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‘It Feels Good to Shed That Skin’: Robbie Robertson Gets Personal on New Album

Jul 25, 2019

From his work with the Band through the solo albums he’s done over the last three decades, Robbie Robertson is the first to admit he generally hasn’t written much about his own life. “I used to try to avoid that,” he says. “I would hear other people singing songs about, ‘I got up this morning and had some toast and went out and got the newspapers,’ and I’d think, ‘God, you’re boring. I don’t care what you had for breakfast.’ I was going in another direction.”

With his new album, Sinematic, set for release on September 20th, Robertson finally takes the plunge into chronicling parts of his life. His first album in five years, Sinematic, while still drenched in the shadowy, electronic pulse of much of the music he’s made after the Band, is the result of several intertwining projects. Some of the tracks are connected to the score he wrote for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro as a real-life mob hitman, out later this year.

But other, more autobiographical songs emerged from Robertson’s memoir writing, starting with his 2016 book Testimony and continuing with its in-the-works follow-up. “I absolutely think there’s a connection there,” he says. “It opens a door and some fresh air comes in and things that used to feel too smoky and now aired out a little. It feels good to shed that skin.”

“Dead End Kid” draws on his memories of growing up in Toronto and the skepticism he felt from others about his future (“They said you’ll never be nothing/You’re just a dead end kid/Probably end up in prison/Or maybe down on the skids”). Robertson’s recollections of listening to radio shows during his childhood triggered “The Shadow,” named after the crime-fighter series (which, before Robertson was born, featured Orson Welles).

But the album’s most emotive track, “Once Were Brothers,” shares a title with a documentary on Robertson and the Band and both celebrates and mourns his times with the group, three of whom are now dead. “When the curtain comes down on the final act,” Robertson sings, “And you know deep inside there’s no going back.”

“Beautiful Madness” is equally inspired by Bigger Than Life, director Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film about a cortisone addict, and the carousing times Robertson and Scorsese experienced while sharing a house in Hollywood in the late Seventies and early Eighties. “It’s funny,” he says. “When [Scorsese and I] think about it or talk about that period of time, we never say, ‘Wow, that was a wild time!’ You go through periods and hills and valleys and you follow a path and think, ‘I don’t like that anymore’ and you cross the street and see what’s happening over there. It wasn’t wacked out or goofy. It was a beautiful madness. And we’re lucky. We lived.”

Other songs on Sinematic are the result of a natural blend between everything Robertson was working on over the past few years. Of “Once Were Brothers,” he says. “I didn’t write the song for the movie and the movie wasn’t being made around the song. They just drifted together at a certain point and it felt right. I’m talking about the brotherhood with the group.”

The closing instrumental, “Remembrance,” is a tribute to his late friend, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and features guitar work from Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II. (In another example of the overlap between his various projects, the song will also be heard over the closing credits of The Irishman.) “I was working on all these things,” Robertson says. “I was working on my album, and on music for the movie, and on this documentary. All these things were kind of swirling around, and I didn’t know how to keep them separate. So I didn’t.”

Assisting Robertson along the way were collaborators like Citizen Cope, Glen Hansard, DJ Howie B and Robertson’s old friend Van Morrison. The two hadn’t worked together since “Wonderful Remark,” on the soundtrack of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy in 1983. For the new project, Robertson was developing a song called “I Hear You Paint Houses,” also the name of the Charles Brandt book about real-life hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran that became the source material for Scorsese’s new film. “I usually see Van when he comes to town and we catch up, and he said, ‘So, what are you working on?’” Robertson says. “He came by my studio and listened to the track and I said, ‘You want to do something on this?’”

Robertson says he explained the meaning of the title to Van Morrison. “‘I hear you paint houses’ is kind of gruesome in a way — it’s an expression for when you want to hire a killer,” Robertson says. “’Painting houses’ refers to the splattering of blood. I said, ‘Hey, you want to sing on a song about splattering blood and a guy who kills people?’ But he liked that.”

To enhance the sonic experience, the album is accompanied by artwork for each song, all created by Robertson. “It adds to this ‘sinematic’ theme,” says Robertson. “It’s something I’ve never explored before, but it all adds up.”

Sinematic is set to arrive around the same time as Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, which will have its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Robertson says the film is still being finalized but will include commentary from Morrison, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, David Geffen and other Band associates, along with rare footage and photographs. “I think about them all the time,” he says. “It was such a beautiful, wonderful relationship and we did it for a long time on that path. But at some point there are other paths leading off, and we were no longer in a huddle like we were.”

Once all those decks are cleared, Robertson will return to writing the second volume on his autobiography — a project that he now envisions totaling three volumes and taking in his life after the Band. “There is something blatantly honest about this period I’m in now, what I’m drawn to,” he admits. “I guess I’m at an age now – a place in my journey – where I don’t care what you think. I’ll tell you anyway!”

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