The Rock Hall of Famer approached his most personal album like a movie, with Eric Clapton leading an all-star cast.
'See the man with the stage fright," Robbie Robertson famously wrote for the Band. Well, he wants to make it perfectly clear: He's not the man with stage fright -- he just no longer wants to perform concerts.
"I've already done the road," said the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who on Tuesday is releasing a new album ("How to Become Clairvoyant") and performing on "The Late Show With David Letterman," accompanied by the young Americana band Dawes. "I started very young, and I'm just not drawn to the idea of going town to town. I think it's a young man's game, too. I loved it when I was young."
At 67, he still loves recording, though 13 years have passed since his last album.
"You'd never know it from the outside, but I love making records," he said recently from his Los Angeles home. "I'm fascinated by using the recording studio as an instrument. Eric Clapton [who appears on seven of the album's songs] had no idea what I was going to do with this record and where I was going with it, and the whole sonic things I had in my imagination. When he heard the record, he said, 'That is real record-making. I don't even know how you get to that place.'"
Getting to that place does take some time: Robertson has done only five solo discs in a 24-year span.
"I'm comfortable at trying other things, broadening my horizons, deepening my knowledge in other areas," he said. "And I'm just curious."
He actually started the project a few years ago with Clapton in England, then put it away to work on music for Martin Scorsese's film "Shutter Island." In recent years, he also oversaw reissues of the Band's albums and worked as a talent executive, signing Nelly Furtado.
"To be able to step away from something, it gave me a certain clarity and I was able to dig deeper," he said of the new album. "This is exactly the record I wanted to make. To get to a place that was just what I had in my imagination."
"Clairvoyant" is a rootsy album, featuring Robertson's soft growl and phrasing that evokes Bob Dylan. (Robertson was the Band's principal songwriter but not its lead singer.) It's his most personal record, too. "He Don't Live Here No More" talks about his days of partying with then-housemate Scorsese. "When the Night Was Young" waxes about the 1960s counterculture when the Band and Dylan worked together.
"There was such an extraordinary feeling in the air," Robertson recalled. "There was such a feeling of unity amongst the youth of the nation, and the music was the voice of that generation. Deep down I'm saying, 'I kind of miss that.' It's all so dispersed and a disconnected feeling right now."
The whiplash of 'Last Waltz'
Nothing is more personal than "This Is Where I Get Off," about his departure from the Band. It came after "The Last Waltz," a two-night all-star concert in 1976 that became a much-celebrated album and movie, directed by Scorsese. Not only was it an emotional night for Robertson, but it was also a logistical challenge.
"It wasn't an easy ride," he reflected. "To play with all of these different people we had -- to go from Joni Mitchell to Muddy Waters without the blink of an eye and to go from Neil Diamond to Dr. John -- was whiplash. The fact that we got through the night and nobody screwed up was an extraordinary Guinness Book of Records feat. The fact the recording and the film turned out good was a bonus."
He went on to work in movies, acting in "Carny" and providing music for a string of Scorsese films, including "Raging Bull" and "Gangs of New York."
Robertson cast his new album like a movie. After writing songs with Clapton, he plucked Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails for a certain cinematic arrangement, Steve Winwood for some organ and Dawes singer Taylor Goldsmith for harmonies. Envisioning his most guitar-oriented record ever, he said he asked himself: "Who are the guys I'm mystified by and fascinated by what they do with this instrument? It's very different from what I do. I couldn't think of better names than Tom Morello [of Rage Against the Machine] and Robert Randolph," a steel-guitar player rooted in gospel music.
Now Robertson is ready for his next project: a memoir for Random House.
"This record opened the door for that because I was able to express things in a much more personal way than I have in the past. It felt really comfortable to me. I didn't know whether I'd ever get to that place. In the back of my mind [I've thought], someday I've got to sit down and tell the stories."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 • Twitter: @jonbream