Her songs have been recorded by Aaron Neville, The Temptations, Roberta Flack, Diana Ross, Brenda Russell, The Pointer Sisters and Patti LaBelle but now Los Angeles-based SHARON ROBINSON is stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight to launch her career as a singer with her self-produced second album ‘Caffeine.’ As well as being a name familiar to discerning soul and R&B aficionados, Sharon is well-known to rock and pop fans around the world due to her long association with legendary Canadian singer/songwriter/poet, Leonard Cohen, with whom she’s collaborated on several songs and albums (she’s also been described as Cohen’s muse).
Conjuring up a haunting nocturnal atmosphere, ‘Caffeine‘ is a mellow and contemplative affair but one that while soothing is never ever anodyne or soporific. It features nine carefully-crafted Robinson originals plus ‘Lucky,’ a song that she co-wrote with Leonard Cohen, and though stylistically it evades easy classification, the music is soulful and R&B-tinged, inviting comparison, perhaps, with the work of Brenda Russell, Linda Tillery, Oleta Adams and even Joni Mitchell. With its themes of love, life, reflection and redemption, it can unequivocally be defined as music that has been made for adult listeners and rather refreshingly there’s a notable absence of gimmicky beats, samples, nursery rhyme melodies and all the latest accoutrements of contemporary R&B.
Currently in the middle of a European tour that brings her to UK next week for dates in London, Glasgow and Dublin, Sharon took time to talk to SJF’s Charles Waring about her new album and, of course, her special relationship with a certain Mr. Cohen…
What’s the story behind your new album, ‘Caffeine’?
A lot of the songs were influenced by being on the road for the dreamy, romantic idea of travelling around and being in this very unreal world, that sort of bubble that we were in touring with Leonard Cohen. So many of them evolved there and I came home last year – as you know the tour ended in 2013 – so I decided to try and develop the rest and develop those ideas into songs and record them. One of the songs on the record called ‘Lucky,’ it’s like a new-old song, something that I wrote with Leonard several years ago and it has never been recorded before.
What was the inspiration behind it?
Gee, I think I just presented him with a melody that I had written, similar to the first song that we wrote together, ‘Summertime,’ and that was the lyric that Leonard came up with. I would like to think that I somehow inspired him but I don’t really know that (laughs).
How would you describe your music to the uninitiated?
It’s not extremely genre specific but I think I’m someone who has loved music of many different genres and is probably influenced by them all. But I would say generally speaking, R&B music and it’s very song-oriented. I really love the art form of the song and love to try and perfect it as much as I can. I love to start with an idea and see where the songwriting part of it takes me.
Do you see yourself as a storyteller?
I suppose so, yeah. I think that that’s inherent in songwriting…
Would you say that you always write from an autographical perspective or do you sometimes put yourself in other people’s shoes?
Well, I definitely put myself in other people’s shoes. Everything has to be a little bit autobiographical whether it’s true to life in the moment or something that you’ve experienced along the way. I have a modicum of life experience at this point (laughs)..or the opposite of that, I guess. But as I said, the ideas take shape in the context of the song. Sometimes the autobiographical part of it falls away and you’re into something new and unexpected.
Which musicians and people helped you to bring your musical vision to life on ‘Caffeine’?
I recorded the album with some of the musicians who were on my last album. Chris Bruce is playing guitar and bass, and, let’s see, Michael Gold is playing piano on some of the songs.
Do you play an instrument yourself?
Yes, I play keyboards.
It’s a very atmospheric collection.
Thank you, and it was mixed by Steve Janiak, who works with Diana Krall and Neil Young and folks like that. He’s one of the guys at Capitol Records and he’s been there a long time. Joey Waronker is playing drums on some of the cuts, who you may know from his work with Beck.
This is only your second album but you are a prolific writer. Is it because you’re a reluctant performer and happier working behind the scenes maybe?
No, you know it’s just the luck of the draw. I’ve always wanted to do my own record and I’ve been close to having record deals at various times but you know how the business can be (laughs). So it’s not any of my own choosing but in the end I’m kind of glad that it’s working out this way because I have a lot of creative freedom and because of the changes in the industry I’m just able to do what I want that which is really, really nice.
What songs on the album resonate most with you?
I like them all. I like ‘Strong For Me’ and I like ‘A Fragile Love.’ I like ‘Lucky.’
I suppose in a way it’s like asking you to pick your favourite child…
Exactly (laughs). If I don’t like a song I usually don’t finish writing it.
Are there quite a few then that end up on the scrap heap which you return to at some point?
Yes, there’s a pretty good scrapheap at my house (laughs) in the form of bags of cassette tapes that never got finished. I keep them because there are little fragments of ideas on them but I never have time to actually go through and listen.
You mentioned Leonard Cohen (pictured left with Sharon) earlier. You’ve had a long association with him of course. What circumstances first led you to work with him?
He was looking for additional singers for his tour in 1979 which is now known as the ‘Field Commander Cohen’ tour. We went out behind the album ‘Recent Songs.’ I got a call from Jennifer Warren to come in and audition. I first auditioned for her and she liked working with me and brought me in to meet Leonard. That’s how I initially met him. Right away we connected and understood each other.
What had you been doing prior to that?
