal.
Everybody Knows is a classy, mature, and seductive recording that is far more artistic than what you will find on today’s Top 40 radio and that, despite it’s gentle, contemplative vibe, resonates with emotive power. It combines the feel of new-age ambiance with the lyrical and melodic prowess of a refined and inspired singer/songwriter. The effect is intoxicating.
Recently on break from performing on Leonard Cohen's extensive world tour, Sharon Robinson was kind enough to discuss her background as a musician as well as her long-time collaboration with Cohen, the process of songwriting, her new solo album, and her plans for the future. In this interview we gain insight into the creative life of an extraordinary talent.
Has music been a large part of your life since childhood, and can you tell us about your earliest experiences with music?
I started taking classical piano lessons at a very young age, something I went after myself, and from that point on I was always either in the school choir or doing piano recitals. I started writing songs early, complete with arrangements and multi-tracked parts. I guess without really thinking about it, I always wanted to be a singer and songwriter and record producer.
Who are your greatest influences and inspirations as a vocalist? A producer? A songwriter?
I was at an event recently at USC here in LA at which Lamont Dozier spoke, and I was reminded of all the great R&B hits he wrote and how I grew up knowing every word and every note of those songs. I also recently met Roberta Flack, who I listened to so much growing up. And I listened to tons of Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Chaka, Stevie, Joni Mitchell, Getz/Gilberto to name only a few. There was so much great music, and I lived on it.
At what point in life did you make the decision to pursue music as a career, and what brought on that decision?
I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to pursue music as a career. It’s something that kind of happened by default. And I’m really glad it did. When I had to start making a living, it was music, because that was what I could always do. And in my heart of hearts, it’s what I very much wanted to do.
Over the years, you have played many roles in the business: back-up singer, writer, producer, and now solo artist. Of these different roles, which do you find the most challenging? Which is the most fun?
Producer is probably a bit more challenging than the others, but it’s hard to say what’s the most fun. I love singing harmonies. Plucking an idea out of thin air and writing a song is great. And having total freedom to express myself as an artist by doing all of the above is about as good as it gets.
A major aspect of your musical life is your long-time collaboration with the famed songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen. How did this friendship come about, and why has it remained intact and productive for so many years in a business that can be so fickle and challenging?
I first met Leonard when I auditioned for the Field Commander Cohen tour in 1979. It felt like a friendship from the start. When we started writing, it was uncomplicated and easy. I guess that’s been the overriding tone of things since, no matter what kind of work we’re involved in. I think that’s partly what sustains it. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to show Leonard my work in the first place, and that he liked it enough to want to work with me.
As a musician, I know that the process of songwriting is a very mysterious thing—even to the writer. I wonder if you could shed some light on how the process most often works for you? Also, how is writing alone different from your collaborations with Mr. Cohen?
You’re right. It’s mysterious. Sometimes if I haven’t written for a while I wonder if I can ever do it again! But usually the application of some discipline works. Set aside the time. Put yourself in front of the dreaded blank page. For my album, Everybody Knows, I decided to approach it the way Leonard and I usually write, by starting with the lyrics and breaking with the pop songwriting convention of starting with the music. I liked that approach a lot for my own stuff and will probably use it again. Of course when I’m working with Leonard, he writes the lyrics, so I’m focused on the melody, the chords, the structure, and the arrangement that best suits the words and his voice.
In 2001, you gained a great deal of professional prestige when you were given such a prominent role in the creation of the critically acclaimed Cohen album, Ten New Songs, sharing writing credits on all of the songs, serving as producer, and even being featured with Mr. Cohen on the cover. Can you briefly tell us how this album (the first from Cohen in nearly a decade) came to be and how you came to play such an influential role in the creative process?
I was with Leonard at a family occasion in 1999 after he had recently left the monastery. Out of nowhere that day, he asked me to work on a record with him. At that point the extent of my role in the record was not clearly defined, but over time Leonard just really liked what I was coming up with, both in terms of the writing and the arranging. So my job description expanded as we went along. Of course we had already written some songs together, a couple of which were among his best-known songs, like "Everybody Knows," so I guess it all made some kind of sense.
With the album, Everybody Knows, you have stepped out from behind the scenes and Mr. Cohen to become a full-fledged solo artist. What made you decide to take this step? Has it been frightening, even for such a seasoned performer as yourself?
After we made Ten New Songs, Leonard encouraged me to make my own record, as did my lawyer and friend, Gary Gilbert. It was clear I could make a record without depending on a record deal or a huge budget. I had my own studio and could do a lot of it myself. So really, it just seemed like the right time to do something I had always wanted to do. There was a certain apprehension at first, but I tested the record out on a few friends and got some very encouraging feedback. Gary turned me on to manager Seth Keller, who was well versed in Internet marketing and new business models, and whom I knew would be able to get it heard. So I was able to have some confidence in it, release it, and let the rest take care of itself.
When choosing the songs for Everybody Knows, how did you approach the task and make the decisions? Also, the album has a vibe that is similar to Ten New Songs. Was this purposeful?
I tried to choose songs that were honest and from the heart, knowing that we all are dealing with many of the same things at those depths. The vibe was definitely intentional. I wanted it to have an edge and a mysteriousness to it. I did use my work on TNS as a model for my album, especially in terms of how it was produced. As a songwriter in the pop marketplace, I had been trying to serve many masters before Ten New Songs, so that period during and after TNS was an extremely welcome change and one that deeply informed me as an artist in my own right.
Since the release of your solo album, you have been on an extended comeback tour with Mr. Cohen and his band. Has it been difficult being part of this live show and working to promote your own release at the same time?
I see the concurrence of the tour and my album as an extremely fortunate set of circumstances. I’m getting a lot of exposure with the tour, and Leonard has been generous and gracious in his introduction of me to his audiences. The tour naturally gets a lot of press. And that, combined with great reviews and support my album is getting from bloggers and DJs, my fan base is continually growing. So when the time comes, I’ll be able to do some live shows.
The Live In London album you recorded with Mr. Cohen and his band last year is truly remarkable, and your influence on the music is very evident in the arrangements. Are you enjoying being on tour again? And are the crowds responding well to a show headlined by a 70-plus-year-old man who has been out of the spotlight for so many years?
The show is doing amazingly well and I’m thrilled to be part of it. Leonard’s persona, his songs, voice and delivery—together with the band and the whole production—are pretty magical. The best part is when people tell us their personal stories of how the music and the concerts affect them. To be part of something that touches so many people in that way is the experience of a lifetime. And I’m very proud to have contributed to it as a writer and arranger.
In your line of work, you have always been fair game for music critics. If you are given a chance to look back on your own work, with what single song, album, performance, or tour are you the most pleased? With what are you most disappointed?
It’s hard to pick one of anything, because I really try not to put something out unless I really like it. As far as the disappointments, in light of the above statement, most of them are still on my shelf.
What does the future hold for Sharon Robinson? Any new projects? Will you continue to work as a producer, writer and solo artist? Or just focus on one role?
I’m very excited about the future right now. I plan to write and record another album, do more stuff with Leonard Cohen and, when time permits, get into a couple of projects I’ve got on the back burner. I can’t separate the different roles now. It’s all part of the same thing. This is the balancing act that is my life. And I’m definitely not complaining!
In one sentence, why should music fans rush out and buy or download Everybody Knows?
I tried to do something really honest and from the heart.
Everybody Knows is currently available wherever music is sold. You may visit Sharon Robinson’s official website for more information.