I was a lead singer in what we used to call Top 40 bands and I was a studio session singer in Los Angeles doing odd things. I did some singer/songwriter work, and also worked in a piano bar. I’ve experienced almost every aspect of the music business. At the time actually, I was also working with Ann-Margret (as a singer and dancer) in her Las Vegas extravaganza. I did that for nine years.
So how did you go from being a backing singer with Leonard to actually start writing songs with him?
Well, you know I had been a songwriter all along already before I met Leonard. I had a hit song called ‘New Attitude’ (recorded by Patti LaBelle for the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack in 1985) which got me into the business of songwriting. I became one of the staff songwriters at Geffen and Universal music. After working with Leonard, it was helpful being influenced by him to find myself as an artist and that’s one of the reasons that I went ahead and made my own record after that. He encouraged me to do it. I saw how he had done it, and how he works, and how he tries to stay true to his own voice and his own artistic direction and so I decided to give it a try at that point.
At what point did you realise that you and he had a special creative chemistry when you worked together?
We wrote the song ‘Summertime’ when we were on tour in ’79. That went really well. It was just a fun process. We have good chemistry, are good friends and we have fun (laughs). So that sort of continued and then he approached me to work on ‘Ten New Songs’ with him. It mostly came from his thought process.
You have been described as his muse. How accurate is that as a description and if it is true, how does it feel to be regarded as someone who inspires him?
Well, I don’t really know if that idea came from him or from others. (Laughs). I wouldn’t presume to be his muse but it would be nice, if on occasion that were the case.
Last year you published a book of photographs of Leonard on tour (called ‘On Tour With Leonard Cohen’). What’s the story behind that?
As you probably know, I was on tour with him for six years, this mega-tour, this endless fantastic tour, and I, like everyone else, was constantly taking pictures and as time went on everyone became more and more comfortable with the ever present iPhone photograph (laughs), including Leonard. I tended to spend a little bit of time with him just having coffee or taking walks or whatever. So I would occasionally take pictures of him and we put together a little book that we were going to self-publish but a friend of ours who has worked in book publishing before saw the pictures and saw the little book that we had put together and said you know I know a real publisher who might be interested in this. And as soon as he saw it he said he definitely wanted to publish it. That’s how that came about but I was really just taking the pictures for myself just to help preserve this incredible experience.
It was an incredibly long tour, wasn’t it?
Yes, every time we thought it was going to end it was decided to go back out because there was still an audience. We didn’t have any trouble selling tickets.
How does Leonard react to the public adulation that greets him where ever he goes?
I think he appreciates it very much and he appreciates his fans and is truly honoured to play music for them.
You won a Grammy in ’86 for the Patti Labelle song ‘New Attitude.’ How did that feel?
That was incredible, I mean I actually got to go up in front of the Grammy audience and accept the award. It was wonderful. It gives you a lot of hope and gives you encouragement to continue with your craft.
Did it open a lot of doors for you?
I suppose so but I think the things that really open doors is the work itself. As a songwriter you just try to write the best song that you can and afterwards just hope that it resonates with people. It’s really the work itself which should speak for itself and usually does.
Of all the songs that you have written, is there anyone that stands out and has the most significance for you?
Oh boy, that’s a tough one. I don’t know if I can say that there’s any one. I’m very proud of the well-known songs that I’ve done with Leonard. Of course, ‘New Attitude’ was a great little boost.
What’s the oldest or strangest situation that you have been in and have had inspiration for a song?
Oh, boy, let’s see. Another tough question! (Laughs).
Are you someone who has songwriting on your mind all of the time, wherever you go?
I often get inspired just walking about usually and hearing people talk about the struggles and triumphs of their own lives, or hearing a phrase that resonates and you go hmm, that could be the seed of a story for a song. It’s rather random because when you live the life of a songwriter you are sort of always writing I think (laughs).
You never have a day off really, I suppose?
No (laughs). It’s a 24-7 job.
Is it almost like a curse in a way?
Well, that’s the story behind Leonard’s ‘Tower of Song’ (from his 1988 album, ‘I’m Your Man’) isn’t it? It’s somewhat of a prison (laughs).
Which musicians and songwriters have influenced you the most do you think?
I’m going back to people like Carole King and the writers that wrote all those great Motown hits, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Marvin Gaye. I listened to all of them. I listened to a lot of music growing up. It was mostly that.
You are from San Francisco originally…
I was born there but I really grew up in Los Angeles. LA was my real home growing up.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions at all, musical or otherwise?
I’m really looking forward to this tour that I’m about to embark on. I’m hoping that it’s the beginning of more live performing because I’ve found that in putting this together and doing a couple of trial runs that I’m really enjoying it. It’s this intense, polar opposite combination of abject terror and nerves and anxiety and a real sense of fulfilment when you pull it off, so I’m really looking forward to doing more of this. I hope it will come out that way.
You’ve got some UK shows coming out haven’t you at the beginning of April. What can we expect to hear from you?
I’ll be doing some songs from ‘Ten New Songs’ and I’ll be doing some songs my new album, ‘Caffeine,’ and I’ll also be doing a few songs from ‘Everybody Knows,’ my last album. Some of my better known songs that I’ve written with Leonard I’ll be doing. So it will be a combination of everything.
Finally, what’s in the pipeline after this album?
Well I’m sure there won’t be as much as a gap between my albums because as far as I know I’m not going to be touring with Leonard in the near future so I’ll be probably embarking on another album project later this year.